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by Matt Mazur

20 Jul 2009

Ok, “girl power” is not new territory for Barrymore, and it is nice to see her breaking into the directorial boys club, but after a career-altering performance in Grey Gardens, this is what she has to offer? It looks fun, the politics look safe, and hopefully it will probably make her a lot of money to parlay into future endeavors, but everything about this looks stale and aimed toward the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants crowd. But it is Drew Barrymore and she can be extremely charming. I’m torn.

by Rob Horning

19 Jul 2009

The NYT Ideas blog linked to this essay by Paula Marantz Cohen about the lack of modest swimsuits in The Smart Set, and I was reading along, completely buying into it. “Bathing suits: absurd, wrong-headed garments. I continue to be mystified by how people continue to buy and wear them.” Yes, I thought. I have often heard these complaints. It seems crazy that bathing suits are so immodest. Why don’t we wear dignified bathing costumes like they did in the olden days? “We laugh at the old bathing costumes, but we should be laughing at ourselves. It’s a lot more ridiculous to see her thunder thighs and his man breasts.” Yes, there is something shameful about prurient self-display. Let’s close up the beaches until common decency returns!

Then I mentioned the article to a friend, and she said patiently that it would be extremely uncomfortable to actually try to swim in one of those Victorian get-ups, and that the reason swimsuits have become more immodest is in part because they are more functional that way. It’s not necessarily some crazed conspiracy to humiliate women concocted by the bathing-suit industrial complex. It’s quite possible that the article is entirely ironic.

This seemed blatantly obvious suddenly, and I wondered how I couldn’t have thought of that immediately. I had fallen under the sway of the peculiar fascination of Victoriana, the same sort of blinding lapse of judgment that must lead people to listen to the Decembrists.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of conflating prudishness with proper respect for the mysteries of life, easy to imagine that widespread modesty might lead to a restoration of the link between sexual passion and some kind of holy transcendence like you read about in euphemistically engorged D.H. Lawrence novels. Maybe the bare ankle could again stoke the fire in the loins and heat our elemental urges and forge our link to the divine. Or maybe not. But the body of iconography that we know associate with the Victorian period—bathing costumes, etc.—exist to service those longings we may occasionally have for an era in which desire was more difficult to arouse and therefore must have seemed much more precious. Now, of course, an elaborate industry of persuasion and an ever-more infiltrative media apparatus works to keep us in a perpetual state of desiring from which it’s hard to garner relief. Victoriana offers a fantasy of escape into an era of less intensive marketing, where desire felt sacred because it was much easier to believe it was generated from deep within oneself.

by Bill Gibron

19 Jul 2009

We critics are often accused of celebrating the theatrical experience to the detriment of those who can only afford (or socially tolerate) the home video version of same. There’s no real difference, they argue, and point to DVD and its newest format cousin Blu-ray as a means of making their commercial point. With clarity and crispness of image no longer an issue and the lack of etiquette challenged audience members to contend with, the living room beats the Cineplex every time - or does it?

Henry Selick’s Coraline is a perfect example of this entertainment dichotomy. On the one hand, the new Blu-ray from Universal is so special, so jam-packed with added content goodness, that it’s not hard to see why some would wait a few months to experience the film in such an expansive, insightful manner. On the other hand, no amount of technological tweaking can recreate the stunning Real 3D image offered when the movie opened last March. The two color process offered as part of the two disc collector’s edition, while acceptable, drains some of the magic from the movie.

And Coraline is all about magic. The wistful nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is indeed potent. The moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval.

Yet somewhat lost among the mythic mix is aforementioned genius Henry Selick. Sidelined by his association with Tim Burton, a lame live action misstep (Monkeybone), and an under-appreciated if terrific take on Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach), he’s now back - and he’s brought English icon Neil Gaiman along for the ride. Together, they tap into areas heretofore unheard of for a family film, bringing both the singular and the sinister to the mix. The result is a quirky dark fantasy which while grounded in a kind of every kid reality, transcends the mundane to become something quite special indeed. 

When her family moves to rainy, gloomy Oregon, Coraline Jones finds herself lost in a new and wholly unfamiliar apartment house. Her upstairs neighbor is an eccentric Eastern European named Mr. Bobinsky. He once ran a famous mouse circus. Now, he seems insane. Downstairs live the equally odd actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The former burlesque style glamour queens are obsessed with their slobbering terriers and their inflated figures. And then there’s Wybie, the grandson of the woman who owns the building. He’s a jabbering pain in Coraline’s already sour demeanor. 

One day, our heroine discovers a door to another dimension, a place where her gardening book author parents are attentive and thoughtful, where Mr. Bobinsky is a regal ringmaster, and the team of Spink and Forcible offer their own naughty nightly floorshow. But something is not quite right with this fanciful place. All the people have big black buttons sewn into their faces - in place of their eyes - and in order to stay, Coraline must agree to do the same. Little does she know that dark forces are plotting to keep her prisoner in the other realm forever!

In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor. It’s gorgeous to look at, inspiring to experience, and satisfying in ways few modern motion pictures - no matter the proposed demographic - ever strive to achieve. In the hands of Selick, we witness the kind of imagination and invention that only Pixar can provide - and with none of that newfangled technological twaddle to get in the way. This is untainted artistry, plain and simple, skill sets unseen in today’s joke a minute cinema-nipulation.

Granted, Selick does take liberties with Gaiman’s prize winning novella, reconfiguring the setting to a dreary Pacific Northeast and expanding on characters barely considered in the book. As a result, Coraline feels like that motion picture rarity - a true collaboration between author and interpreter. Make no mistake, this director still admires and abides by the tome’s “horror’ overtones, never lightening up the material to make it more mainstream. Instead, Coraline is a film you have to fall into fully, an outrageous statement of childhood fear fashioned out of wish fulfillment, candy floss, and a whole lot of sharp, pointy things.

Selick excels within this brooding big picture, and he certainly brings the spectacle here (enhanced, naturally, by the application of excellent 3D effects). He pays homage to Pal and the Puppetoons with an amazing mouse marching band that has to be seen to be believed. The level of precision and overall scope is jaw dropping. Similarly, Madams Spink and Forcible give a floorshow that will sail right over the heads of prepubescent audiences, but definitely satisfy a depressed drag along dad or two. Selick sets much of the film outside the perplexing pink apartment house, utilizing the surreal garden set-up and the surrounding forest to find new avenues of expression. And there’s no denying the man’s eye for set and character design. The figurines employed here and the backgrounds they exist in are fully realized and ridiculously alive.

Of course, character is very important to this film’s success, and Coraline doesn’t skimp on personality. Thanks the wonderful work by the voice actors (Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders all acquit themselves more than admirably here) and the way in which these entities are employed, we experience untold amounts of depth. Some might see this film as too edgy or cold, calculated without adding the necessary nuances of emotion or identification.

Frankly, it’s a foolhardy argument. Coraline is involving, entrancing, heartfelt…and in the end, rather hopeful. We want this young girl to be happy, and fear she will take up with the Other World residents because they promise things that are superficial and instantly gratifying. If there’s a singular theme here, it’s the tagline currently being used for the film’s promotion - “be careful what you wish for”. Such unearned satisfaction can only lead to pain and disappointment.

Present for almost every bit of added content here, Selick explains the journey of Coraline from page to screen in such a compelling fashion that we forgive the occasional directorial foolishness of the people making the bonus features (quick jump cuts, random editing jumbles). His commentary clarifies facets about Coraline’s home life, while the deleted scenes show that not every inch of stop-motion footage makes it into the film. The voice actors get their say, as does Gaiman, who is very proud of the results.

Technically, the movie looks amazing, the Blu-ray capturing the level of detail Selick strived for flawlessly. But we are still along way off from viewing the film in the perfected 3D of the theatrical experience. The two color concept does work, but drains a lot of the color out of the image in the process. Other elements like U-Control and BD Live! add even more to the overall experience. 

In combination with the qualities Selick typically brings to the party - passion for stop motion, an attention to detail, a true love of the overall artform - Coraline can’t help but be charming. It’s like a trip back in time, to the moment when you first realized that a giant ape could actually climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature from Greek mythology could ‘come alive’ scare you to your core. It’s a flawless illustration of why pen and ink cartooning (and its modern computer-based companion) just can’t compete with the painstaking approach of this old school medium. Perhaps audiences will finally understand and appreciate what Selick and his cohorts have been championing for decades. This kind of animation is truly amazing, and Coraline is a perfect example of its remarkable, resplendent wonders.

by Rob Horning

19 Jul 2009

I have a post up over at Generation Bubble about debt psychosis.

by Bill Gibron

18 Jul 2009

How do you celebrate a seminal moment in cinema? How to do you mark the instant when the medium changed irrevocably, introducing new artistic rudiments into a mix that seemed mired in a morass of aesthetic sameness for decades? If you are Warner Brothers, you dig deep into your vault of available bonus material, contact director Zack Snyder, and give the boys in blu-ray a call. Like it or not (and there are many who will be displeased with this next statement), 300 stands as such a revelatory event in the motion picture artform. Outside of the parodies and rip-offs, this particularly powerful bottled lightning won’t be recaptured any time soon - isn’t that right, The Spirit? So the studio has decided to give the title an ultimate format refresher - and it is indeed as “complete” as one could wish for.

For those who’ve forgotten 300 centers around the Spartan King Leonidas. When Persian conquerors led by the self-proclaimed “man-god” Xerxes threaten to destroy all of Greece, the concerned royal seeks the sage advice of his Ephors - mystics who rely on the Oracle Pythia to predict the future. When they state unequivocally that Sparta must not go to war, Leonidas defies their legally binding mandate. Gathering 300 of his finest soldiers, he travels to the Hot Gates near the Persian encampment and prepares for battle. Meanwhile his Queen Gorgo pleads for the Council to reconsider and send more help for their leader. As a woman, she holds little sway, so she seeks the aid of influential advisor Theron. While he is plotting his own treachery, a hunchback named Ephialtes is desperate to join the armed uprising. When he is rejected, he finds comfort - and conspiracy - in the Persian camp.

While it easy to ridicule and dismiss 300 as some manner of homoerotic adolescent fantasy, just think of what it could have been. For those of us who are old enough to remember, your typical sword and sandal epic was nothing more than a lame excuse to get a recently dethroned Mr. Universe (or if unavailable, Mr. Olympia) to strut around shirtless while foreign speaking extras offered their poorly dubbed sentiments. The storyline, usually stolen from mythology, added to the air of phony flexed authenticity. Toss in a buxom beauty or two, a set left over from some other historical title, and bathe their entire thing in a cloud of musk machismo so overpowering it would make professional wrestling look like figure skating and you’ve got Peplum 101. In light of the source material, no matter Miller’s pedigree, 300 could have been one of these museum piece mockeries.

Instead, Zack Snyder’s meticulous recreation becomes a kind of entertainment and creative litmus test, a way of measuring why you go to the movies and how fascinating you find the process behind the lens. If you just want your action epic to move along at a quick ADD-like pace, pour on the sensational stuntwork, and accent with bloodshed and bountiful F/X, then 300 should satisfy. It’s ‘all that’ and a bag of delicious decadent CG chips. Yet for some reason, audiences initially rejected director Snyder’s visual overload. They’ll take it from a bunch of second-rate transforming robots, but when it’s offered up in oversized sugary vats of sensational cinematic eye candy, they apparently fall into a commercial coma. While it was a surprise hit in 2006, there are still those who argue over this film’s sense of indulgence. Among the many complaints leveled against the film, the dismissal of “more” seems particularly perturbing, given the brilliant outcome.

The other specious argument centers around the story. Granted, no one is claiming that 300 is a documentary and some poetic license has to be taken with events this far lost in the past. But what, exactly, is wrong with the way Miller and Snyder tell this tale? We get a wonderful flashback foundation, Leonidas’ early lessons by the fist and the lash provided in effective, emphatic displays. We have an emotional core, given the King’s love for his Queen, and there’s even some political intrigue. The battle lines and strategies are easy to follow and the motives of both sides are simple and self-evident. So what exactly is the problem here? Is it too upfront? Do post-modern audiences really want more from their pumped-out power statements than easy exposition and the occasional muscled torso?

Certainly the acting can’t be questioned - even if most of it is done from the neck down. Gerard Butler is almost unrecognizable as Leonidas and he is 300‘s heart and soul. His line readings remind the viewer of just what’s at stake and they give the occasionally outlandish situations a real sense of authority and seriousness. Similarly, Dominic West makes a terrific sleaze ball. His wormy personality, polished with a suave speaking style, makes it easy to understand Theron’s deception. With the added excellence of David Wenham (as narrator and battle participant Dilios) and Lena Headey as Gorgo, this movie has an amazing cast - and that’s not even discussing Rodrigo Santoro’s chilling turn as Xerxes, or the various well-chiseled members of the Spartan contingent. To its benefit, there is never a moment here when we feel that Gold’s Gym was raided for some random beefcake. These are Spartan’s, not centerfolds.

Of course, what 300 really boils down to is the overall effectiveness of the state of the art craftsmanship involved. Unlike Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, Snyder tries to keep things tied to truth, not tech spec computing power - and Warners responds with an amazing Blu-ray package. The 1080p image is outstanding, as good (or better) than its theatrical twin. Similarly, the sound design really shines on the new format, the speakers experiencing the same ambient atmosphere that audiences received the first time around. Some will question whether this digital double dip is worth it. From the audio and video department, the answer is a solid “yes”. But there is another facet to this release that really illustrates how the blu-ray format can be utilized to truly ‘enhance’ your viewing pleasure. It’s also the main reason to pick up this latest version. 

Thanks to the new “complete” dynamic, there are three equally intriguing ways to experience 300 all over again. The first finds Frank Miller and the art department discussing the various ways the story’s sequences were envisioned. Always a wealth of insight, the comic’s creator really enjoys sharing his stories of inspiration. Snyder then turns up for version number two, this time explaining the whole “greenscreen” approach to the production and the various tricks used to realize his take on Miller’s vision. Finally, a few scholars settle in to explain the historical accuracy (or in many cases, the lack thereof) of this particular version of the famed battle. As with most movies, there is some obvious fabrication going on. But for the most part, Miller and Snyder stay true to the Spartans’ stand-off against the invading hordes.

As a technical achievement both in theaters and on the new digital domain, 300 is a true artistic triumph. It stands alone among its many motion picture peers, offering an experience as close to ancient canvases come to life as you are likely to see in the cinema - at least, for the next few years. As directors like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller himself attempt to push the boundaries of such ‘sketch and illustrate’ epics, there will always be this groundbreaking trendsetter to remind everyone of how to do it right. While one can debate the merits of his movie all they want, no one can question the artistry required to bring it to life. Thankfully, this new “Complete Experience” will highlight how hard - and rewarding - such incessantly hard work really is.

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