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Published: Thursday, 5/13/2004

Fast Forward: 'Samurai Jack': Artful warrior

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

If you've ever listened to a 5-year-old tell a joke, or even a story, like the one about the zebra who was walking down the street, see, and he came upon a construction worker and then, see, they went to Mars and they walked down the street and my teacher was there and she has this hairdo like that character on Nickelodeon and anyway the zebra and the construction worker had to get back because it was dinnertime and then an elephant came along - and well, if you've ever heard a 5-year-old tell a story, you know.

Samurai Jack: Season 1 (Warner, $29.98), the first 13 episodes of Genndy Tartakovsky's mesmerizing Cartoon Network series, the closest kids can legally get to Kill Bill, skips along with similar charming randomness. Jack is a samurai warrior from the future who wouldn't be out of place in an Akira Kurosawa epic. His nemesis is a towering monster with the googly-eyed mask of Japanese gods. The stories are so simple (and strange) long stretches go by with only the sound of wind or the swish of swords: Jack fights a legion of beetle robots, Jack goes into space, Jack and a Scotsman fight crime, Jack saves archeologists who also happen to be canines.

Tartakovsky Tartakovsky
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Tartakovsky was born and reared in Moscow but moved to Columbus as a child, and if those plots are relatively routine for an animated series, the look of this show suggests a profound culture shock butting up against an appreciation for all things pop. You'd think he grew up around Hanna-Barbera and fell asleep for 30 years and woke up an underground comic book artist.

Because what distinguishes Samurai Jack, what knocks you back no matter how many times cable reruns these episodes, is its look. It might be marketed to children, but it's arguably the only animated series that could be taught in Art Appreciation 101. At a glance it looks crude, as minimal and repetitious as the design on wrapping paper. But where the cheapness of old 1960s kiddie animation was a function of speed and the degree of respect afforded cartoons back then, Tartakovsky takes the same empty spaces and cookie-cutter illustrations and makes them abstract and funny. There's a cliche that some movies are so striking you could stop them at any point and slice off a frame and hang it on your wall and no one would know the difference.

This is the only TV series I'd consider attempting that with. Trees are single brown swatches, the ground is solid watercolors. Outer space becomes one of those old myth-inspired paintings of the constellations, stripped to the neat lines of a children's book; faces fill every inch of screen; enemies multiply like Warhol soup cans. There's a giddy overindulgence. Tartakovsky draws from Huckleberry Hound, the cartoons in old dentist office children's magazines, the slapdash animation of educational films. Go immediately to episode 11 and the scene where Jack confronts the Scotsman on a hanging bridge. When the Scotsman begins screaming, the screen breaks into frames, like a comic book, that go vertical, horizontal, slash the same image into threes. Then Jack punctures the guy's bagpipes.

We get a closeup of the lines of the sword. We pull back and see Jack's knuckles tight around the handle. Then the fight begins. Even your nearest art house isn't this much fun.

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A SCARY DEAL: Have you noticed how awkward movie promotions look when the film proves to be a creative dud and the excitement for it has evaporated and yet the toys and fast-food and video tie-ins don't prove quite so biodegradable?

Well, Universal just released three generous two-disc salutes to its classic horror icons: Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. Each set is called The Legacy Collection ($26.98 each) and contains four to five movies with that character. You don't just get James Whale's Frankenstein (1931), you get his delirious (and better) Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and a handful of others. The Dracula set contains both the Bela Lugosi classic and the Spanish-language version (shot at night, with a different cast, but on the same sets.)

For serious horror film fans, it's a bit like a receiving the collected Modern Library editions of Austin, Dickens, and Fitzgerald for less than $90.

But serious horror fans will also notice a flaw the size of a wolf tooth: These sets are promotions tied to the lousy Van Helsing and so we're subjected to director Stephen Sommers waxing philosophical on characters his own movies treat as just another digital effect.

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FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH: Japanese Story (Columbia, $24.98) wouldn't be worth mentioning, it would barely get noticed, if it weren't for the range of heartfelt emotions Toni Collette shows. The story itself, about a geologist stranded in a desert with a Japanese businessman, is a rather thin meditation on cultural differences. But it's exactly the kind of movie you'd want to watch with Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense profiled in Errol Morris' Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War (Columbia, $26.98, available Tuesday). Not because it involves a Japanese man and The Fog of War's most harrowing moments involve the fire-bombing of Tokyo, but because misunderstandings between cultures led to near-apocalyptic conclusions. For all the gory details, do not miss Morris' engrossing portrait.

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MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES: Say what you will about journalist Peter Biskind's gossipy tomes about the film industry, including his recent best-seller Down and Dirty Pictures. They're compulsive, and the documentary adaptation of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Shout, $24.98), his previous history of the 1970s film generation, is just as easy on the eyes. The talking-heads-telling-stories approach is very VH-1, and not exactly arts reporting, but the stories alternate enough between juicy bitterness and bittersweet remembering to make this more than a guilty pleasure.

Firmly in the Not Enough of a Guilty Pleasure category is Scary Movie 3 (Buena Vista, $29.99) and its toothless satires of 8 Mile and Signs. But finally reaching DVD is 2002's Safe Conduct (Koch Lober, $24.98). Bertrand Tavernier's long, generous movie about French filmmakers during the Nazi occupation explores that line where an act of art becomes an act of politics, and how repression can cause something as dispensable as Scary Movie 3 to become an act of defiance.

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JUDY, JUDY, JUDY: Do not attempt to adjust your television set. The rouge on Judy Garland's cheeks is that rouge, and the phosphor emitting from Warner Brothers' lovely 60th anniversary DVD of Meet Me in St. Louis (Warner, $26.98) couldn't glow any brighter. A dozen studio classics lay claim to being the "greatest Hollywood musical ever" - Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, Top Hat, for starters. And then there's Vincente Minnelli's 1944 trip back to an America more familiar with world fairs than world wars.

No matter your age, it has that gauzy quality of every old photo you hold close to your heart. Or maybe that's just the warmth coming off the screen. I've never really thought of it as a musical, although its numbers are some of the most famous ever ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Trolley Song"). Perhaps that's because this is one of those rare musicals that never feels on the verge of breaking into song.

Its 1904 St. Louis might have that scrubbed, manufactured cheer of a studio back lot, but what Minnelli celebrates is the everyday, the prosaic charms of a Midwest family during Christmas, at Halloween, and in the heat of an airless summer.

It's hard, but if you can strip away the evocative detail, and fairy-tale frosting, to some extent it also feels like the first sitcom, a point underlined by the turgid pilot of a 1966 Meet Me in St. Louis TV series, one of the gazillion of extras included with this two-disc set. Also included: a making-of documentary narrated by Roddy McDowall; Hollywood: The Dream Factory, an old documentary tribute to MGM; and a vintage short subject that features the oldest surviving footage of Garland.

Even that famous Garland and Minnelli offspring, Liza Minnelli, puts in an appearance. She delivers a rambling introduction to the disc, starting off sounding awkward and uncomfortable and spooked; but the crack in her voice when she refers to "daddy" can break your heart.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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