25 March, 2012

What I Watched Last Month…

Slowly catching up. Here is what I watched in…
November 2011

The Incredibles. (on DVD)
This is probably my favourite film ever. Why? Because it brings together all the stuff I love. Comics, animation, adventure, action, fun. It has a great look, design and style and it's wrapped in a story that really touches me: trying to be a good dad and husband while still being true to what has driven you since before those things came along and you fell in love with them.
One of the most impressive things about The Incredibles is how rich with amazing detail it is, lots of stuff that could easily have been cut for time and budgetary reasons but are there and enhance the experience and story so much. There's an amazing attention to detail for setting of scene, mood and place, an incredible sense of and importance placed on pacing and timing. A great and correct amount of time is taken to really convey what's going on, not only in the action, but emotionally as well. All this attention to detail is vitally important to audience's initial viewing but only becomes consciously apparent after watching numerous times.
I love this movie so much, and it's so close to perfect, that I'd kill for more, while at the same time desperately hoping they never make a sequel. I'm sure that it could never satisfy as well. You never know though, with Brad Bird at the helm again Pixar may be able to do what it did with Toy Story and make a superlative follow up.
The animation is amazing, the acting (both from the animators and the voice actors) is fabulous, full of subtlety when needed and great, clear, bold action when required.
I watch this about once a year, including a sit through of at least the Brad Bird commentary as well which is full of great insights into its making and storytelling.
I find it interesting that The Incredibles gets away with having two prologues, two climaxes, and one epilogue. That's pretty ballsie I think, showing a real confidence in the strength of the story and characters. Taking particular notice of these parts of the film this viewing, Bird certainly pulls it off without any question of how necessary these all are. Usually I scratch my head wondering at the need to have prologues particularly, or their clumsy employment for lazy exposition, but not here.
One gripe for The Incredibles? Well for sure it's not perfect, but in multiple viewings, this is the only thing that still really bugs me. The tale is beautifully heartwarming in the familial relationships and especially the marriage relationship, and in the main cast's personalities, but ironically very cold otherwise. There are very few "people" in the movie past the "golden years" prologue. Even in crowd scenes there's a sparsity of any other people. There's some, but not many or enough. To the point that it kind of sticks out as obvious when the man in the bleaches in the epilogue's scene with Dash competing at the track-meet. It seems almost weird that there's a bystander singled out for some acting.
Other than that it's hard to fault this movie.

The Iron Giant. (on DVD)
I certainly love great hand-drawn animation, and this is one of the greatest. This is probably the third time I've seen this and after having a steady diet of 3D animated movies lately it's so nice to see some old-fashioned painted backgrounds again, simplified but well-designed and constructed characters and sets, and excellent cartooned acting and action. (Yes, I know the giant himself is CG.) I very much enjoyed looking at the superb line drawings rather than realistically lit CG puppets, with rubbery, wet, finely textured lips and subsurface-scattered skin. This is a fine example of all the things that make a great hand-crafted animated motion picture.
The Iron Giant has fantastic acting, both from the animators as well as the voices. It was a huge surprise for me the first time I saw this that Jennifer Aniston plays the mom. She's so great here that I didn't even realise it was her! Her best role ever? The character played by Harry Connick Jnr. is superbly realised through the animation and voice also. Too cool!
Despite all the sci-fi trappings and action, this is a really nicely paced exploration for a number of the characters finding/deciding for themselves who they are, not who others want them to be or think they are. It's one of the few problems that I have with this film that the theme as described above is really quite obvious enough through the natural progression of the plot and dialogue of the characters that I found it unfortunate it was deemed necessary to actually have one of the characters state it outright at one point in the last act. There was no need to drop that anvil on our heads.
Regardless of that, this has aged incredibly well, and probably deserves annual viewing.

Immortals. (at the movies)
This is an interesting and somewhat original take on the ancient Greek myths that centre around Theseus. That new approach to the myths, for me at least, made for an extra layer of intriguing mystery that even the most extravagant retelling otherwise wouldn't have been able to muster. Other than that though, I found this a pretty forgettable film. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either.
Immortals had that staged and cold quality from being set in front of green screens too much. In fact some of it had that old, filmed on a stage, ready for a matte painting to be dropped in, feel: locked off camera, multiple shots from that same camera, and you can almost tell where the boundaries of the physical set were. Then again, maybe this was done on purpose as a stylistic decision to echo the feeling of those old mythological sword & sandal films where that sort of photography was necessary due to those very matte paintings and stop-motion animation shots being comped in.
That cold feeling remains throughout though even despite being heavily colour-graded into warmer bronzes. And of course it's going to get all the comparisons to 300 due to the heavy colour grading and green-screening. Why wouldn't it? It certainly feels to me to be cut from the same cloth.
The other very interesting stylistic choice in the art direction was a deliberate underplaying of the depiction of the Greek gods. Instead of opting for something that is much more elaborate, we were treated to very simple and stylish costuming. With the portrayal of their superhumanity, again a very simple technique was employed to nice and again understated effect.
Overall, I'm not sad I saw this movie, but I am glad I didn't have to pay for it, getting complimentary tickets instead.

Arthur Christmas. (in the cinema)
I really enjoyed this, and I think it's certainly a worthy addition to anybody's list of rewatchable Christmas movies. The story is funny, and it has quite a cast of very likeable and humorous characters all of whom have just enough flaw and history to make them well rounded and interesting as well. Design, animation and acting are all very good, though one of the few gripes I have is actually with one of the actors. I really felt that Hugh Laurie was miscast — he did a good job, but I don't think he was right for the part.
The story starts with what I believe to be a unique new take on the Father Christmas mythology which in itself is funny, engaging and quite necessary for a modern audience. It then carries through with the main plot, which is predictable from all the way out in the cinema foyer if you were to even glance at the movie posters. The great thing about this movie though, even considering the fact that the final outcome for our hero Arthur is so obvious and predictable, is that the journey to that predictable point is such fun and very charming. There's possibly one dead point near the end of the second act, and one superfluous and lightweight plot thread that should have been excised completely for both brevity and clarity, but otherwise it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride to Arthur's destiny. Do watch this next Christmas if you get the chance.

18 March, 2012

Review: Lumpen #8

Lumpen #8.
By Pat Grant.
Published by Pat Grant.

"Lumpen" is the name Pat Grant gave to his ongoing series of zines and comics, of which this is #8. I assume most of them were available where you would normally buy zines and the like, but this particular edition was only available through another of Grant's brainchilds; The Mini Comic of the Month Club — a limited edition subscription to a different creator's mini-comic every month for a year during 2010. (http://www.patgrantart.com/mcotm/page.html)

As might be expected from a true zinester, this has a real hand-made quality to it, from the pages that were obviously hand trimmed, to the silk-screened cardboard covers that look like they may even be left over off-cuts from previous projects.

The story is witty and whimsical, with a tinge of Dr. Seuss. Is it a commentary on the west's obsession with ownership, especially of land? Is it a commentary on the fleetness and ultimate futility of life? Or perhaps it's simply a humourous story, making a few wry observations about growing up and growing old. Regardless, it's well crafted and well told.

The artwork is very simple — really only stick figures — but the characters are imbued with amazing life and expression. To do any more with the art, to be more elaborate or ornate, would only detract from the "silent movie", pantomime feel of it all which is not only charming, but also helps make a potent distillation of the character's journey over the 20 pages. This style of cartooning, and of course the addition of a top hat, gives it an almost timeless feel.

The format is A6, and being reasonably there's a lot of whole-page panels. These are never used lazily however, always appropriately in service of the story. There are also numerous pages where multiple panels per page are used as required by the pacing needed for the storytelling.

It's a quaint little gem of a comic (although Grant calls it a zine, even though I think it's obviously a comic) and even though you couldn't get it except through The Mini Comic of the Month Club, Grant has made a number of other brilliant little zines and comics. Of course he currently has a magnum opus on the stands called Blue which I'll no doubt review sooner or later. Get along to his website and see what takes your fancy.

10 March, 2012

What I Read Last Month…

November 2011

Although I also have the black and white collection of this story in the original French language, right now I'm going to write about this colour English translation.
I was very keen to check this out, as I'm always keen to see Colin Wilson's work for the European market. Wilson's art is unsurprisingly great throughout; slick and assured. It seems to me there's a slightly more flamboyant use of the brush here than what I've been seeing in his Star Wars work of late, and even with his pen linework too, which are appreciated for the extra life they bring to the pages. Unfortunately I had a few problems with the colouring and lettering. The former having too many instances of showboating and overpowering the drawing, the latter being clumsy and a notch below professional level too often.
I hear this book has been optioned to become a movie as a Sylvester Stallone vehicle, which is great news for the creators. I kind of feel the story may be more suited to that medium too.

05 March, 2012

All hail…

Another of the character studies I'm doing. Again, this is one of the returning characters from the old Greener Pastures series, this time Caesar. I think I got exactly what I wanted in the sitting pose and expression, but I have a feeling I'll be redrawing the larger head portrait. It's not exactly right. I'll do some small, exploratory drawings of his head and face and then have another crack at this.

01 March, 2012

What I Watched Last Month…

These two movies are what I watched…
October 2011

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (on DVD)
Why is Temple of Doom so much less satisfying than the other two Indiana Jones movies of the original run? I guess that question already states my feelings about the movie — that it seems less satisfying, less fun. I don't think it's actually a bad movie. In fact I think it may be more maligned than it should be, but there's definitely a consensus that it's not as "good" as the other two. It's pretty hard to be as good as Raiders, sure, but I thought I'd try to figure out, for me at least, why that is.
Firstly, Doom already seems to be a caricature/parody of what the first Indy film was. This is best exemplified by the use of formulaic-feeling, 'classic' traps, animals, insects and other exotic esoterica similar to Raiders. In Raiders it all seemed to be part of the actual journey through the story, helping to push the narrative, while here they seem to be put in when convenient because they're necessary to embellish the Indiana Jones brand — because the tropes and clichés of the genre require it, not necessarily because the story does.
This is ironic too since Raiders owes so much of itself to homage, rip-off and caricature/parody of cliffhanger serials and adventure movies. Maybe because it seemed fresh, and had a different kind of verve in Raiders it was easily forgiven? Then again, if Doom had been the first of the Indiana Jones movies, I still don't think it would have been quite as successful as Raiders was.
I think the storytelling is slightly more clumsy in Doom as well. Or maybe it's that they're using similar expository methods, some of which weren't exactly smooth in Raiders either. It does feel laboured and overly long in places, becoming almost tedious.
I think my main issue with Doom is that its characters are much less likeable, including this version of Indy himself. He has tipped too far from rascal and loveable rogue into unlikeable selfish heel. Don't get me wrong, I don't want Indy to be a knight in shining armour saint — in fact I like his selfish streaks, his ability to kill, his single-mindedness, etc. Here though, these traits seem to present only their unappealing aspects. Willie of course is also too selfish and money-grubbing to be likeable. I could handle her being sooky or a bit of a princess, but these other parts of her personality are simply a turn-off.
I quite like Short Round though. Some true heroics from the boy, some great warm emotions, and some good action and slapstick. The relationship between he and Indy is the one nice one in the story.
The relationship between Indy and Willie on the other hand is possibly one of the main failings/differences between Raiders and Doom. This one has no romance in it whatsoever. It's tawdry, overtly and not subtly sexualised, and charmless. This adds up to a major part of the story leaving me completely cold.
Doom, being the sequel to a very successful film, I would assume had a larger budget, and I wonder if some of Raiders' charm came from having to do some guerilla filmmaking, while Doom didn't have to be so inventive in getting things done and looking good/real. Doom also doesn't seem to quite have the same sense of place and time that Raiders had. Perhaps due to the lack of Nazis and the war backdrop, but maybe also due to Willie's hair looking particularly 80s throughout.
Something in Raiders I always liked and found interesting was the depiction of magic or the supernatural. To we the audience, it was never hidden or coyly alluded that it may not be real — it was fully presented to us and we had to accept its existence. On the other hand though, I'm pretty sure that Marion and Indy never actually witness anything supernatural — they see its consequences, but never its action. I appreciated the way this made a scenario of 'plausible deniability' in the story — that even though we the audience saw the magic, maybe it actually was somehow a figment of our imagination or something. Doom flies on the face of that, giving our protagonists no doubt of the supernatural power they were facing during the scene with the removal of the still beating heart from the human sacrifice. Even prior to this Indy never questions the stories being told to him by the Indian elder, while in Raiders there's an air or hint of scepticism from him. Once again, a subtle thing that takes away some of the charm that Raiders had.
Lastly, and generally, Doom is much darker and crueler, which I don't have anything against per sé, but it must have an impact in expectation and therefore satisfaction. Raiders seemed much more fun.
That all being said, it's not a bad movie, just disappointing in light of the classic it has to follow.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (on DVD)
Again, I didn't find Crusade as satisfying or fun as Raiders, and in this recent viewing, the first in a very long time and probably the third ever, I didn't find it as satisfying or as fun as I remembered it either.
One of its biggest failings is that it doesn't have any strong villains, visually, thematically or in personality/character. Even the femme fatale is not really exceptional. This causes the villains to be less memorable and lessens their impact on the story and the audience greatly.
There's a related issue to this and that's the relationships generally, both between the heroes and between the heroes and their opponents. Doom suffered from the exact same issue too. That being that just about all of the main relationships in Raiders already had quite a history and backstory before we even meet any of the players (Indy with both Belloq and Marion most notably and importantly). Because of this all the relationships automatically carry more weight and importance, immediately having much more importance for the audience without even trying. We have a deeper feeling for, and higher investment in, the development of Indy's relationships with these people, and the consequences coming from their actions. In Crusade and Doom there are almost no relationships other than those built during the film, so the story has to work harder to make us care.
The notable exception in Crusade of course is the introduction of Dr. Jones Snr. I really enjoyed the father/son relationship and its presentation. I quite liked Dr. Jones' character as well and the perfect delivery from Sean Connery. The comedy derived from the Snr.'s presence, and the banter from his relationship with Jnr., are probably the most memorable and endearing aspects of Crusade.
Despite one of the seeming issues with The Temple of Doom being the lack of Nazis, their inclusion here only seems to feel repetitive for me anyway. As does the inclusion of John Rhys-Davies' Sallah character. There's also the return to Judaeo-Christian mythology as the basis for the caper. Again, for me, feeling repetitive.
The most innovative thing in the movie I found very appealing, and that was the 'Young Indiana Jones' opening scenes. A wonderful encapsulation of an 'origin'. Sure, a little too convenient that a lot of the most iconic things about Indy were introduced in one afternoon (hat, whip, fear of snakes, scar), but way fun nonetheless.
So we're not getting enough original feel and action to keep me happy, too little memorable characters and scenario to hang on to, and too much 'seen-it-before' to keep me interested. It all adds up to another less satisfying sequel.