Yearly Archives: 2007

Self Parody

Enchanted (Kevin Lima, 2007)

Enchanted is the Disney corporation’s lavish tribute to the kind of films it has decided to stop making. Having assumed there was no longer a market for animated fairytales along the lines of its previous films Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast, it has instead filled the market void it created with an affectionate live-action retread of those films.

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Prisoner of Werner

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)

Werner Herzog is notable as one of the few directors to earn a reputation as a genuinely A-grade filmmaker in both fiction and non-fiction formats. His latest feature, Rescue Dawn, sees him underline his strength in both fields by revisiting the subject of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly as a conventional feature. The result is Rescue Dawn, which tells the true story of Dieter Dengler (played here by Christian Bale), a pilot shot down over Laos at the start of the Vietnam war. Dengler was captured and held in a POW camp, only to escape and flee into the jungle.

The film is one of Herzog’s most conventional films, but it is a solid effort nevertheless. Christian Bale revisits the territory of his debut film, Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, and anchors the film with a typically robust performance. He is supported by convincing portrayals of his fellow prisoners by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies: imprisoned earlier than Dieter, they have long since given up hope of escape. Herzog is much more interested in the interaction between the men than he is in the usual mechanics of how to escape, and the focus on the way the prisoners’ imprisonment is psychological as much as physical is one of the film’s main points of difference with more traditional POW movies.

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Bee Minus

Bee Movie (Steve Hickner & Simon J. Smith, 2007)

Nearly a decade ago, in 1998, Dreamworks released Antz. It marked the emergence of the first major competitor to Pixar in the field of computer animation, a rivalry highlighted by its superficial similarity to Pixar’s release for that year, A Bug’s Life. While both were good films, the Dreamworks offering was exciting for the alternative perspective it offered: where the Pixar film advocated a comfy theme of community solidarity, Antz satirised the hive / mob mentality and offered a more cynical voice than the Disney-backed Pixar studio could. This diversity of approach seemed an eminently healthy start to the computer animation boom. It’s a little disheartening, then, to now be confronted with Bee Movie, a lightweight and mediocre retread of Antz that sees almost everything of interest leached from the Dreamworks recipe. Pixar are still making interesting (if uneven) films, but Bee Movie is a telling example of the mediocrity that has characterised their competition.

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Not Actually About the Animals

Eagle vs Shark (Taika Waititi, 2007)

A lot of the time, when you hear observers of the film business talk about how particular films are likely to perform, you hear them theorise about how a particular film might attract a fervent cult following, but has no prospects for wider commercial success because the central characters aren’t “likeable” or – more obscurely – “relatable.” Like most attempts to explain the mysterious alchemy of commercial success, I haven’t generally been impressed by the worth of this notion as a predictor (as opposed to its undoubted value as a self-perpetuating rationalisation for marketing gurus). Yet I kept thinking about it as I mulled over my reaction to Taika Waititi’s comedy Eagle vs Shark.

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Sweet

I had this theory that I’d try to leave the Indiana Jones stuff alone – I’ve covered Spielberg more than enough over the years on this site, and I don’t actually expect the movie to be any good. (I hope, fervently, but don’t actually expect.) But I’m going to be tested by images such as this, the official poster for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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Beowulf vs Animation

Robert Zemeckis’ new computer-animated epic Beowulf is modelled as the future of cinema. Designed for high-definition digital 3-D projection, it is Hollywood’s latest attempt to create a unique theatrical experience that can’t be downloaded. Yet the film is something of an oddity. Despite Zemeckis having paid tribute to the classic cartoonists with his 1988 feature Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, his new film is deeply at odds with the traditional practice of animation.

Beowulf advances “performance-capture” techniques Zemeckis had previously used on his 2004 film The Polar Express, in which the movements of actors are mapped directly onto digital characters. Peter Jackson did a similar thing to use performances by Andy Serkis as the basis for Gollum in his Lord of the Rings trilogy and Kong in King Kong, with celebrated results. Yet Jackson was working to achieve characters that couldn’t be achieved by traditional means, and the motion-captured performance was considerably reworked by a team of animators.

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State of the Artless

Beowulf (Robert Zemeckis, 2007)

Beowulf is a test-bed for a combination of technologies that might be the future of the movies. It utilises “performance capture” animation, which some think will revolutionise computer animation. In many theatres it is being exhibited in 3-D, and that technology is acting as something of a trojan horse for the accelerated roll-out of digital cinemas. And its regular theatrical release is paired with showings in IMAX. It’s all very reminiscent of the 1950s, when extreme widescreen processes and early 3-D were used to try to give theatrical exhibition a competitive advantage against the threat of television. Today, the threats are DVD and illegal downloads, but the impetus is much the same. And Robert Zemeckis, in particular, has devoted much of the last decade to this technology: he hasn’t made a live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away, and won’t for some years (with his next picture locked in as the computer-animated A Christmas Tale, due in 2009).

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New Home Showcases Innovative Alternatives to Good Design

An inner-city dwelling is being held-up as a model for other architects and builders to emulate after it incorporated a number of innovative alternatives to site-responsive design.

The project was inspired by recent designs that super-imposed images of Victorian buildings onto contemporary buildings in heritage streetscapes. “We took that basic design principle to its logical conclusion,” says designer Tony Le Corboxier. “We built a three storey concrete tilt-panel box and etched an image of a well-designed and sensitively sited building onto it.” In a satirical nod to the stuffy, old-fashioned ways of the past, the building chosen as the subject of the etching was the home demolished to make way for the new building.

The new dwelling, called simply “Innovative Brilliance,” was commended upon its completion by architectural commentators, who remarked upon its avoidance of clichéd design elements such as ornamentation, verandahs, parapets, eaves, doors, windows, or architectural merit. “This building has none of those things,” said Le Corboxier. “Architects often talk of thinking outside the box. But that’s defeatist. They just haven’t made the box big enough.”

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Close and Choppy

One of the best people writing about film is David Bordwell, co-author of the textbook Film Art, a staple of university film courses. It’s great to be able to read his writing for free, on a regular basis, and I’ve plugged one of his articles here before.

Slightly belatedly, I thought it was also worth pointing out his article on shaky camera / fast cut filmmaking, which focuses on Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum. The Bourne flick is long gone from cinemas, but the discussion of this style of direction should be with us for years: how many reviews of modern action films have you seen that complain about this way of shooting? (Certainly all mine do).

What’s notable about Bordwell’s article is that he pushes the discussion well beyond the usual grizzling about this style of shooting and analyses in detail what is going on. As he points out, it’s more than just the length of shots and the shakiness of the camera at work: it’s also about how shots are framed, the proximity of the camera to its subject, the way the camera focusses (and pulls focus), and the placement of cuts (as opposed to simply the length of the shots between the cuts). All this is done in some detail with very clear frame captures from the Bourne film as examples.

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Blade Runner Keeps Running

The Digital Bits has a detailed write-up of the new version of Blade Runner, the – allegedly – “Final Cut,” which will be released on DVD in December (and which can be ordered through Amazon here).

Blade Runner (along with Close Encounters) has always been the textbook film demonstrating both the benefits and the pitfalls of preparing revised versions of classic films. The benefits are clear because the Director’s Cut is so clearly a better version. Yet it also illustrated the problems these director’s versions can produce: there are usually compromises involved in making the director’s cut, which may create new problems or shortcomings, and the original cut (which remains historically important and for some might be the preferred version) can fall out of circulation. So for years it was hard to get the original version of Blade Runner; other films, like Close Encounters, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars and Touch of Evil are locked in similar limbo.

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