Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Is There a Pattern Here? Pt. 2

Kenneth Branagh's superhero movie, "Thor" gets a poster. Are people in advertising and marketing even trying? Lazy. Just lazy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Is There a Pattern Here?

It's pretty obvious what management in Hollywood thinks. Make money for the least amount of effort. Shrek 1, 2, 3 and 4 followed by Puss in Boots or Madagascar 1, 2, 3 (and likely a fourth). One word: franchise. Growing up, "franchise" usually referred to fast-food chains like McDonald's. Now it's filmmaking. Same thing. Same nutritional value.

There is something missed in knowing you're getting something unique. Or, maybe people don't want anything new.

Possibly, Hollywood proved the "Don't kill the goose with the golden eggs moral" wrong. Maybe it goes, "Keep the goose alive until it stops laying eggs."

After looking by mistake at the "Green Hornet" remake trailer I couldn't help smelling familiar. "Irresponsible, young, egoist party playboy has no sense of responsibility until... the mantle of responsibility finds him. By night, he's a hero, by day he's a selfish, well-to-do fratboy.

Familiar? Wasn't that the coming attraction for "The Green Lantern"? Well, both had "green" in the title. Young irresponsible flyboy until responsibility is thrust upon him. No, wasn't quite it.

Oh yeah, there was that other guy. But it can't be him. His suit isn't even green.

This is nothing new. This has been the pattern of Hollywood since its Golden Age. People know Hollywood doesn't respect its audiences beyond the value of a dollar. Just wish they weren't so blatant about it.

There is one truth to be certain of: If you keep paying for them, they'll keep making them.

Green Hornet

Green Lantern


Friday, October 15, 2010

Where's the Goddamm Warmth?!

Another ramble, but it's more a comment on American culture rather than the content of the films if anything. Every return home to NYC from Tokyo for me there's a culture shock. Going from one culture that can be overly self effacing---- to one that can be overly self-absorbed.

Starting in the 1970's, the hero was replaced with the anti-hero. John Wayne became "The Man With No Name". "Superman" became a lone killer called "Wolverine". Star Wars babies didn't want to be Luke Skywalker, but Han Solo. People started identifying with characters who can say or do whatever they want, get away with it, and look cool doing it.

As audiences become more sophisticated, movies must also become more sophisticated to keep their interests. Does sophistication = jaded and contentious?

The jaded, wise-ass, or bad-ass does have its appeal. To our enemies we want to be Clint Eastwood's "The Man With No Name", but when it comes to our friends, we'd rather be the powerful but benevolent, Superman.

So, "Where's the goddamn warmth?!" "It left with the money and the jobs." a friend noted. What was once "Rapunzel" has become "Tangled". (there's a pun in there somewhere) The name change for "Tangled" was a marketing decision to appeal to male audiences. Perhaps "The Princess and the Frog"' lackluster success had something to do with this. Who knows. But no one felt a need to change the title of "Beauty and the Beast" did they?

When "The Great Mouse Detective" was in development, the original notion was to go with something akin to parody and satire. Hence the caricature of former Disney CEO, Ron Miller's reaction by storyman, Joe Ranft.

Just an observation we see more satire than sincerity these days. And if we do see kindness, truth, or ethics often it's served or packaged with sarcasm for people to digest it.

Not to sound totally negative, Ratatouille and How to Train Your Dragon were great films ----(despite having seriously contentious female leads who bully the male leads throughout the film....if people are so worried about what kids read into, why doesn't anyone say anything about that?) ------I digress---- Both had plenty of sincere and honest moments.

But there's the converse with "The Princess and the Frog" which was ham-handed with communicating a "message" to the point of being didactic.

In Japan there is an expression: "平和ボケ" (Heiwa Boke) which means "Peace stupid". Japanese are not interested in being contentious because well....things are quite peaceful and balanced in Japan. "The Dark Knight" bombed with Japanese because frankly, "the anti-hero" is just not a popular concept and people usually just don't "get it". There's nothing really people feel a pressing need to fight for.

What does that say about Americans? Rebellion, discontent is in our blood and our culture. Our government is founded on that. However, what was once "Don't Tread On Me" in American thinking, became "We Can Do It!" optimism in the 40's and 50's, but it has become "Don't Tread On Me" again.

Ramble is over. I'm looking forward to seeing Rapunz--"Tangled". I'm sure it's going to be good. This observation is more on how films are being marketed to get people's attention, not so much the content. Rapunzel in the movie poster hands down the the "toughest looking, kick-ass" Disney Princess to date.

All characters can't be the "upright hero" of course that's dead boring and lacks contrast. But all characters can't be the "bad-ass" either. That gets to be passe also after awhile. "Where's the goddamm balance?!" That's all.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Who Remembers Gloria???

As I remember it, it was the summer of 1979 and Hollywood came to Riverside Drive. 800 Riverside Drive, The Grinnell, in fact. My home.

I all but 8 years old at the time. No, I don't remember the day Gloria Swenson (Gena Rowlands) iced four Mafia creeps outside the Riviera, 790 Riverside Drive, but what I do remember was a lot of hullabaloo around the Grinnell, 800 RSD....that I couldn't go certain places during the day and that my summer mischief was rudely being disrupted by these people with film equipment.

I've been meaning to do a blog on the LONG list of films that have been shot around my neighborhood. Gloria, Leon the Professional, Q&A, The Warriors, Commandments, Dead Presidents, John Singleton's remake of Shaft, Deconstructing Harry, Sidney Lumet's 1999 remake of Gloria, and most recently the Angelina Jolie vehicle, Salt are the ones that immediately come to mind. I am sure there are others.

790 Riverside Drive is also celebrating its centennial this year and is enjoying its share of bragging rights that the Tinseltown angel hovered over their roof several times too. Particularly, that a key scene from Gloria was filmed alongside 790 RSD.

The character Gloria had her shootout in front of The Riviera, but shared an apartment with her gangster lover at The Grinnell, 800 Riverside Drive.

The legendary filmmaker John Cassavetes developed the screenplay for "Gloria" on spec to sell but when his wife Gena Rowlands was asked to play the title role, Cassavetes decided to direct the film.

The film was shot around Manhattan of 1979. An awesome time machine to see old New York City...REAL New York City with all the grit, texture and character of those days. Some shots were in the Bronx across the Harlem River near Grand Concourse, but many of its important scenes were shot at 800 Riverside Drive.

Key scenes (such as the one above) showing Gloria's flight to and from (and back to again) 800 RSD as a hideout and her ultimate confrontation with her mobster lover and his gang back at his apartment. (An "E" line apartment! My line!)

This shot following the shootout scene is the only shot in the film where you can see a almost a full view of 800 Riverside Drive from the outside. Take note of the ivy growing on the east corner and the old mulberry tree that was on the west corner. Residents of The Grinnell who were kids back in 1979 might remember climbing or hiding in that tree. Or worse.... using it as an occasional "snack bar". The sweet and tart berries on that tree were quite edible....ugh. Unfortunately the mulberry tree was notorious for staining the sidewalk below with blue-black stains that were visible all year round. It was taken down somewhere in the 80's, along with the ivy.

Another shot of an "E" line kitchen. That slightly ajar door isn't to a pantry closet, but to the old dumbwaiters that were still open in at The Grinnell in the 1970's. But by this time the dumbwaiters had been reduced to little more than an in-house garbage chute. The inevitable nuisance of vermin resulted in the dumbwaiters being sealed off forever.

As I noted before Gloria shared a rendevous apartment on the west side of The Grinnell. Obviously a "J" line apartment. Is this 4J above??

From the looks of it, that is 4H, if I am correct. Home to one of The Grinnell's most famous residents (who I will not name for fear of his usual picking on me).

And talk about time machines....anyone remember the brown checkerboard tiled lobbies before the renovations at the Grinnell?

The entrance to the lobbies haven't changed so dramatically.

And of course the grand old rear maintenance exit....fastest way to make your escape....or to the downtown #1 Train station on across the street.

Cassavette's Gloria is a great film. Despite it has been remade and "re-imagined" numerous times, (Leon the Professional, Ultraviolet, Julia and Gloria (1999) ) I have never felt quite satisfied it has been given it's just due.

800 Riverside Drive, The Grinnell is celebrating its centennial this year and she deserves every bit of praise. I never miss a chance to brag that this great landmark of Washington Heights and Riverside Drive is my home.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Alphonse Mucha - Papa Art Nouveau

The product of neoclassicism, Czech illustrator and artist Alphonse Maria Mucha, ("father" of the Art Nouveau movement) created illustrations and paintings that celebrated nature and held no embarrassment to embrace romanticism in the face of the oncoming of modernism.

The "s-curve" (the formula for all life itself, in my view) was always present in his work: organic, virtually alive, subjects always having a sensation of movement even in repose. Rigidity or anything resembling a straight line was virtually devoid from his work.

You never can predict what your ideas can give birth to. A single poster commission for the play Gismonda starring Sarah Bernhardt, had such tremendous impact in Paris, that the "Mucha Style" was coined and eventually evolved into "Art Nouveau".

"The biggest form of a compliment is imitation." The countless pieces of work made during the Art Nouveau movement in architecture, design, illustration and art, owes credit to Mucha. Even though he tried to distance himself from always being always associated with this movement, his same beautiful ethereal touch can be seen in the tribute to his people: The Slav Epic.

In my book Mucha is up there with the heavies like Bouguereau and Jean-Leon Gerome. If anything his work is the child of that movement. Unashamed romanticism coupled with discipline in technique in a new form and often expressed with just simple line.

Happy 150th Birthday.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Oasis of Creativity

I have a tendency to run off at the mouth when I get excited about the things that inspire me. Kong Xi (Confucius) said, "Truth and sincerity never needs embellished words."

Michael Mundy, a great photographer, a great artist, a great human being has just that on his blog: truth and sincerity. And that is no embellishment.

Being creative can be frustrating as we as artists occasionally over analyze. Sometimes a dose of clarity in the form of inspiration can help clear that up.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bill Melendez

Maybe not a household name, but his work has been a staple of household pastime for over 40 years.

Jose Cuauhtemoc Melendez, otherwise known as "Bill" Melendez (a name "given" to him by folks at the Disney studio) was the first animation director to put together the first prime-time animated special for American television. It all started with " A Charlie Brown Christmas" in 1965 for CBS. The only man Charles M. Schulz would ever personally trust to bring to life Charlie Brown, Snoopy and mini-universe of characters in his comic strip, "Peanuts".

Bill Melendez was the director and producer all the animated Peanuts animated specials, movies and commercial projects while Charles Schulz was alive.

The Archive of American Television on YouTube has an amazing 4-hour interview with Mr. Melendez online. In this interview he talks about his beginnings in animation with Walt Disney's studio, his time at the Warner Bros. Animation Studio, work at UPA and finally establishing his own animation studio.

Art Babbit, Norm Ferguson, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, are just some of the names that he goes into detail recalling his early experiences in animation. in this 8 part interview Bill Melendez explains his experience and participation in the Disney Animator's strike of 1941.

Bill Melendez played a part in developing my interest to draw and to communicate through art.

Bill Melendez passed away in 2008. Bill Melendez is responsible for creating the animated visualization of Peanuts. The image that people still have in their minds today. He deserves much more praise for the impact that he had on the television animation industry as well as the role he played in creating priceless childhood and family memories of watching the Peanuts animated specials.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Giving Sight To Vision

William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC. (1923 -2010)

William Fraker is not a household name, but he will be remembered by filmmakers as one of the most noteworthy cinematographers of the 1970's and 80's. Nominated for Academy Awards in Best Cinematography in films such as Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Spielberg's 1941 and Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin (I didn't know that until today!). Perhaps he will be most remembered for one of the most memorable film sequences that "upped the bar" for car chases in cinema: Bullit, starring Steve McQueen.

He should be remembered for being a solid cinematographer who helped his directors visualize the story in the best and most suitable way.

His work doesn't yell and scream "William Fraker, ASC, BSC". However for me, he does define a certain look that was consistent with the cinema in the 1970's. I love that clean look of 70's cinema and those earlier film stocks that were always a little grainy (which gave it life in my opinion) and favored cooler tones.

I think 1970's cinematography and William Fraker comes to mind.

Monday, May 31, 2010

In a Big Rush To Go...where?

iPhones. iPads. iMovies. iMmediacy.

Looking at the iPad (which looks great...I want one), I thought of ALL the features that are to supposedly "free up" and maximize our time....ebooks, infinite and instant music access, email, downloadable movies....just what are we doing with all this extra time we're supposed to be getting?

When was the last time you actually wrote a letter to someone? With pen and paper...? I saw an exhibition of the works of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his sons Pierre and Jean here in Tokyo. The last piece was a handwritten letter written by one of his sons. The letter was nothing more than, "Hello papa, I'm taking a walk with my son today and I'm thinking of you." Simple, poignant, and most of all tangible because it was written with his own hand. A precious moment (now historical because of these two great artists) that we had the the privilege to share.

Imagine what would have been lost if that was sent as a text message.

Filmmaker Ken Burns noted the things that we appreciate most....accrue in duration. "The things we have given our best attention to.....the human eye can receive an image in a fraction of a second, MTV tells us that all the time. But what does that mean? Does it have meaning at all? I'm suggesting it doesn't."

People are not being allowed to really to digest. To fully taste.

That magic you feel when you give your FULL attention to a film you're watching has been lost to stopping it anytime you want, uploading it to your iPhone or iPad and watching the rest on the way to work. Think of your favorite movie going experience. (Do people have these anymore??) During that time you were a "captive" for those two hours. No pause. No fast forward.

If you had stories read to you as a child. It was somewhat magical in a way. Because you couldn't stop the story or fast forward it. You had to take it in and listen. And we did so very willingly.

I predict at some point people and the way they decide to receive media HAS to slow down.

I wonder if this is contributing to the fact that movies are so superficial these days. Are filmmakers developing their films with the mindset that ultimately their works will be reduced to iTunes content? Bad movie or not, even I don't think J.J. Abrams wanted people's first experience with "Star Trek" to be on an iPod, much less an iPad.

That was one brilliant thing about Disney (can't seem to make a blog post without mentioning Disney) re-releasing films only once every seven years created a sense of "magic". The fact you had to wait until the next time came to theaters made people's anticipations higher and their memory of the film even greater. Reducing it to a 700MB. file gives people kind of "disposable ownership". And it's easily disregarded.

Anyway, next time you come away hyped from the last movie trailer you just saw, or fast cut movie --- try asking, "What did all that mean?"

"No, no, don't cut (away)....look. Hold...hold. The meaning accrues in duration."
- Ken Burns

Monday, May 10, 2010

Frank Frazetta (1928 -2010)

Frank Frazetta, hands down, heavyweight champion of fantasy artists/ illustrators of the 20th century passed away today. His work permeates the fabric of what modern fantasy art and illustration is today. The influence of his work can be seen and felt in the composition of countless other fantasy or sci-fi illustrations and comic magazines. Whether it is said or not, films from "Conan the Barbarian" to "Disney's Tarzan" and even "Avatar" owe credit to Frank Frazetta's work.

His paintings like "The Barbarian" (called by some "the illustration of the 20th Century"), greatly contributed to the image of the "anti-hero" replacing the face of heroism in the past 40 years.

His only screen credit was as the producer (and art designer) of 'Fire and Ice", an animated feature he collaborated with animator Ralph Bakshi in 1983. Film producers such as Dino De Laurentis, John Milus, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and even Disney have all either attempted (and failed) to get him to work with them or admitted they were great admirers of his work.

Without Frank Frazetta, fantasy/ science fiction, in every medium, art, illustration, comics, animation or film would not be what we know it as today.

Mr. Frazetta, thank you so much.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hold Up A Mirror and What Do You See?

I remember in 1991, director Spike Lee fought tooth and nail, petitioning the do the biographical film, "Malcolm X". The banner of his campaign was that the story of Malcolm X had to be told by an African American person and not a white American.

Emotionally, I can see how Spike felt he was "obligated" to fight for this movie. But in on a creative and honest level, sometimes the best person to tell your story is someone else with an objective point of view.

Three directors come to mind: Norman Jewison (director of in the Heat of the Night and original director slated to direct Malcolm X), Edward Zwick and Steven Spielberg. All three have directed films (A Soldier's Story, Glory, The Color Purple, respectively) that arguably are amongst the best films depicting aspects of the African American experience.

Indeed, there are things that all these directors would never just "get" because they didn't grow up black in America. However, they do understand people and relationships. And they do have the liberty of being able to look at people or cultures objectively. Including some of our closely guarded idiosyncrasies.

Even Ralph Bakshi's "Coonskin", (as coarse as some people view this film) contained some levels of honesty through a twisted caricature of Harlem's underworld in the 1970's. A caricature that no black American would dare to do then or today.

I heard once, "Truth is, when you do an autobiography, intentional or not, you are going to tell your story "your" way. And you are going to paint the face you want to see and leave out things perhaps you don't want others to see."

The best person to edit your work is always another person with fresh and objective eyes. Sometimes the same can be said of those who are going to tell your story.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Art Of Nature

A trip to the Museum of Natural History back in January was particularly inspiring.

Nature is made up of a balance of organic elements, forces and structures. Usually we refer to organic shapes we tend to think of "rounded" or "curved" shapes. Appealing as they may be, they can lack structure and definition if taken to extremes. When we think of inorganic shapes we tend to think of "linear" or "inflexible shapes". As easily defined as they can be they lack can lack human appeal and lack life.

I saw a beautiful balance of these two concepts in nature. Organic forms expressing "force" and life but held together by linear forms in between providing structure.

In illustration some call this a "straight to curve" theory. I've even heard "opposite C's". I see this as as constant pattern or equation in nature I see repeated time and time again in life.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sculptural Drawings

"Does your drawing have weight, depth and balance?" Basic principle of three-dimensional drawing. What does that mean exactly? It's the art of creating an illusion of depth.

Animation maquettes are used by animators as a three-dimensional "model sheet" to help the artist stay on model and with the visualization of the character. A feat less daunting for animation that is being done digitally.

Animator Marc Davis sculpted perhaps on of the first maquettes for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Whether it's CG or hand-drawn art, artist have the desire to get their hands "around the model" from every aspect, whether that be literal or implied.

Kent Melton is a sculptor who did absolutely amazing sculptures for Disney's Treasure Planet. The rolling, heavy masses and volume of Glen Keane's John Silver and the almost fragile S-curves of Ken Duncan's Captain Amelia were reproduced flawlessly by Melton in three-dimensional forms.

Artists aim for truth in their work ultimately. Sculpture is tangible almost literal way to capture the truth about a subject. The concept of "sculpture" needn't be limited to clay or tangible materials. It is a concept that should be ever present in the work... especially if it's being hand-drawn on paper.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Verisimilitude...can you spell it Disney?

Animator Bruce W. Smith gets an "A". If there was a category for Best Supporting Actor in an Animated Role, he'd certainly win. Why? Aside from amazing draftsmanship and great animation, his handling of the character, Doctor Facilier in Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" was the most believable character in the whole film for me.
However, "Princess and the Frog" fails for me with a solid "C" ranking.

I SO much wanted to like this film. Especially because, yes, it was the first Disney hand-drawn animated feature with an African-American lead; yes, because this was the first time we've seen hand-drawn animation in YEARS; but mostly because....well it's Disney. But the mouse house has forgot one magic ingredient with this one: believability.

Even though this was an animated feature, an emotional sense of verisimilitude is vital to make your audience care.

This film had wayyy to many gags. Many of which involved bodily fluids, flatulence innuendos and derriere gags. I've seen Warner Brothers animated cartoons that had more sincerity and taste. And that's not sarcasm.

The meeting notes of some Disney exec., "more gags, more gags!" was throughout the film. Of all the people who really wanted to see hand-drawn animation make a comeback, this was a real disappointment.

Brad Bird's Ratatouille is a good example of what a successful animated feature should be. Ratatouille was successful not because of CG animation, but because it was a good story and emotionally, a believable story...despite being about a rat who could cook. Which is no less plausible than a prince who gets turned into a frog. But how do you handle that story is the question. Intelligently or with sight gags? "IF a rat could cook, well, this is probably the most believable way it would happen."

Ratatouille worked in CG and would have worked in hand-drawn and I even as live action film. And would have been just as compelling.

Animation is good animation when you forget you are watching animation.

Princess and the Frog didn't work not because it was a hand-drawn animated feature, but because it was a caricature of one.

So Basically it's about....what?

Remember that old gag on Seinfeld where they said the show they were selling was basically about "nothing"?

In light of shows like Lost, Heroes and movies like The Hurt Locker (which I really liked), I'm wondering if this is the future of American narrative and storytelling in film.

After watching the season opening of Lost's final season....(which recapped the entire 104 episodes of the series)....I couldn't help rolling my eyes (apologies if I sound insincere). But about 20 minutes into this "Lost cram session", it became grossly obvious that the story or plot (if you can call it that) was completely convoluted, incoherent, and sometimes laughable because there has been no plot.

What makes Lost work is one thing only: the relationships between the characters. Like the show or not, the relationships have been compelling.

J.J. Abrams brought this same type of "narrative" to Star Trek (2009). Paper thin, swiss-cheese plot....very well developed relationships between characters. Maybe that's why it was a disappointment for me. In my desperate childlike nostalgia for the original Star Trek, I have been addicted to the melodramatic, but clear plots, a touch of social allegory and the relationships (despite being strong, clear and consistent) were really sugar frosting for the original series. But now that is all in reverse.

The Hurt Locker came off to me as another virtual docu-drama with no "Point A to Point B" linear plot. It was structured with situations to stage character relationships, and "stream of consciousness" experiences. Virginia Woolf would have fit in this age well if she were a filmmaker.

It's not a criticism, just a question of is this the future of narrative in movies and television. In an age of docu-tainment, reality show and shakey-cam (my bane)....are people less interested in the magic and escape of a well told story?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pandora's Box Opened

Hollywood is truly the land of sharks indeed. Ha. Ha.

In 1975, I begged my father and mother (I'm dating myself....I was 4) to take me to see the first movie I remember. Steven Spielberg's, "Jaws".

This was the birth of the summer blockbuster. Others would follow. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the 70's and 80's never, and I mean never did Hollywood imagine a film making several hundreds of millions of dollars at a time like this. Movies grossing ten, fifteen times it's budget. The concept of "movie franchise" was still undiscovered country.

James Cameron's "Avatar" grossed almost $1.5 billion dollars in almost less than a month of its release.

What kind of Pandora's Box (no pun intended) has been opened? What expectations of success are going to be expected in the future? Don't get me wrong, who doesn't love money? But is greed going to win out over....yeah, I'll say it: integrity?

Thanks to a friend, I discovered a great documentary called, "Dream On Silly Dreamer". A 40 minute documentary about the "death" of traditional animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios greatly in part to....yes, the blockbuster.

After viewing this, Hollywood and Disney executives would do well to revisit one noteworthy classic fable: "The Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs".

If you search around "Dream On Silly Dreamer" can be found on the net in its entirety. But I recommend buying the the DVD.