Saturday, July 31, 2010

Disney Strikes Again

I can't stand when Disney messes with their movies. I hate when they cut things for fear of "offending" people. Movies from the Walt era exist that have never been released on home video in their complete original form. Many for no good reason. While I can understand some of the arguments (removing Sunflower the black centaurette from Fantasia), it's hypocrisy because they still keep Peter Pan in print despite its depiction of the Indians. But lyrics from Pocahontas had to be changed? Come on.

There was that period in the late '90s when the cool thing was for people to pull out their videos and hunt for subversive messages in the movies and then yell at Disney for them. Part of it too I think was born out of the Disney boycott phase led by the Southern Baptists and supported by many Evangelical Christians (I was most definitely not one of them). In those days, people would says "Aladdin tells Jasmine to take off her clothes!" These things become pervasive urban legends that just won't die. No matter how much evidence you present, people believe it in the same way they believe that "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" is about LSD, or "Puff the Magic Dragon" is about drugs. One of these tales was that the officiating minister at Eric's wedding in The Little Mermaid has an erection at one point. There is animation of knobby thing below his waist moving. But I never bought it as that because it frankly doesn't MOVE like one. And it's one teeny shot. A following shot more clearly reveals it to be his knee, and it seems to move around because the priest is moving around. That's just good animation; following the body's actions through. But a bunch of dirty-minded losers with a slow-motion button decided to give Disney a hard time.

What bothers me about it is that I just got through watching the film again and on the recent Platinum Edition 2-disc DVD, they've changed it. The Disney people went into that shot, took out the knee animation, and just gave him a straight leg. The problem is, it looks weird now that he's moving around and his leg is stiff and straight (with no knee at all, though later he has one). This was done without any fanfare. Disney just put the movie out and pretended it was the same movie it always was. But it's NOT. It's a bowdlerized version that corrects something which WASN'T EVEN AN OFFENSE. It's one thing to remove a visible cigarette. It's quite another to remove a guy's knee because some pervert thinks it looks like a penis. I don't know what the original limited edition 1-disc DVD of the movie had on it. But I am so annoyed at continuing to buy Disney films on disc only to find them altered. This is a prime reason to keep the VHS copies, despite their lower quality and fullscreen image.

The great French Film director Carl Th. Dreyer famously said "An old film 'classic' is a museum piece which should be preserved in its original form. In my opinion, to 'modernize' such a film is an absurdity." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In Defense of Episode II

It's generally accepted by the public that George Lucas' Star Wars prequels are not as good as the originals. Among many Episode I is the worst, and probably among everyone else Episode II: Attack of the Clones is as bad as it gets. I'm not going to defend Clones as a movie on the whole because it is indeed problematic with some awful dialog exchanges that Olivier couldn't make work. The HD video cinematography makes everything look flat and video-gamey. This improved a bit with the next installment, but Episode I still looks the best of the three because it was shot on film. The entire sequence on Geonosis at the end up until the lightsaber battling is pretty much the worst for me, as it's mostly dumb action scenes where nearly everything is computer-generated and looks it. But I must say that there are things I admire about this movie and that I think George Lucas deserves some praise that he never otherwise receives.

Before I get to my main point, I want to praise the plotline with the cloners on Kamino. I really enjoyed that storyline for its intrigue, its look and its mystery. When I saw that movie, I most wanted to know who Master Sifo-dyas was and why he disappeared. I was led to believe this would be answered in the next episode, but it wasn't. I recently (and by recently I mean six months ago) watched the prequel trilogy again, and I was amazed to find the answer WAS in the film (and on at least six viewings I had never seen it), and wonderfully subtle. As I work it out, Master Sifo-dyas was that tiny-headed, long necked Jedi in the council in Episode I.

See, Obi-Wan says Sifo-dyas died "10 years ago", and Episode II is set 10 years after Episode I. That guy was on the council in Phantom Menace, but not Attack of the Clones. So I felt like an idiot for not figuring that out (but none of my friends did either). Lucas also tries to connect it for the audience toward the end of the film. Around the table of Dooku's band of separatists, there are shots which clearly rest on that guy, telling us that THIS is Sifo-dyas. Thus, he defected to the Dark Side (or at least to Dooku's politics) a short time before the movie. As a Jedi, he secretly ordered the Clone army, then faked his death and joined Dooku. This is now my favorite element of the movie.

UPDATE! I have now been informed by several comments below that I am wrong, this is not Sifo-Dyas. If that's the case, I apologize, but I'm also disappointed. I thought that made so much sense. We now still have no explanation for his absence from the Jedi Council in Episodes II and III. I have removed the now erroneous image that used to accompany this post.

Now, nobody can accuse Lucas of being a great screenwriter. The dialog in this Episode is some of the most laughable (much of the offending stuff was cut from the IMAX release when the film was trimmed to 2 hours). But people use that to accuse him of being a bad director. Maybe he can't direct actors as well as he thinks he can. But he has a good eye for visuals, and I don't just mean the effects. Lucas originally wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. In that pursuit, shooting is about finding interesting composition and such, and the nature of editing. Lucas's fantasy filmmaking developed by doing favors for friends and seeing them more as "tone poems". So it's clear Lucas' attention might be toward story, but never to the bare essentials. He wants to create feelings through images. And I think Episode II has some very strong visuals, some of the best of the prequels. Yes, there are CG creatures that are annoying (like those capybara things). But watching the movie again, I was struck by just how many really great and memorable shots there were. Perhaps more than any other film in this trilogy, it has many moments that look great as stills. This is perhaps another reason that the trailers for those films look so good, and then people find the movie disappointing. The trailers were light on dialog, and much more about visuals and music.

Some DVDs have been issued with "music and effects only" audio tracks. After my past viewing, I was really saddened that Episode II did not have one. Frankly, when you strip away all the poor dialog or poor delivery, it's a beautiful movie to look at. I challenge some of you who really despise Lucas as a director to maybe turn the sound off, put on a CD of the soundtrack, and watch it just for the visuals. Looking at it this way, the movie is much stronger than it comes off otherwise. It's still flawed. R2 suddenly has flying ability for no reason. There's too much misplaced humor. And yes, much of the look on Geonosis is bothersome. But the rest is so visually interesting to me. Lucas does have a good eye, and some talent still left in him. I wonder why he never did end up making documentaries. If ever he does, I think I'd like to see it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Something Else I Don't Get

It's not just the economy, there's a lot of stuff in our world that I just don't get. Today I was thinking about one of them. I have to go to work, so this won't be a long post, just a brief reflection. Here's what I don't get:

The open-face sandwich. ...How is that a sandwich? I was not aware sandwiches HAD faces. Doesn't that fly in the face (hee hee) of vegetarians who don't eat "anything with a face"? Nor is a face something that can be "open"; what's the opposite, a "closed-face"? What the heck would that even look like? So many other things in our world have "faces", but none of them are ever referred to as "open". Ever see an "open-face clock"? Perhaps they use face because the sandwiches contents stare up at you. But that's still a lame use of language. It's like when people talk about open or closed fists. "Did he hit you with a closed fist, or an open fist?" Um, an open fist is called a hand. Maybe you've been hit by too many open fists to remember that. The only thing I can think of that approximates an "open fist" is a deaf person signing the letter E.

But this is about sandwiches. The sandwich was invented as a way to hold the contents of one's meal in bread so he could eat with a hand and not need utensils. Once you open that sandwich, it's NOT a sandwich! Let's not kid ourselves. An "open-face sandwich" is just a salad on top of a slice of bread. So readers, should you come across anyone who offers your an open-face sandwich, or one who orders an open-face sandwich, you have my permission to give them your open fist.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Emmy Hopes

First of all, let me say these are not my predictions for who will win the Emmys this year. These are just who I like in each category.

Lead Actor Comedy -- Jim Parsons, Big Bang Theory. Alec Baldwin is great but always wins, and Steve Carrell is great too but the Office is winding down
Lead Actress Comedy -- Tina Fey, 30 Rock. I like Glee, but I just don't get enough of a lead vibe from Lea Michelle to warrant her nomination winning
Lead Actor Drama -- VERY tough call. I'm going with Hugh Laurie from House this year. I love Bryan Cranston's work on Breaking Bad, but he's won twice and this year felt a little less for me. Fox did some of his better work this year, but he won't win unless there's a big Lost sympathy push. Hugh Laurie has done a lot of particularly good work this year; I wonder what episode he submitted?
Lead Actress Drama -- ...who cares? Give it to January Jones because I'm sick of most of the others
Comedy series -- Glee. Love 30 Rock, but it doesn't have to win every year.
Drama series -- very tough call. I'll say Breaking Bad, though I wasn't as crazy about this season. Lost is being judged purely on the finale, I think, and it's the sort of thing voters like, so Lost might squeak in another win, but it will probably go to Mad Men again. ...I should really start watching Mad Men.
Lead Actor Miniseries -- Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, just because he does it so well.
Lead Actress Miniseries -- don't care in any way. It'll probably go to Claire Danes.
TV Movie -- don't care
Miniseries -- The Pacific. Thank God they didn't nominate that awful Prisoner remake
Reality competition -- Amazing Race. It always wins because it's the lesser of evils
Variety/Comedy show -- would love to see it go to Conan O'Brien's tonight show
Animated -- hope it doesn't go to South Park's big 2-parter with Mohammed. Otherwise don't care. Maybe Ricky Gervais Show
Art Direction Miniseries -- dont care
Art Direction multi-camera -- How I Met Your Mother
Art Direction single camera -- tough call, but I'll say Lost. It's for "Ab Aeterno"
Art Direction variety etc -- SNL
Casting comedy -- Glee
Casting drama -- don't care
Casting miniseries -- don't care
Children's nonfiction -- give it to the Sesame Street thing
Children's program -- iCarly. No contest.
Choreography -- ouch, way to burn Glee with no nomination! I dunno, one of the So You Think You Can Dance
Cinematography half hour -- don't care
Cinematography miniseries -- better not go to the Prisoner
Cinematography one-hour -- Breaking Bad
Cinematography nonfiction -- don't care, but it's going to Life
Cinematography reality -- Amazing Race (but would love to see it go to Dirty Jobs)
Commercial -- Old Spice!!
Costumes miniseries -- don't care
Costumes series -- Glee
interactive media -- Jimmy Fallon (though who cares? Why are we giving awards to the internet?)
Direction comedy -- Glee (for the Pilot)
Direction drama -- Breaking Bad, though it might go to Lost
Direction miniseries -- don't care
Direction variety -- Colbert Report
Direction nonfiction -- Monty Python: Almost the Truth
Guest Actor comedy -- Mike O'Malley, Glee. SOOO glad he was nominated, though I would have picked a different episode.
Guest Actor drama -- Gregory Itzin, 24. Didn't watch it at all this year, but I love to hate President Logan.
Guest Actress comedy -- Betty White, SNL (isn't it funny that sometimes SNL is comedy, and sometimes it's variety?)
Guest Actress drama -- Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost
Hairstyling miniseries -- don't care
Hairstyling multi-camera -- How I Met Your Mother
Hairstyling single camera -- Glee (Power of Madonna)
Reality Host -- why is this a category?
Lighting Direction (electronic) -- SNL
Main Title Design -- Bored to Death
Make-up miniseries (non prosthetic) -- don't care
Make-up multi-camera (non prosthetic) -- don't care
Make-up single camera (non prosthetic) -- wanna say Glee, but don't wanna support the Lady Gaga episode
Music for miniseries -- don't care
Music for series -- Lost
Music direction -- don't care
Nonfiction series -- don't care
Nonfiction special -- just please not the Obama thing
Main Title theme music -- don't care
Music and Lyrics -- How I Met Your Mother
Editing comedy -- don't care. maybe 30 Rock
Editing special -- don't care
Editing nonfiction -- Deadliest Catch
Editing reality -- Amazing Race
Prosthetic Make-up -- oh, I don't know who to root for anymore. Let's say True Blood
Reality -- Mythbusters
Short Film editing -- anything but American Idol is fine
Short form animated -- wow, surprisingly I haven't seen nor care about any of the nominees
Editing drama -- Lost
editing miniseries -- don't care
sound editing miniseries -- The Pacific
Sound editing series -- Lost or Breaking Bad
Sound editing nonfiction -- Teddy: In His Own Words
Sound mixing half hour series -- 30 Rock
Sound mixing drama -- hard choice. House
sound mixing miniseries -- it's all The Pacific, so it doesn't matter what I say here
sound mixing variety -- Academy Awards. Notice the awful Tonys were not nominated here
sound mixing nonfiction -- don't care
Special Class -- don't care, but it's one more category Lost could win
Visual effects miniseries -- The Pacific
Visual effects series -- Caprica
Stunt coordination -- hard to say... give it to Chuck
Supporting actor comedy -- hmm... Chris Colfer, Glee
Supporting actor drama -- Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad. Much as I love both of our Lost nominees, they've both won already, and I thought Aaron did some really good work this year.
Supporting actor miniseries, etc -- Patrick Stewart, Hamlet
Supporting actress comedy -- Jane Lynch, Glee
Supporting actress drama -- don't care
Supporting actress miniseries -- Catherine O'Hara, Temple Grandin. I just like her.
tech direction miniseries -- don't care
tech direction series -- Big Bang Theory
Variety special -- don't care
Voice-over -- Hank Azaria, The Simpsons
Writing comedy -- Glee
Writing drama --'s hard to say "anything but Lost", but...
Writing miniseries -- don't care
Writing variety -- Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (or Colbert Report)
Writing variety special -- Bill Maher
Writing nonfiction -- oh, let's give it to that National Parks thing

Sunday, July 4, 2010

4th of July... '80s style

I think of this song when I wake up on Independence Day. Enjoy the '80s production value.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: to bend or not to bend (to popular critical opinion), that is the question

Okay, I've seen episodes of the series. But it's not a show you can just pick up in the middle, and I didn't care to keep watching it. So I went in with some familiarity, but no fanboy drooling (that was why my sister came).

I know everyone wants to compare every movie Shyamalan ever makes again to Sixth Sense. Well, this ain't Sixth Sense. But it's better than The Happening. It's probably better than The Village. And though I'm one o the few who kind of appreciates elements of Lady in the Water, Last Airbender is the sort of storybook for kids movie that he tried to make then and failed. It's his best movie in a long time. That may be a minor achievement, but it bears pointing out.

Yes, Katara and Sokka are a bit darker in the cartoon. Could he have cast them darker? Yup. Did I care terribly? Nope. Because in the universe as put on film, we are dealing with very Asian ideas and such, but not necessarily "ancient Asia". While Nicole wasn't exactly Katara to me, I could sort of see it. It's difficult casting actors to play cartoons because they require a certain "look". As to the racial thing, it seemed to me that each "nation" had a kind of homogeny to it. The Water Kingdom was mostly white (and since they all lived in ice castles this was believable, unless he had made them Inuit or something). The Fire Nation was Indian, with a bit of Arab-looking types thrown in. The Earth Kingdom was all Asian. And the flashbacks to the Airbenders seemed to be mixed.

I'm probably in the minority again, but I really like the kid who played Aang. I thought he was very well realized. His bending was believable. And I never thought of him as particularly "white". I also liked Dev Patel as Zuko, even though his look didn't exactly match the cartoon. My sister felt his disfiguring burns should have been more hideous and pronounced. I suspect Nickelodeon may have insisted it stay PG.

Many whine about the pronunciations. It didn't bother me much, though I'm a non-viewer (it bothers the heck out of me when people mispronounce Tolkien names). To me, Shyamalan was trying to ensure they sounded more Asian and authentic (for all the "racebending" flack he's taken).

The cinematography was beautiful, and I loved all the location shooting. This didn't surprise me, since Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings) shot it. The bending effects were good. I liked the fight choreography, there there were a few places where we see things defended that we barely saw start as attacks. Like the camera was TOO close on our heroes sometimes. And a few moments the bending seemed delayed or off from the movements.

There's a lot of narration in this movie. This is part of the show, and I understand it. I had no problem with most of it, but there were a few times that it told us everything before the visual was even finished. Then we watched something play out for no reason, since it had been narrated for us. One or two of those narrations could have been dropped and helped the movie immensely. Maybe someday there will be a Blade Runner-style director's cut where some of this is taken out.

The opening was perfect. It was an exact live action replication of the show's opening. That's good. While the movie had to condense a season's worth of story into 1 hour and 45 minutes, I thought it felt very faithful as an adaptation. Yes, there were images and events that changed, not all for the better. But Lord of the Rings suffered the same fate. It's the nature of the beast, and I understood it in the context. It could have been worse; they could have tried to tell the entire story in one movie. At first, I was waiting for "Book Two: Earth" to show up onscreen at some point. I did not know this was going to be a trilogy, and I hope it gets completed, not suffering the same fate as Golden Compass.

Another argument is that there's no character development in the film. While the movie is rushed do to its plot constraints, I don't think there's NO character. I totally got a big sister vibe from Katara to Aang. I understood Aang's pain over his sudden loss of family and everyone he's known. That character DOES have an arc; before he was frozen he was faced with a bowing crowd and he ran away. At the film's end, he no longer runs away and has begun to accept his role as Avatar. Remember he has to develop over three films. This movie is introduction; there's room to play with character later. There could have been a bit more between Katara and Sokka. Still, I like that the film had a certain gravity to it. While some wisecracking is missed, I understand that. I also understood Zuko's arc. I get his motivations. I like that he's not one-dimensional. I definitely felt more character than I did from Dragonball Evolution. That movie was slightly clever here and there, but primarily a fun movie if I were 6 years old. Last Airbender I enjoyed as my present self.

Maybe it's not as good as the series. I wouldn't know. But I think it's pretty likely that the movie will at least become a gateway for people to discover or rediscover the cartoon. That's good, right? I felt like Shyamalan respected the material, even if he altered or veered from it. So I honestly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing it. Oh, but do not waste your money on the shoddy 3D. It makes green-screen stuff more obvious, and doesn't add much depth anyway. It's mostly just for bending effects. I'd say at least half of the movie doesn't feel like it has any added depth at all; don't waste the extra money if you can help it.