Earth 2.0

22-Apr-09 1:00 PM by
Filed under Trailers; 1 comment.

Happy Earth Day! Disney has chosen this day for the theatrical release their documentary, Earth, narrated by James Earl Jones. Here's the trailer:

It seems obvious the groundwork for this film was laid by the success of March of the Penguins, as both feature similiar qualities such as a celebrity narrator and an anthropomorphized view of nature (this film follows "families" of animals). Others may instead liken Disney's movie to the BBC series Planet Earth, which is an accurate comparison: 60% of Earth's footage was shot for that other documentary, according to CNN.

Do you think these movies encourage us to have our planet's best interests at heart? Are they actively pushing a liberal agenda? Is this a good family movie that's affordable to shoot, requiring no computer animation? Or is big business trying to capitalize on the popularity of "green"?

TRON 2: More Than a Game

08-Oct-08 7:23 PM by
Filed under Trailers; 3 comments.

You don't need to be a dedicated Showbits reader to have observed my passion for TRON. It was upon its 25th anniversary last year that I reflected: "Computers and electronic games were both still new media back [in 1982]… These nascent industries could've been horribly misrepresented to the unwashed masses, and there surely was a degree of artistic license on [TRON's] silver screen, with its AIs, lasers, and whatnot. But the way its digital society was structured and how software interacted with each other and with their users worked on both digital and HCI levels."

It was at that time that rumors started to circulate of a sequel. I was of course hesitant at the prospect of some disrespectful director cashing in on the brand by rehashing the plot using modern technology and context. Fortunately, the last few months have alleviated my concerns, starting with a trailer for TR2N, as its called. The preview seems to contain no actual film footage, but its debut at Comic-Con revealed the cooperation of a key franchise figure. Watch it before Disney's lawyers yank it off YouTube yet again:

Like WarGames 2, TR2N is not a remake, update, or reboot — it is a true sequel. Its awareness of present-day cyberspace harkens back to when I asked visual effects specialist John Knoll "Do you think a Tron movie could succeed nowadays?". He responded:

I don't know! Whatever made [TRON] not successful in the first place would probably still be present in a remake, if they went with the same story. The fundamental plot devices are anachronistic now, so it'd need to be updated to be Internet-aware, with much less emphasis on mainframe computers and a much higher emphasis on personal computers and small portable devices. You could go in the Matrix direction, where some aspect of his personality is transferred over into the computer and they're linked in a way.

Another good sign: IGN recently interviewed Jeff Bridges, who seems genuinely enthusiastic about the project. As Star Trek novelist Dayton Ward told me, "It's neat that he sounds so excited to be doing this. It's not like he needs the money or anything."

The IMDb lists TR2N for a 2011 release. I hope that gives the cast and crew time to produce a final product that we, too, can be excited about.

Utterly Enchanted

24-Aug-08 11:59 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 1 comment.

On a recent first date, I offered a typical probing question: what's your favorite movie? Acceptable answers include TRON, Star Wars (episodes IV – VI only, of course!), Wit, and the like. So I didn't know what to make of someone who responded with Enchanted. A Disney movie? I don't know why I was so taken aback; I count Aladdin and The Incredibles among my DVD collection. I proved more curious in the film than in its admirer, and after renting said movie, I'm happy to report something positive came of the evening.

Enchanted soundtrack coverEnchanted is a 2007 film that draws on the House of Mouse's extensive library to create an original yet familiar tale. It opens with an animated musical sequence that introduces us to a wicked stepmother, her royal son, and an innocent beauty whose friends are the woodland creatures. Desperate to keep the blissful couple apart, the stepmother casts the girl into a foreign land "where there are no happy endings" — New York City. The film then transitions into a live-action story with occasional glimpses back into the cartoon world.

From here, the story is somewhat predictable: Giselle (Amy Adams) wanders around the Big Apple until native New Yorker and divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) takes her under his wing until her Prince Edward (James Marsden) can come to the rescue. In the meantime, both Giselle and Robert have the values of their worlds to teach each other, producing some comical pairings. Yet the predictability does nothing to deter the joy of the experience.

The star of the film is without a doubt Amy Adams, whose wide-eyed naivet&#233 is captured in her every nuanced movement. Her poise, carriage, and inflections make it believable that she really is a Disney princess stuck in a real person's body. When other characters from the magical land of Andalasia arrive in New York, their performances are amusing, but nowhere near as detailed as Ms. Adams'.

James Marsden is almost unrecognizable as the over-the-top, single-minded, valiant prince. I'm familiar with the actor's work only as brooding characters, such as Lois Lane's husband in Superman Returns and the mutant Cyclops in the X-Men trilogy. To see him acting so goofily was a welcome contrast. Susan Sarandon gets little screen time but is a wickedly wicked witch.

It's not just the transplants who are bewildered by their surroundings, as their behavior befuddles their New York friends in many amusing scenes. Giselle's animated proclivity to randomly burst into song embarrasses Robert, who doesn't want people to stare — and when the song explodes into a full dance number, he's astonished to see Central Park overtaken with choreography as he finds himself in one impossible scene after another.

Disney's heritage is evident in more than just the 13 minutes of cel-animated, non-CGI animation, or in the catchy, upbeat soundtrack and colorful musical numbers. We have clich&#233 and tropes from every past film, including talking animals, poisoned apples, and bumbling henchmen, but updated and even lampooned enough to make them enjoyable. Not all the allusions are so obvious; multiple shots and scenes are set up exactly like their cartoon ancestors, as shown in this side-by-side image gallery. Even just a simple but effective twist freshens what otherwise would've been a hackneyed climax.

Enchanted is both classic and modern Disney. It's a traditional tale that young audiences will enjoy, but pays homage to the predecessors that adults grew up with. Like any excellent family film, Enchanted has something for everyone.

Also Not Appearing In This Film: Cinder

11-Oct-07 11:11 AM by
Filed under Reviews; Comments Off on Also Not Appearing In This Film: Cinder

It may be a children's movie, but I'll do anything for Showbits — so in the name of research, I can now admit to having watched Ella Enchanted. Fortunately, it wasn't as painful as I expected.

Based on the 1997 novel of the same name, Ella Enchanted is set in a fantasy world of elves, ogres, giants, and faeries. As an infant, our heroine was granted the gift of obedience, requiring her to do whatever she is told. (Oddly, no one else in the kingdom exhibits any other signs of giftedness.) For her own safety, she's not allowed to tell anyone of this vulnerability, so most people dismiss her odd behavior as quirky. There is some illogic to this power — for example, when she's told to say or do something, she never immediately follows it by setting things right, such as with an apology; also, she can be told to do things that she is otherwise unable to do, such as freeze in mid-air. And if you watch Ella Enchanted with a literal mind, you'll find a few instances where her obedience doesn't kick in. But hey, this is a fairy tale, right?

It's easy to pick out other such stories that influenced Ella and the people she meets in her quest to rid herself of this curse: there's a wicked stepmother and two stepsisters (Cinderella); an evil uncle who wants to rule (The Lion King); and numerous anachronisms and pop songs (Shrek). Yet though that last instance used its soundtrack to underscore on-screen action, the tunes in Ella seem forced. Sometimes they use even this to good effect, though, as with their stereotype of elves as singers and dancers: they so happily fit this bardic mold that they'll perform at the drop of a hat, to comedic results of a less puerile nature than Shrek's. More often, though, Ella seems an attempt to cash in on the green ogre's popularity and hip style.

But it's the actors, not the characters, that drew me into this film. Anne Hathaway plays Ella with puppy-dog eyes and ruby-red lips, reminding me of Julia Roberts and Kristian Alfonso of two decades ago. I was curious to see what Ms. Hathaway was doing before she was in Brokeback Mountain; with the pending release of Get Smart, surely this star is only going to continue to rise. Hugh Dancy plays her love interest with an authentic British accent and a hobbit-style do, while his wicked uncle is performed by Cary Elwes, doing what he does best: playing a caricature of a classic character, as he did in The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. In minor roles are Minnie Driver as a sort of nanny and Monty Python's Eric Idle as the narrator. (See if you can spot the Holy Grail references!)

This well-rounded cast puts on a good show, complemented by a few minor touches. The scenery is bright and colorful as befitting a storybook land. One special effect witnessed therein is a talking book — imagine a magic mirror on a novel's cover. Though this surface was a bit too reflective, I found the appearance of a man's face on it, correctly adjusting for lighting and angles as the book is moved, to be impressive. The talking snake did not seem vital to the plot, but at least he was made to seem fantastic (necessarily so, as the movie's only talking animal) and not a CGI imitation of the real thing. The climax is also sufficiently climatic and tense — surprising for a kid's movie.

Though somewhat lacking in originality, Ella Enchanted is a simple and fun tale appropriate for the audience it's intended for.

Movie Opening, Collect $50 From Every Player

17-Aug-07 12:16 PM by
Filed under Films, Humor; 2 comments.

In this, the 25th anniversary of Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott will apply his cinematic genius to a film adaptation for which we've all been longing…

Monopoly?!

It's true: Mr. Scott is involved in bringing the Parker Bros. board game to the silver screen. But what may appear on the surface to be a stretch may in fact be justified by Hollywood's history.

I don't know that there is any longer any criteria for judging a concept's worthiness based on its origin. In the past ten years, I've enjoyed the likes of Mortal Kombat, The Brady Bunch Movie, and Superman Returns, despite being unoriginal properties. And the theatergoing masses's overwhelming approval of Disney transforming an amusement park ride into a trilogy of Johnny Depp films extends the list of acceptable inspirations. But Monopoly? I don't get it. What's the hook? What can this game license do that films like Wall Street and Boiler Room can't?

Granted, board game adaptations are not unprecedented; give Monopoly an all-star cast and a good sense a humor, and I'll admit Mr. Scott might not be clueless. But regardless of the film's quality, if the public flocks to Monopoly and makes it a success, we can be sure the clones will follow. Which begs the question: where will it all end?

Now for Some Real User Power

10-Jul-07 6:13 PM by
Filed under Celebrities, Films; 5 comments.

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of Tron, a film that is so many things to so many people: a milestone of computer animation; a staple of any geek's library; an element in the film studies curriculum I developed; another Jeff Bridges box office bomb. My love affair with this film spans multiple media:

I had to commemorate the anniversary of this cult hit with more than just a marathon session of lightcycling. After reading IGN's interview with Steven Lisberger, Tron's creator, I felt there must be better interview subjects out there.

So I instead got ahold of John Knoll, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic. ILM was created by George Lucas for the original Star Wars films and has since gone on to become a powerhouse in visual effects. Mr. Knoll has worked on several of their best films, including Willow, The Abyss, Mission: Impossible, Star Trek: First Contact, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. And somehow, during all that, he found time to invent Photoshop.

On very short notice, Mr. Knoll generously donated a half-hour of his time to speak with me on the subject of Tron, computer graphics, and the industry's evolution over the last quarter of a century. The end result is a very satisfying transcript, even if some notable, general observations didn't make the final cut:

"Even today … filmmakers rely on the special effects to be the only appeal in the movie, and they don't try so hard on the movie because they figure the visuals will carry the film … For those of us who work in the industry, that's not something we encourage. It's just as hard to do the effects on a bad movie as it is the effects on a good movie, and we'd all rather have worked on a good movie."

Continue on to Computerworld.com to read the full interview.

A huge thanks to old LucasArts and ILM colleagues Tom Sarris and Ellen Pasternack, without whom this interview would not have been possible.

Update: the above article has been Slashdotted!

A Pirate's Life (Not) For Me

24-May-07 6:10 PM by
Filed under Films; 2 comments.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End comes out tonight — the third third so far this season (following Spider-Man 3 and Shrek 3). The trailer makes it look like a lot of fun, but it's obvious that it continues the plot of its predecessor, which I missed; as Showbits reader Gene D. commented on that one, "Cool monsters, fun set-piece scenes, but cruddy script/plot." Senseless fun can be, well, fun, but I'd prefer to be impressed with something a bit more substantial.

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