Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I liked it.  I liked it a whole lot.  I smiled as I walked out of the theater and passed by the next audience as they waited their turn, because I knew they were going to see something special.  It wasn’t always that way.  Though the movie begins with a very atmospheric tone and it is full of beauty and wonder, it takes a bit more time than I am used to for the story to arise.  Because of that, my wife walked out early.  I stayed, because– while it was slow to progress– I wasn’t in any kind of a rush and I still felt compelled to keep watching.

In no time my patience was rewarded, because once the plot is set into motion it is absolutely riveting cinema.  I Loved Rise but Dawn has a very distinct Planet of the apes quality.  We spend more time with the apes as they begin their civilization and are able to see crucial actions that seal the planet’s destiny (I was admonished by a reader a few years ago when I revealed that the planet was indeed Earth, so I won’t do that again.  Oops.).

The film is rich in beauty and theatrics.  It was like “Shakespeare in the Forest”  I am impressed with how far the franchise, and indeed sci-fi films in general (if you look to the right examples) have come in terms of clear vision.  Where fantasy once was vague, where panels and cels once had limited illustrations drawn to suggest, or imply a setting, we now have the ability to breath full life into a thing and experience it in a way that feels real and therefore makes more accessible it’s hidden truths.

I think the limitations in the past in adapting a work of science fiction have largely been due to lack of contextual information.  I think we can see this in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.  While Burton is next to none in the imagination department and his designs were wonderful, the film lacked the sense of relevance the most recent films have given.  Could be that the element of mystery involved prior to Rise prohibited too much contextualizing, but the new story arc is all the better because of that shattered barrier.

With absolutely splendid photography and sets, digital effects and a haunting score by the prodigious Michael Giacchino we are given an all access pass to an intriguing and eerily familiar alternate reality and we get to bear witness to history in the making as Caesar and his kind face their greatest trial yet and the fate of the relationship between Man and Ape hangs in the balance.

I think it goes without saying at this point how Andy Serkis’ character work bonds so well to the mo-cap technology and the expressiveness of the apes is awe inspiring.  What may yet go unspoken, or at least not praised highly enough is the performance of Toby Kebbell, a 32 year old actor I’ve never heard of before, but look forward to seeing again as Victor Von Doom in next year’s Fantastic Four.  Toby steals the movie as Koba, a scarred and tortured ape saved by Caesar and ruled by an unforgiving malice toward humanity to the extend that his bond with Caesar is severely tested.  If Sylvester Stallone makes an Expendables 4, it absolutely must include Koba.  Make it happen, Hollywood.

 

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Review: Last Vegas

poster last vegasAbout half way through the movie I leaned over to my wife and whispered, “This is so good.”  It’s not unconventional, or provocative, per se.  it is predictable, but only because it’s perfect.  Last Vegas has tons of diverse talent that syncs up instantly for a symphony of comic wit and sincerity that is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end.  While I say it is predictable, that is only because it turns the only way I think it can be truly satisfying.  That is not to say that the movie is not full of fun surprises and misdirection that truly pays off.  I can only describe the experience as gleeful.

The story is of four old friends– plaid by actors in roles designed to accentuate what makes them great: Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Robert DeNiro– who grow apart and get the gang back together 58 years after its inauguration for an unlikely bachelor party in Las Vegas.  Imagine a classy, soulful, sharply comedic, heartfelt spin on the Wolf Pack that may well be superior to even the fist Hangover film.  The roster for the crazy Vegas weekend includes a Florida retiree who isn’t ready to be a Florida retiree, a grandfather who’s family fusses endlessly about his health, a successful businessman in Malibu eulogizing his mentor, and his old best friend, a widower and recluse who no longer speaks to him.

The movie is about all kinds of relationships, but it’s just fun to see the guys cut loose, judge a bikini contest, go clubbing, meet celebrity look-a-likes in drag, rediscover what they mean to each other and what they appreciate about their lives.  I really think this film is a home run.  It seems effortless the way the highs and lows come together to make a fully developed and satisfying movie experience that can be repeated.  The performances are all fantastic, including Mary Steenburgen, who plays a Las Vegas lounge singer the boys become smitten with.

It hits all of the tones that it should.  It’s a Bachelor Party movie and what’s more, it’s set in Vegas and the scene is captured really well and the cast deftly maneuvers it with style, cunning and hilarity.  I also like that much of it feature The Aria, vs. Caesar’s Palace, which is the usual.   Much of the comedy of the film comes from the fantastic direction of Jon Turteltaub, who I’m sure not only informed the actors, but got some of his own jokes in from his perspective as a storyteller.  I recently saw another Turteltaub film, The Kid, which stars Bruce Willis.  It was a lot of fun too and Jon really knows how to direct.  Writer Dan Fogelman (The Guilt Trip) is no slouch himself and these guys are in top form and collaborating with the crème de la crème of acting.

The bottom line is, Last Vegas is a well paced, disarming comedy that is deceptively heartfelt and delivers in all genres it touches on with lightning fast speed and dexterity.

Adaptation

book enders game

Orson Scott Card– Author

The object of adaptation is to change the subject in order to make it better suited for a new, or alternative purpose.  Adapting a book into a movie, is not so much about faithful representation of the text as it is about capturing the subtext in away that makes better sense within a whole new system of parameters.  The film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman, explores the meaning of the word and its application to screenwriting in a beautifully profound way.

Historically, the movie version has been scorned, or at least widely accepted as the inferior of the pair when evaluated against it’s source material.  The sad truth of it is that the requisite of a film adaptation is putting at least one, more likely about a dozen or more middlemen between the author and his audience.  When you read a book, you are free to interpret and envision the story as you like with no one else weighing in.  you cast your characters and direct your own movie.  You get to have your own way all the time, no questions asked.  Of course it will be infuriating for you, when you go see a movie based on your favorite book and some guy you’ve never heard of is making knock-offs of the “real” characters give an inaccurate account with all of the important parts missing and an agenda that never before existed.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

I wonder if Warner Brothers ever considered giving Clooney another crack at the cape and cowel before going to Affleck.

It used to be, that when something like that happened, it was your one chance to see this story portrayed in your lifetime.  Now, even the word remake has been adapted to the point where one take on a property can be run into the ground and “rebooted” in only a couple of years time.  It’s an exciting thing to see, like the countless versions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” you are likely to see crop up year after year, new interpretations of popular literature have the potential to inspire and inform not just a brand new audience, but also the same old one in different and even more powerful ways.

A book has its own properties, as a book.  It can tell a story in a way that is impossible for film.  That’s why it has to be adapted.  But when a person with vision sees a way to tell the story visually, they have the opportunity to exhibit the version of the book that means something to them, and a responsibility to be true to that vision.  A good adaptation will lose some things from the book, but replace them with scenes that contribute to the story in a similar capacity, and will hopefully include little to no narration.

A book faithfully adapted into a film is a tightrope walk that is also extremely subjective.  The less a filmmaker is willing to make changes to the source material, the more danger there is of making a terrible movie.  When you adapt a book to film, you must ask yourself if you are tying to replace, the book, or supplement it, discuss it, or explain it.  There is a good approach and a bad one.  The book will not be replaced.  More people may see the movie, but it is not a substitute for the original and with luck, a more artistically gutsy version will hit theaters within a decade that will replace your forgotten experiment, while the book in question is still selling.  The new film may have less in common with the book, with various omissions and gender changes, a reworking of the story’s end, but it will succeed in sharing a vision that perhaps the book only alludes to for some, and it will be a far superior movie, because it was skillfully adapted to accomplish the goal, not of making a movie version of such and such, but of telling a great story.

Of course this is all hypothetical.  The bold, aggressive interpretation could be terrible as well.  So what is the right way and the wrong way to adapt a book into a movie.  Why did Jurassic Park work when Congo Didn’t?  Why makes Jaws such an effective retelling of Peter Benchley’s story.  Why is Lord of the Rings so beloved?  and is it appropriate to take the trilogy approach in adapting The Hobbit?

"Amy want green drop drink."

“Amy want green drop drink.”

Jurassic Park, seems like it’s easy to explain, by the fact that Crichton is a credited writer of the screenplay.  He was not only a novelist, but had real screenwriting experience and was quite good at both forms.  he also wrote his books in a way that sort of lent themselves nicely to becoming movies, yet, even his own script departed from the source material in order to better tell his story through a new medium.  When he wrote the sequel, but did not return as a screenwriter, the adaptation suffered horribly, despite his quite obvious intentions when writing the novel of seeing it come to life on the big screen.  For example, Ian Malcom clearly died at the end of the novel Jurassic Park, yet he lives in the movie and is made the most popular character, by Jeff Goldblum’s portrayal, so he is written in as the lead in the new story, despite his apparent demise.  His foresight and obvious intentions were missed however when David Koeppe took a stab ad the adaptation himself.  He kept Ian Malcom, of course, but managed to take the story in a bizarrely inappropriate tangent, rendering the film the worst of the three films even though it focused on the world’s most popular chaotician and the third one didn’t even have a book as its basis.  Congo, on the other hand was something I was anticipating like it was Christmas.  After Jurassic Park turned me on to Crichton I read Congo and saw the trailer as nothing short of an epic and very literal translation of the book.  I just didn’t know that translation would come through a computerized voice in the hi-tech gloves of a signing gorilla.  Amy is a gorilla who communicates with her owner Peter through sign language.  For some reason it was decided that it would be best for her to sport an accessory that would translate the signs to English.  The gambit did not work.  Arbitrary changes also were made, such as the nightmares about Zinj that Amy would have and the name of the company.  The gray gorillas   rather than being trained guard dogs with stone paddles, somehow became marshal artists with excessively silly choreography in what should have been brutally horrifying attacks.  In the book, Amy helps the research team to decipher the new species’ language and use it against them.  In the movie, they use the diamonds they are after in Zinj to make laser guns.  Almost all of the changes made in Congo, either senselessly deviated from the book or deliberately detracted from the stories original intent with no apparent merit.  Jurassic Park had its deviations, but only when it was essential to the strength of the story.

gi jaws brody

“That’s some bad hat, Harry.”

Jaws is based on the novel by Peter Benchley but the film is a drastic departure from the source material, mostly due to all that is left out of the final story.  By virtue of such omissions, the characters are freed up a little from their interpersonal conflicts and a more satisfying Casablanca ending is allowed to replace the novels finale.  The movie version is streamlined and purposeful, which allows extensive subplots to be disposed of.  Just enough information is used to support the spine of the story and keep it paced appropriately.  The threat of losing tourism money by closing down the beach is enough of a problem to work with, pitting the sheriff against the mayor and setting up the need to hunt down the shark.  Once Brody, Hooper, and Quint leave the port they remain out at sea until the deadly show down with the killer shark.  It makes for a much needed act break that would be less effective if the boys returned home night after night.  The journey toward respect between Hooper and Quint, who start off as rivals is enough of a sub-current to the main plot to fill out the story without overcomplicating it with the jealousy that originally plagues sheriff Brody in the book.  In addition to the narrow focus of the adaptation, improv between the characters, added a sense of realism and charm to the movie that nonchalantly juxtaposes a casual atmosphere with a tense drama.

I'm trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

I’m trying to suspend my disbelief and desire for an escalating plot with the promise of some sort of resolution, but you gotta work with me a little, here.

Lord of the Rings is a trilogy that aims to be faithful to the beloved classics and spares no running time in capturing as much of the original stories as possible in the beautiful New Zealand locations that realize Middle Earth in a way that it never before could be.  The work must have been painstaking but the goal was clear.  The goal of The Hobbit, however, is much less noble and the adaptation suffers greatly.  Rather than truly adapt the story for film, a single book is broken down into episodes.  It is a grab for more box office dollars that pretends to be an aesthetic choice to match the original trilogy.  While the second installment The Desolation of Smaug may have enough content to be an entertaining movie it is merely a second act without a beginning or an end.  Compared to the first Star Wars trilogy it may that the story becomes a favorite of the fans and due to the third film having an obvious conclusion, fans may argue over which one is best, just as fans argue about Empire vs. Jedi.  But the similarities end rather abruptly at that point.  Empire is part of an ongoing saga and The Desolation of Smaug will literally be the middle section of a full story.  A New Hope is smaller in scope than the others, and while it mainly just introduces the characters, it does have a definite beginning middle and end that tells a complete heroes journey.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fills its running time awkwardly and fails to portray the reverence of the trilogy before it.  Instead, the ultra-fantastic hyper-colorful scenery takes away from the initial world that was created for middle Earth, and with little urgency for most of the film’s running time, the characters are made to wallow in artificial splendor that stretches the prowess of their acting capabilities uncomfortably thin.  There is a self awareness that bleeds through the performances, as they try all too hard to believe it’s working.

Gavin Hood-- Writer/Director

Gavin Hood– Writer/Director

An adaptation should always be about what will make the book translate to screen in the best way.  Sometimes you have to strip it down, dress it up, make it more accessible, more satisfying, more entertaining, but always in the name of story.  A faithful adaptation that does not make the necessary steps to change for it’s audience is not doing justice to the author.  Jackie Brown is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch.  Leonard is a frequently adapted author and while more artistic liberties were taken with Tarantino’s film than any other, the author himself considered it to be the most faithful.

Review: Rush

poster rushRush is a based on real events story directed by Ron Howard and scripted by frequent Ron Howard collaborator Peter Morgan.  The film attempts to explore the infamous rivalry between two Formula One racers during the seventies.  As a period piece it is composed rather well with costumes and set pieces consistent with the time, but not as flashy and obvious as, say the upcoming American Hustle.  This may have been a deliberate choice, perhaps in order to not distract the audience from the story.  Unfortunately, the story lacked balls and could have done with some style and a little more TLC from Howard.

I say balls, rather than boldness, guts, tenacity, or fearlessness, because that is the way I think the characters in the movie would express it.  For all the mandatory rhetoric about passion and heart that you are bound to find in a racing movie, I found none of that in the composition.  Whenever a driving sequence got on the verge of becoming a thrill it was cut short.  It is also uneven with most of the longer race scenes weighing down the end of the film with very little payoff.

One of the flaws of the film is that by attempting to shed light on Hunt and Laude (both characters involved in the rivalry) they fail to give the audience someone to root for.  The point is not the rivalry or who wins, the point is that they push each other to be better.  It’s an interesting idea, but its not a movie and it failed to arouse true interest as the stakes supposedly mounted, because I had no investment in one character over the other.  It was so passive, and thusly, boring.  It might have been a good character study if more attention were paid to dialogue and creating scenes that we could dwell in and enjoy without feeling the need to trudge forward, but trudge it does, from one uninspired scene on to the next, creating a sense of impatience for it to all be over.

Despite the noble attempt to not chose sides, or rather to expose the virtue of both sides beneath the surface, and the desire of the producers to stick to the actual events that inspired the film; I think the fair and balanced approach was a failure.  If Rudy hadn’t made the new Notre Dame coach the villain in the third act, the whole spirit of the story would have suffered.  In the end, these two very different, but very driven racers had nothing to fight for but to beat each other.

The events of the past are little more than a blip in history that most people won’t even recognize and this movie will do little to change that fact.  It too will soon be forgotten.  Renny Harlin  captured the pulse pounding action of Indy racing much better in the Stallone film Driven twelve years ago.  I recommend that for good racing action, or even Cars, or The Dukes of Hazard.  As a sports movie with a historical context it may be of interest to some people, but I believe it fails as an adaptation to be a fully developed story and the direction is not what I expected from Ron Howard.

Influential Directors: Quentin Tarantino

QT image

“I’m all about my filmography, and one bad film f—s up three good ones.”

When I was a young movie obsessed teen my passion for learning how movies are made continued to push me behind the scenes, even as my love for the spotlight took full bloom.  The thrill of the stage was all I cared about and the prospect of stepping into any number of characters and situations and exploring the possibilities was too exciting for me.  I loved saying things I wouldn’t normally say.  I loved making people believe I was who I said I was.  Mostly though, I loved making people laugh and I was always thinking up ways to squeeze out another reaction from the crowd.  No one had to tell me there are no small parts.  Those were the ones that always intrigued me the most, but the responsibility to carry a show as the lead was also something I thankfully got to have a taste of.  When I wasn’t in reheasals I spent a lot of time on my family’s brand new Gateway computer, playing a game called Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair.  I learned so much about the process by experimenting with the game, which lets you make a movie from script writing to production, editing, foley, scoring, and finally screening.  The game was also my very first introduction to an actor whose work in film would change me forever.  He was the funny, charismatic, and brilliant Quentin Tarantino.

I can’t say enough great things about Quentin Tarantino.  I love to hear the man speak.  He is so positive and almost always has something constructive to say.  He is a champion of the art of directing and also of screenwriting.  He has an uplifting and productive attitude about what others are trying to accomplish.  Meanwhile, he can take the most basic formula and elevate it to its most extravagant form.  Tarantino is a man who understands potential and taps into the simplest truths that flow throughout the most complicated compositions.  His work is art, a feat quite difficult in the entertainment industry, especially in regards to such consistency of quality and value.  Quentin Tarantino is an incredibly talented writer and a remarkably skilled director.  His latest film Django Unchained shows seasoning on a filmmaker whose directorial debut Reservoir Dogs helped to begin a revival of independent film, and whose award winning sophomore effort Pulp Fiction became an instant classic.

The man can be a bit awkward.  There is a sense of something sort of alien about him– Like he studied everything about our planet by watching movies– and yet he seems so warm and enthusiastic and has genuinely interesting things to say.  I love to hear Tarantino talk about anything.  Whether he is defending his movie against ignorant, ratings hungry vultures, talking simply about what interests him, or threatening paparazzi, a youtube search always gives me the fix I need.  Tarantino belongs in the spotlight.  He provides terrific interviews and deserves to be a star.  He can do just about any thing he wants and yet has not lost his way as a filmmaker.  Success is a killer.  You either get your way all the time and lose track of what works, or you become paralyzed at the thought of making a false step and do only what you think will be accepted.  Tarantino has shown himself to be neither timid, nor arrogant in his pursuit to make beautiful, smart and enjoyable films.

Even Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense” has his duds.  He’s really only known for about three movies.  If you really like him you know of three more.  Even great film makers who always turn out really good movies, rarely achieve the timelessness and sophistication that Tarantino always brings to the table.  Whether he’s really great at listening to the right people, or just a naturally exceptional self editor.  He manages to always make his movie, the way he wants to see it, and it always comes out a hit.  Lots of names will draw me to a theater, many with high expectations: But not only am I never disappointed with the work Tarantino puts out, I savor it with joy.

Before I even appreciated him as a director I was drawn to him as a writer.  The whole idea of Tarantino as this defiant screenwriter out to change the way movies were written didn’t quite match up with my perception.  When I was first studying screenwriting it seemed like everyone around me was determined to learn nothing in an attempt to be original.  When we got an assignment to examine structure in one of our favorite movies I chose Reservoir Dogs, just to show how textbook it was when viewed through the right lens.  Like every other assignment in the course, I passed with flying colors.  It was one of the few situations I found myself in where my odd way of looking at things finally paid off.  I once had a writing teacher, who tried to say Longfellow was wrong to use the metaphor of footprints in sand for A Psalm of Life to symbolize leaving ones mark in history, because sand gets washed away and has no permanence.  I was the quiet kid who (let’s face it) usually wasn’t paying any attention, but I couldn’t let it go uncontested.  I explained “my take” on the poem, to which she quite seriously replied that I had given the author too much credit.  She was the embodiment of the minds over the years that I refused to let shape me.  If Tarantino had taken any college courses in writing, I wonder if he would have been discouraged,  But that defiance, that rebelliousness so readily attributed to a high school drop out serves only to undermine the genius of an artist who has seriously done his homework.  A true student of film from all over the world, Tarantino jeopardized a possible acting career by taking a steady job at Video Archives, a rental store in Manhattan Beach, California.  There his expertise grew and flourished as he soaked up inspiration that would fuel one of the brightest burning talents the film industry would ever know.  It’s also where he met the Co-writer of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avery.

My first introduction to Tarantino as a writer, was From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.  If Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, I strongly believe Tarantino should go down in history as the master of Tension.  It may not go noticed because he has so many strengths in structure, dialogue, visual style… but take key scenes from Inglorious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Even if it’s just two people talking, you know something is going to happen.  You may not know what, but something big is about to go down, and Tarantino knows, more than anything else, how to build on that until the perfect moment.  In the first scene of my first movie written by tarantino I was scared.  It’s just a Sherriff chewing the fat with a convenience store clerk, but it’s eerie as hell and before anything even happens you know something is going down.  The prologue to Reservoir Dogs is the same way.  It’s uneasy.  All these guys sitting around the table, they’re bad guys and they don’t really know each other, when Mr. Blonde playfully shoots Mr. White, you get the distinct impression he might actually do it for realsies.  It sets a remarkable tone for the rest of the film.

Prior to his meteoric rise to stardom and international acclaim he penned the scripts for True Romance (which came out the year after Reservoir Dogs with a star studded cast featuring appearances by Christopher Walken, Bradd Pitt, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L Jackson, Gary Oldman and Balki from Mypos) and Natural Born Killers.  both were reworked but the first (directed by Tony Scott) was truer to Tarantino’s vision than the latter.

Still an actor at heart, Tarantino wrote the part of Mr. Pink for himself, even warned Buscemi that his audition better be “really good”  In the end, Buscemi is just pasty skinned awesome sauce and Tarantino had to admit defeat, he still got a part, though, and still likes to give himself those little cameos which endears him to me even more than if he had subtle appearances as an extra or withdrew from the stage altogether.  As a director, he is able to effectively translate his own writing for the audience, better than anyone else could.  He pushes boundaries, fuses genres and is very visually dynamic, which compliments his vast content and well defined characters.  His one adaptation, Jackie Brown, came hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction and though it was different from Pulp Fiction in the sense that Unbreakable was different from The Sixth Sense, It is was considered by Elmore Leonard to be the best adaptation of his work out of 26 films.  A fan of Leonard, Tarantino was able to be true to the author’s work and make it undoubtedly his own in the process.

Clearly He has fun at his work and at the same time, takes it seriously and wants it done right.  I don’t know how he strikes that magical balance of whimsy and restraint.  There has been a lot of talk about his retirement, partially, due to the rise of digital projection.  So dedicated is he to film that he bought a building housing the New Beverly Cinema to save it from redevelopment and ensure the theater will continue to use traditional projectors.  He has said he plans to retire from film and become an author after the age of sixty, which would give us ten years and possibly two more films; But he also said he could stop at any time, though he thinks ten films provides a nice aesthetic for his filmography.  He’s very dedicated to his own resume and doesn’t want to make a film that doesn’t belong there.  You have to respect that.  He seems to believe a director ages like wine– in terms of vinegar.   I value that insight, except Django Unchained really showed off the fact that Tarantino has not only still got it, he’s better than ever.  I can see how that sort of diligence and commitment to making an exceptional film would lead someone to thoughts of retirement, especially in interviews immediately following the film’s release.  I know the Kill Bill films were something Quentin kind of thought of as a book and he has been interested in making a Volume 3, though he eventually said another film in the series is unlikely.  Perhaps, when he does make the transition to author it will take the form of a novel.  Since Michael Crichton passed, I have been on the lookout for a new author.  I can’t say I won’t be sorry for the loss as far as film is concerned, but I will always celebrate his contributions with much enthusiasm and I view Quentin Tarantino as the greatest inspiration and his career the height of cinematic achievement.

Influential Directors: Robert Zemeckis

zemeckis

“I could never… do only one kind of movie. Anything that’s good is worthwhile.”

If I’m going to give credit to the directors that have influenced me throughout my life, I would be remiss to neglect one of the most influencial filmmakers of my young years. Randal Graves once said there is “only one trilogy,” but it isn’t Star Wars 4-6 and it isn’t Lord of the Rings. It’s not even Indiana Jones, though it is a tight race (maybe even a coin flip’s difference). The trilogy above all trilogies is Back to the Future and the director in question is none other than Robert Zemeckis.

To be honest, I tuned out when Zemeckis got into all of that mo-cap stuff. I just hate that style of filmmaking. It’s an incredible tool when used well to create realism and believability in films like King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Lord of the Rings, but when stretched beyond its strengths the technology destroys the cinematic experience.  In an animated film, one of the key challenges is finding that balance between over and under-defining characters.  A Pixar artist will add just enough detail to be breathtaking without going too far and making an awkward, eerie, too real representation.  When a film relies entirely on mo-cap technology the composition becomes muddled and it makes the job of the director so much harder than it should be, because ultimately he has to decide when it looks right and it almost never will.

Motion capture has the potential to be ultra realistic and yet it is the job of the artists to create a balanced look, or the contrast between realistic and cartoonish features clash on screen and can be impossible to adjust to.  Some films have to be animated.  Some are better as a live action feature.  No film ever needs to be mo-cap in it’s entirety.  However, despite his apparent over reliance on cutting edge technology, nobody incorporates state of the art tech into brilliant storytelling quite like Zemeckis.  I think of him as an efficient Spielberg/Cameron hybrid.  Take A Christmas Carol.  Though it failed to work as a whole in my opinion, there is some really great stuff in there that I think only could have been pulled off by Zemeckis.

Zemeckis made the riveting thriller What Lies Beneath and Forrest Gump, which I happen to just have been listening to Alan Silvestri’s score from.  but what really sets him up as one of my favorites is that he made Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Another massive technological achievement, Who Framed Roger Rabbit combines China Town with a wacky world in which animated characters interract with humans.  It’s one of my favorite movies as I love detective stories and film noir and I think the collaboration between the major animation studios is an achievement in itself (Daffy Duck and Donald dueling pianos!).  This film captured my imagination unlike any other.  I had seen Pete’s Dragon of course and portions of Song of the South, but for the first time the combination of live action and animation felt real to me and Toon Town, became a destination within my fantasies.

This was all happening in the midst of my obsession with Back to the Future which further cemented Zemeckis in my mind as a force to be reckoned with.  Though I was only 8 when Back to the Future part 2 came out (I desperately wanted a hoverboard) Robert Zemeckis next to Steven Spielberg is the first director I was actually aware of in a time when I was still learning to distinguish actors names from the characters they played.  Incidentally, Michael J Fox was my childhood hero on the strength of his roles as Alex P. Keaton, Teen Wolf, and of course Marty McFly.  I’m still immensely fond of him.  So, Zemeckis gets bonus points for being responsible for part of that trifecta.

Back to the future is one of the greatest films of all time.  I think it speaks volumes that it has survived so many other time travel and special effects movies of the decade, but I hope it will remain forever considered a classic.  Every generation should know and love the film.  It’s just so fun and clever and polished.  The characters are brilliantly developed.  The story is deftly plotted, piling set-up upon set-up for a lineup of the most amazing pay-offs.  It’s so thought out and thematically supercharged,  yet so whimsical and light and full of terrific dialogue.  While it carries itself like an average teen comedy it is so exceptional it is truly next to nothing in terms of its inherent value.  And if you want to talk about influece, lets talk about the torment I went through waiting for the third installment of the trilogy after Marty came back to 1955 and scared the hell out of Doc Brown.  The “To Be Continued” card was devastationg!  There is also something brilliant in the seemlessness of parts two and three, because they are a seperate story yet they have a momentum to them that makes the three part set feel like a whole.

Zemeckis has range, too.  From the wacky dark comedy of Death Becomes Her, to the Science fiction drama of Contact, to the solitary and desolate feature Cast Away, Zemeckis has revealed himself to be one of the industry’s top storytellers. What Lies Beneath, without the Z factor could have been shuffled away as just another Ghost story, but if you weary of the same tired concepts, Zemeckis’s creativity is a breathe of fresh air for the genre.  Another one of my favorites is Romancing the Stone, which I watched often as a kid. It had everything I wanted in a movie and I never tired of watching it. Now, I see it and I’m not exactly sure why I was so into the film, but at the time it was one of my favorites and certainly served to influence my tastes and expectations at an early age.

At home in Chicago, Zemeckis found creative freedom in an artless home through the family’s super 8 camera and became impassioned when he learned about film school on an airing of The Tonight Show. Though his parents strongly cautioned him, he applied for USC and though originally not accepted, he made a phone call to the admissions office and begged for a place. It was at USC that Zemeckis met Bob Gale, the co-writer of Back to the Future. The fact that he does a good deal of screenwriting and directing I think goes a long way toward making him one of the most effective and influencial storytellers of the last thirty years.

It was his expertise in incorporating special effects that imbued me with a thirst and excitement for knowledge about how films are made.  By addressing my belief in what I saw on screen, and learning a bit about behind the scenes planning, I began to piece together how to make the unreal appear real and put that skill to work for the first time, using forced perspective to create a monstrous giant in a student film of David and Goliath when I was twelve.  Though my dream was to become an actor, Zemeckis had opened a window that would eventually push me behind the stage and onto a computer which introduced concepts and production aspects I never dreamed of and eventually lead me to screenwriting.

Review: Monsters University 3D

postermuWhen I think of Pixar, I think of some of the finest storytelling to ever grace a movie screen.  I think of the studio not as an animation studio, but as a movie studio that happens to practice animation.  The distinction for me is that the focus is more about the writing first, and as it turns out, these fantastic yarns are best illustrated by the abundant talents of the finest visual artists in the field wielding the best of the best of the best technology.

Pixar has always pushed the envelope in one way or another.  They have always dared to captivate adult audiences as well as children, arguably sometimes favoring the former.  They have pushed the boundaries of how much story a film can contain, how many subplots can be shuffled in between, and how fleshed out and human a character can be, even winning you over by the end after being so unlikeable.

The films of Pixar carry with them a high level of expectations to even the most aloof moviegoer and even ardent fans such as myself are quick to criticize when we feel that threshold has not been met.  Even with such a fearless, focused and dedicated staff of artists an element can sometimes go missing.  Cars 2 was a tremendous experiment in pushing the genre, making it more “spy movie” than “kids movie”, but it did not reach it’s potential to capture the many different settings in a way that would bring as much intrigue to the look of the film as there was in it’s plot.  Brave was the studio’s first foray into folklore, a decidedly more predictable and therefore less interesting form of storytelling without making some key break-throughs and turning points near the end of the script.  Wall-e For all of it’s visual glory and attempt at heart could not really seduce an audience into empathy and really just became an unintentional environmental tale.

If these films had more heart and dimension in their characters, more exciting and daring turns and more ambiance they would easily be among my favorites.  Monsters University is one that has the complete package.  It’s fun, it’s exciting, and while it’s stars already had one hit Pixar film, Monsters University stands alone as a great feature.

The movie is about Mike and Sully’s college days, before they became friends.  First off, I want to address how perfectly college life was depicted while remaining kid friendly.  You won’t see John Belushi chugging a bottle of Jack, but the parties and the cliques, the classroom lectures… well, it’s fun when you don’t have to do it.  The campus is amazing and the rendering really shows off some terrific lighting effects, giving it a very romantic visual appeal.  Don’t think it’s just about frat houses and old buildings, though.  Monsters University is an adventure that takes you to the unexpected.  Dean Hardscrabble is appropriately terrifying, and– true to Pixar tradition– defies the standard good guy bad guy dichotomy, appealing to the notion that however distasteful a character is, there is always potential to go the other way (and vice versa), just like real life people (go figure).

The heart of the story is Mike.  As a wide eyed kid on a field trip, he becomes enamored with the idea of becoming a scarer and devotes his life to that end, working exceptionally hard and finally enrolling in the school of scaring at MU.  Here is where Mike meets all kinds of challenges due to his disadvantage of not being Scary.  At one point he tells Sully he’s worked harder than anyone to get there to which Sully replies “That’s because you don’t belong here.”  Sully, a natural Beast, rides on his fathers name and fails to learn anything.  Of course these two have to work together and when they do, it’s tremendous.  Aside from that the supporting cast of characters are some of the finest and most enjoyable to watch.

Lots of hard work and long computer hours were put into the creation of this monster of a movie, think about all the fur and textures and the massive number of on screen characters at one time.  Think about the hues in the sky and the streetlights, the reflections and the shadows, all working together to create the perfect mood for each scene.  Monsters University didn’t make me cry, but it has it’s touching moments. It is unique, original, entertaining, provocative, cutting edge, state of the art… In short:  It’s a Pixar film.