Sunday, June 24, 2012

...and Tron lives on! :D

TRON : Uprising
Disney XD

Well, I finally got a chance to watching the opening episode of the new animated series Tron : Uprising. I've got to admit, I was actually starting to wonder if the project would be cancelled before it had even started; two years had gone by since I'd discovered a preview of it in my Ultimate Tron set I had once purchased as a limited edition release from I'm fuzzy on the details of why it apparently took so long, but it's finally here. The good news is that, so far, it appears to be pretty good.

In fact, just from looking at the pilot alone it can very easily be argued that Disney has delivered something a heck of a lot closer to the real nitty gritty this time around. While Tron Legacy was a good movie that just didn't feel much like Tron itself, TU goes all out and really does come across to appearing to be what Legacy hoped of being in the first place. This is easily the most ambitious animated series Disney has delivered since House of Mouse, full of spectacular art direction and a wonderful combination of both hand drawn craftsmanship and superb CGI, and I sure hope it keeps up this level of quality.

Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the only thing that made me give a tiny groan had to do with the whole "but I'm not special" scene, which was pretty predictable. Plus, after that, the whole secret-crusader style thing elicited a shrug from me, as in, "What, again?" since it's been done so much before (you'll see what I mean about both points I'm talking about here). But that's being pretty nitpicky: the concept actually feels well-handled here, which only goes to show that it's not necessary whether the story's been done before, but rather how well it is told and executed.

I'll try to add more thoughts as I see more episodes. Meantime, do check it out and see if you don't agree.

Oh, and a quick note for all my fellow smartphone users (no pun intended): the first two episodes can be downloaded for free (a limited time promotion?) from iTunes, and further episodes of Tron : Uprising can also be watched on Disney's free downloadable Disney XD app.

Monday, June 4, 2012

*VERY* appropriately named! ;D

Walt Disney Pictures
Amy Adams, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden
PG (Nothing terribly offensive, however. Which is a relief these days!)
When I first saw the ads for this movie -- which, like most ads these days, do everything they can to make an upcoming film look as breakneck obnoxious, rude, and trendily narcissistic as possible -- I winced. I had heard for ages about how there was going to be some thing coming out from Disney (eventually) which at the time was nicknamed Rapunzel Unbraided, which was described as something that would "out-Shrek Shrek." And I thought in horror, "Oh, dear LORD... maybe this thing is what became of that idea? We don't need another Shrek... or anything else mocking the beauty of animation's glory days, for that matter." You see, at that time I was slightly (and temporarily) out of my little animation circle and wasn't sure precisely what was going on with Disney's latest at the time; I had too much of my own stuff with my career to fuss over to pay attention. But I decided to go ahead and give it a chance, and am I ever glad that I did.

Enchanted turned out to be the pleasantest surprise to come out in the theaters that year. Yes, it pokes fun at traditional Disney, but there's the key: it doesn't "mock", it "pokes fun". That's a big difference. No Shrek comparisons here; this really bears greater resemblance to Disney's own Sword in The Store in terms of execution in many ways. It also dares to put in a subplot involving a father and his child that's more precious than you would expect this type of modern film to be. It isn't a great film, but nevertheless it is still a very good and special film, the first one to come out that actually feels like a Disney production in years.

It starts as nearly all the traditional Disney fairy tales do, with a storybook opening to set up it's "once upon a time". There is an evil queen, of course, and she has been severely paranoid of her son named, not surprisingly, Prince Edward (James Marsden) eventually finding a beautiful maiden to marry who will steal her throne, so much so that she has assigned her secretly obnoxious henchman Nathaniel (Timothy Spall, who you probably recall from the Harry Potter films as the detestable Peter Pettigrew) to distract Edward with all manner of troll hunting, questing and the like. But one day he hears the, of course, angelic singing of young Giselle (Amy Adams), who has been dreaming of just Edward's type. And, again of course, they end up meeting fairly quickly, instantly fall in love, and ride off into the sunset to be married in the morning.

But the queen, again again of course, tricks Gizelle into fall down into a deep well, cruelly assuring Nathaniel that she has sent the girl "to a place where there ARE no happily ever afters."

Boy, did she pick well: poor Gizelle suddenly finds herself a live-action lovely crawling out of a manhole cover in New York City. She may be flesh and blood now, but she is every bit as animated as ever, not to mention at first terribly frightened and confused. There is something very touching about seeing her get trapped on an escalator leading down to a subway while she calls out, "Edward???"

She eventualy meets a well-meaning single father named Robert (played very convincingly by Patrick Dempsey) and his young daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey, that rare type of child actor who feels real and is naturally appealing, and doesn't feel the least bit programmed to be cute). They end up taking Gizelle in while they try to figure out what's going on, only to discover that her animation rules leak completely over into the real world; as Robert puts it, "It's like you escaped from a greeting card."

When we first see Robert and Morgan before Gizelle comes along, we see the wistful dad giving his little girl a boring factual book, which feels like a stupidly clunky idea at first and the sort of dumb script mistake too common these days... but without giving anything away, I'll just say that later in the film there turns out to be a genuine reason why he's doing so that's both touching and believable, especially considering the movie's circumstances.

I won't spoil any more for newcomers to this one, but let me just say that the cast is absolutely stellar. I didn't even know who Amy Adams was until I saw it, and there was something so wonderful and yet hauntingly familiar about her performance here but I couldn't put my finger on it... until I read Rolling Stone's glowing report on the film that Disney hasn't given us such a wonderfully magical, musical heroine "since Julie Andrews rode an umbrella to glory" in Mary Poppins. Yes! THAT was what this was reminding me of. It's its own creation, to be sure, but yet follows in that exact same tradition. And you have got to see Marsden going at it here, as he brings the same fun, terrific energy here that he did in the fantastic remake of Hairspray (it also appears to be an inside joke that, in one shot, there is an actual poster advertising the "Hairspray" musical in the background behind him). And there's this one scene of his with his shoes off and his arms folded while sitting on top of a hotel bed that I found hysterical; this guy could probably take on early Jim-Carrey-style comedy roles if he so wanted. True, during his screen time, there were a few unneccesary things tossed in which feel focus-grouped into the script (i.e. a dog peeing on his boot) in an attempt to make it feel more snarky for modern audiences, but fortunately they weren't anywhere near as grotesque or numerous as they have been in other films over the past two decades, and anyway the rest of the movie is so much fun anyway that they seem minor quibbles.

I have to give a note about the animation here: the hand drawn work is superb, as always, but there's one special touch that really added to the film for me. When a fully cartoon talking squirrel ends up here in our world with Edward, he finds himself to be a (CGI) real squirrel who cannot talk. The approach and execution of this idea is genuinely funny and ingenious. Unlike Pixar movies, whose visuals are nothing but ugly CGI with no illusion of life and singlehandedly demonstrate how computer technology can sabotage a motion picture, this film is a great example of CGI used wisely with great imagination and care, in the tradition of other past movies such as Beauty and The Beast and Aladdin which also demonstrated the same thing.

I highly recommend Enchanted; it has lots of in-jokes regarding Disney tradition, but at the same time takes its story to heart so you can enjoy it as a heartwarming fairy tale, too. I know for a fact that the in-jokes would have gone right over my head as a child, but that I would have bought the rest of it hook, line and sinker. I suspect other kids will too; people of all ages both young and old deserve more movies like this, especially now when such projects are, sadly, few and far between. Share it with someone you love.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hey, iTunes! ADD THIS ONE! ;D

Rob & Fab
Rob & Fab
Financed by Taj Records
Released by Joss Entertainment

I have always been of the firm belief that "charting" isn't a measure for success. Just because something isn't in the Billboard Top Ten (or even Top 100, for that matter) doesn't mean it isn't great and/or influential. Case in point: Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica" album. Does it matter who's considered The Flavour Of The Week, especially these days? It's not like obviously talent is still in Billboard charts the way it once was during the 80s and previous decades: now you gotta search for it.

This grossly underlooked gem is a true diamond in the rough, and it richly deserves an iTunes re-release. Pretty much everybody knows the story behind it, so I'm not going to go into depth on its background; I'll just skirt the basics. Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, a.k.a. Rob & Fab, were once known as the guys who had been models and singers before becoming trapped as the lip-synching frontmen of Milli Vanilli. I was personally never a Milli Vanilli fan; when they first came out, they annoyed me like crazy. I thought they looked ridiculous in those videos, I didn't like (what I thought at the time were) their voices much, and they seemed to be all over the place in the same way as The New Kids On The Block were. When the scandal first broke, I rolled my eyes and thought, "Well, at least I won't have to hear that annoying music anymore." And that was that, as far as I was concerned.

Well, while embarking on my first animation gig waaaaay back in the early 90s, I had stumbled across this little ditty in a music store, and while my interest was peaked, especially since I found out that it was getting strong reviews, I didn't check it out at the time for three reasons:  First, I was deep in "retro rediscovery" mode and was too busy investing in stuff like Joni Mitchell and The Doors. Second, I didn't get the buy music during that time very much due to lack of money, and especially Three, I was afraid it would sound like Milli Vanilli. I mean, can you blame me? How was I to know what it would sound like, especially since the stores in question didn't seem to be playing it?

Well, just recently I had managed to find a copy of Girl You Know It's True for a quarter in a local thrift store, and had picked it up just for old times' sake. And I was startled to discover that I was suddenly listening to it with a slightly fondness and an general "Ahh, those were the cool 'ol days" vibe I never would have imagined. If anyone had ever told me that I would be owning, much less fairly enjoying, Milli Vanilli's album way back then, I would have sworn they were crazy.

But that aside, I mentioned this phenomena to a friend, who then asked me, "Oh yeah? Well have you ever heard the Rob & Fab album?" No, I had of course replied. So I was loaned their copy. Just last night.


Not only can they sing, but their album as a whole beats the living stuffing out of Girl You Know It's True ANYTIME. This may seem a bit of a jarring listen at first when you're used to how Milli Vanilli recordings sounded simply because you're used to the other vocals, and this album sounds nothing at all like MV; it's a heckuva lot more fun. ;) Fab is singing lead here and is a genuine natural, and Rob, while his singing voice is not as strong, provides both backup and rapping, and the songs are vastly superior. For one thing, the style is far more enjoyable without a trace of sampling: Fab has a cool voice that falls somewhere between Bobby Brown and Michael Jackson, with the emphasis of course being on Michael, and he belts out this stuff with a sheer honesty. I've heard a few pretentious wiseguys out there attempt to nitpick at his vocals the same way they have with Linda Ronstadt's performance on her famous Nelson Riddle collaberations when in reality she did a beautiful job, but I couldn't care less; Fab can sing, and he can sing well. Check out their music video and see for yourself; this is the sort of album I wish with all my heart and soul I had given a chance back then. Oh, and incidentally, Fabrice has new single out as well right now, and he's still recording. ;) (Sadly, his pal Rob died years back.)

Now that I think back on the fact that I didn't personally care for the Milli Vanilli sound/style back then, I'm suddenly wondering today: is the reason why I didn't like it is because, perhaps because I'm an artist, maybe somewhere within my subconscious I was sensing that something was wrong? That could very well be, as I suddenly realize that when I now look at footage of the "real" Milli Vanilli singers I think to myself, "Yeah, those voices look like they naturally belong to those people," while watching Rob and Fab at the foreground (without my knowing all that time that they were only lip-synching, of course) during the years of the act's fame somehow just struck me as being so unlikeably pretentious. All I know is, Rob & Fab shakes SERIOUS booty, each and every track on it is a winner, and it deserves a far larger audience. So if you enjoy what you hear on Youtube, and I think you will if you genuinely enjoy melodic, dancable R&B as much as I do, then please go to Apple's iTunes request page and let them know you'd love to see it available for purchase!

Prices for this out-of-print recording tend to be sky high on Amazon, especially since only around 3000 copies could be printed at the time due to financial restraints. but iTunes appears to be developing a rep for re-released long-out-of-print albums with cult followings, so I'm hoping they'll eventually do the same with this one. I have personally put in a request for it; check it out sometime!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

An open letter 2 Sir Paul McCartney

Dear Sir McCartney,

I'm one of those who have been a lifelong admirer of your work, and have always found it to be a huge inspiration to me personally as well as inspiring to my own material.

I just want to say, there's something I'd like to give you an apology for. I know that sounds ridiculous coming from someone you don't know personally, but I think you'll appreciate it after you read what I have to share.

You see, back around the eighties or so I had first heard from a friend all that stuff about the so-called "ingenious marketing scheme" that The Beatles "did" regarding the whole "Paul is dead" scenario. At the time, I thought it fascinating and intriguing. And being in my teens, I had just assumed that that was precisely what it was, and thought, "That was clever of them".

When another close friend of mine showed me a Beatles book around late 1989 showing you and the others having your photos taken and you were wearing those red sandals/thongs that day, he explained to me, "Paul says here they weren't responsible for that". And he went on to share with me what the book said regarding it being some bizarre outsider coming up with the idea on their own. I certainly wasn't trying to be closeminded, either; during that same period I had also heard you explaining that The Beatles weren't responsible for the backwards bit on Sgt. Pepper, and I had taken you right at your word, thinking, "Maybe it was a secret prank by some engineer behind The Beatles' backs or something?"

Now please keep in mind, I was only about 20 at the time. When I heard that, I asked him, "Are you sure? It all seems too precise and well thought out." In my innocence I had had my doubts simply because the "clues" seemed to be so carefully placed (although at that age I hadn't yet heard the more ridiculous ones, such as the notches and crack in the stone wall picture on the back of Abbey Road, all the more extreme ones).

Well, soon afterward I began to get my footing as a professional artist... and the chaos began. I was shocked when for the next two decades I would have weirdos from all walks of life suddenly crawl out from under the woodwork making all sorts of accusations against me: anything I said, anything I did, anything I drew, simply because (a) I existed, and (b) I was an artist. It got extremely way out, and it really terrified me. I have been accused of everything from communism to sodomy to insanity, and absolutely every other evil thing in between, all for absolutely no reason at all. I had never been so terrified in my entire life. And I kept thinking, "Why me?"

And somewhere along the line after it was getting to be too much for me to handle, that's when I remembered the whole "Paul is dead" routine and your words on how you had sworn that neither you nor any of the other Beatles had ever personally started any of that. And then I got the Anthology book shortly after it was released, and as I read the entire recollection that the four of you were sharing regarding that whole situation, I was nodding this time and going, "Yeah, now I understand." I understand now all too well how nonsense like that can happen, and how terrifying it can really be.

So I just want to say, I'm very, very sorry that I ever doubted you. I know I didn't mean it wrongly, and that I had just misunderstood the situation, but still, I just wanted to share it with you.

Your lifelong friend,
Craig Carrington

P.S. Thank you for putting on the Amoeba Records show in Hollywood. It was the only time I had gotten to see you live, I was broke and because it was free I was one of those who had slept on the sidewalk overnight in my old Miami Vice shirt and jeans hoping to get in; I had never done anything like that before, and at one point some kind of reporter interviewed me asking what I would do to get in to see the show, and I had politely said in response that you had always loved animation and produced several remarkable works of your own and since I'm an animator that I would love to draw you some pictures. During the show, I was near a back corner, and I had waited in between songs for the crowd to calm down just long enough so that I could be heard when I called out a sincere, "Thank you, Paul". ;)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Forget SILENT HILL: SHATTERED MEMORIES. *This* is TRULY where it's at. ;)

Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Frictional Games
Windows, Mac, Linux

When you first turn it on, the program informs you that it wants you to not be concerned with "winning", but rather instead to simply get engrossed within its story and atmosphere. Next, it strongly advises you to play in a darkened room with headphones on for maximum effect. Then the following appears just before it finally begins:

The world of Amnesia is a dangerous place and you are extremely vulnerable.

Do not try to fight the enemies you encounter. Instead, use your wits. Hide, or even run if necessary.

Thus begins Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Foreboding enough for you? Well, let me put it to you this way: even all of the above before-game advising does absolutely nothing to convey just how powerful the title really is. This is a game that does absolutely everything within its power to get you so terrified, so worked up, so sweaty, so pulse-pounding and so thoroughly and completely freaked out beyond all recognition, and it succeeds all too well.

I remember back around 1997 the first time I ever played Zork Nemesis, and I could barely move the first time I played it: the game's powerful atmosphere had me so spooked I wasn't even thinking about the puzzles -- I was literally terrified that something was going to sneak up on me from behind the shadows. That never happened, of course, but the illusion of dread had been the most complete I had ever experienced. A couple of years or so later, along came Thief: The Dark Project, a game I was destined to instantly fall in love with to the point of always being first in line one way or another to pick up every title following in its series. It was Zork Nemesis gone far, far superior; the world's first ever "First Person Sneaker", the Thief games were sheer genius. I've mastered each and every single Thief title that has ever come out as of this writing inside and out over the past 14 or so years of the franchise's existance.

And believe me, it was a good thing I did: all those ages of Thief training and expertise proved to be both invaluable and perfect in preparing me for the day when a title like Amnesia should come along. Thief could get absolutely terrifying at times, but its terror is a carnival compared with Amnesia, which plays as Thief's Older Bullying Cousin. The kind of previously unmet cousin you've always been warned to stay far away from and to avoid sudden movements around. Turn out the lights at night, turn on the headphones, and let it assault you.

It would be grossly unfair for me to give away any more of the plot than the introduction dictates, so I promise I'll only give the exact basics the game's own description gives you before jumping in: you are Daniel, suddenly conscious and alone within a huge, gorgeously designed gothic castle. You have absolutely no memory of who you are or anything else, only that you have written a note to yourself explaining that you have deliberately blotted out your own memory and that you are to kill someone in particular. That is all. The rest is an absolutely chilling route into the very depths of gameplay terror that is every bit as tense and nervewracking as promised.

Unfortunately, there is one serious flaw here. A big one. When you finally do reach your goal and the individual you are supposed to kill, the actual scene itself is so limp and stupid, so basic and unimaginative that it singlehandedly destroys the entire rest of the game that came before it. That flaw ends up displaying all the skill that went into designing Amnesia: the game is so spectacular that it shows us how it could have been even better. We get all ready for that final moment, the entire game is preparing you for it, you feel the game bracing itself to make that giant leap of fear... and it balks. We don't get it. We get a surprisingly mundane ending that seems like it's straight out of an old Star Trek or Lost in Space episode, not the masterpiece this title wants and works so hard to be.

But up to that point, it is still effective, almost to the point of being unbearably so. You pick up objects and solve puzzles in an atmosphere that will have you constantly "glancing nervously around" with the controls in sheer fear of something coming after you (a prison is particularly effective). And you have to balance your gameplay carefully: Daniel is deathly afraid of the dark, and being in it too long will cause him to lose his sanity. Lose it too much and the game apparently ends, although I can't personally verify that since I haven't died in that matter personally while playing it. So you have a lantern to help you, only the trouble is that it also attracts the attention of any enemies that see it, so you have to perform a careful balancing act between how much light you use, including any candles and torches you light along the way, with your remaining in the dark. It's an ingenious method, and it keeps you constantly on the edge of your seat, especially since you have absolutely no way of defending yourself.

Weak stomachs, beware: this game is not for the squeamish. It is graphic and horrifying, as it was meant to be. Forget stuff like Silent Hill: this game is the true nightmare, that truly horrifying experience so many gamers have desperately wanted to experience in game form. It's an impressive achievement, which makes it such a shame that all that buildup and atmosphere comes to naught in the end. It puts on far too good a show to suddenly turn conventional at the last minute, especially when all of the possible multiple endings are thoroughly uninteresting and unsatisfying. Even so, Amnesia: The Dark Descent is nevertheless still a remarkable and recommended experience for those wanting to be terrified even in its current flawed form.

Monday, January 16, 2012

You just sort of drift through it like a mist as though you were weightless...

The Invisible Circus
Fine Line Features
Written and directed by Adam Brooks
Based on the book by Jennifer Egan
98 minutes
Rated R (for sexuality, language and drug content)

The sixties and early seventies, of course, have been explored in countless movies, television productions and books, and each year more and more seem to be produced. Many of them seem to mimic each other at times, but it takes a real vision to truly touch a nerve about that tumultous time period, to truly nail a specific emotion or subject from that era that has never before been addressed so specifically and so well. The Invisible Circus is one such attempt at doing so.

The movie technically opens (you'll see what I mean by "technically" in a moment) in the early seventies. A wide-eyed young girl named Phoebe (Jordana Brewster) is reflective on the fact that the older sister she worshipped, appropriately named Faith (Cameron Diaz), had set off years ago to truly live and accomplish something in life as their good artistic father taught her. Because it was the sixties, Faith had become drawn into a colorful group of hippies meeting a hawk-faced longhair named Wolf (Christopher Eccleston) and consequentially journeyed with them off to the lovely delights of Europe... and never came back. Bored staying in a quiet humdrum little blah life with her mother, Phoebe decides to travel in her sister's footsteps to discover exactly why.

If it's at all possible, The Invisible Circus is even dreamier and more surrealistically dramatic and studied than Sophia Copolla's The Virgin Suicides, so much so that it leaves you drifting on a mist the film creates floating over the screen you're watching it on. This is not at all a fast-moving film; it's very slow, quiet, reflective, and its filled with idealistic coming-of-age dialogue with their evergrowing meanings chanted over and over.

The film wants to both hypnotize you and keep you reflective at the same time, and whether or not it succeeds in doing so depends on you personally; this is the sort of movie you'll film either entrancingly fascinating or drop dead boring, depending on your personality. It's based on a novel I've never read personally, but I get the impression that it must be extremely faithful to its source. There's a scene involving a glass reflection that was eerily effective and at the same time seemed lifted directly out of the sort of writing you find on the written page, not a film script, and that's not at all a bad thing. The whole film flashes back and forth moodily between what had occured before and what is currently happening in the movie like an odd game of tug-of-war, but you never feel lost in what's being portrayed or expressed; rather you are sort of weirdly wisping through it like a dream. The cinematography is gorgeous and captures perfectly the spectacular beauty of the towns and their surrounding countrysides.

As for the story itself, it is quietly meditating on the dark side of the hippie movement, how important it is to stay true to what you personally wish to accomplish and do for the world and others in it as opposed to what others insist is supposed to be the "right" direction even though it is clearly wrong. Faith is neither a "bad girl" nor a rebel by any means, but (and I'm being careful not to give away too much here) we learn that for a period of time she naively believed all sorts of wild ideas in her trust that she was helping to better the world before she was finally stopped dead in her tracks when she realized just how overly trusting she had been in the actions and opinions of others. And should you choose to let this movie carry you along with it, it may have you personally reflecting on such moments in your own life and what was truly what you've learned back then regarding what is really The Correct Way to make a difference, as opposed to merely going along with how you are instructed to do so.

I can't recommend The Invisible Circle to just anyone, but that's because of its uniquely foggy style which guarantees that not everybody is going to like it. A drama that feels more like you are dreaming it as opposed to cinematically experiencing it, it is clearly made for a specific audience. But if any of this happens to sound right up your alley, then by all means, let go and pursue it. Just don't expect any wildly flashing sirens or screams along the way... simply let it lift you up like a cork and carry you along the trip.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Feel the Earth.

I posted this as a tweet on Twitter tonight, & thought I'd elaborate on it here 2 further explain it.

Thought 4 the evening: look at the stars. Realize that u are not really looking "up", but out: u are actually on the side of this huge beautiful planet looking out with the entire universe directly in front of u. & it goes on & on & on... eternally.

& consider this: as u realize the above, realize that this wonderful Earth u are standing on the side of at this very moment is turning under your feet as it glides majestically on its orbit around the sun. U are being held on only by the wonder of gravity. The hills, cities, mountains, beaches, buildings around u are scraping the sky, the cosmos, as the Earth turns on its magnificent journey through space.

Isn't that amazing? Seriously, isn't that something just so beautiful & miraculous that it's wonderful just 2 think about it?

& all of this is right here all around u just 4 u 2 enjoy. ;)

Think about it.

Appreciate it.

Share it with someone u love.