Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Is Sky Captain the World Of Tommorow?

Ladies and gentleman, whether you are aware of it or not, we are in a new era of filmmaking. In an industry and art form where the most significant advance in its first hundred years was the addition of sound, the dawn of the proliferation of digital filmmaking into the mainstream is a similarly earthshaking evolution. Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and The World Of Tommorow is a signpost of this new era, being the first film shot entirely in front of a blue screen. Is this capability a positive or a negative influence for both the artistic and commercial viability of today and tommorow's American cinema?

Digital Cinema, in a very generic sense and for the purposes of this article, can include two clear pools of evolution. On the one hand it can mean the marketplace proliferation and availability of high-quality affordable digital video cameras, advanced editing suites like Avid and Final Cut Pro and digital distribution channels evergrowing on the internet; on the other it is the highly advanced (and more expensive) digital animation/CGI graphics that a select few filmmakers have access to create a new world (like the one created by Conran) that may not necessarily exist in our real one. The immediate pros of both of these pools is the increased access they afford their masters. The availability of digital cameras and editing software literally give the access of opportunity to thousands of amateur filmmakers to tell their stories where none had existed before. The capabilities of CGI mean more advanced filmmakers have greater access to their own imaginations and unleashing whatever stew it has cooked up; boundaries heretofore limited by location/set/early special fx have been pushed and now, thanks to the likes of Sky Captain, seemingly eliminated. Indeed, the advances of Digital Cinema overall seem to have divided the film world into two camps: those "purists" who hold onto celluloid as a sacred living, breathing parchment and those who are welcoming its evolution into bits and bytes.

So is this movement, this newfound access a good thing for artist and audience? Like every new technology there are inherent trade-offs. On one hand there has been an explosion in amateur filmmaking; festivals filled with the short films made on the cheap spring up like Barbara Streisand comeback tours. One could argue, however, that it is not a good thing for any Tom, Dick, Harry or Akbar to be able to tell their stories (or write reviews on their own blog...ouch, me!) much like you don't need yet another Starbucks to open across the street from the one already open right next door to you. But as long as talent, hard-work and luck cause the cream to rise from an ever-growing crop then it should be no issue. A problem does arise, however, when young directors rely on this technology and never learn the how to use real film. While films shot on DV are creeping into the mainstream (Blair Witch, 28 Days Later, Pieces Of April) the overall quality of the look and feel of the films suffer when compared to traditional film; today's digital cameras can still not match the amount of color and contrast you can achieve the "old" way. It could, nevertheless, be argued that the lower-fidelity image in those films mentioned above evoked a certain mood the respective directors were shooting for. When digital cameras can one day completely mimic the image a 35mm motion picture camera can create, eliminating the large expense of film purchasing, processing, etc., well then, folks, the use of film may die out with the surviving members of this generation of purists who wrap themselves in it today; much in the way the days of flatbeds, miles of footage and scissors have given over to a flickering screen and a mouse click in editing universe. Shooting on film in that possible future will become something an auteur would do to be "retro," to make a film like his ancient forbearers. Sad, but probably eventual.

There exists an undeniable "kiss-off" factor by learned film critics and filmgoers in this land towards films saturated CGI. The sentiment goes something along the line that these "products" are heavy on eye-candy and light on the fundamental foundations of good cinema: story and character development. Any fan of those hariy-footed Hobbits could tell you that this is not always the case, that indeed the effects serve to incredibly enhance the world these stories and characters exist in rather than bully the film with their "look-at-me" coolness. Animation is another film genre that has recieved quite an adrenaline shot in the arm thanks to the digital evoultion; as evidenced by the 3D success of the Pixar and the Shrek films. The immediate tradeoff of this new world of animation is the that the hand-drawn 2D Disney-fied animation we grew up on and loved is dying a slow death. Even 2D adventures like last year's Spirit: Stallion of The Cimarron look downright antiquated to these 27 year-old eyes, you can imagine what a 10 year-old thinks who knows no different. I think that we can, however, agree somewhat with the "kiss-off" critics. There is an undeniable artificiality, even with today's available technology, to many digital effects and shots in today's Hollywood films; and anytime you are taken out the film long enought to think "Hmmm...that looks fake" or "Those tech wizards don't know what a real spaceship looks like," is a moment any filmmaker dreads. Digital effects can, in post-production, remove any mistake, blemish or happy accident that occurred during the production of a film, shrinking the most vital element that these films and filmmakers have in common with their audience: humanity. It's analogous to the cliched set of a sci-fi future-world: all the convenient, shiny and flashy exterior hide something much, much worse behind it.

So where does our Sky Captain fit in this digital buffet? Someplace in the middle. First off, it is almost a coup for a studio to end up giving $70 million dollars to a first time filmmaker who had a vision of creating something that had't quite existed before. It's seems like the least calculated risk a non-risk taking entity could take. So kudos to Conran. The film is about reckless pilot Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) and a adventurous reporter-dame Polly Perkins (Gwenyth Paltrow) who team up (with help from Angelina Jolie's Capt. Frank Cook) to remove an army of bent-on-destruction-of-the-world robots (who is their leader? Who Dammit!) in a pre-World War II art deco-looking New York and beyond. The CGI visuals are, at first, stunning...and big. The first sequence of these robots attacking New York can be breathless at times. The problem is that with each successive sequence in the film Conran seems to try to outdue himself and wow us with an even bigger, more outlandish digital set creation. He also tries, somewhat understandably, to squeeze in every exisitng precipitation, eco-system and mode of transportation into the filter of his CGI-created and imagined world. There are some charming pieces fit into that world as it wears its bygone-era Hollywood nostalgia on its sleeve; indeed, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights both can be seen directly quoted in the movie; although I would be hesitant to say I would be happy if I was a descendant of Sir Laurence Olivier, archive footage of whom appears as a character in the film (the morality and future implications of this and John Wayne appearing in beer commercials has been debated before and will again). One thing I took umbrage with is Conran's portrayal of his two main women characters who fall at the extreme end of the female character spectrum. On one end, Paltrow's Perkins is the stereo-typical juvenile "girly-girl:" always scheming or whining to get her way; always hitting the wrong button, getting herself into trouble, needing to be rescued, making noise when she should be quiet; and leaving her stuff beyond (namely her trusty camera) at the least opportune time. On the other is Angelina Jolie's Capt. Cook: an androgenous, barely feminine, desexified (hair up in a cap) militeristic commander of a floating air carrier; she is, in fact, referred to first as "Frank" only. Where is a strong and sexy female character in this made-up world. Where!?

Ultimately, I would side with the "kiss-off" critics stereotyped earlier: Conran's vision and CGI world are the stars of the film, the story and the characters are just fixtures in its gigantic big-ness. But that bigness is worth seeing on an equally big screen; a movie meant to be seen, well, at the movies.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The Video Dude: Weekend Shorties

No, not those shorties. Short capsules of some DVDs from this past weekend.

-Anna & The King (Dir: Andy Tenant, C: Jodie Foster, Chow-Yun Fat, 1999): Beautifully shot (by Caleb Deschanel of The Natural fame) based-on-true-events-story of an intellectual English teacher (Foster) brought to 19th century Siam to teach the 58(!) kids of the King (Fat, huh-huh) based on the same diaries that famed Broadway play The King and I (and a previous filmed incarnation) is based. At 147 minutes, the film is about a half an hour too long, bloated by too many expanded subplots and a somewhat hackneyed ending. If you loved The Last Emperor, then check out this decent knock-off.
-Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring Again (From South Korea; Dir. Kim-duk Kim, 2003): Aaaaaaah. A quiet, peaceful, poetic film which, on the surface, centers around a floating Buddhist monastary and the relationship of the master and his young protege who live on it. Heavily influenced by Eastern and Buddhist thought and meditation, the film filters through the cycle of life, karma and redemption. Few words are spoken, but if you are in for an insightful moving experience far from our own normal Western existences and, thus, films, check this out.
-Pieces Of April (Dir: Peter Hedges, C: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, 2003): A short (eighty minute) flick about a 21 year-old rebellious black sheep (Holmes) who cooks a Thanksgiving dinner for her unforgiving, disfunctional family with whom she has a highly contentious relationship with. Even more strained is her relationship with her terminally-ill mother (Clarkson). Luckily, the film does not take pity upon Clarkson's character, nor sink into melodrama. Instead, we are left with a funny, real portrayal of a two familial ships trying to establish a new bridge over a cavernous sea of the past. God that sounded terrible...but it is worth a look around Turkey time or whenever your folks drive you to hang dead chickens upside-down out your window.

TTPBMPCVTW (Things That Passed By My Pop Culture Visage This Weekend)

Ok. I admit it. The title is a rush job. But you only have so much time to post a "post-weekend" post and in order to create the post, you must post something quickly.


-Things I thought I'd never write on this blog and actually mean: I caught a rerun of SNL (That's a now acceptable acronym for Saturday Night Live...if you didn't know that then please immediately stop reading this) with Justin Timberlake as host and dammit, JT has talent as a comedic actor, real talent. I will now go take an hour-long shower and scrub my skin till it bleeds.

-Things that trouble me: I read somewhere that there is a plan to remake Revenge Of The Nerds. OK, I can understand Alfie (coming soon to a theater near you), a film that most of my generation (I'm 27) have not seen nor are that familiar with. Fine. But Revenge Of The Friggin Nerds?!?! I can still hear Booger's joyous "We've got bush (the non-presential kind)!!" ringing in the eardrums of my forgotten pre-adolescence. I propose a rule that before Hollywood remakes a film the producers must put it to a vote of the nations's literate 18-30 year olds. If less than 25% have not heard of the film, then go knock yourself out.

-Things that smell conspiratory (is that a word?): Taking a cue from the above, I honestly think Hollywood is churning out remakes in order to release the DVD of the older film and pump up its sales based on the (hopeful) success of the remake. How many times have you seen that happen? A hundred? A thousand? A google (remember when that word only meant a nonsensical number? Ah, innocent days)? Speaking of conspiracies, I think the razor companies of this country have us men tied around their greedy little fingers. Somehow, every year it seems they release some new technological advance (Peels cheek from bone...for an even CLOSER shave!!) that requires a big marketing campaign in order to force us to buy a new $30 razor, the Sensor Excel Edge Advantage Pump. Seriously, we're talking about friggin shaving here not a cure for cancer which requires the seemingly unending research and capital these companies dump into their next "innovation" and don't even get me started on the cold remedy companies. I'm onto those guys; find a cure and they all go out of business. You're on my list, Robitussin!!

Thursday, September 23, 2004


Fact 1: I am not a fan of most network television series. I think the sitcoms are mostly stale and boring; reality shows like repugnant hits of crack (are there any other kind?)...take one and next thing you know you would rob your mother to watch the next episode.

Fact 2: I did not breathe during the first 20 minutes of "Lost" (ABC, Wed. 8pm). It was one of the few times that I forgot I was watching network television and was shocked when a commercial break came. That's maybe happened once before that I can recall (Whoa! This talking baby show has a commercial? Blasphemy!)

Fact 3: There is some "Oh C'mon!" stuff. Way too many beautiful women on the plane (one eight months pregnant! Of course!) and the scene that irked me the most: Main man-know-it-and-do-it-all stallion Jack (Matthew Fox) getting a nasty wound stitched up by the comely Kate (Evageline Lilly) who just happened to be walking by, premeditating a boat(plane?)load of sexual tension and innuendo.

Fact 4: The pilot was so action packed and tense there was no namby-pamby time to "get to know" our characters...instead you are given tiny hints of traits and motivations that you KNOW (or hope) will develop over the run of the show.

Fact 5: I WILL watch the next episode.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Music Dude: Stick This In Your Ear!

Someone once wrote: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

True. But I can't help telling you a bit what new stuff and old stuff I've been listening to on my 20GB Rio Karma (PLUG-PLUG):

Rubber Factory by The Black Keys: The Black Keys are a drum-guitar duo from the (midwest)Akron, Ohio who play a new mutation of romp-stomp-blues-rock and if I read one more review eliciting those similarities between them and the White Stripes, this will not be a weblog, but a webpuke (million dollar idea? Anyone know investors?). Rubber Factory is their third album and crinkles with a kind of dirty, fuzzy, stick-to-your-ribs blues mutated through the looking glass of modern, independant music. Made up of Dan Auebach's crunchy-made-to-sing-the-blues voice and guitar work and Patrick Carney's able drumming (two members...that's it!), the music is indeed firmly rooted, without being derivative, in the original African-American blues experience. But Auerbach and Carney have had the further benefit of arriving well after those '70s white rock bands that further Darwin-ised (or ripped off....your choice) the genre while being firmly planted and influenced in the current furtive period in indie rock where many different genres are being revived in a new, exciting and original way. I dare you you to listen to the second track "10 AM Automatic" and not be won over. If you dig the album, go pick up Thickfreakness, the band's previous, if slightly less original, step in their continuing and growing evolution.

The Video Dude: BEYOND Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls

RIP Russ Meyer

Q: Movie Dude, is the rumor true that you watched a bootlegged, low-fidelity, low-quality copy of a movie starring several Barbie dolls renacting the rise and fall of a 70's pop-icon?

A: Um, yes.

Q: Movie Dude, did somebody slip insanity sauce onto your daily dish of catnip?

A: Don't knock the helps my suffering pass easier. And I haven't touched my dolls in months.

"Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," an early film from noted director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Safe, The Velvet Goldmine) indeed plays like a combo platter Behind The Music-cum-anorexia documentary about the struggles Karen Carpenter endured with the eating disorder during her heydey as part of the successful recording act The Carpenters (along with her brother Richard)...using dolls. OK....that will be the last time I say that sarcastically, because, dolls or not, this truly is a creative and effecting film verifying its status as one of Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 Cult Films (It is hard to find and not available commercially...if I remembered the bootleg DVD site that this copy came from, I'd post it here, not that I condone that stuff).

The film's economic (it's only 45 minutes long) rise and fall arc is similar to and almost as effective to that of many similar films told over a period of time in the protagonist's life (Boogie Nights, Goodfellas, Sweet Dreams, La Bamba, etc., etc.) by employing similar techniques. Most importantly is the set and costume desgn which easily let us know that time has passed and also where we are in the 70's or 80's. For example, Karen opens the film as a teenager with a long, large flowing brunette mane; much later in the film we see her hair cropped short; her costumes get more elegant as she gains fame and you can also actually see her face age and wither as she gets sick. Haynes also gets excellent readings out of his voiceover talent. What intrigues more is the sheer creativity that shines through the piece. On an obvious low budget, Haynes conveys a wide ranges of his characters' emotions and their physical motions through quick intercuts and stock footage...none of which is overdone or wasted. Necessity is the motherhood of invention.

What I also found engaging is the factual treatment of anorexia, its causes and possible solutions and how it interacted with Carpenter's story. The film is peppered with info-mercial type intercuts (away from doll-time) that offer bits and bites of basic facts about the disease...presented in an engaging fashion. Meanwhile, for many celebrities, the trappings of fame mean new people in your life, all trying to get a piece of you and pushing you into bad things...drugs, crime, whatnot (at least that's wat tv, movies and tell-all books have taught me). In Karen's case, it was food, or maintaining what she felt was a positive body-image as a celebrity in a highly image-concious society. There's a scene early in the film during her rise to fame where her mother makes her wear a tighter dress then she wants too. Indeed, this scene of familial pressure bears out into Karen's obsession with her weight and self-image. It is the frustrations and quick fix attitude of the controlling family enviroment, I also learned, that enables and prevents an anorexic from coming to grips with their affliction and onto the road to recovery. The usage of dolls to play the roles in the film, underscore an anorexic's distorted self-image.

It seems that Todd Haynes has a thing in his films for presenting a characters and situation where seemingly happy, normal outside appearances mask larger ugly problems. Take, for example, the supposed perfect suburban housewives Julianne Moore plays in Safe and Far From Now mask larger, affecting social issues (Moore's character's enviromental exhaustion in Safe and her husband's homosexual activity in Far From Heaven). In Superstar, Karen Carpenter seemed to have it all: a family that loved her, her head on her shoulders and a very successful career as a recording artist. But behind that squeaky clean-teen image lied a darker secret that reared its ugly head.

Recommended for the hard-core (due to low availability & technical limitations).