Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

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Clash of the Machina

May 5, 2010

I saw Clash of the Titans last week. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that it’s not particularly great. It has a few moments that are kind of fun but that was about it. One thing in particular that bugged me was all the Deus ex Machina, people showing up out of nowhere to save the day and battles turning on a bit of luck. Given that this is sort of based on Greek mythology, and Deus ex Machina is a staple of Greek mythology, you might think that would be all right. Except that the theme of this movie is something about men being self-reliant, not asking the gods to save them. So the self-reliance idea is pretty well undermined at every turn, and when it’s over all you can do is wonder what the point was.

At least I didn’t have to watch it in 3D.

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Maybe I Don’t Want the Game to Change

January 4, 2010

“Game-changer” seems to be the favorite term to describe Avatar. Will this usher in a new era of moviemaking? Seamless integration of live actors and digital scenery, anything the director can imagine, and all of it jumping off the screen and right into your lap in three totally realistic dimensions? Maybe so, but the question I have to ask is, do we really want that?

Don’t get all up-in-arms, Avatar fans. I’m not saying it was a bad movie or that I didn’t like it. There were pieces of the story I could quibble with, but I still enjoyed it. For me personally, special effects are about the last reason to see a movie, but I won’t deny that this was an impressive visual experience. I just don’t necessarily want other movies to try to imitate it.

My two favorite movies of 2009 were Moon and The Hurt Locker, which were both fairly low-budget and limited-release. I’m not seriously worried that the independent filmmakers will totally disappear, but I do think that as Hollywood budgets go up, it gets harder for the small studios to reach an audience. This also impacts the independent theaters where those smaller films tend to live. Those theaters tend not to have the state-of-the-art projectors and sound that the multiplex chains use, so the risk is that the independent theaters and films become sort of ghetto-ized (if they aren’t already).

Ironically, I think there’s a parallel to be drawn between Avatar and the low-budget A Scanner Darkly, in terms of how the technology links to the story. A Scanner Darkly was filmed using rotoscope animation so it has a distinctive look to it. But the director didn’t use that technique just for the heck of it. The main characters are all basically on drugs, so everything they see is distorted and doesn’t quite look real. The animation gives the audience that same sensation, helping them identify with the uncertainties the characters face. Similarly, Avatar is about characters getting immersed in an alien world, and the 3D effects let the audience share that experience. You could frame the movie as being about how the avatar “pilots” who go out and experience the planet appreciate it more than the people who stay locked up inside and only watch out the window. In that way, the 3D basically tells the audience who the good guys are. Thus the technology has a valid purpose in this movie. That doesn’t mean that it would be valid, useful, or even desirable in most other movies.

The biggest argument against changing the game actually came during the previews before I saw Avatar. Every 3D movie I guess is obligated to have previews of upcoming 3D movies no matter what, but apparently the pickings were slim this time. After a couple of fairly benign animated movies for kids, they previewed a horror movie about piranhas. This thing looked spectacularly bad. The whole audience was basically laughing at it, although I don’t think it was a parody (and even if it was, it was more stupid than actually funny). But on top of that, the 3D effects were really poorly done, with stuff just floating all over the place instead of creating a true sense of depth. So what I’m afraid of is that the next wave of movies is going to have more piranhas than avatars.

This is not to say that no one should try to do what Avatar did. It’s good for artists to take risks and try new things, even if they don’t always pay off. It’s also not to say that we would be better off without an Avatar to raise the bar. I’m sure Michael Bay and friends are planning new extravaganzas to inflict on the viewing public, but they would be doing that regardless. Where the risk lies is with the Hollywood bigwigs who just have to make their mark on a project, who end up wrecking a perfectly good movie because they insisted that the director make it more like Avatar. That’s what I’m not looking forward to. So it’s not so much that the game is changing, it’s that new games are being added to the menu, and you need to recognize what game you should be playing.

As if anyone in Hollywood would ever listen to me.

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Ponyo

August 24, 2009

I don’t go to movies on opening weekend any more. I think it’s dumb that Hollywood is now measuring the “hit” level of a movie mainly by the opening weekend. All that really shows is how effective their marketing was, rather than the quality of the movie. So my little protest is to skip opening weekends. Or maybe I’m just waiting for the crowds to go down a bit (they’re over at the premier of this week’s movie when I’m watching last week’s) so I don’t have to stand in line or sit through half an hour of thinly disguised ads. I can justify it either way.

But yes, there is an exception: anime. I like anime and I would like to see more of it in movie theaters, so when they do happen to show anime I feel like I have to get out there and see it, and hopefully they will find enough of a market for it to bring over some more.

So that’s at least part of why I went to see Ponyo. If you know anything at all about anime, you should know that the director, Hayao Miyazaki, is the legend among anime directors, so I really wouldn’t need any justification other than that to see one of his movies. But I also knew going in that this movie was really aimed at kids, so therefore I went in with somewhat lower expectations as far as the plot.

And those expectations were basically fulfilled. The story held together pretty well and it was entertaining, but it was pretty straightforward. If you’re looking for Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, this isn’t at that level. On the other hand, I haven’t seen My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, and I’m under the impression that those are also more kid-friendly movies. So if you consider those to be essential Miyazaki, then maybe Ponyo is too.

The voice acting I thought was quite good. Disney has the clout to bring in some good actors, so that’s nice to hear (for those of us who remember the days when the American dubbed voices in anime were universally terrible). And overall they didn’t seem to Americanize it except maybe for the song over the end credits. But again, Disney has really been pretty faithful in their translations of Miyazaki, to their credit.

There’s one other reason that I go to see anime, and that’s the artwork. WARNING: Anime Art Geek content follows. From a character design perspective, Miyazaki is interesting because his characters look rather simplistic, without a lot of detail, but he still gets a lot out of them. From the neck up, many of the characters look like they could be exchanged seamlessly between his movies. On the other hand, he creates some really interesting outfits which do more to define and differentiate the characters. With this movie in particular, however, what really caught my eye were the backgrounds. Just amazing! It looked like they were done in colored pencils, with a somewhat sketchy style, but the effect was to really enhance the child-like point of view. Even so, the backgrounds never clashed with the animation on top of them. There were quite a few times when I wasn’t even watching the movie, just studying the backgrounds. Miyazaki is known for his eye for detail, and that was what made the movie for me, looking at all the elements of each scene and realizing how the master had put them together.

So that’s why I would recommend this movie. If the story doesn’t get you, lose yourself in the artwork.