Are Indie Films Better Than Studio Films?

I got duped into watching a little indie horror film called Grabbers, last night.  It’s on Netflix and it has a pretty high rating of 3.5 stars.  The premise– townspeople of a seaside village must keep their blood alcohol content up to avoid being eaten by alien sea monsters– seemed worth watching, but the Tremors-like production lacked anything significantly appealing.  I don’t want to turn this into a review, But this production is very interesting to me as a failure on many levels, but still a success, apparently, on Netflix.  It is even has 72%on Rotten Tomatoes!

It’s an indie film, which means nothing to me.  People talk about liking indie films as though they are their own genre and they are not.  I love that independent film has grown and the artistic freedom and access that it affords, but in general, I don’t like indie productions any more than I like Hollywood ones.  There are just as many flaws in both systems.  I think that generally, the point of a Hollywood studio production is to make money.  They can accomplish this by giving wide audiences what they want, or at least by profiting on their anticipation with a huge opening weekend.  One of the biggest complaints about this system is that it rarely delivers anything particularly extraordinary.  One of the biggest drawbacks is that they track ticket sales as a formula for success rather than critical reception.  The difference is that ticket sales show how many people want to see a movie about such and such, and reception shows how close the production came to audience expectations.  So, if a highly anticipated blockbuster has a huge opening weekend, Monday morning, execs start discussing sequels even though it generally takes about six months for public opinion to catch up and settle the score.  Studios leverage the audiences willingness to watch a property they want to see, even if it is not handled appropriately, so the cycle if broken, is only done so by accident, being either exceptionally good or disastrously disappointing.

Independent films generally aim to make movies.  There are some driven storytellers out there who are very skilled and do their best work, free of the shackles of the studio system, but some directors find the resources available through studio backing are indispensable.  In the world of independent film there is a willingness to look the other way for the sake of supporting art, or perhaps damning the Hollywood machine; But there lie several motivations behind independent film production.  We like to pretend it is for the sake of art, but mostly indie film makers only want to make movies.  Content doesn’t even come secondarily.  This system is ironically even more dependent on revenue because the funding is sought after and less available than funding dumped into a promising franchise, or star vehicle from one of the big guys.  It’s also worth noting that independent films that do get funded by successful producers are somehow seen as inferior, or not true indie film despite being some of the best independent work out there.  For the other folks out there, the focus on just making movies is as tragic as the course of just making money, because they are happy just to be working and either don’t know how to achieve excellence, don’t want to, or are simply not qualified to.

No matter where you are making movies, or who you are making movies for, it should always be about telling a good story.  You can blame budget for substandard special effects, but hiring good writers, directors and actors are not contingent on signing a higher pay check.  This is why the idea of independent film is so appealing.  Potentially, much more can be accomplished provided that the artists are serious about creating something substantial and that their choice of medium is conducive to the talents they are afforded (photography and music come to mind as frequently neglected skills in the world of independent film).  This is where just making a movie gets in the way of possibly making a great movie and opting for convenience is just as bad as any politics in the traditional studio system.

Unfortunately, there is a double standard where indie films are concerned.  They are allowed to be awful and credited with being original, or somehow more legitimate than a mainstream production.  This is the only way that I can reconcile the positive ratings given by audiences to a movie like Grabbers on two separate platforms.  The movie bumbles between genres and never realizes the potential of the premise, lacking heavily in the dialogue department and sadly formulaic without any seasoning or spice.  The blandness is dampened further by utterly uninteresting visual style and terribly monotonous music.  In fact, the creature effects were the movie’s only real strong point.

Such a promising concept is transformed into a boring and sloppy attempt at crossing genres without truly nailing any of them.  This is another problem that indie film struggles with.  It’s also why anytime I hear the word “dramedy” I turn and run the other way.  The reason is simple.  Untested unskilled filmmakers ought to start with more focus, learning how to master one genre before attempting to fuse two together.  A sci-fi/horror is plenty to work with for a novice.  A sci-fi/horror/comedy is unthinkable unless you have the craft down and are able to maneuver between both styles with pinpoint precision.  Grabbers is a muddled mess, failing to be either scary or funny, and with no heart beating underneath the bare bones formula it pales in  comparison to the one liners anyone would use to win you over.  The term “dramedy” is the most common example of indie film failing to tap its soul.  To attempt it is useless.  You cannot have a great comedy without good drama at it’s core.  And all the best drama feeds off of the fuel of comic relief.  A dramedy attempts to give both genres equal billing where one, by necessity, must outweigh the other in order to find success.  The result is almost always two poorly executed genres and an unsatisfying movie.

I don’t know why dramedy is so popular among indie fare.  I chalk it up to inexperience and trying to do too much too soon, or maybe the writer feels that life is neither all that funny or all that serious and wants to capture that view.  Either way, it makes for a stunning waste of time.

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Review: The Internship

dvd the internshipThe Internship is a smart collaboration between Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Productions.  It’s intelligently crafted, to the minutest detail, making it yet another pleasurable viewing experience from the director of Date Night and Real Steel.  Worthy of ownership, it was perhaps an easily overlooked movie that might be disregarded as more of the same in a sea of mundane comedies.  With the familiar faces of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn headlining the film you may feel as though you’d seen it before and at the very least, the word fresh is not one that would creep into your preconceptions.

But Levy does with the natural talents of Wilson and Vaughn, what he did for Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and the collaboration turns out wonderfully shaped performances.  The finished product is a perfectly paced, lean comedy that takes advantage of each moment to generate and reinforce positive interest in the story.  The result for the viewer is an engaging experience with plenty of laughs and quotable dialogue that is very re-watchable.  The strength of the story is almost like that of a Pixar movie.  It’s not likely to bring a tear to anyone’s eye by any stretch of the imagination, but it is carefully plotted and the comedy is driven just as much by the ensemble of lovable misfits as it is by the circumstances.

We open up with Billy and Nick, a couple of great salesman getting psyched on the way to a crucial meeting with a client.  They are a confident team who know what they are doing, but the company is in trouble, so the pressure is on.  No time is wasted introducing these guys and getting the audience to empathize,  Within minutes they learn that the company is over and that they are out of jobs.  Rather than take another sales job that will allow them to continue to scrape by, the two decide to jump headlong into a new field created by the technology that rendered their skills obsolete.  They take an internship at Google, where a series of challenges are laid before a variety of teams in a winner takes all race for employment.  Since everyone is much younger and more educated, they avoid Billy and Nick like the plague leaving them to be scooped up with the rest of the losers after all the teams are chosen.  The hostile group of hopeless loners must act like a team in order to survive and find friendship along the way.  It’s not original.  It sounds a lot like Dodgeball if you think about it– or the more recent Monsters University–  But the genius of it is not in the originality of the plot.  All throughout it are elements of many classic comedies, and yet it stands alone as unique, because of what transpires between the bullet points.  It’s funny, it’s familiar, but it’s also new and has a strong identity of its own.  A couple of the best examples is the two or three key stages in the middle act that reveal a lot about the characters and energize the plot; and the sweet, underplayed subplots for Nick and Billy.

I think, what makes the movie work most is that it has heart under the surface, but the focus is always comedy.  There is a kind of slight of hand at play, that I think is mostly due to Levy’s role as director, but also the finely honed sense of comedy Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have their own reputations for.  It goes beyond the clash between cynicism and idealism in the fight for the American dream.  The Internship is sharply focused and deeply felt so that the plot becomes an exercise in fun and frivolity, with a firm spine to carry it through.

5 Types of Turning Points

One of the best representations of life after death is the turning point.  More than a simple plot twist, a turning point takes the momentum of a movie to an abrupt halt to completely change directions.  You have to kill it before you end it, but it must be organic.  The outcome is the spirit of the film, the soul, and breaks free of the physical trappings of what happens prior to the turning point. Fail to mark this event and you will have predictable and boring results.  Fail tactfully employ this procedure and your ending will seem unjustified and lazy.  If you do your job right, with the end in mind, you will lead the story away from the outcome, until the perfect moment comes to finally guide your characters toward their intended purpose.  Whether it’s a slap or a whisper there are several effective ways to bring your story home by way of the turning point.  Here are some of my favorites (this list contains SPOILERS by its very nature):

From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (the game changer)

More than a mere turning point, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn completely changes genres.  It’s like if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got halfway through and suddenly became The Lost Boys.  The criminal protagonist take a traveling family hostage in order to sneak across the border into Mexico to escape the law.  Once they are home free, the trouble begins when the bar they stop at to meet their correspondent turns out to be a trap run by vampires who aren’t after repeat business.  The switch is fun and very surprising if you don’t already know it’s a vampire movie.  It feels as though the movie is nearly over before the real fight for survival even begins.  Less effective was the much earlier implementation of this tactic in the recently released The World’s End.

Fight Club (reveal reversal)

I call this one the reveal reversal.  The movie itself doesn’t change at all.  it’s only your perception.  You go through with blinders on until you can’t take it anymore and the blindfold is replaced by a mirror to show you where you’ve been before finally showing you where you are in order to finish the story.  In the case of Fight Club it’s the realization that Tyler and… well, let’s call him Jack are actually the same person after Tyler has built up and subsequently destroyed the narrator’s sense of self worth.  The epiphany puts all that has happened previously into perspective, just before Tyler’s master plan is revealed so the stage is set for a massive showdown nobody saw coming.  This method was also used in The Sixth Sense as a twist ending rather than a turning point.

Rocky (the mind changer)

Sylvester Stallone is not known for subtlety, but as Rocky prepares for his match against Apollo, expectations mount in the collective audience.  Sly must have known this and cleverly decided to reshape those expectations and add an extra layer of satisfaction to an already superior ending.  Anyone going into the film for the first time would expect Rocky to beat Apollo, even though it would not make much sense.  If he wins it’s phony and predictable, but if he loses its just sad.  It’s a catch 22 nicely fixed with a small scene where Rock confides in Adrienne that he knows he can’t win and all he wants to do is go the distance– something nobody else has ever done.  Boom!  Surprise!  Perfect ending.  This method was also used but did not work so well in Ghost World.

Independence Day (the ray of hope)

Possibly the most common and with the most varied success rate, this is a fake out turning point.  It goes where it was always intended to go, but only after creating a false sense of hopelessness and creating a small sliver of a chance for the audience to grab onto.  In ID4 it seems as though Earth is doomed.  David gives up on his “save the world through recycling” philosophy and has absolutely no hope of redeeming the human race by fighting off an alien invasion.  That is until the idea is put into his head that he can give them “a cold” (In this case, a computer virus, but also a clever nod to H.G. Wells)  Suddenly, the plot goes from a stand still with nowhere to go, to a grand climax on board the mother ship.  Minority Report accomplishes this with another slip of the tongue from the film’s antagonist that regenerates the plot motion towards completion, but more commonly it is done intentionally through a mentor.

Back to the future (the turn straight!)

There are the movies that refuse to turn despite the characters’ will.  The outcome is anticipated, yet the protagonist is repeatedly held back from achieving his goal, especially when time is of the essence.  This can be maddening, but is hugely effective, especially in the case of the above listed title.  This is a difficult move to accomplish, resisting an easy answer and drawing out a climax can have audiences on the edge of their seat or, bored to tears.  You have to have some sort of time element involved, even if it’s the slowly sinking Orca at the end of the captivating shark hunt in Jaws.

Aronofsky’s Noah Hits Stormy Waters: Are Good Bible Movies Impossible to Make?

aronofsky v paramount

I am intrigued by Paramount’s big budget Noah film.  It’s been a long time since Hollywood has tapped that overflowing stream of Biblical narratives that entire careers could be devoted to producing.  I’m pleased that it’s not a low budget independent movie, because it would invariably suck, but I’m also curious what a true artist such as Darren Aronofsky will do at the helm.  Apparently, pre-screened versions are not pleasing the audience and Paramount is not getting much cooperation from the Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream director who has final cut. Full story here .  Is this just the beginning of inevitable controversy due to the subject matter, can we blame the good ol’ media, or is it something more?  I have some thoughts.  Come rant with me:

Why is it that the Christian community at large loves to rail against Hollywood’s interpretation of Bible stories yet they can’t ever seem to make a decent one of their own?  As a cinephile and a Christian with very strong beliefs about both I find it absolutely maddening how starkly and unnecessarily disparate the two things are.  The Bible doesn’t even need to enter into it for a bad Christian movie to be made.  Try to adapt a story from scripture and it is almost guaranteed to fail.  This happens in spite of the wealth of great characters and tales of heroism that the Bible is brimming with like an eternal spring.  The stories are free and tap into the most significant truths about the nature of man and the meaning of life.  The Bible for all of its offerings has barely been touched and the stories that are told are simply retold without expanding to new possibilities.  Hollywood doesn’t know any better.  It’s bound to rehash what it has already done and most people only know a few of the big popular stories such as Moses and the Exodus, the Gospel of Christ, Noah and the flood, and David and Goliath.  You would think the Bible is only about 80 pages long.

Christian independent filmmakers try occasionally to fix this, but the films turn out really bad.  Even if they are able to get good sets and costumes, the acting is dreadful, mostly because the scripts are so terribly written.  Hollywood  can blame it’s irreverence on ignorance and utter disregard for the value of the source material, but Christian filmmakers should know better.  To adapt a Bible story for a movie audience, you have to be a prophet.  You have to risk being unpopular and you better be offensive.  Christians are too afraid to really say something and so they make bad movies because a good movie should challenge you, especially when dealing with such weighty subjects.

The Bible is a collection of what I like to refer to as the best stories badly told.  If you read it, you know what I’m talking about.  There is a lot of great stuff in there, obviously, but to really get a solid picture in your mind of what’s going on, lot’s of supplemental reading is required.  Even with historically contextual information at your disposal, the narrative jumps and changes focus a number of ways that are difficult to keep up with.  That combined with the fact that the text is so rich with profundity and symbolism, you can read and read and read and still miss everything.  All of these great amazing ideas just sitting there for the taking are booby trapped.  You cannot take the approach of being faithful to the text and make a good movie.  The structure of the stories prohibits it.  If you do, you will make something very superficial that will not stand the test of time and only make a few camps happy in some morbid way.

By seeking not to offend, you offend regardless and alienate yourself and your work, most importantly, you render yourself completely and utterly useless.  If Jesus tried to please the Pharisees we would have no Christianity.  I am not saying your aim should be to offend.  Your aim should be truth.  Truth will stir something in people.  Naturally some of them will be offended, but in the end, something of substance has been created.

There are so many versions of the Bible.  Translation upon translation.  Never mind that most people haven’t even read the thing, there are debates over which translations are closer to the intended meaning.  Some popular preachers, like to mix and match verses from different translations to suit their own thesis.  These ministry mash-ups are but one way the scriptures get tweaked on a weekly basis in mega churches like Saddleback in southern California.  Non Christians like to think of Christians in one light probably based vastly on media coverage and partially on regional influence, but their is a whole spectrum within Christendom that is not unlike the volatile political spectrum in the United States.  A typical Christian is just as fictional and misleading as a typical American and the average American probably knows about as much about the content of the Constitution as a Christian knows about the Bible.

With all the potential controversy it’s no wonder the Bible is shunned when it comes to making a movie adaptation.  The few who attempt it are admirable, but the demands for constant compromise doom these projects from the beginning.  Yet, film has seen remarkable evolutionary changes as an industry.  No longer are we tied down to only one version of a story.  just look what a comic book franchise can mean cinematically.  visionary directors are able to explore new interpretations of movies only a few years old.  Like Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, separate accounts of the same story is not only happening with more frequency the potential value is only beginning to be recognized.  I think the world of cinema is ready for the Bible even if the audience is squeamish.  with the right shepherds, these stories can be meaningful new translations for a world increasingly populated by books as movies.  In order for that to happen though, the switch in the heads of the makers needs to flip from “what will people think?”, to “what is this story trying to say?”

You can’t tell a good Bible story on screen if you stick only to the source material.  You have to develop the story according to the true spirit of the scripture.  That is much of what the Gospel is about.  Jesus insisted on what was right when what was written had been corrupted.  When you chose to be blind to portions of the Bible to preserve your beliefs about other portions, you are allowing the same corruption.  The healthiest thing for everybody is to stop saying “this is true because…” and instead take the time honored “What if…” approach.  in order to spark conversation rather than just debate.

I don’t know what Darren Aronofsky will contribute to the conversation, but I admire him as an artist– and a provocative one at that.  I am very interested in seeing what he does with the story.  If I dislike it, it wont be the end of the world, but it has the potential to be really great.

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: 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.

Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

gi poster ozLast night, I had the immense pleasure of full immersion into the merry old land of Oz the way it’s never been seen before.  Revealed by the vision of the great and powerful Sam Raimi and his master tinkers, from opening curtains it was clear that this was going to be a dazzling display that succeeds in recapturing the magic of the moment original audiences must have felt when first watching The Wizard of Oz in 1939.  Nothing beats the fun and anticipation of a wll crafted title sequence to get you started on your journey, especially when your companion on that journey is Danny Elfman, who has and still does do some of his very best work with Raimi (Darkman, A Simple Plan, Spiderman).  The score is immediately recognizable to any Elfman fan as classic Danny in his prime.  Ad to that the stunning black and white photography and you are locked in for the ride.

Oz the Great and Powerful is every inch made for a Real 3D experience and delivers the most colossal spectacular any team of Hollywood magicians can offer.  It’s no wonder that the ever-changing scenery and many elaborate sets are to be drunken in slowly as the epic adventure of a carnival con man drags him the yellow brick road toward possible redemption.  Aside from the stunning spectacle of magnificent scenery and Sam Raimi’s keen vision and incomparable sense of balance between fresh innovation and familiarity with the classic, the big seller for this film is James francos impeccable depiction of Oz.  Franco does for the character what RDJ does for Tony Stark and what Johnny Depp did for Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean; only he handles the character with such finesse and discipline that he creates a more three-dimensional character than anyone is likely to have seen on the silver screen.  The complexity of the man has so obviously been thoroughly explored by Raimi and Franco that he becomes such a flesh and blood human it seems astounding that he could ever be a wizard.  Franco’s depiction of Oz is such that he ceases, as an actor, to be a medium to the character, and fully becomes him in a way that every look and every utterance comes from the heart and soul of Oz himself.

The amazing story of the redemption of Oz (both the land and the man) starts out in Kansas, where we find our trickster little more than a petty thief with some theatrical flair and a weakness for the ladies.  The black and white photography is some of the crispest most beautiful I have ever seen and Raimi’s first action sequence of the film is harrowing, desperate, comical and brilliant, as is the predictable, but no less illuminating first glorious glimpse of the land of Oz in full color, mirroring of course the moment of Dorothy’s arrival 73 years ago.  As a stranger in a strange land,  Oz struggles with the opportunity to start fresh and the irresistible urge to take advantage, especially when the chips are down, but before he is even fully aware of his predicament, the choices he makes upon his arrival begin to seal his destiny and shape the people he meets.

It’s an epic journey full of great humor and powerful imagery that marks a monumental technical and artistic achievement.  Danny Elfman’s score is so perfectly in tune with the production and a must have, especially for fans of his work on Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Peter Deming, Director of Photography, gets to play with every trick in his trunk and creates a seamless and believable atmosphere where fantasy knows no bounds.

The rest of the cast is terrific, but my favorite supporting performances come from Oz’s primary companions, played by Joey King and Zach Braff.  These characters lit up the screen and really played a part in Oz’s transformation as opposed to simply adding comic relief.

Oz the great and Powerful in Real 3D will envelope you in a world unlike any other, so real and so imaginary it is a sensation that is unique to cinema alone and yet only the highest of aims and the loftiest of dreams can harness it.  It provides sufficient enjoyment of these gifts yet never treads away from the story.  So you can ease on down the road with little urgency, but no less compulsion to move forward.  This is a great piece of art that introduces one of the greatest characters in cinema history to one of cinema’s oldest and most timeless worlds.

Simplicity=Complexity>Complicated

gi amazing 2I like to figure out what makes things work.  I don’t have a work desk cluttered with vacuum cleaner parts or anything, and I still think televisions are magic, but complicated things are like complicated ideas, which then become complicated movies.  I like to build things without the instructions before I realize I made a huge mistake and start over.  One thing that I find interesting about both movies and anything material that requires assembly is that the simpler it is, the fewer the parts and those parts tend to serve a dual purpose, functionality and style.  The more complicated, once you crack open the hood you find a big ugly mess of raw function.

I think that films are the same way.  Small films can be great fun.  A really enjoyable, but simple movie is never unimpressive.  Big, movies with lots of moving parts are very ambitious projects that not many can handle. It’s a problem that tends to be very unique to large properties, such as those based on comics, or blockbusters like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean.  Spider Man 3, was pretty disliked and one of the biggest, but also most vague complaints about it was that “they” tried to do too much.  TDKR also got criticism for being overly complicated.  Every X Men movie, even  First Class, is notorious for jamming more characters than necessary into the picture.  Jon Favreau turned down returning to Iron Man 3 as director for various official reasons, but word early on was he was concerned about flooding the film with too many characters.  The pressure to overcomplicate these films comes from the studios who want to be able to market more action figures.  Joel Schumacher was under a lot of pressure from Warner Bros. to turn the Batman franchise into basically a feature-length commercial for Batman toys.

But what makes a movie go from a solid, provocative, and even admirable complexity to an overcomplicated tangled mess?  Iron Man 2 had dangerous potential to be convoluted and dizzying, but they had good mechanics.  The Dark Knight was the epitome of the kind of masterfully woven tapestry of story that Chris Nolan has become known for.  I think the key is functionality.

The Dark Knight had a theme that was continuously reiterated by the story’s central characters.  The theme was choice.  It was full of dichotomies:  Dark Knight/White Knight, Chaos/Order, Bruce Wayne’s inner dichotomy, Two Faces outer dichotomy, Batman’s struggle to reconcile freedom and justice, and Harvey’s resignation to chance determining his actions.  For all that is going on in the movie, everything taps into the same theme and reinforces the body as a whole.  In Iron Man 2 the theme was legacy.  It’s like a home base you can return to if things are getting out of hand.

If a movie is particularly large and hosts a number of sub-plots and a wide cast of characters you need to determine above all else, what the heart of the story is.  It can’t just be a simple heroes journey.  It must be thought about as a thesis, with each separate plot supporting it.  When you make a movie about a flawed hero overcoming obstacles and saving the day, it’s best to give him one nemesis for a tight well-rounded effective and exciting story.   You don’t want him facing a thief with superpowers, who’s trying to save his daughter, a former BFF dead set on vengeance, and a work rival who gets his hands on your symbiont costume and becomes the worst ever representation of Venom.  Spiderman 3 had three major villains and no heart.  Peter Parker’s struggle is explored to death and yet it still works in small doses.  It isn’t enough, however to support so many adversaries without a central theme that they can plug into.  It’s also a terrible waste of great villains.

The easier the movie can be summed up in one idea (better yet, one word), the easier it is to connect all of the characters to that idea so that they serve a unique function in telling your masterpiece.  If you try to give each character their own separate objective that does not reinforce the theme of the primary storyline the film becomes fragmented and crushed under its own weight.

The Amazing Spiderman was a great movie.  It’s a brilliant retelling of the origin story with terrific new vision.  It was also a pretty standard hero movie.  The upcoming sequel, following in the tradition of pretty much all hero movie sequels, has a cast list that looks like an unfinished brainstorm.  The talent is stellar and it isn’t necessarily bad news, but it isn’t looking great either.  Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper have all been cast in villains roles.  Foxx plays Electro (guess what he does) and Giamatti will be Rhino, which is an interesting choice, but I have no problem going with it.  Now as far as I can tell, Cooper is signed on to play Norman Osborn, who becomes the Green Goblin, but where Foxx and Giamatti are credited with characters names AND their supervillain names i see nothing actually saying Green Goblin will make an appearance.  That would be good.

It makes perfect sense to set Norman Osborn up as a main character as he runs Oscorp and likely has something to do with the mystery that Parker continues to unravel about his parents.  The Incredible Hulk pits Banner against the Abomination making his defeat the resolution while his real nemesis, General Ross, lives to fight another day.  Similarly, Loki conjures up the The Destroyer for Thor to battle and saves his best stuff for later.  Allowing a character to be introduced without giving them their own storyline to finish is like a delicious glass of Sam Adams, always a good decision.

Norman probably enlists Electro and/or Rhino as thugs.  that would be typical and raises no alarms to my mind.  Since there is no way such great talent is going to be squandered on roles like Toad and Sabortooth in the original X Men, I think it’s a good chance we are in for a nice ride.  Marc Webb is still directing, The Kurtzman/Ortiz writing team are big hitters scripting the story by James Vanderbilt who penned The Amazing Spiderman.  I would not expect a big thematically interwoven monument of a film, but provided Norman Osborn stays out of the green suit this could be a fascinating sequel.

Review: Amazing Spiderman

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph

Every once in a while, a movie comes out that is not only incredibly enjoyable to watch, but you have to think how fun it must have been to make.  That’s the way it was when I saw Wreck-It Ralph, the newest Disney film which really feels more like a Pixar production.  Directed by Rich Moore (Futurama, The Simpsons), Wreck-it Ralph is exemplary of what great Disney storytelling is all about.  The eye candy dazzles as this epic adventure sweeps you into the secret worlds of arcade video games on a misguided bad guy’s quest for glory that ultimately brings out the hero within.

Not enough praise can be given to this insightful and very funny film.  The world and its main characters are so entertaining and deliciously constructed that you can’t help but anticipate what is coming next.  Full of references to well known video games of the past and present and some clever new ideas folded into the mix, a potentially confusing concept is ingeniuosly laid out in a simple believable way as Wreck-it Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, leaves his own game and travels into others.  Each game has it’s own rules, as does the common space between them that the characters share–Game Central Station– and of course there is the way these games interact with the gamers in ther arcade;  But with all the jokes and the learn-as-you-go game rules, at its heart is a tremendous exploration of what truly makes a hero.  Most likely to be considered a sort of next generation Toy Story, Wreck it Ralph is not unlike Up in it’s epic marvels and storytelling prowess.

Sarah Silverman is perfectly cast as ragamuffin racer Vanellope.  Vanellope is a glitch in Sugar Rush, a Candyland inspired Racing game.  She adds some further grey to Ralph’s complex issues of right verses wrong.  King Candy is another delightfully performed character, voiced by Alan Tudyk.  The heroes, Calhoun (Jane Lynch) and Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) are relegated to the minor character role as they search for Ralph and discover an unseen threat.  Though, they never break from their profile character traits there is just enough of their storyline to pull out a whopping finally.

The story begins with a quick explanation of the Donkey Kong like arcade game Fix-it Felix Jr. from Ralph’s point of view.  Tired of being the outcast, he hears a distressed character from another game complaining about all he has to go through for a medal.  Ralph takes his place in the game with disastrous results and winds up losing the medal in the Sugar Rush game.  Vanellope– the outcast of her game– only wants to race, but the king forbids it.  Ralph teams up with her in order to get back the medal, but soon discovers that fame and glory don’t make a hero.

I have to say, this is the best new film to come out of Disney Animation Studios in a while.  Smart and emotionally deep, the film boasts vivid worlds, terrific character designs, and all the laughter and tears that Disney is so well-known and appreciated for.  Wreck-It Ralph is worth a big screen 3D experience and I can’t wait until it hits the Bluray stands.  Oh, and the Oscar goes to…