Saturday, March 29, 2008

Speeding Towards Unreality

John Kricfalusi has said that the main advantage of live action over animation is the depth of expression in the human face. The strength of animation's exaggeration shows up better in bodily movement and contortion than facial contortions, which is why we want cartoon faces and bodies to do things human ones cannot. One of the worst casualties in the gradual de-cartoonification of cartoons since the 1960s has been the insertion of "realism" into design, leading to such thrilling expressive acting mugs like this...

Even when done skillfully, as in Disney films, the attempt to render realistic human performance in animated form is boring as hell: who's more fun to watch, Snow White or the Seven Dwarves?

Also, no celebrity voice actor, comedic or dramatic, can make a cartoon character more compelling than his animation does. Not Jerry Seinfeld, not useless Alec Baldwin. Celebrity voices in animation are for people who wouldn't go to see animation normally, which is why every studio animated film has them.

I was reminded of these concerns upon seeing the trailer and some stills from Speed Racer, which seemingly seeks to push the practice of putting human actors in near-total CGI green screen cartoon worlds to the logical/illogical breaking point: meticulous live action re-enactments of cartoon nostalgia.

Take a look at the lead actor plugged into his 200% fake environment. Sorry no image here, link protected.

Everything is distinguishable from reality but his little human face. The shiny pseudo-realistic surroundings are fake as hell, and look good in the sense of deliberate fakery, but if the actor were to be congruous with all of that he'd need to look like one of those hideous Polar Express or Beowulf mutants.

The Wachowski Brothers made live-action cartoons with The Matrix movies and in the parts 2 and 3 helped make the best case why no one should be making those types of movies. V For Bush Derangement Syndrome later, they have arrived at the decision that if Matrix style means cold and sleek, black and green computer screens, the live action adaption of a 1967 anime should be as multicolored as possible. As a result, it looks like barf, much like The Cat In The Hat or any faux-psychadelic kids movie monstrosity.

That's not a new problem. The newly minted awkward feature of Speed Racer is to throw in anime staples for their look alone - for the memory trigger of animation details within the broader context of a movie that has no purpose but the evocation of kitsch nostalgia. Ie,

a) Those thin background lines that imply speed

Live action version.


b) split screens with other graphical effects that seem utterly gratuitous in live action

From Entertainment Weekly, who don't let me swipe their EXCLUSIVO publicity stills:

''Everything in the film just pops a little more,'' Hirsch says of the picture's frenetic, cascading visuals. ''Larry and Andy do this thing with animation-style focus control, where two things can be in focus at the same time — it makes the movie pop like a comic. It's kind of cool and funny and iconic and quirky.

Juicy as this still looks, I refuse to believe that anyone would be taking so much care to make hyper-stylized fantasy movies like this, or that people would be going to see them, if the animation industry hadn't been mercilessly murdered on film and television. The explosion of fantasy films themselves simultaneous to the dearth of dramatic films for emotionally mature adult actors is like some twisted yearning howl for the time when American culture could separate the two and excel at both.

Note how most these kids-movies-for-"adults" (superheroes, Lord of the Rings, etc) are based on pop culture up until a certain point in history...the 1970s. For those keeping track, hippies destroyed Western Civilization by indoctrinating my generation into believing that because taste is subjective, so are standards of quality and skill.

Another EW quote from some techie, regarding this picture:

"Do you remember the 1980s video game Outrun with the palm trees flying past? A lot of the movie looks like that. But instead of using painted elements that they used in the early days [of anime], there are actually photographic elements flying past the road."

Look, in all honesty, I will probably be amused to see basic animation tricks like shifting background loops "on the big screen." But I can't pretend that this is progress. Our pop culture has been eating it's own tail for so long that it's emerging out the asshole.

In the same article, Christina Ricci is quoted as saying "You'd walk onto an empty neon set and they'd be like, 'Today the cliff is over here, over there is where the cars are parked, and your helicopter is in that direction." What's astonishing is none of those things were from The Wizard Planet or The Virtual Reality Computerverse. They're perfectly real things that the Wachowskis preferred to fake for the sake of fakeness.

Unlike a monkey.

W.C. Fields famously advised never to work with children or animals. A live-action monkey is the one thing I would've expected them to do in CG and they didn't. I guess that makes a monkey out of me! Article over!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mystery Science Warfare 2008

About a year ago, former Mystery Science Theater 3000 head writer and host (seasons 4-10) Mike Nelson had the bright idea to research intellectual property law regarding DVD movie commentary. As it turned out, commentary on any particular movie was in no way legally bound to the movie itself. One could theoretically sell one's own recorded commentary on "Star Wars," for instance, without incurring legal wrath from Lucasfilm LTD.

What makes your commentary worth purchasing? I don't know, but when MST3K's Mike Nelson sells his commentaries at for a couple bucks apiece, he's selling comedic skills honed by years of movie mocking. And when you're frequently joined by other MST alum like Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo, seasons 2-10) and Bill Corbett (Crow, seasons 8-10) the value is oh so much sweeter.

Nelson also had the good sense to create these commentaries for recent releases, so that recent ridiculous Hollywood absurdities and banalities like Daredevil and The Matrix Revolutions, b-grade shlock on a-grade budgets, can finally receive the MST treatment. Even modern bad movie classics of recent years are in the catalogue, like Battlefield Earth and Batman & Robin.

More recently, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett even turned their attentions back to vintage bad movies, buying up the rights to forgotten turds and releasing their commentaries with the DVDs in stores.

Now I see Joel Hodgson, the creator of MST3K and host of the first 4 seasons has gotten in on the act with Cinematic Titanic, a far less attractively titled and web-designed enterprise. But wait! What's this! He's ALSO got MST3K alumni on his movie-riffing team: Trace Bealieu, the original Crow, writer and cast member Mary Jo Pehl, writer and cast member Frank Coniff, and gadzooks - even Josh Weinstein, writer and cast member for ONE SEASON and indisputably the least popular of all MST3K alum. They even mocked him on the show once, seasons later on some Gamera episode.

I can only assume Joel saw what a clever post-MST3K continuation Mike had come up with and got nostalgic and bitter all at once. No one owns the idea of making fun of movies, but if someone had to, it'd be Joel.

Cinematic Titanic may only be focusing upon older bad movies, which would be limiting. Nelson has already beat him to the punch, at his own game. Fans will buy both, of course, but a new chapter has unexpectedly opened up in the old parlor game rivalry amongst MiSTies:

Mike or Joel. Who's better?

Monday, March 17, 2008

How I Didn't Get Into How I Got Into College

How I Got Into College is a great title, better than Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, and yet it's the least of "Savage" Steve Holland's 80s cinematic trilogy. In his defense, he did not write the screenplay, and in the film's defense it's better than average. The watermark was set high by the first two films' stream of consciousness juvenilia which starred the young, unknown John Cusack and sparkled with supporting parts from Curtis Armstrong, Joe Flaherty, Bobcat Goldthwait and all varieties of wacky mugs.

(Scene from One Crazy Summer)

How I Got Into College stars Corey Parker. Big whoop. Aside from some excellent scenes in which Phil Hartman and Nora Dunn play a pair of slickster SAT prep coaches, College is short on the supporting cast that a certain kind of comedy lives or dies on - wherein a put-upon young man's dream is pursued amidst a world of crazies, friends and foes alike.

The most prominent comedic supporting part was given to Charlie "Charles" Rocket, whose career is a historical footnote as the guy who said "fuck" on Saturday Night Live during the first Lorne Michaels-less season. Anthony Edwards and Lara Flynn Boyle round out the circle, and though they're both fine actors they're about as funny as Velveeta. Even in Revenge of the Nerds Edwards was playing straight man to, well, Curtis "Booger" Armstrong, who has but a one-scene cameo.

Savage Steve's voice comes from his background as an animator and that's another thing from the previous two films missing here, animated interludes. Holland's animated sense of humor also allowed for the kind of tangential diversions in comedies I personally love. In Better Off Dead, Cusack daydreams singing hamburgers and encounters cartoon humans like psycho paperboys and Japanese drag racers every other minute.

College sometimes feels as though anything could happen, and then not enough does.

Did the studio mandate Holland's film be less cartoony, the way television executives mandated in the 70s and 80s that cartoons be less cartoony? No wonder he gave up on films for a while to develop Eek! The Cat, one of a few cartoon shows made possible by Ren and Stimpy's merciful minor revival of animated animation (which we've since squandered.) According to IMDB he's making a return to live action features this year, after a 20 year hiatus.

Better Off Dead was released in 1985, the same year as another animator's first live action cartoon...Tim Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. The cartoon sense of anything being able to happen at any time has gradually been creeping into mainstream tastes ever since. Especially on television, where the gratuitous randomness of Scrubs or Malcolm In The Middle or My Name Is Earl is confused for wit.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Funhouse Is Alive At The New Beverly!

"Who will dare enter....? Who is BRAVE enough...?"

I had The Funhouse dream this week for the first time in years. The New Beverly screens it Saturday, March 29 at midnight. The Funhouse is Tobe Hooper's great underappreciated masterwork second only to Texas Chainsaw. Oh, and of course Texas Chainsaw 2 is a delight for it's own reasons but not actually scary. And I haven't seen his TV film Salem's Lot yet.

The dream: I'm walking down tight dark corridors. There's a monster coming to kill me. Somewhere. I am in a carnival funhouse and I cannot get out. This is the movie.

The story has obvious parallels to Tobe's breakout Chainsaw. In both films, a group of teenagers goes looking for fun and becoming trapped in the home of a family of psychotics. Only a lone heroine will survive.

The Funhouse is nothing if not deliberately unglamorous. The teenagers are just as believably unremarkable as those in Chainsaw. The "monster," (the less you know, the scarier the revelation) is - dare I say it - a physical performance well on scale with Gunnar Hanson's Leatherface, by way of mime Wayne Doba. His head is caked in Rick Baker makeup.

Key to enjoying is understanding that like Chainsaw, it's mostly about the buildup; the looming sense of doom as time passes. Hooper has an odd knack for it. The dingy, sweat-caked carnival and funhouse puppets and working parts are cheap junk, and possess the eerie quality only such misshapen objects do. The music is epic calliope merry-go-round operatic nightmare.

What makes The Funhouse work on an emotional pull, like Chainsaw is the idea of going for fun and winding up dead. If Hooper's Texas farmhouse was an evocation of the horror of family and rural living, this one is an evocation of those sleazy carnivals where kids disappear or get mangled on the rides. It's also a subtle mediation on the thrill of being scared itself, years before Scream. Come to the horror show expecting safe scares, stumble into the real monsters just below that surface. Something in the fantasy is alive.

This was Tobe Hooper's next-biggest budget to Poltergeist (his only big studio movies) and suffice to say he makes diabolically clever use of a Universal's Frankenstein mask. We also open with a simultaneous homage to Psycho and Halloween. A diss on the slasher movies Hooper's own Chainsaw helped lead to, though "slasher" is a far less accurate description of Funhouse than Chainsaw.

It's going to be great seeing this dimly lit, lights-a-flashin' corny carny nightmare fuel in the dark den of the theater...there's a deliberate parallel there. And in rare Hooper use of 2:35:1 widescreen...again, like Poltergeist. The movie is nearly unwatchable in cropped 4x3 format if only because it's one of the DARKEST movies ever once the kids are inside the funhouse. With illumination coming only from flashing lights and gaudy colors, this film was made for the theater.

The first time I encountered the movie I came into it on television, towards the end and barely had the nerve to flip back to it. I mistakenly thought the monsters were real because of scenes I'd seen out of order...spoiler alert, but you're better off knowing. Hooper's expertise is in human monsters. I never thought I'd see this in a theater. Nightmare time.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Discrediting The Greats of Roth

Here's that damn cover:

"To this immensely overrated filmmaker, horror has nothing to do with scares, or disquieting moods, or the power of suggestion; blood and guts are the end all, be all. No surprise that set photos have caught the director wearing a Cannibal Holocaust t-shirt, as his modus operandi is not unlike that of Ruggero Deodato's infamous shlocker: to repulse audiences with notoriously taboo material (Deodato cameos for good measure.)"

- Nick Schager, Slant Magazine

Later in the pamphlet Eli praises Cannibal Holocaust:

"This film is very, very disturbing, mainly because of the amount of animals that were killed during the making of it. Director Ruggero Deodato defended the film saying that all the animals were eaten, and that this was happening all around them so they incorporated it into the film."


"What's really inexcusably evil about Cannibal Holocaust is the callous, systematic on-screen animal slaughter. And I don't mean that in the PC/PETA sense, to be easily refuted by misguided appeals to "the needs" of "the artist" to be absolved from "the constrictions" of "morality," usually mounted by hipsters citing Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. I mean it in the sense that the punctuations of animal snuff throughout the film are used solely as a cheap nausea-prime, a means by which to validate the film's already uncannily realistic human violence and keep the audience's gastric juices at full boil...The film's puke-worthy coup de gross is when the four documentarian punks drag a giant (endangered) turtle out of the river, flip it on its back, hack off its head (you don't really know it's still alive until that point, when it's chubby little legs start flailing wildly), and pry open its shell to reveal the soupy mess inside. In Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's Sleazoid Express (a vivid and exacting critical appraisal of grindhouse's heyday), the film's star Kerman confirms that Deodato gladly sanctioned the murders."

- Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

Thanks, Slant, for enunciating some common sense. If Cannibal Holocaust's animal snuff is acceptable in the context of a horror film, then Michael Vick's only error of judgment was not writing a script.

And no, I haven't seen Hostel Part II yet.