Friday, April 28, 2017

Moana (2016) directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

I, for one, like Disney films, and Pixar films and many other animated films coming out from various studios these days. Even the ones with more limited budgets have access to fantastic tools and talent to make beautifully done animation.  Where some of them get less points is for the storylines and the types of stories (which can be very receptive).

While Moana doesn't exactly throw away the mold Disney has made over the years, it's a great film and recently with films like Zootopia, the Good Dinosaur etc, Disney has shown it's still more than capable a telling a good solid original story with great characters within that framework.

The music works, it's funny, visually stunning and tells a compelling story. The directors also worked on The Princess and the Frog, Disney's last non 3D generated film and that was one of my favourites in their entire history. Moana's tale is based on real Polynesian mythologies and the mystery of why they stopped being a sea-faring culture 3000 years ago and then resumed - again mysteriously - 1000 years later.

The only thing I could critique against this film is mind boggling minor. I personally thought the "ocean" character was little lame. It looked too much like a tongue and I thought needed some additional  anthropomorphizing to work better. I NEVER thought I would be saying that about a Disney film!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

King Kong 1933 directed by Merian C. Cooper

The story, which has become the basis of most of the later King Kong remakes, is simple. A down on her luck actress is hired by a somewhat sketchy film producer to star in an adventure film on a mysterious lost island that only he knows how to find. When they get there, they discover a lost world of savage natives and prehistoric animals ruled over by a legendary figure - King Kong. The natives capture the actress in order to sacrifice her to Kong but when he arrives, he is smitten with her and take her into his care, fighting all sort of creatures as her human love interest follows and attempts to free her. When he succeeds, they rush back to the boat with Kong in hot pursuit and the monstrous ape is captured and brought back to New York City to be exhibited as the 8th Wonder of the World. Opening night the beast escapes, gets the girl back and flees to highest structure he can find, in this case the Empire State Building where he is shot down by bi-planes and falls to his death.

Kong’s lasting popularity, I will argue, stems completely from his first film appearance. Not one of the re-boots comes close to the original. The monstrous ape is not so monstrous in the hands of legendary animator Willis O’Brien who infused a small puppet moved one frame at a time with such real emotion and personality that he became not an amazing special effect but as real as any human actor that has graced the silver screen.

The 1933 film started not just the legend of Kong but giant monster movies in general. This film developed a look and style of its own - partly from the limits of the era and partly from the incredible imagination of Willis O’Brien who not only animated Kong and the other creatures but did the matte paintings and overall design. Skull island is at once a real place and a fantasy world. 

On release, this film was a blockbuster. No one had ever seen anything like it and they flocked to theatres for a decade… literally. The film was re-released in 1938, 1942 and again in 1952, a release that out paced not only the previous ones in profits but also most of the new movies released that year. Looking at the movie with modern eyes, it might be hard to imagine, but this was a terrifying  and shocking motion picture, so much so it was censored for violence and sexual content after its debut. My Aunt Helen saw it back then and she often recounted to me how scared she was each time she saw it. It was her favourite film. 

While the film’s effects are legendary, it was also the first film with a totally original music score. The sets of the film were also amazing and were used for another production, The Most Dangerous Game, filmed in tandem and using many of the same actors. 

Is King Kong a perfect film? 

Some might say it’s THE perfect film and it’s hard to argue it isn’t. In its favour is its longevity, the story is still being told and retold as recent as last week. It does have plenty of flaws, but even they are hard to criticize. Kong’s varying size throughout the running length is an often stated problem with the production - but is it? I would say no as the director Cooper deliberately changed the titular character’s height (to the chagrin of Willis O’Brien and the effects team who wanted it to be a real as possible) to match the content of the scene. On the island the great ape is smaller, more human, if that can be said of a monstrous monkey, and in the big city he is 3 times that size to avoid him looking small among the skyscrapers. Kong must look like the king of his surroundings at all times for him to work as a character and frankly, while watching the film you would be hard pressed to notice his leaps in grandeur. The film is just too compelling for the viewer to be distracted by anything but other than what is happening on the screen. The effects are dated, but also they are so stylized looking that Peter Jackson’s 2005 overly long and somewhat over the top remake tried to recreate the look and feel of the 30s version to sell the idea better to modern audiences. Yes, you can see where the animators fingers moved the fur on the puppet as it moves about and the dinosaur designs are out of date by today’s Jurassic Park standards (which are in turn now out of date as well) but it really doesn’t matter one bit. The acting is definitely from it’s time, but it is a style of acting we all accept and in many ways expect see in films. What makes this movie at least seem perfect is how it plays. We buy it all. When Kong breathes is last after falling from the Empire State Building, we feel it in our bones and even though Carl Dedham tells us it was beauty that killed the beast, we know it was us and our pride that brought him to his fate and if he was real today, the same thing would happen. The success of King Kong comes not just from it’s innovation but the universality of it’s story which is just as relatable today as it was almost 85 years ago. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Vandemonium (plus) Ann Magnuson 1987 Cinemax

A lost classic of early cable, this almost impossible to see Cinemax Special is AMAZING. I am a fan of Ann Magnuson, so my enthusiasm is expected and this is the project that endeared me to her early on. I recorded it on VHS and it now resides in a digitized crappy looking file on my computer. 

The story is that of a biker chick (Magnusson) on her way to the red-neck-orama (or something) with her boyfriend (Meatloaf) when she has a terrible accident and flies off the bike and into the world of van art. Trying to find her way home before the show start (Vulcan Death Grip - Also Magnuson) she meets version of Stevie Nicks, Gala Dali, Shirley Maclaine and a televangelist (also all played by Ann). The comedy special also has appearances by Eric Bogosian and Joey Arias as Salvador Dali(!). In the end the good fairy (also Magnuson) appears and tells her she had the power to get home all along. Oh and she has a talking bong throughout. 

So, yes, this 30 minute of WTF, art references and pop culture parody as only Ann can pull off. I, of course, made everyone I ever met watch this so they would understand why I would occasionally scream « ES SURREAL! » and demand to see the « pizza sex machina ». This may not be for everyone, but it’s wildly funny and out there. So why is is impossible to see now?

One reason this has fallen into obscurity might be it’s timing. It wasn’t broadcast at a time where Cinemax could have created a cultural phenomenon out of a 30 minute special from a New York performance artist. Another reason was it might have only been shown once because of some odd controversy from one of the jokes. This is all from my not very strong memory, but there were a lot of AIDS activists upset because the bong tells Ann who has just shook herself out of the televangelist character that they better get out of the TV van quickly « before they find out who we are and sentence us to an AIDS camp ». This was an especially sensitive time for people with AIDS… putting them (and all gay people) into camps was an actual plan the religious right was promoting. However, in another case of humourless and misguided outrage, the fact this was a joke bringing that to light and mocking it - not encouraging it was completely missed. Most of the special still dates well enough but I think this one problem will forever sink the chance of this brilliant special ever getting restored and up for sale again. 

Friday, April 7, 2017



I have been fan of the podcast Welcome to Nightvale for some time and heard about their first show here three years ago the day after it happened. So as you might imagine, I was keen on not missing the show this time. They have had a few and from what I have read all have been very successful - I know the Corona Theatre last night was pretty much full. 

The show is barebones, it's like watching a radio show on stage right down to the cast holding their scripts in their hands and reading directly off the paper. This is in no way a slight to the production, it works really well. You can enjoy the might with no knowledge of the podcast but it helps to be familiar with it as you get much more out of the events that unfold. Cecil Baldwin gives just enough visual performance to keep the live audience laughing and involved but not so much as to alienate those who will listen later when this get puts on iTunes as special audio file. The audience was fairly mixed. Of course the hardcore fans were there - a diverse lot ranging in age and style of dress. It would be easy to be cynical and peg the whole thing as a bunch of pretentious posers putting on a self serving show and I would pity your miserable life. 

The show, like the podcast, is a weird combination of conspiracy theories, Twilight Zone like storylines and truly odd characters who have no idea how odd they are. This is not for everyone, and you aren't a bad person for not liking it but especially live, its hard not to get caught up in the fun everyone is having and how non-judgemental the whole thing is. Be weird - or don't. Participate in worshiping the all power Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD) - or don't. The message of the show is one of understanding and how preconceptions and inability to communicate can lead to misperceptions and prejudice. All without being preachy and never straying long from the good natured humour of the cast and writing. 

The musical guest, Erin Mckeown was delightful and in the spirit of the show involved the audience as much as possible.

I don't mean to say the show is perfect, it isn't. I would say it's sort of a "best of" the podcast in some ways, other live shows have had more dense storytelling than this one. I had the impression this might have been rushed into production. Even so, somewhat standard Nightvale is more interesting and funny (and strange) than almost any other live show you might see. The bar is high but it's difficult to feel even slightly disappointed while watching such great troupe of people giving their all and appreciating every minute - as did I. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Gods and Monsters 1998 Directed by Bill Condon

Before Ian McKellen was Magneto and Gandalf and before Brendan Fraser was fighting mummies, they along with Lynn Redgrave, starred in a film about the end of the life of renowned director James Whale who had made many films but was most known for the Karloff Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. The project was based on the book Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. The book was also adapted into a play at one point and it’s easy to see why, it’s a wonder story, not historically accurate or even really a biopic by any means, but a character study of Whale. Fraser play Whales gardener who befriends him, despite Whale’s homosexuality which wasn’t exactly  considered a positive character trait at the time. Redgrave shines as the housekeeper and bears a strong resemblance to Igor in the Frankenstein films, not just by her devotion to the aging director but in some physical traits as well. 

I don’t think anyone would be surprised at how good McKellen and Redgrave are in their roles but Brendon Fraser is really excellent in his part. He looks it, handsome and sexy but not out of place for the epoch in which the film takes place. It’s a shame artistically he didn’t pursue more challenging and interesting parts as time went on. Monetarily it’s pretty obvious he made the right choices but he shows real signs of being able to grow into a great actor in this movie. 

All in all, the story of a gay, almost forgotten filmmaker/artist who is all too aware that his faculties are leaving him and haunted by his fragmented memories not just of his career and youth but of the horrors of World World 1 which he experienced first hand is compelling and touching. While fictitious, the character of the gardener works well as the person who in effect takes us through this story and Fraser does it with charm and real emotion.

The film still evokes an emotional response and if you can find it, read the book as well. The book and film are not completely different, but different enough for one to enhance the appreciation of the other.