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ROCK-EM, SOCK 'EM, REAL STEEL
Blog, Movies
Posted on Feb 02 2012 by Greg
"We all wanted to make the kind of movie that we loved when we were young, the kind of get-out-of-your-seat, cheer-for-the-underdog kind of movie that was going to be visually cool, but would be tonally different than you expect a robot movie to be, a tone more akin to WALL-E or Iron Giant than it is to Transformers or Terminator.

Real Steel director Shawn Levy says this on the audio commentary (THANK YOU!) on both the Blu-ray and DVD of the movie, which had a big opening weekend in theaters and also on home video sales and rentals.



Indeed, Real Steel is very much like Iron Giant in spirit, and also like a very high tech Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. It's also an update of films like The Champ, in which a child helps a former achiever to reach again for the top, as a success and as a person.

As Levy also remarks in the commentary, the choice of likable star Hugh Jackman for a role that is unlikable for a good portion of the film is a major reason for how well it succeeds. Perhaps by design, Jackman never really comes across as a believable jerk, though he is very earnest and real in the role (despite his occasional tangles between his real Australian accent with his character's "street tough" American dialect). He's ably supported by Dakota Goyo as his estranged young son (a performance that could make or break the film, but in this case "makes" it) and Evangeline Lilly, whose relatively small role radiates immense charm and appeal.

The robots and the spectacular effects are stars, of course, in this type of film, but Levy is careful to keep the real and the steel in balance. Visually, the filmmakers achieved what he calls a "retro modern" look in that takes place a few fictitious years from now. In order to make the robots more relatable to the actors, a combination of CG and full-size robots were created.

Levy also makes great use of the Michigan locations -- very stark and Blade Runner-ish without augmentation, thanks to the highly industrial look of gigantic assembly plants and scrapyards. In an early fight sequence, hundreds of extras are seen throughout a sprawling structure that was not a special comp effect, but a real place where large automobile parts where shipped in by train.

Real Steel isn't designed to be confused with The Artist. It's a popcorn cruncher that succeeds on its own terms.







THE "KANE" CONSPIRACY...WITH PUPPIES
Blog, TV
Posted on Jan 31 2012 by Greg
Never mind that stuff about William Randolph Hearst conspiring against Orson Welles' film masterpiece, Citizen Kane. There's something even more strange and unexplainable going on.

If you've been following this phenomenon with me since last fall, when Spooky Buddies was released on Blu-ray and DVD the same day as Citizen Kane, prepare for another puzzler The newest "Buddies" adventure, Treasure Buddies, was released today...

And so was Citizen Kane!



Again, America is going to have to grapple with the choice between the two -- unless America buys both. But what if America's mom or dad says, "You can only get one DVD or Blu-ray this week?" What then?

You can use this Buddies coupon, and put the savings toward Kane. Then you'll have a masterpiece AND a cute movie with puppies and kitties wearing fezzes. And a monkey.









"SEIZE THE BLU-RAY!"
Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 27 2012 by Greg
It is arguable that Dead Poet's Society can be called Robin Williams' best film, or his best performance, but doing so only diminishes much of his other impressive work on film and television (and for those lucky enough to have seen him, on stage). I would go as far as to say that Dead Poet's Society is probably the best dramatic film from the heydey of Disney's then-emerging Touchstone division.

The film's audio commentary (thank you!) is chock full of interesting facts. Screenwriter Tom Schulman talks about how several studio executives held a meeting in which they were going to go over pages of "notes" with endless comments and changes -- then Jeffrey Katzenberg glanced through the pages and told Schulman to go ahead and make the film as written.

The finished film is the subject of some discourse, because what we saw in the theaters back in 1989 is shorter than what appeared on the "director's cut" on laserdisc. Several of the edited scenes (perhaps not all, I'm not sure) are available on the special features section of the Blu-ray. You can make your own decision about whether these scenes should have stayed, but to me, the movie that I saw and never forgot in 1989 is the film as presented here.



Except that when I saw it, the film did not look or sound like it does on this Blu-ray. Director Peter Weir is a very contemplative filmmaker, prone to capturing scenery and moments that establish various moods. Many of these extraordinarily beautiful scenes of Delaware in the fall and winter are downright dazzling on Blu-ray.

Back to the movie itself, though -- it has not lost any of its impact in the ensuing years. Williams' character of Prof. Keating is not the hellbent-for-conflict hummingbird he played in Good Morning Vietnam (though in Dead Poet's Society, he gets just a few minutes to do some of his iconic shtick). There is amazing depth in his silence as well as his inspiring speech, almost an internal battle between what life can be and what life has dealt him (even though we get little hint of that in the narrative).

Every member of the cast rises to the occasion, particularly one of the best actors now on television, Robert Sean Leonard, who artfully plays the best (only?) friend of Hugh Laurie in the long-running series, House.

One of the most thankless performances in the movie is that of Kurtwood Smith, also handled masterfully: as Leonard's immovable father, brings dimension to a very unlikable role. Again, that draws attention to how different an edited film can be from a director's cut -- there is one deleted scene between Smith and Williams from the last act that, had it remained, would have made a huge difference in the perception of both characters. It's helpful that we get a featurette on the bonus materials (clearly from an earlier DVD) in which the creative people discuss how they approached the challenges.

Weir explains that he deliberately avoided clear-cut answers in the film. Keating tells young, impressionable teens to reach beyond their grasp, as did the legendary people he quotes. He doesn't warn them that those visionaries paid their prices in one way or another. When some of these teens take chances, only some succeed, just as in real life. Is it worth it? What a great discussion this opens for parents and their kids.

In its context of late-1950's McCarthyism, perched at the edge of cultural revolution in the '60s, Keating is an outspoken voice before it was cool. In today's world of extremes from one spectrum of propriety to another, as well as political correctness, one might wonder how he would fare.







GOOD MORNING VIETNAM...AND FRANKIE & ANNETTE, TOO
Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 26 2012 by Greg
It has been some time since I watched 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, so while a lot of it was so memorable I recognized it immediately, some things were a bit of a revelation, especially as a metaphor for today's American military presence in the Middle East.

Sure, you can make the obvious case for this to be a Hollywood anti-war movie, pure and simple, and it is at first glance. Surely making its points with individuals rather than troops is a powerful way to illustrate the effect of war on people rather than faceless masses. But Good Morning Vietnam is also a story about a relentless clash between front line creative powderkegs and front office administrators. It's also about how creative work reaches out to a lot of people that you may never meet, but to whom your work makes a difference, however big or small.



More than anything, the movie is a perfect vehicle for Robin Williams, whose now-iconic stream-of-consciousness comedy is given full throttle as he goes on the air in a highly fictionalized portrayal of radio personality Adrian Cronauer. Taken out of the context of the late 20th century, when Williams was still breaking into movies and out of his "Mork" image, this performance takes on a greater depth than ever. He may appear to basically be playing himself, or at least his persona, but there's a whole lot more to it than just riffing when the cameras roll. As a matter of fact, if you watch the "monologues" presented in the bonus features (which are the same on this new Blu-ray as they were on the 2006 DVD edition, alas, with no commentary), you can see that he honed those routines over and over until they were as perfect as possible.

It's no secret that this film does not tell the true story of Cronauer beyond his position of disc jockey in Vietnam and part time English teacher. What's also clear, especially watching it today, is that it also presents a view of 1965 through the prism of 1987 tastes and sensabilities.

When William's character and an audience of Vitemanese viilagers sits in a dumpy, fan-cooled movie theater to watch Beach Blanket Bingo, the complete irony is crystal clear as Frankie and Annette cavort in what is perhaps the penultimate beach movie. The movie seems out of place in that theater, but also in the pop culture context of 1987 and today. Actually, Beach Blanket Bingo was a new movie in 1965 and such goofy but popular films were huge hits, not the anamoly that it seems as presented in this context.

Musically, it's the same way. The Beatles were a sensation, but they had only just become such over one year. Mainstream popular radio was playing Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as well as The Supremes and the Beach Boys. In the accompanying documentary featurette, it is pointed out the Louis Armstrong's classic, "Wonderful World" (which became even more of a legendary song since the film's debut) was released after Good Morning Vietnam took place, but of course it served the story so well, it doesn't matter.

And I'm not nit-picking for anachronisms. My point is that, in 1987 as in today, some are not aware that AM radio was so diverse. The film is peppered with putdowns of Percy Faith and Mantovani, but I'll bet the real Cronauer played Faith's "Theme from A Summer Place." The sensabilities and realities of what made popular music of the mid-sixties was filtered through what became "classic rock" programming by the late eighties -- and what would sell on a soundtrack album.

Robin Williams is superb and is given fantastic support by a truly great team of actors, particularly Forrest Whitaker, Bruno Kirby and Robert Wuhl. Even the small roles are memorable -- and the faces of the local people and the soldiers are especially indelible.







WHAT DOES "PERFORMANCE CAPTURE" REALLY MEAN TO THE FUTURE OF MOVIES?
Blog, Movies
Posted on Jan 13 2012 by Greg
There sure has been a lot written about motion capture, or as many actors prefer to call it, "performance capture." Much of the discussion and debate centers around whether it is true animation or not. Clearly animators are key to the process, but the films such as The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and, most recently and most pointedly, The Adventures of Tintin really beg the question, "Why aren't they simply live action films with augmented CG animated effects?"

Some felt The Polar Express was a little creepy, particularly because the eyes didn't seem human. This is a challenge in much CG human animation, but it didn't bother me in Polar Express because the entire movie had a dreamlike, eerie quality that fit the process. With Christmas Carol, however, the actors were obscured by their no-cap faces, almost like excessive latex makeup. I would have preferred to see the excellent actors instead of having them hidden under a second skin.

But having seen The Adventures of Tintin, the mo-cap process has certainly come a great deal farther -- to the point where the viewer can forget it's not live action at all. Which brings me back to the question again -- why isn't it just live action?

Is the ability to stylize a reason? Certainly. Some characters have exaggerated features and physical countenances that would be tricky -- but not impossible -- in live action (as so much was contorted in Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which combined both techniques). But maybe the goal on the horizon is bigger than the realization of a filmmaker's vision -- maybe it's economics, politics and practicality.

Tintin, for all intents and purposes, took the viewer to exotic locations, through spectacular sets, over the ocean and among a cast of thousands. All pretty much by using actors with dots on their faces on green screens and environments created within sophisticated machinery.



Other than the mo-cap facilities, there was no need to rent soundstages, camera equipment, Chapman cranes, helicopters, cars, boats, planes, or anything you see on screen. It also means there was no need for a camera crew, lighting equipment, lighting technicians, craft services, transportation, hotel accommodations, dinners at restaurants, wardrobe people, makeup artists, permits from cities and countries for filming, police and security, stunt people, extras -- and all the insurance, unions and other ancillary issues that are part of making even the simplest Hollywood movie, much less a superspectacular, globetrotting adventure.

Remember when Fred Astaire was electronically added to a vacuum cleaner commercial? Some folks were worried that this could mean the misuse of classic actors in roles they never agreed to. It didn't become as much of a problem as predicted. But what happens if, as so much digital technology does, motion capture becomes easier and cheaper? People can create a lot of animation on their home computers that was unthinkable not long ago.

What if mo-cap is used as a replacement for a live action movie -- say a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel? Johnny Depp can play Jack Sparrow for the rest of is life and never age on screen. That does not seem much of a stretch. But how about a movie that isn't a stylized costume romp -- a comedy like Bridesmaids or a drama like The Descendants? Sure, mo-cap can't substitute for George Clooney...now.

I'm not doomsaying here. It's not some Orwellian plot. It's just business. Making movies without locations, sets, costumes -- and actors. After all, once a CG character's performance is saved from one film, it can be used in another. So why not do the same with episodic TV and movies?

Just wondering.









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