Monday, June 29, 2009

The Transformers Movies are supposed to be family friendly, right?

Arguably, everything you need to know about whether you can take your 7 year old to see the Transformers movies is in their rating: PG-13. In other words, if your kid is under 13, keep in mind some parts might not be suitable. But with so much of the marketing being geared towards kids from T-shirts, cartoons, oh and the fact it's based on a long running line of toys a parent could be forgiven for assuming there wouldn't be anything that inappropriate.

For the most part that held true with the first movie. The violence wasn't anything over the top, the swearing was easy to overlook and the sex was almost non-existent. However, halfway through the movie one character blurts out something that brought the theater to a standstill. Sam's mother asks him "Were you masturbating?" when she walks in on him after he was frantically trying to find something for the Autobots just outside his window. I know a handful of parents who had to have THE talk with their children that night, a bit a head of schedule, all due to that one line.

With the sequel, you'd think they'd have learned their lesson. Nope. In fact they do quite the opposite. Among the offenses in Revenge of the Fallen are a pair of Autobot twins that keep calling each other pussies and threaten to bust a cap in each others' asses, dogs humping dogs, robots humping humans, a fleeting but naughty shot up a college freshman's skirt, and a five minute sequence where Sam's mom downs a bag of marijuana brownies and runs around campus stoned off her gourd.

I'd like to hear how non-hippie parents explained to their kids why when Mrs. Witwicky used drugs, she just got really happy, but that it's a bad thing and they should just say no.

Obviously a PG-13 rating is supposed to imply that you might not want to take the kids. For example, the last two James Bond movies were clearly not kid friendly. But when a movie is based on a saturday morning cartoon and a line of toys, I think the expectation that it won't be that bad for kids is certainly justified.

Other filmmakers have at least taken this into consideration, especially with comic book based movies. For example, Batman is a comic that's been written as everything from a campy, kid friendly funnybook to a dark brooding tale of street violence. With The Dark Knight, filmmakers clearly opted for the latter interpretation, but they also knew parents would be taking the family to see it. So, despite the fact that over the course of the movie, people are shot, blown up, sliced open and in once instance, burned alive, this stuff is implied, instead of being seen. In fact, I didn't even realize that the guy got burned alive until the third time I saw it. They probably could have shown some of this stuff onscreen and kept the PG-13 rating, but they clearly understood that just because they could get away with it, doesn't mean they should do it.

Then there's films like Harry Potter and Star Wars, both of which had PG-13 installments in an otherwise PG rated franchise. These movies didn't use the more adult rating to give the films a bawdier twist, but instead it was just a heads up that the story was a bit darker than it was in previous installments.

In addition, parents weren't caught off guard by the level of violence in Dark Knight. Anybody who saw the trailer, or even just Heath Ledger's Joker makeup understood that this was going to be a dark and violent take on the franchise. As for people who saw the Transformers trailer, they just saw big robots fighting, not little robots humping things.

I'm not trying to sound like a prude or anything. I'm all for directors seeing their vision through to the end. I was all for Warner Brothers releasing the unrated version of Eyes Wide Shut because of how awkwardly censored the R-rated version was. When it was announced that Live Free or Die Hard would be PG-13, I was among the masses demanding to know why a film franchise for adults got taken down a notch.

But Transformers? Come on. Keep it family friendly if you want to sell they toys.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The 3D Renaissance So Far

These days the big marketing gimmick for movies is putting them in 3D. Even though only about 26% of theaters in the country are capable of showing movies in 3D, it seems like every family and horror movie being released in the upcoming months is touting that you can see it in 3D.

Probably the most major difference between today's 3D movies and the ones of old is that they're now shown using glasses with one lens darker than the other, as opposed ones with red and blue lenses (the exception being Robert Rodriguez's Sharkboy and Lavagirl.) Aside from that, filmmakers have tried to assure the viewing public that the current experience is more comfortable and less headache inducing. So, having just seen Disney/Pixar's Up in 3D last weekend, I thought it would be worth giving my take on the rebirth of 3D so far.

Of all the 3D movies released recently, I've only seen four: Beowulf, Coraline, Monsters vs. Aliens and Up. So far my overall take on it is "meh." I've seen it done well and I've seen it done badly, but it hasn't yet convinced me that it's the next wave of filmmaking, or that it's worth the $3 premium charged for tickets. Lets look at them one by one:


I'm going to get this out of the way first: Beowulf was a bad movie. Not in that Sam Rami, it's-so-bad-its-good way. This was a slow paced, intellectual musing on that poem we all had to read in English class, trying to masquerade as a big budget epic. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with the source material. Clearly it worked for the film The 13th Warrior, which was content with just being an action movie. It didn't work in Zemeckis's Beowulf because it tried to be a no holds barred spectacle with an all star cast, hyper-realistic CGI animation and of course, 3D. However, the scope of the underlying screenplay didn't offer anything so grand to warrant all of this.

Unfortnately, it wasn't just the storytelling that was bad. The 3D had much to be desired as well. I'll give the filmmakers credit that some scenes looked phenomenal in 3D, such as when Grendel bursts into the great hall with smoke and flame. (I'm writing this, assuming that you at least read Beowulf in ninth grade english,). However, for the bulk of the film, the 3D caused me serious eye strain.

If I had to guess I'd say the filmmakers didn't quite nail down how to accurately convey depth perception in CGI. (Instead, it seems they focused more on accurately depicting a naked Angelina Jolie in CGI.) The result was that personally, my eyes didn't shift naturally from the background to the foreground. In other words, if I saw something in the foreground, I had to actively make my eyes focus on it to see it properly.

This problem was exacerbated by the fact that often the filmmakers opted for the cliched effect of having something onscreen jump out at the audience. I found myself taking off the glasses regularly just so my eyes could get a second or two to rest. After seeing this movie, I thought i'd have sworn off 3D movies entirely.


So, despite my experience with Beowulf, I ended up seeing this one in 3D after all. In all fairness, I don't think it was offered in 2D anywhere in Cincinnati anyway. Unlike Beowulf, Coraline was actually a good movie that I would have gone to see in 2D. As a 3D film, it was definitely worth shelling out the extra bucks to see it.

For those of you who haven't seen it, Coraline is about a girl who moves into a new multi-family house that she shares with a few eccentric characters. She then discovers an entrance to a parallel world that is similar to her own execpt everything is strange and surreal.

In Coraline, the 3D effect was more about adding a level of detail to the film than spectacle. It did its job of helping make the viewers feel as if they were actually in the movie without coming off as a gimmick designed to wrangle a few extra bucks out of the viewer.

While the film was filled with fantastic visuals from start to finish, the scenes were the 3D effect stood out the most were often the more subtle ones. For example, in one scene we see Coraline's father sitting in front of the computer, with the image from the screen reflected in his glasses. The reflection looks so genuine that its possible to forget that what you're watching is a 3D effect and not something that is physically in front of you.

Later in the film, Coraline visits her neighbor upstairs in the parallel world. He has a circus of trained mice, and when he first introduces them, they all come out into a tiny circus ring and start hopping in unison. Again, everything from the lighting to the position of the camera makes it appear that there is a tiny troupe of trained mice hopping about, just out of your reach. It looked perfect.

Monsters vs. Aliens and Up

The last two movies on my list I'm going to lump together because they both suffer the same problem. As films, both were great, but as far as 3D goes, the effect was largely unnoticeable.

Where as in Beowulf I found myself taking off the glasses to rest my eyes, in these two movies, i kept taking the glasses off to make sure that I was actually in the 3D showing of the films. There were a few moments in Monsters where the 3D made me feel immersed into the big action sequences, but for most of Monsters and all of Up, the effect was too subtle.

Its a shame because in Up, there were plenty of scenes that should have stood out since most of the movie involved an old man and a kid passing through a lush South American rainforest (while lugging an airborne house and dealing with talking dogs. It's a strange movie.) Unfortunately, for most of the movie I felt that there was no difference between actually watching it in 3D and how I would have seen it in a regular 2D cinema. There was never any moment where I really noticed that there was any depth to what I was seeing. (Physical depth, i mean. Plot-wise, the story was quite deep.)

Upcoming Movies

So what's next for 3D? Well the closest release date is for The Final Destination, keeping alive the tradition of cheap gimmicks to spark interest in unnecessary horror film franchises.

Odds are Disney will re-release The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D once again. Each year I keep telling myself I'll go out and see it, but instead I just end up watching it at home on DVD. I would like to see how this one turned out mainly because it's a 2D movie that was later converted to 3D. If it turns out its good, maybe I'll stop seeing George Lucas's comments about re-releasing the Star Wars movies as threats to butcher the franchise yet again, and more like promises to add something new to a classic.

There's been some buzz about Zemeckis's up coming CGI adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which is rumored to be in 3D. However, it seems like the buzz is more about whether or not everybody will look like CGI wax zombies or if they'll actually look convincing, as opposed to how well the 3D will look.

No, the big buzz has been reserved for James Cameron's Avatar. This is a project he's been working on for the past ten years, and considering that Cameron + sci-fi usually equals a cinema classic, by now people are probably expecting this thing to be the biggest movie of the century. Just to add to the rumors about there being special effect unlike anything ever seen before, you guessed it, it's supposedly going to be in 3D.

If any of the above mentioned films is capable of actually transforming 3D from a novelty to a directorial choice, such as whether or not to shoot in film or black & white, Avatar is probably it. Who knows. Maybe in a year or two Cameron will be on a stage collecting the first Oscar ever given to a 3D sci-fi flick. Or, maybe 3D will go back to just being a theme park attraction.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Grant Morrison Needs to Stop Wriring for Batman

That, or as a title, "Batman and Robin" never bodes well for the franchise.

I've pretty much been a huge Batman devotee for as long as I can remember. I've witnessed the many different interpretations of the Caped Crusader, and in the ten years I've actually been reading the comic itself, I've been able to identify when the writing has been exceptionally good as opposed to when its just getting by.

I can also put my foot down and say when the writing has just plain gotten bad. As acclaimed a writer Grant Morrison is, his work on Batman has definitely been one of the series low points. When it was first announced he'd be writing for the series, there was much acclaim and hooplah behind it, as he was expected to do drastic and daring things with the series. Unfortunately, I think he kind of went overboard in an attempt to be outlandish.

I'll forgive some of his more controversial decisions, such as making Batman's son a canonical character (He'd only previously been mentioned in the comic Batman: Son of the Demon, and was never heard from since.) But for the most part his run on Batman was strange and usually hard to follow.

He started off with a tale about impostor Batmen running around town, one of whom shoots the Joker. This was followed by the aforementioned "Batman & Son" storyline (yes, thats what he chose to call it) promising that when Joker did return it would be something radical.

And here's where it started to get weird... I mean really weird. First, when he did bring back the Joker, it was in the form of a prose issue. Lots of text, few pictures and poor typography made it hard to read. And, it wasn't even anything exciting. Just the Joker musing on his many different incarnations. Then there was the Batmen of All Nations storyline, where vigilantes across the world, inspired by Batman all meet on an island only to get taken out one by one, Agatha Christie style. Behind it all was a mysterious group known as the Black Glove, intent on taking out Batman. It sounds simple, except the man behind the group is supposedly Thomas Wayne, you know, the guy whose death drove Bruce Wayne to become Batman.

All of this was meant to lead up to Morrison's coup de grace, Batman R.I.P., which was slated to be THE definitive Batman story of the decade. Instead it was among the worst.

I read every damn issue of Batman R.I.P. and I still have no idea what went on. First, he introduces a character named Jezebel Jet, who exists only for Batman to fall in love with her, reveal his identity and consider giving up crime fighting. If she wasn't introduced for this storyline, she sure as hell was an obscure character, making her an odd choice for Batman to reveal his identity to out of all the women he's been involved with.

But what really irked me was that none of the issues seemed to flow into each other. I felt as if I'd been missing issues, since the story jumped from point to point so much. Hell, halfway through most of the issues it seemed like one random thing was happening after another.

Then there's the fact that despite the name, Morrison never actually killed Batman in the R.I.P. storyline. It looked like initially he chose to have Batman die in a helicopter crash, only for him to turn up hooked up to some sort of virtual reality machine or something. I'm not sure Morrison ever really explained how he got there or how he got out, but at any rate the real death of Batman didn't even happen in a Batman title.

He saved that for the equally convoluted Final Crisis, which had absolutely nothing to do with the events of R.I.P.. (He dies from Darkseid's eye lasers. What he was doing fighting Darkseid, I don't know, because that all involved stuff from Final Crisis.)

That being said, I decided to give him another shot with his new series Batman & Robin. I honestly don't see myself picking this up past the first issue. To start with, it looks like it's going to spiral out of control pretty quickly. I didn't really warm up to the idea of a flying Batmobile or having Bruce Wayne's son Damien take on the role of Robin. The last time such an obnoxious character was picked to be Robin, fans called in and voted to have him killed off. Violently.

Considering that the teaser page at the back of the issue promises more of the strangeness that plagued R.I.P. such as multiple Batmen, and the characther claiming to be Thomas Wayne, I'm going to hold off on it. And better yet, I won't be without my Batman fix either.

Paul Dini is going to be writing two Batman titles: a solo book and one devoted to the women of Gotham. Dini deserves alot more acknolwedgement than he's been given for his work on Batman. While Morrison was making the franchise wierd and unapproachable, Dini kept things pretty level. At the same time Morrison was working on the main Batman title, Dini was at work on Detective Comics. For most of his run, he stuck with one shot issues that were loosley tied together. He also opted to do his own thing, independent of Morrison.

For example, when Morrison was trying to build up excitement about what he would do with the Joker after writing him getting shot in the face, Dini wrote a one shot story about the Joker kidnapping Robin that didn't even acknowledge anything Morrison had written.

And when Morrison was writing Batman as losing his mind, Dini paid this lip service and wrote a straightforward Batman story. In fact, Dini's contribution to the RIP storyline was better than Morrison's, as Dini chose to write a sequel to Jeph Loeb's acclaimed storyline "Hush" where Hush tries to get his revenge on Batman by literally stealing Catwoman's heart. It was engaging, easy to follow, and showed that good writing capable of drawing new readers in doesn't have to be in the form of massive event stories.

Here's hoping that Morrison's run on Batman ends soon. Now that the death of Bruce Wayne is out of the way, I won't feel as obligated to read his work to know what's going on in the Batman universe, and at least I'll have Dini's work to keep me going until (inevitably) some writer brings back Bruce Wayne. Hopefully it won't be Morrison.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why I'm making a point of seeing The Hangover on opening weekend

Honestly, The Hangover isn't really the sort of movie that I'd break down the doors at the theater to see. Sure, it looks funny, but it doesn't look so funny that I'd feel inclined to pay $10 to see it in theaters instead of $5 to watch it at home. Why then is it on my to-do list for next week? It's because I suspect that every "bro" from here to L.A. is going to be quoting every line of that movie so often that I won't actually have to see it to know what happens.

Like I said, I do want to see it eventually. The problem is that hearing it in drunken quotation form pretty much kills the humor, because you already know the jokes before they're coming. This already happened with me and Old School. I missed it in theaters because I was studying abroad when it came out, and when it came out on video nobody insisted that it be on the top of my must-see movie list (apparently because they all presumed I'd seen it already). I'd caught bits and pieces over the years, but by the time I finally sat down to watch it in its entirety, pretty much every thing that would have been funny because it caught me off guard had already been ruined.

The band's rendition of "Total Eclipse of the Heart"? I'd already heard so many people do that one at karaoke I'd almost forgotten that it's not supposed to have "fuck" every other word. The streaking? Blue dying? Heard it all months in advance.

So this time around, I'm getting in on the ground floor and seeing Hangover before everybody else decides to quote lines from it to cover up a lack of original wit. Now here's just hoping all the best lines weren't in the trailer.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Overlooked Movies: Little Nemo

So one thing I decided I’d do when I started this blog was to shed some light on movies that never really made it into the public consciousness, despite being thoughtfully crafted, and just plain enjoyable to watch. Today, I thought I’d cover the anime film Little Nemo, seeing as how I finally got to watch it over the weekend. If you want to see a trailer for it, click here.

Odds are that if you remember this film at all, it’s probably in the form of a half remembered advertisement you saw as a kid for one of those “non-Disney” cartoons we all shied away from. It never did get what one would call a major release, and even in the days of where old anime classics experienced a revival on DVD as anime became more popular in America, this film never got caught up in the hubbub.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Little Nemo began as a comic strip created by Winsor McCay in the early 20th century. The strip chronicled Nemo’s journeys through a fantastical realm known as Slumberland, and each strip usually ended with him waking up and falling out of bed. The strip was also notable for it’s brilliant colors and surrealistic imagery. Generally, they took up an entire page of the comic pages. (On a side note, supposedly one of the reasons Bill Waterson retired from writing Calvin & Hobbes was because he wanted to draw his comic in the style of Little Nemo, but newspapers wanted something smaller and with panels that could be more easily rearranged.)

The movie was produced by Japanese anime studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha, but was largely worked on by American talents such as Ray Bradbury, Chris Columbus (famous for Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter movies) and the Sherman Brothers, who previously worked on music for several Disney films. Despite being made in 1989, it didn’t make its way stateside until 1992. Strangely enough, the video game adaptation made its way stateside before that.

As for the plot of the movie, I’m going to be honest. It’s not exactly Disney. Even when Disney was in its pre-Little Mermaid slump, it was putting out stuff with more character development than this. The story is pretty simple. One night Nemo is visited in his bed by the personal entourage of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. The king requests that he comes to Slumberland to be his daughter’s playmate. He doesn’t explore Slumberland too long before a mischievous character named Flip accidentally gets Nemo to unleash an evil known as the Nightmare, and naturally Nemo’s the one who has to stop it.

I say it’s a simple story because there’s never really any motivation given for the characters actions. Morpheus’s invitation to Nemo is completely arbitrary (not to mention the level of responsibility he gets entrusted with) and there’s no reason given for why Flip creates the amount of havoc he does, other than it helps move the story along.

What the film lacks in story, it certainly makes up in style. The film manages to effortlessly toe the line of depicting a world that is strange and surreal, without confusing the viewer. The world in which the story is set frequently transforms into something completely different in a way that perfectly mimics the non sequitur nature of dreams. For example, the opening sequence has Nemo wake up in his bed, discovering he can fly it out the window. He flies around the city, but suddenly finds himself among unfamiliar ruins, hounded by a speeding train.

Even the non-surreal visuals are incredible. Slumberland, as depicted in the movie, is a world that resembles the most extravagant palaces of Europe if they were the size of entire cities. Then there’s the animation itself. Like many anime movies, everything is drawn with such fluid detail that even the way smoke is animated, it seems to have character.

Despite it’s simple story, the whole package is overall pretty enjoyable. I suspect that had I seen it as a kid, this movie would have been something I watched over and over. Although it’s clearly targeted for younger audiences, this movie is a good example of how to make a family film parents can enjoy that doesn’t involve slyly sneaking in “adult” references, or tries to hock some product to kids. Aside from a scene halfway through the movie where the Nightmare breaks into Slumberland, it’s as family friendly as one could ask for. Granted that scene in question is a bit freaky and I’m sure it would have given me bad dreams as a kid. In fact, I think they cut it out of the initial American release, but it’s not that bad.

Unfortunately, Little Nemo is still a bit hard to find, so unless you use Netflix,, or your local library has a good inter-library loan system, it’s going to be a hard one to track down. On the plus side, it’s pretty cheap to buy, as has it listed for about $8. Yes, that’s twice the cost of a rental, but if you’re an anime fan or a parent looking for a quality family film, it’s worth owning.

Hopefully in upcoming years this movie will gain some level of notoriety and be easier to find.