Summer Shorts sellout: My favorite CGI films

19-Jun-13 12:23 PM by
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I spend so much time watching YouTube that, in 2009, I applied that knowledge toward creating a Showbits feature: Summer Shorts. Every weekday for a week, I posted a different short film to this site. In 2010, I revisited the format but over a longer period of time, sharing one video every Friday for 17 weeks.

After a two-year hiatus, I'm pleased to announce Summer Shorts is back, though in a new context. Going with a thematic approach and a commercial outlet, I've compiled my nine favorite CGI shorts into a video gallery. "9 animated shorts that give Pixar a run for its money" is my first freelance feature for ITworld, an affiliate of Computerworld, the magazine where I was an editor for six years.

9 animated shorts that give Pixar a run for its money

Who needs Pixar? Here are my 9 favorite CGI shorts that you can watch for free right on YouTube.

Two of the nine shorts will be familiar to long-time Showbits readers. Pigeon: Impossible and Kiwi, though older, stand as some of the most enjoyable and memorable animated films I have seen online. Five other shorts I'd seen before but had not previously shared, leaving Rosa and The Chase as new to me, the result of extensive research into YouTube's library.

There were enough other candidates that ITworld's gallery could have been nearly double its length: six more videos, including The Passenger and Sebastian's Voodoo, nearly made the cut. As is, the final playlist totals an hour, making for an fun and diverse showcase of the fastest, funniest, most poignant CGI films YouTube has to offer.

Drives Us Bats

13-Oct-09 2:22 PM by
Filed under Television; 3 comments.

What show isn't improved upon by a good musical number? Otherwise tonal adventures such as Xena and Buffy have featured impromptu chorus numbers and dance routines not only to break from the traditional script but also as a way to gently lampoon themselves.

Batman has often proven ample fodder for other sorts of parodies, perhaps because the Dark Knight takes himself so seriously. In the October 23rd episode of his latest televised incarnation, The Brave and the Bold on Cartoon Network, the villanious Music Meister, played by Neil Patrick Harris, uses his own symphonic satire to bring down Gotham's defender. Courtesy Entertainment Weekly, here's a sneak peek at one such scene:

Hat tip to Dr. Horrible himself!

Crazy About Crazy For You

18-Aug-09 1:19 PM by
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I've previously written about the regularity of community theater performers and how entertaining it is to see familiar faces in new venues. It's far easier for me to recognize local actors than Broadway ones, despite the latter's fame; I don't know about you, but I have neither the time nor budget to patronize Broadway performers with any frequency. But there are professional theaters nationwide that offer quality productions and actors, and I've been glad to be able to partake of several shows starring one dynamic duo.

Emily Afton) as Bobby Childs and Polly Baker" title="Crazy For You #1" width="150" height="150" class="size-thumbnail wp-image-491" align="right" />Crazy For You is a 1992 update of the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. In the desert town of Dead Rock, Polly Baker is the proprietor of a has-been theater that's about to be repossessed by the bank. Bobby Childs is the New York bank owner's henpecked son, sent to Dead Rock to close the deal. When Bobby's background comes between his and Polly's budding romance, can his devious plan win back both the theater and the girl?

It's a lighthearted and funny story that the Mac-Haydn Theatre of upstate New York has smartly headlined with Colin Pritchard and Emily Thompson as Bobby and Polly. These two alumni of the theater's 2007 season, where they played Singin' in the Rain's Cosmo Brown and Lina Lamont, have been reunited for this one show. Each brings a natural enthusiasm for the stage and each other. Mr. Pritchard is as ebullient as ever, sweating as he performs his usual madcap antics involving a variety of props, costumes, and spontaneous dances. Ms. Thompson has a magnificent voice that, after being submerged in her previous performance as Lina Lamont, is finally unleashed to marvelous effect. With each star complementing the other's strengths, they are so obviously happy together.

Ben Jacoby, Colin Pritchard, and Emily Thompson as Bela Zangler, Bobby Childs, and Polly BakerCrazy For You is clever enough to give the rest of the performers their moments in the spotlight, resulting in a well-rounded cast of characters. Joe Bettles' Lank Hawkins is an excellent foil for his more quick-witted company, resulting in some memorable one-liners. Ben Jacoby is the eccentric diva of a director who is humbled when he realizes his infatuation for Tess (Tara Tagliaferro) has become a potential love lost. And assistant director Karla Shook doubles as the irate Irene Roth, a shrew of a fiancee who is not so manipulative as to be unlikeable.

But the scenes that have the audience holding its breath are the ones that employ the entire company. When you first see the Mac-Haydn's performance space, you might think it a constraint for being so small — but director and choreographer Tralen Doler sees it as an opportunity. Every cowboy and showgirl that can squeeze into Dead Rock collaborates for show-stopping numbers, especially at the end of each act. Environmental props, from lassos to pickaxes, are expertly handled to maneuver the stage and the dancers into unique configurations and routines. All the numbers, be they group or solo, are sung with the right amount of joy, as in "I Got Rhythm" and "Slap That Bass", or longing, as in "Embraceable You" and "Someone to Watch Over Me".

Emily Thompson and Bobby Childs as Polly Baker and Bobby ChildsA note about the Mac-Haydn: the audience is seated around three-quarters of the round stage, and though the actors do their best to play to each audience member, the most consistent view is found in the seats along the aisle between sections 3 and 4.

The Mac-Haydn has never let me down, nor has the duo of Ms. Thompson and Mr. Pritchard; after seeing them be underutilized in the chorus of this spring's production of 42nd Street, it's a pleasure to have them back where they belong, center stage. As I had the opportunity to tell Mr. Pritchard after the show: "I can't see you two together and not give you a standing ovation." There are theatrical performances edgier or more daring than Crazy For You, but few will make you feel as happy on a Saturday night. Who could ask for anything more? If you can, catch this show in its remaining weekend, or its leading lady starring in her next show, opening in September. (Mr. Pritchard's next show is TBD)

[All images courtesy Mac-Haydn Theatre.]

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.

THAT'S the Broadway Melody!

13-Aug-07 2:53 PM by
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As an actor myself, I often view theater productions from a thespian's perspective. But this weekend, I was in the audience of a production of Singin' in the Rain that was so bedazzling, so creative, and just so fun that I was left with nothing to do but unabashedly enjoy myself.

The Mac-Haydn Theatre of Chatham, NY, performs summer stock shows in theater-in-the-round format. The stage is octagonal, with the north side featuring stairs ascending to backstage, and aisles for audience and cast use to the east, west, and south. I was seated in the front row in a seat along the south aisle, giving me a direct view of this classic story of lucky star-crossed lovers at a studio about to break into talkies.

Singin' in the Rain castThough I had a perfect sightline, I can't imagine there were any bad seats of a stage so effectively used. Theater-in-the-round is often considered a challenging (and limiting) atmosphere, but the cast took full advantage of the opportunity to play to all sides. Rather than parade across a standard stage like a boring stock ticker, the performers moved laterally and vertically, working with sets that played off these possibilities, and circling each other in impressive dance numbers.

Andrew Chartier as Don LockwoodThe most astounding interplay of dance and stage was the first act closing with the iconic dance in the rain, which I cannot imagine having been possible in any other theater configuration. In the scene's preceding blackout, the stage's perimeter opened to reveal gutters, and an ominous peal of thunder cued the front row theatergoers to don their supplied raincoats. Before we knew it, a full-fledged rain storm was in effect, with the gutters doubling as puddles for Lockwood to gleefully splash through. He sang, danced, hopped, and swung from the lamppost which to see live was more memorable than anything Gene Kelly had ever impressed upon me.

Colin Pritchard as Cosmo BrownThough Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden were the stars, Cosmo Brown and Lina Lamont were their equals in enthusiastic performances. Colin Pritchard played Cosmo with a certain manic quality necessary to tolerate the studio shenanigans his character must endure. In most any scene between him and Andrew Chartier as Lockwood, Cosmo came across as the driving force, providing a crazed energy that unfortunately did not match the choreography in his big scene, "Make 'Em Laugh". Though Donald O'Connor's aerobics would not lend themselves to the live stage, the substitutes Pritchard was given fell flat, such as a nose-biting rubber chicken, a valkyrie's helmet and wig, and other props. But he played these scenes with the same athleticism he lent more satisfying tap numbers, such as the comical "Moses", making for an overall excellent performance.

Emily Thompson as Lina LamontEmily Thompson (now Emily Afton) as Lina Lamont portrayed the dim-witted shrew with gusto and glee. Her shrill voice, flat attempts at sophistication, and utter unawareness made for a completely unsympathetic yet entirely enjoyable villainess. My only lament for Lamont, played by a former Ado Annie, is that she went through this fantastic production in its only non-singing role. But she used her several scenes to play off others, deliver victim-mentality soliloquies, and take a great big custard pie in the face — in Cosmo's own words, a formula for success.

Thompson, Kelly Shook as Kathy Selden, and the rest of the female cast showcased stunning costumes that did not steal the scenes but instead accentuated the performers, whether they were delicious candy cuties or elaborate Elizabethan ladies. The men complemented their counterparts with smart sweater vests and trim tuxedos.

Most of the film's classic tunes were present, from the Romeo-and-Juliet setting of "You Were Meant For Me" to the red-eyed "Good Morning". "All I Do Is Dream Of You" appeared to have been replaced with "You Stepped Out of a Dream". In all, the soloists were smooth and the ensemble blended well.

The one and only time I saw the movie Singin' in the Rain a decade ago prompted me to buy the soundtrack CD, but the story itself left me wondering how the film had garnered such accolades. Perhaps I needed the past ten years to expand my musical vocabulary and create a context for these experiences, as the performance Mac-Haydn gave me this weekend was phenomenal.

[All images courtesy Mac-Haydn Theatre.]