Thursday, November 28, 2013

Don't Call Me Shirley: A Tribute to Leslie Nielsen

Growing up, one of my favorite actors and comedians was always Leslie Nielsen. He always had a funny line or silly expression, his delivery was always crisp and his timing perfect. He was the consummate funny man, the perfect buffoon. Funnily enough, many fans of his probably aren't even aware that he didn't start out as a comedian, in fact that he spent a good majority of his acting career as a more serious, dramatic actor. But aside from loving his work, the one thing that as irony would have it, will now connect the two of us for all of time, is the fact that he passed away on my birthday, November 28th.

Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, on February 11th, 1926, Leslie William Nielsen was nearly thirty years old when he first started his film acting career (starting in television in 1953). His first major film role, in fact his first leading role (and second on-screen movie credit) was in the 1956 science fiction masterpiece "The Forbidden Planet". It was more than likely that film that I first saw him in as a child, played at some point on late night television, scaring the crap out of me with it's invisible "Id" monster, and fascinating me with the ever-awesome "Robbie the Robot". His role in that film was central in inspiring the role of future space captains in sci-fi series such as Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, and quite frankly, if I do say so myself, his acting was top notch.


But of course, people who are only familiar with Mr. Nielsen from his comedy films that would come decades later, would most likely be shocked to not only see him without his trademark gray/white hair, but acting in a totally serious role as well. In fact, as stated before, much of his career was spent as a serious actor. From the mid-50s clear through the 1970s, he starred or co-starred in mostly serious fare. One notable exception, was playing a "straightman" astronaut to Don Knotts' buffoon character in 1967's "The Reluctant Astronaut" (a rather good movie I must say). But the difference here, compared to his later work in comedy, is that he is not the funny man in the picture, he is the serious, hansom, heroic type whom Don Knotts' clumsy, shy, goofball type aspires to be. He actually spent quite a lot of time, especially in the 60s, playing in crime dramas and thriller type films, as well as the odd western and other such fare. It wasn't until 1980, after working in film and television for 25 years, that you might say he "finally found his calling", in a small but eternally memorable side-role in a little movie called "Airplane".

"I just want to tell the both of you good luck, we're all counting on you."

Co-directed by Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, "Airplane" came out of nowhere as a spoof on late 1970s airplane disaster movies, and went on to become a smash hit. It's important to note Abrahams and the Zuckers, who also co-wrote the film, as well as the specific brand of comedy they fostered, a combination of sight gags and snappy dialogue that you really have to pay attention to or else you'll miss it, reminiscent in some ways of classic Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. Nielsen's somewhat minor role as airplane passenger "Dr. Rumack", was his first real turn at comedy on-screen. And he really hit it out of the park, becoming the most memorable character in a film filled with a great and funny ensemble cast. He was so memorable and successful in the part, in fact, that Abrahams and Zucker were inspired to create a television show concept specifically for him and his dead-pan style.

Materializing in 1982, "Police Squad" was a delightfully witty and goofy parody of series "procedural" police dramas like "Dragnet", that sadly only lasted six episodes before being prematurely cancelled. It seemed that it was just too far ahead of it's time, with no laugh track, and their usual brand of sight gags and funny wordplay. Again, it was the kind of thing you actually had to pay attention to to "get" and laugh at, and it seemed that the average home television audience didn't have the attention span to do that. But thankfully, it inspired the creators to bring the concept back six years later, this time back to the theater audience that had so appreciated "Airplane", in the form of 1988's "The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad".

"Detective Frank Drebin......Police Squad"

In between, Nielsen started gradually building his comedy resume. Such as in a little known 1983 sci-fi comedy called "The Creature Wasn't Nice" (aka "Spaceship"), a hilarious space farce that I will absolutely be giving it's own article in due time. But it wasn't until '88 with the release of "The Naked Gun" that he really hit it big as a new Hollywood icon of comedy. And the irony in that, is the fact that by that time, when he finally became a big star in his own right, recognized the world over, he was 62 years old. But, as the saying goes, "better late than never". Naked Gun was such a hit that it spawned two more sequels, both equally hilarious, in 1991 and 1994. The 90s became, in a way, the decade of Leslie Nielsen, as he had a string of spoof comedies, such as the 1990 "The Exorcist" parody "Repossessed", the '96 James Bond/Mission Impossible spoof "Spy Hard", and the '98 send-up of the smash hit "The Fugitive", aptly titled "Wrongfully Accused". He also had a turn as the iconic cartoon character in a live action production of Mr. Magoo, as well as a hilarious villainous role as "Colonel Chi" in the 1993 action-comedy "Surf Ninjas".

"Good Evening!"

One of his favorite roles of mine, saw him having the honor of featuring in the last directorial effort of another of my film heroes, Mel Brooks, in 1995's "Dracula: Dead and Loving It". While not a huge success at the box office, nor loved by critics (what do they know anyway?), this film still went on to become a cult classic to many fans, and honestly, it's one of the funniest works of either man. Just to have these two icons of comedy work together on a project was a big deal, and they didn't disappoint as far as any of their true fans are concerned. The film itself was mostly a direct parody of the '92 Francis Ford Coppola directed "Dracula" adaptation, but Nielsen's performance is pure Bela Lugosi, and he channels it well. Mel Brooks himself also played the key role of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, vampire hunter, and so audiences get treated to not only Brooks' comedic writing and direction, but we get an on-screen rivalry between Brooks and Nielsen as well.

Mr. Nielsen stayed active with both television and film roles right up until the end, including hilarious side-roles in successful spoof comedies "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4" (which saw him re-team with David Zucker and Jim Abrahams), as well as 2008's "Superhero Movie". Unfortunately, on November 28th, 2010, just as I had turned 29 years old, Leslie Nielsen passed away in his sleep from complications due to pneumonia, at the age of 84. As a final bit of humor, he chose to have the phrase "Let 'Er Rip" put on his headstone, but as odd as it may seem, I felt that somehow, at least to me personally, his final "joke" if you will, had been dying on my birthday. Not really funny, of course, but certainly strange, and while it really sucked to have someone I loved and respected as an artist die on the day I was born, since then, I always think of him around this time of year, and of course, when I think of him, I smile.

He was a great man who gave us a lot of laughs, and more importantly, he genuinely seemed to love what he did, right until the end of his days. And I guess, in the end, there isn't much more you can ask for than that.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Return to the Land of Misfit Mascots

Last year in late Nov., I decided to give my gift to the world, in the form of a retrospective on now-obscure video game mascot characters and their games. Now, I've decided to take you all back to that "Land of Misfit Mascots", for a look at some OTHER forgotten characters that I didn't get to (see: bother with) last time around. So in the words of 90s animated Sonic the Hedgehog, "Let's Do It To It!"

Whoever thought a possum could be so active?

Name:  Sparkster
Year: 1993
Developer: Konami
Number of Games: 4

 Sparkster, also known as the Rocket Knight, was a mascot character concocted by Konami, who were well known for their other less "mascot" based action titles like Contra and Castlevania. The original game was a Genesis (known in other parts of the world as the Sega Mega Drive) exclusive game, called "Rocket Knight Adventures", and featured a heroic possum who fought to save his world of Elhorn from an invasion of pig monsters attacking in their ship, the "Pig Star" (a parody of Star Wars' "Death Star"). He does so with a high-powered rocket armor suit and a sword. The Rocket Knight games were somewhat unique in that they combined short bursts of Sonic type speed with more conventional "hack and slash" sword based action gameplay. Though the games usually play out like typical side-scrolling platformer type games, a nice sprinkling of Gradius/R-Type style scrolling shooter levels are thrown in to mix things up.

Just hangin' around, in true possum fashion.

In total, Sparkster has starred in four games. The original Genesis game, a sequel called "Rocket Knight Adventures 2", a SNES exclusive game simply called "Sparkster" that is its own separate game that doesn't follow up the first, and many years later, a 2010 downloadable "2.5D" (3D polygon graphics but 2D gameplay) game for PSN and Xbox Live Arcade called simply "Rocket Knight". The latter was okay for what it was, but like many remake/reboot attempts, it failed to really live up to the manic fun of the original games. The original 90s games however, even the "somewhat unrelated" SNES side game, were all excellent, and it's a shame that the character didn't get a better introduction into the new millennium. Bottom line though, while Sparkster was certainly another of the many "Animals with Attitude" mascot characters of the early-to-mid-90s, he was arguably the coolest one, along with Sonic of course.

As the box indicates, in the 90s, Attitude was the key ingredient to pretty much everything.

Name: Cool Spot
Year: 1990
Developer: Virgin Games
Number of Games: 4

One of many video games that attempted to use corporate product mascots as game mascot characters, the Cool Spot was a mascot for 7-Up soda, introduced in 1987. He used to have cool little commercials where he would appear in a real-world setting as a little animated "dot" with shades. And honestly, who doesn't love a little dot with shades? Now the first game to feature the little guy was actually not the one pictured above, but rather an obscure NES/Amiga/PC puzzle game that came out in 1990 called "Spot: The Video Game".

Spot doesn't understand the game either, so he dances to entertain.

I clearly remember renting this as a kid, thinking to my child-self  "Oh cool, a Spot game! This oughta be awesome!". And of course, it wasn't. What it is, is a bit hard to describe, other than to say that it's basically supposed to be an odd version of Othello/Reversi or something. The basic goal is to get most of the pieces on the board to be your color, by moving pieces and flipping the colors over. In-game, the moves are depicted by humorous little Spot animations, that including dancing, roller skating, etc. I suppose it's not a bad game, probably a decent little puzzler if you're into Othello, but really to a little kid hoping for a COOL Spot game, it felt like, pardon the expression, the drizzling shits.

Moving on to the game actually featured in the beginning, in 1993 Virgin once again put out a Spot game, this time called "Cool Spot", and it was closer to what I probably hoped for with the 1990 game. It's a side-scrolling platformer, like most of these mascot games were, but unfortunately, it was a rather unspectacular one. The game consists of levels where you wander around avoiding crabs and things, shooting what I guess are supposed to be soda bubbles at enemies, and freeing your imprisoned Spot pals who are hidden around each level. That's pretty much it. And to make matters worse, the developers must have run out of either time, ideas, or both while making this, because at some point in the game, the level designs literally recycle, backwards. Meaning, that you eventually make your way back through the same exact level TYPES you had already gotten through. The game ends you on an easy beach level, more or less the same as the first. It's not a BAD game, but it certainly seems as if it were rushed, and while something like Bubsy the Bobcat certainly had its issues, at least it was a complete, polished game. (The same developer, Virgin, had similar polish issues with another Sega mascot title, Global Gladiators.)

He ain't just whistlin' "Dixie"!

Oft-mentioned friend Harold, the M.C. Kids guy, loved this game for some reason as well, and didn't seem to mind the lack of much really going on in the game, lack of diversity, and lack of much of an ending once you do free all the Spots. He also liked the more obscure Game Boy game "Spot: The Cool Adventure", which was essentially an M.C. Kids clone, in fact using the exact same "pick up blocks and throw them" gameplay, and to go one further, in Europe was actually an M.C. Kids game called "McDonaldland". Go figure. But for what it's worth, like M.C. Kids itself, the Game Boy Spot actually is a fairly solid game, fun to play, with functional mechanics and non-lazy level designs. The funny thing is, the Game Boy Spot came out in 1993 also, but then in 1994, Game Boy ALSO got a downgraded port of this game, which feels...kinda pointless. since it already got a BETTER Spot game in the first place.

90s Mascot Game trademark: Stationary character animations.

Apparently, ol' Spot was cool enough to warrant Virgin making one last adventure, this time a Genesis/Playstation/Saturn game in 1995 called "Spot Goes to Hollywood", which was a very odd isometric view game that was more or less still the same kind of game the '93 one was, walking, jumping, throwing bubbles, etc. But this time, at least, in levels inspired by or parodying Hollywood movie types, such as pirate ships and haunted castles, etc. The goal, once again, is to free your poor beleaguered Spot pals, as they've once again been kidnapped by nefarious forces. It was a more inventive and polished game overall, but I guess it didn't do well enough to merit any additional Spot games, as the series was put to bed afterwards. 

If you wear shades, you're automatically cool.

Name: Chester Cheetah
Year: 1992
Developer: System Vision/Kaneko
Number of Games: 2

Born one year before the Cool Spot, Chester Cheetah, the official Cheetos Cheese Puffs snack mascot, was born in 1986. Once again cashing in on the success of so many other mascot games, Cheetos licensed Chester out to Japanese company Kaneko, who plopped the character into yet another side scrolling platformer game. True to his original cartoon incarnation (before the puppet-like appearance in more recent Cheetos commercials), the game presents a wacky, surreal cartoon world, where "Too Cool To Fool" Chester travels around collecting paw-shaped Cheetos snacks and bopping on enemy heads Mario style.

You know you're cool when even your enemies wear shades.

As you can see above, the game was a bit out there. I mean where else are you going to find a roller skating, shades-wearing turtle as an enemy? Kaneko made one sequel in 1993, called "Chester Cheetah: Wild Wild Quest" (GET IT?), which featured better graphics, and actually saw Chester collecting and eating BAGS of Cheetos snacks. Talk about product placement! All in all, Chester is a cool character for a corporate mascot, but his games were, as many licensed property games wind up being, fairly average.

Just LOOK at this guy's vectors. Just LOOK at 'em.

Name: Vectorman
Year: 1995
Developer: BlueSky Software/Sega
Number of Games: 2

In 1994, the Rare developed, Nintendo published Super NES game "Donkey Kong Country" took the gaming world by storm, with its fun Mario-esque gameplay and (for the time) revolutionary "prerendered" graphics, which featured flat 2D sprites that were shaded and rendered in such a way as to give a faux 3D appearance. Sega, always one to "keep up with the Jonses" (or if you prefer, do what Nintendon't had already done beforehand), set out to cash in on this craze by making their own "prerendered" game as well. They hired developer BlueSky Software (now sadly defunct, like so many others) to create the game, and at least for the original title put their full marketing backbone behind it.

Not DKC cool, but still cool.

Unlike DKC, Vectorman took a more "Mega Man" style approach to it's gameplay and setting, as you play an "Orbot" (a robot composed entirely of orbs) named...well, Vectorman, who exists in the year 2049, as a clean-up robot in charge of clearing away pollution left behind by humans who have since flown away to colonize other planets. Yes, it does sound very much like Wall-E, though preceding it by many years. Ol' Vector, of course, isn't as cute and lovable as Wall-E, but he does pack some neat-o firepower and foot-jet skills, as well as the ability to transform into other neat-o things to help him fight the errant Orbots of Earth who are being controlled by the whacked out master computer Orbot "Warhead". After defeating Warhead and saving the planet, Vectorman has to "hero up" once again in Vectorman 2, where he now has to save an Earth overrun by mutant insects. In the second game, instead of transforming into objects like drills and bombs, he can now take on insectoid-style forms to battle this new enemy.

A wasted opportunity?

At the end of the day, Vectorman was a neat idea, and honestly, while the level variety leaves a bit to be desired (it's more or less all bleak, darkly colored polluted Earth scenery), the games themselves were decently fun to play. The graphics of course couldn't have held up to the SNES-powered Donkey Kong games, but they were still impressive on the Genesis. But if you ask me, Sega really kind of fucked up with Vectorman. Seeing as the first game came out in late 1995, when they already had their new Saturn console on the market, it would have made more sense to me, to put Vectorman, or at least 1996's Vectorman 2, on the Saturn, where it really could have shined graphically, had better CD quality music, and more content. Plus it might've helped that system to have more recognizable franchises.

I understand they wanted to prove Genesis could do DKC style graphics too, and they succeeded in that to an extent. But I just can't see how the Saturn wouldn't have benefited from having a little Vector-love itself, at least in the form of a port. There was supposed to be a third game, this time (naturally) fully 3D, on Playstation 2, in the early 2000's after Sega had (sadly) gone third party, but it thankfully got cancelled, because the early images of it looked like garbage. Hopefully Sega might still find it in their hearts to make a new, high def 2D Vectorman game, now that downloadable digital software is a popular and viable way for such games to go. Ol' Vector deserves a comeback!


And that's about all for this entry, folks! Hope you enjoyed the return trip to the Land of Misfit Mascots, and remember to try and get your hands on some of these games, because at the very least they're cool curiosities, and at best, some of them provide a genuinely fun time! Cheers!

"Cowabunga Dude!"