Wallace and Gromit (1990 – present)

Note: The following article was written by a contributor. The regular author of this blog found the guest author more qualified to write a tribute to the world’s favorite cheese enthusiast and inventor of cracking contraptions, Wallace. The voice of Wallace, Peter Sallis, died on June 6, 2017.

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“Cheese, Gromit!”

I have heard that phrase countless times over the last 27 years. Trust me, he did not need to tell me there was cheese. There was always cheese. Cheese was Wallace’s fountain of youth, his city of gold, his great white whale. When Wallace was excited about cheese, he was excited to be alive. I may have rolled my eyes a few times at his never-ending obsession, but deep down, I was happy because he was happy.

When considering the best way to organize my reflections about Wallace, I decided the best way is through cheese itself…

Cheddar: Wallace had some sharp ideas in his day. Who else would even try to build a rocket and go to the moon, just in case it was actually made of cheese? (It was not.)

American: This does not describe Wallace at all. He was British through and through.

Cream cheese: Wallace had a soft side to him, which I saw the most when he fell in love with various flames over the years. That’s alright, I suppose we can’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Swiss: Wallace’s personality and lifestyle had its holes, but that’s where I tried to step in and keep the house on track. I don’t think the lad would have ever risen out of bed in the morning if I didn’t press that button.

Limburger: It’s no secret that Wallace and I’s relationship had stinky moments. I still can’t believe he trusted that penguin more then me. Grr!

Pepper jack: But who am I kidding? I can’t stay mad for long. Wallace always spiced up life, and there was never a dull moment.

You be pleased to know I buried Wallace with crackers, because I know he will need them in his afterlife filled with cheese…

…the only thing he loved more than me.

—Gromit

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Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

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“Beverly Hills…that’s where I want to be.”—Weezer, rock band

Beverly Hills Cop features Eddie Murphy in his prime as an undercover cop from Detroit who, against the will of his boss, travels to Beverly Hills on “vacation” to solve the mystery of his friend’s recent murder. This movie is classified as a comedy because Murphy’s rough Detroit edges stick out like a sore thumb on the Golden Coast; he’s a fish-out-of-water.

All I could think about while watching Beverly Hills Cop was my introduction to Los Angeles as a fish-out-of-water from Kansas. Even though I had visited briefly for a family vacation in 2006, my grand entrance in 2009 happened in…Beverly Hills.

Let’s back up a bit. In 2008, an instructor at an art workshop I attended told me about a film competition she was involved with: the Intelligent Use of Water Film Competition. I decided to enter a short film that year about a young man (played by yours truly) named Dwayne Day who wastes water. My friends and family loved it, but between you and me, it was not my best. Not surprisingly, it didn’t get into the competition.

Then 2009 came. At the beginning of the year, I directed my magnum opus, Beowulf: The Killing of Grendel. Winter was the best time to make this because the snow and cold weather perfectly suited the Danish landscape. (Also, some friends were away in Washington and they let us film in their empty, rustic house.) But summer was usually when I had the most time on my hands, and since my annual short film was already completed by the time school let out, I had to find another project to occupy my precious free time. I decided to secretly make another entry for the IUOW Film Competition. After experimenting with several ideas, I decided it would be a music video with stop-motion shadow animation. I worked in between pool parties, graduations, weddings, and late into the night.

Honestly, I don’t even think my parents knew what I was up to until I came bursting in to their bedroom one night saying, “I’m going to LA!!! I’m going to Los Angeles, California!!!” I had just received my golden ticket in my Yahoo! inbox. My short film, The Saving Water Song, had been accepted into the competition. The Rain Bird Corporation was going to fly me to Los Angeles, where I would stay in a Luxe Hotel in Beverly Hills and attend an event at The Getty Center where my work would be screened with the other nominees.

I tried to blend in with the Angelenos, I really did. But when the hotel chauffeur picked up Mr. Keith Cantrell in his 101 Dalmatians t-shirt, plaid shorts, and nice brown shoes, it was immediately clear I was living in a fish-out-of-water story of my own.

Eight years later, I have returned to Los Angeles, and I am blending in a little better…although my definition of “blending in” on the West Coast changes daily. For instance, this morning I went to Vons in my pajamas and felt right at home, as if I was just wandering into my pantry to grab a few things for breakfast.

In between shifts at a theme park, I’m working on another animated short film. I get more and more devoted to the project as it nears completion. Maybe it will be my big break, but regardless, I’m excited to send something I’m proud of out into the world again! In the meanwhile, thank you for your understanding as I inevitably focus more attention on finishing my short film instead of cranking out blogs.

Oh, and The Saving Water Song won Audience Choice award at that competition! I remain proud of it to this day!

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

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“These go to 11.”—Nigel Tufnel

If anyone tries to tell you that The Blair Witch Project is the origin of the fake documentary genre, please give me their mailing address so I can have Amazon ship 1,000 copies of This Is Spinal Tap to their doorstep.

In This is Spinal Tap, fictitious filmmaker Marty DiBergi follows the British band Spinal Tap on their tour across the U.S.A. The band’s elaborate dreams for special effects at their concerts never quite live up to their expectations, but the guys remain so focused on their passion—rock ‘n roll—that they barely seem to notice or care about any of the onstage flaws the rest of us find so hilarious. It’s a common sight to see the stagehand running around trying to fix things while Nigel, David, and Derek fire off their solos without a care in the world. (Well, I guess there is one mistake that gets under their skin involving a tiny Stonehenge monument…)

I just finished listening to a 30+ hour biography on Walt Disney called, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. Walt’s lifelong struggle between big dreams and perfectionism was a common theme throughout the book. For example, at the last minute Walt decided to add a cathedral shot to the song “Ave Maria” in Fantasia. It took up lots of space in the studio and a whole team of animators to pull off the shot. They worked hours at a time without sleep. When the first version was presented to Walt, he rejected it because the shot was too “jittery.” They finished the final version of this cathedral shot barely in time for the reel to make it on a plane for the premiere in New York.

When it comes to mistakes within our own big dreams, hopefully we can find a balance between Spinal Tap’s obliviousness and Walt’s perfectionism. Sometimes, I feel like a bass guitarist trapped in a translucent egg on life’s stage. But you just gotta keep playing.

Horse Feathers (1932)

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“Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go.”—Kanye West, rapper

In the days between Christmas and New Year’s, Santa Claus is off the clock, so you can be as naughty as you want without fear of your actions affecting next year’s Christmas presents. Hollywood also had a window of time like this; it is referred to now as Pre-Code Hollywood. Pre-code.com says, “The quickest definition is this: ‘pre-code’ refers to an era in motion pictures from the arrival of sound (aka ‘talkies’) in 1927 to the mandatory enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July 1934.”

Films during this time still had censorship through the studios, but such censorship was more of a guideline until William Hays and friends enforced the Motion Picture Production Code. Thus, the eternal Hollywood struggle between studios and censors began.

After connecting the dots that the 68-minute long Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers is Pre-Code, its edgy humor makes sense. The setting for Horse Feathers is a college, where Groucho Marx’s character has recently been elected president and wants to make sure his football team wins a game against a rival school. There are gags about teachers flirting with their students (at least the movie does not take place in a high school), disrespecting the police, and “college widows“—a ’20s reference to a young woman who remains near a college year after year to associate with its male students.

If the movie was just a string of dirty jokes, it wouldn’t be worth watching. (Here’s looking at you, Rob Schneider.) However, the cultural impact of the Marx Brothers lives on long after the projectors flicker out because these guys are so talented and smart it’s unfair. For example, on two separate occasions in Horse Feathers, Harpo does a harp solo and Chico does a piano solo. When the latter begins, his hands are hidden by the piano at first, which caused me to wonder if someone else was tickling the ivories off-screen. Then the camera angle changed, and we watch Chico’s fingers bouncing up and down the keyboard. So good.

When it comes to their smarts, let me just say that you wouldn’t want to be the person in charge of censoring a Marx Brothers film. Groucho not only used jokes that were written in such a way to outsmart the censors, he fired them off so rapidly you practically had to watch the film several times—and in slow motion—to catch everything. He was one of the rare entertainers who was able to smuggle Pre-Code Hollywood into the reign of William Hays.

At this point in my life, as a 23-year-old artist, my inclination is to grumble about the Motion Picture Production Code for stifling free speech and creativity. But I am sure that 43-year-old Keith, a parent to young children, will be more thankful that these perimeters were set in place. Were they necessary? Yes. Could they have been implemented to the film industry in a healthier way? Yes. (Did William Hays have even a teeny bit of niceness in him? Probably not.)

In the end, each viewer must be his or her own censor for what content should be consumed. Remember: Santa is always watching. Except for December 26-31.

 

Take the Money and Run (1969)

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“Make crime pay. Become a lawyer.”—Will Rogers, actor

When I watched Take the Money and Run on Wednesday night, I could not understand how Woody Allen’s character Virgil could fall into senseless crime sprees so easily. That changed on Thursday night, when I had an encounter with an apathetic security guard who could not answer my questions, had no problem making my night as difficult as possible, and made me 40 minutes late for an event. Now I understand.

While IMDb classifies Take the Money and Run under the genres comedy and crime, I was delighted to discover that it also encapsulates my one of my favorite genres of all time: mockumentary. Defined, a mockumentary is, “a motion picture or television program that takes the form of a serious documentary in order to satirize its subject.” This film’s subject matter is the criminal justice system, and it focuses on a dumb crook named Virgil Starkwell. The variety of interviews include Virgil’s parents (pictured above in their mustache glasses), his therapist, and some government officials. Best of all, the film is narrated by Jackson Beck of the Superman cartoons, whose deep voice could make anything sound like a History Channel special.

I have criticized Woody Allen in the past, but I must admit he was the perfect person to play the main character. The film is relevant today because we have many stereotypes for what criminals look like. The documentary 13th addresses how prison has been turned into a full-fledged industry that is closely tied to race tensions and civil rights. It is important to remember that crime is not partial to one group of people—anyone can be a criminal! Yes, you and I can even be criminals! In this case, it’s a scrawny white man with thick glasses.

I can’t talk about mockumentaries without bringing up the masterpieces of Christopher Guest. My favorites are: Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. I am a little bitter that none of them made it onto AFI’s top 100 comedies list besides This is Spinal Tap, because they are funny enough to be on there. In AFI’s defense, I believe the list is only for movies before the 2000s, which would only make Waiting For Guffman eligible. If you are looking for something hilarious to watch that you’ve never seen before, please start with those three movies. You will not be disappointed!

(If you are an Angeleno and a fan of Guest’s movies, I just bought my tickets for a live conversation with actor Fred Willard on May 4. The show is called Couch Candy. You can find more information here.)

Fortunately, I did not go on a crime spree after my unpleasant conversation with law enforcement. I prefer to get revenge in more professional ways, like writing a blog post. Next time I won’t be so nice. Next time it will be a mockumentary.

 

Broadcast News (1987)

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“And that’s the way it is…”—Walter Cronkite, anchorman

Broadcast News, like the profession it deals with, gives viewers the cold, hard truth. The headlining lesson is about desire. In a professional career, you don’t always get what you want. When falling in love, you don’t always get what you want, either. For the characters in this story, those two aspects of life are sometimes indistinguishable. We learn from observation that careers and love are both fickle things.

There are three main characters that can be described as three types of people you probably knew in high school. Producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is the girl every guy wants in his group project, because she’s pretty…and such a driven perfectionist that she’ll do everything herself. Anchorman Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is the jock who tries out for one musical and gets the lead, ticking off every thespian in the school. Reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is the guy whose impressive work ethic should have led him to be class president by now or at least captain of the chess team, but he’s still sitting at the same table in the cafeteria with the same group of friends he’s had since elementary school.

Instead of a high school, it’s a national TV news station. And a note before I forget: Aaron and Jane are the played by the voices of clownfish Marlin and superhero Elastigirl of Pixar fame, so it may be hard for people my age to take their roles seriously in Broadcast News.

Aaron is by far the most relatable character in the movie, and sometimes I wondered if I was watching the curly-haired Albert Brooks play a version of myself. I’m sure I am not the only one who knows what it feels like to watch someone else do “better” at a project I care about, or to watch a crush fall for the other guy. However, Aaron’s response to these setbacks are what makes him a hero; he continues to pursue opportunities at the news station that will advance his career (even if it means getting trained by his competition), and he doesn’t let awkward love traingles get in the way of making friendships stronger.

[Spoiler Alert] The finale of the movie takes place several years later, when the three main characters reunite after none of them got what they desired. I love how the screenwriters keep you on the edge of your seat to figure out how things played out, even after the reunion is in motion. For example, Aaron now has a little boy of his own, causing us to ask the question, “Who is the mother? Is it Jane?!” Our hearts sink when we finally see Jane and she says to the child, “Look at you! You’re more adorable than your pictures!” That answers that. He found somebody else.

The Broadcast News script ends with this paragraph: “As the two former colleagues catch up, their ease returns, if not their intimacy, as the frame locks and slowly recedes into a black background.”

If every movie ended like that we would probably stop going to the movies, but sometimes it’s nice to have an ending that’s not happy, not sad, just true.

 

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)

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“Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right.”—Ben Gates, National Treasure (2004)

In preparation for this article, I sent that quote to 16 willing participants along with a question. Do you agree with the idea of doing something wrong to do what’s right? Why or why not? They probably thought this review was about the history-loving hero who steals the Declaration of Independence to protect it from greedy treasure hunters. Nope. It’s about a recently-divorced father who dresses up as a nanny to spend more time with his kids. Mrs. Doubtfire.

But really, are the two movies that different? Ben Gates steals something for what he believes is a greater good: protecting it. Daniel Hillard lies to his wife for what he believes is a greater good: watching his children grow up. In this article we’re focusing on Daniel, played by the hilarious Robin Williams. So now…let’s dive into the ethics of doing what’s wrong in order to do what’s right.

Like any study, it’s important to start off with some definitions. Savannah nailed those. “The idea of utilitarianism is that the moral thing to do is whatever will result in the greatest good for the greatest amount of people…Contrastingly, deontologists believe that the morality is based on the action itself, not the consequence.” In the context of Mrs. Doubtfire, a utilitarian would say that Daniel did the right thing because his decision resulted in more time with family, his wife had a nanny to help out around the house, and the kids (whether they knew it or not) got to go on fun outings with their father. However, a deontologist would say Daniel did the wrong thing because he lied.

I get the sense that most people tend to lean on the side of utilitarianism. Philippa, for example, said, “If people were harmed in the process of doing wrong to do right, then no, I don’t agree.” She used the example of all the murders that are happening right now in the Middle East in order to find “someone bad.” Chelsey also had a great example: “I picture it in a basic form as when, as a young person, you promise a friend to never tell their secrets. Yet they tell you something they are doing that you know is terrible for them so you decide to tell their parents. Sometimes in life we face decisions like this but on a much larger scale, where the repercussions are more serious…”

Utilitarianism makes sense, but the problem with extreme utilitarianism (or extreme anything, for that matter) is that it’s not practical. My buddy Luke used the season 4 finale of Sherlock as an example. “[It] involves the villain putting the heroes through a series of morality tests. The first one involves shooting a man or else his family will die. It would be easy to say kill the man to save the family. But with my finger on the trigger, I just don’t think I could pull it.” I don’t know if I could, either.

Tommy immediately asked me, “Are you referring to doing things that are wrong in society’s eyes or doing things that are objectively wrong according to Scripture?” And Kim said, “I think the question is: considered wrong by whom?” These are important questions that should pop into our minds right away, and our answers depend on our background, according to Keleigh. “What defines wrong or right?” she asked. “Religion? Politics? Laws? Culture? I believe that it all depends on what your personal beliefs on wrong or right is; these terms are defined differently for everyone based on how they grew up, experiences they have had, family, etc.”

In the opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel walks out on a voiceover gig because doesn’t like how the animated cartoon portrays smoking cigarettes in a positive light. The financially smart decision in that situation, of course, would have been to stick to the script and make the producers happy so he could keep his job. But his conscience won’t allow him to do this, so he ends up sputtering “P-p-p-piss off, Lou” in a spot-on Porky Pig voice as he heads out the door.

The idea of conscience—or a moral compass—playing a role in our understanding of right and wrong was a common trend among the responses. Jonathan said, “If I know what I’m doing is without a doubt the right thing, then I’m going to do it, even if people do not agree with it.” Missy said, “It would be more of a punishment to go against my conscience than man’s consequence that I may have to serve. I’ll go with my conscience.” Noah said, “As unsatisfactory as it is, my answer is conditional. We must know what is truly right.”

The above statements suggest that even in unimaginably difficult circumstances, deep down we have a moral compass within us that tells us the difference between right and wrong. “I do not think that doing wrong to do right is the correct thing to do. Who you are in those tough times, I believe, shows your true character,” said Tal. Christians would call this inner motivation and guidance the voice of the Holy Spirit. Les (a pastor who happens to be my father) explained, “Followers of Jesus know what is right and the kind of behavior that honors the Lord.” Whether or not individuals choose to act on such convictions is another matter. Sometimes we listen, many times we do not.

The struggle is that, like Daniel Hillard and Euphegenia Doubtfire, right and wrong are often closely intertwined; they can seem like two sides of the same coin. “The whole concept of ‘right’ is perception,” said Ryan. “Society has a wonderful way of being right and wrong at the same time. For instance, vegans vs. non-vegans, or conservatives vs. liberals. Both come from a perception that vehemently tells them that they are doing the right thing, and both think the other are absolutely insane for thinking the way they do.” For example, Miranda Hillard had very different opinion about Daniel’s cross-dressing than her children did. She saw it as deceit, they saw it as a way to hang out with Dad. Mikaela put it this way: “What one person considers wrong isn’t necessarily what another person would consider wrong. So it’s subjective.”

Kacey and Amy, two professional writing graduates from my alma mater, bring us full circle to Ben Gates and the American Revolution. They said pretty much the same thing, proving once and for all that great minds think alike…

Kacey: Doing wrong is not the same as doing what is considered by the majority to be wrong. It’s not synonymous with doing what’s illegal, either. In the case of the Founding Fathers, they chose to do what may have been legally wrong—rebelling against a ruler—in order to accomplish something morally right: freeing their colonies from economic and societal tyranny. Just because it was called wrong doesn’t mean it was wrong in a moral sense.

Amy: I’d say no, it’s not okay to do something that’s wrong in order to accomplish a good goal…but often the more complicated question is: are we right in our assumptions that an action in a specific situation is wrong? 

Let’s use Ben’s example…The toast was referring to Washington and Co.’s “high treason” of declaring independence from Britain. Illegal? Yes. Foolish? Maybe. Unethical? They’d attempted to make peace in more diplomatic ways (though sure, they could have tried harder), so I’d say no. If they believed the laws of England were unjust, then trying to overthrow the world’s greatest superpower wasn’t ethically wrong. 

I love those two quotes because they remind us that there are many, many factors in understanding what it means for something to be wrong or right. They provide a wrong-or-right litmus test we can apply to many situations, including the plot of Mrs. Doubtfire. Was Daniel Hillard’s nanny stunt illegal? Well, he was breaking the judicial perimeters of when he could see his kids, so yes. Foolish? This is Robin Williams we’re talking about here, so I vote no on this one. The plan makes perfect sense. Unethical? Daniel did not try to make peace in more diplomatic ways. At all. For that and other reasons, my final verdict is yes: the creation of Mrs. Doubtfire is unethical.

But it’s really gosh darn funny…and maybe that’s all that matters.