Friday, February 25, 2011

A Deconstruction

I am learning to see the world through an artist's eyes. Years ago, I had found a gorgeous piece of Final Fantasy IV fan art once that I chose as my desktop. After gazing at it for quite awhile, I eventually noticed that the girl's feet were far too small for the rest of her body. These days, I think I would be able to spot it immediately. How can I improve my own drawings unless I learn to look for these things?

Jak's garage, like many, contains various artifacts and products that time has forgotten. Since he was, up until recently, a smoker, we spent a lot of time out there. There's a Disney cookie container that was re-purposed for storage of who knows what that I must have looked at dozens of times by now, but for whatever reason this time, I really looked at it.

The beauty of Disney characters is that they are designed to be really easy to draw. Animation pretty much requires this since whole teams draw these characters over and over again with only slight movements in each drawing. And of course when we're talking about a franchise as long running as Disney, artists are going to come and go. They need to guarantee that you're still going to recognize Mickey no matter what. However, the artist still needs to understand things like composition, proportions, and how people and animals move in order to draw effectively.

I'm amazed that whoever designed this cookie jar even kept his job, let alone that this design got approved and sent out the door.

If you look at the images quickly, you'll see that they show Mickey, Pluto and Donald playing with a Frisbee. There are three images total that show different states of their game, almost like a mini-animation or comic strip. The order of the three characters always remains the same: Mickey, Pluto, Donald. But let's take a closer look, shall we?

Mickey side 1
Here we see Mickey doing the classic bull fighting technique to Pluto with the Frisbee. "Toro! Toro!"

Pluto side 1
Poor Pluto. Not only is this whole game just a way to tease him, but his left front leg has clearly been dislocated. I've never seen a dog that can raise its arm that high up, have you? To make matters worse, his back legs seem to be stuck in a bent position.

Donald side 1
Donald seems to be under the impression that they are playing football, because he's in a classic linebacker pose.

Mickey side 2
The only way to properly distinguish which of Mickey's arms is which here is by looking at those hash marks on his gloves and realizing that means we're looking at the back of his hands, and then going by thumb position. Add to it his horizontal orientation and the strange way both of his feet are now turned up, and all I can think of when I see this image is that Mickey's head must be spinning 'round and 'round and 'round.. I can hear his demented laugh right now.

Pluto side 2
What on earth is going on with Pluto's mouth here? His bottom jaw seems to be completely resting against his chest. I think the reason that Pluto and Goofy are treated differently is that Pluto is actually half dog half rubber tree.

Donald side 2
Oh no! The bones in Donald's legs have turned to jelly! And the Frisbee has changed colors!

I believe Mickey's position here is meant to suggest that he's just thrown the Frisbee. If anyone can figure out exactly how you would end up in this position after throwing a Frisbee in a completely straight arch, I would really appreciate if you would take some video of yourself to show me how it's done.

Pluto's collar has changed from blue to white. I think the poor thing has now decided to start crawling on his front legs only since those back ones are still locked.

Donald shows us the proper way to catch a Frisbee. Always make sure to lift a leg along with your arm and make the peace sign with the other hand.

I hope you didn't mind this little diversion from my normal posts. I've decided I've been taking this blog a little too seriously lately and I might as well show my silly side. :)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

An American Werewolf in Paris

Sometimes, a movie can get many things wrong while still getting a few things right. That is definitely the case with this movie.

As I mentioned in the past, I'm not a big fan of werewolves as a whole. I already lose control of my body approximately 3 days a month and there's nothing fun about it. Add to that the hairiness and the killing people, I just don't see the appeal of them. I really loved An American Werewolf in London though. Beyond its sense of humor and amazing special effects, I also really liked the idea that werewolf victims become the undead that only werewolves can see. So the werewolf isn't just sitting around moping and wondering what he did, he(or she) has a visual reminder walking around and giving them a guilt trip.

This sequel didn't really have much of a chance for success to begin with. It was made 16 years after the original and did not have the same writer or director. Like many sequels of this type, they tried to capture the spirit of the original but missed the mark. The werewolf mythology does not contradict the original movie, but more is added to make it slightly off. The female lead character is supposedly the daughter of the couple from the first movie, but I only know this from the description on the Netflix sleeve. There's mention that her mother was a nurse, but if she ever spoke her mother's name I missed it, and she doesn't have the last name of either of the former main characters.

Also, while our two main characters see the undead, the other werewolves don't seem to be bothered. They've started something almost like a religion, claiming they want to get rid of the weaker humans and let werewolves dominate the earth instead. The thing is, given the mythology, this wouldn't entirely work. You can't purify the earth if you're still going to have all those people you killed walking around, getting more and more rotten as time goes on, and whining about how you killed them. Of course the movie doesn't want you to think about that. It also doesn't want you to spend any time pondering whether the female lead, Serafine, has always been a werewolf (since her dad was one) or if she only recently became one. At the end of the movie it's not even cleared if she's been cured or not.

I'd also say that the only way you can qualify this movie as horror is that it contains werewolves. There are a few pathetic jump scares and TWO scenes where a character shines a light in a direction and the audience can see the werewolf coming while the character remains oblivious. Very cheap. The gore is pretty generic without being nauseating, so that's only going to scare the youngest of kids.

This film is also exceedingly dated. It seriously has "I was made in the 90s" stamped all over it. The filmmakers were obviously very excited by the idea that they could now create the werewolves using CGI. Too bad the technology was not up to par (or they didn't spend enough money) and it just looks terrible. Every werewolf looks exactly the same, and the transformations are badly done. There's a moment during a fight scene of two werewolves going at it. Apparently they built some masks because we see a close up and the werewolf's mouth is covered in blood where they have been biting at the other. We cut back to a further away shot of them wrestling and biting at each other in CGI, and there's no blood anywhere to be found.

This was also the time when movie soundtracks were big money makers, and as such the soundtrack features songs from very popular 90s era artists. The songs are heavily featured in the movie in major dramatic or action sequences. So we get to see two characters make out while Gavin Rossdale tells us "Nothing hurts like your mouth" and we see the lead male Andy run from the cops while listening to the fast paced ska beats of the Suicide Machines. I like a lot of this music and it was still annoying to me.

That said, perhaps because I was a teenager in the 90s and I remember this kind of stuff well, almost with a hint of nostalgia, I didn't hate this movie as much as I could have. I recognized it as bad, but found it sort of cute as well. A large part of that may be because of how strong a character Serafine is. She's a werewolf but doesn't kill anyone. Toward the beginning of the movie we even see her locking herself in a cage to prevent her accidentally hurting others. She does her best to calmly explain the situation to Andy after he has been bitten, and later in the climactic scenes she willingly takes to her werewolf form in order to stop one of the bad werewolves and save the lives of others. It would have been really easy for this movie to make her out to be a simple damsel in distress or possibly even a bad ass seductress but instead we get a character who is capable, human, and heroic.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Halloween (1978)

There's always a danger when you watch older films. Things have been copied and improved upon in more recent films, and the original one can seem stale, boring, or slow. There's also the matter of hype. People regard a film as a classic, they praise certain characters, they regard it highly as one of their favorites. So I was originally very excited to sit down and watch the original Halloween, but I left it very disappointed.

One of the things I noticed very early on and stuck with me throughout the entirety of the film is the way it is shot. The film opens with a killing scene. It's very slow and deliberate and not entirely shocking. We're seeing it happen through the killer's eyes and the killer happens to be wearing a mask, so we only see through the eye holes. While that in and of itself is very clever, it was ruined for me by the fact that the way we could see the knife through the left eye hole and the location of the victim meant the knife couldn't have possibly been making contact. I understand he didn't want to show the full on gore, but it sure seems to me you can make a choice to have the knife visible and yet still film it right. Similar things would happen later in the film, particularly in car scenes. The killer gets into a car alone, and it's a sort of police car, with a barrier between the front and back seat. The camera follows the killer into the car then films from the backseat even though we are supposedly seeing what the killer is watching. Again later two girls are driving to their babysitting jobs, and the camera is sitting in the backseat behind them even though there's no one in the backseat. Perhaps he was trying to create a sort of feeling of always being watched, but for me it just felt wrong.

This is also just an incredibly slow moving movie. Beyond the opening scene, there is no killing until 50 minutes in. Before that we get a lot of, well, I can't call it character development or story development - we follow Laurie and her friends around, and occasionally get a scene of Michael Myers' psychiatrist Loomis trying to convince the police that his patient is a threat. Even as the killing begins it's very slow moving, as no one realizes the first victim is dead, and it takes a while for him to kill the next two. When all the previous victims are finally revealed to Laurie, things can finally get suspenseful and we see some action - but just barely.

I was really expecting Laurie to be a much stronger character. She gets a lot of praise. Maybe I've just seen too many stronger final girls that came along later, but I didn't find her brave or clever. She takes brief stabs at Myers and then foolishly assumes he's dead without even bothering to make sure. Twice. I can understand the first time making that mistake, but after you stab a guy in the neck and he still gets up to come back at you, I think I'd be checking for a pulse the second time around. Especially since you didn't actually stab him in a vital area. Of course Michael Myers didn't stab Bob in a vital area and he died instantaneously, so maybe this movie exists in some alternate reality where hearts are in a different place.

I realize I'm nitpicking here and that may not be entirely fair. I guess my problem is that a lot of these little things were not issues with technology of the time, or perhaps that time period's trends and tastes - they're just off and they disrupt from the narrative for me, which was already moving at a snail's pace.

The way the movie ends, we were clearly being set up for a sequel. It's clear that Myers has a thing for Laurie in particular, but we're not told what. Loomis tells us a little about his history with Myers, but his decision that there is pure evil living inside Myers seems rash without knowing any further details. I couldn't help but think of the recent Hatchet series, where the first film ended on a cliffhanger and the second movie continued and gave us more back story on the characters. Perhaps if I had been able to watch Halloween and Halloween II back to back, I could appreciate this a bit more. It just seems like there were probably scenes in this film that could have been taken out to give us a complete story in one film instead.

As it stands, I can give this film respect for helping to launch a genre, I'm just a little surprised that it managed to inspire anyone.

So this is the part where I invite you to tell me how right or wrong I am. Is the first film generally regarded in a negative fashion, and I have to keep going to appreciate the series? Or is there something in this film that I'm missing? Is my characterization of Laurie all wrong? I beg of you to enlighten me.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Women in Horror Month: Splice

Horror and science fiction seem to almost go hand in hand. While there are certainly some horror films that are firmly planted in real world science, most of the time stretching of the laws of nature is required to give us that true frightening feeling. It also tends to let us feel safe, allowing us to explore ideas while being confident that surely, none of this could really ever happen. It's that exploration of ideas and morality that make these movies so much fun.

A lot of people seemed to compare Splice to Species, and as a knee jerk reaction, that is easy to do. Both feature a genetically altered female organism that develops into maturity very quickly and has a certain predatory nature. However, to me, Splice has a lot more in common with the novel Frankenstein as both feature a scientist driven to create a new life form for what they believe will be the good of all mankind. Splice's scientist is a female, and this creates a whole new dynamic to the story as she reacts very differently to her "child" than Dr. Frankenstein did.

I would definitely place this film more in the realm of horror than just science fiction as there are some truly disturbing moments. It won't give you nightmares but it will illicit an emotional reaction from you. If you don't like your movies to leave you feeling a bit disturbed, you may not want to see it. If you like your art to push the boundaries just a bit and make you think about morals and what role they should play in science, however, I think you will enjoy this quite a bit. I recommend not reading further if you plan to watch it, as there will be spoilers from here forward.

Elsa is a brilliant and driven scientist who is working in gene splicing to help synthesize proteins that will help the world. She and her boyfriend Clive have managed to create small blob like organisms who create a protein that helps cattle. The company she works for is interested in creating this protein in mass quantities to make a profit, but Elsa would much rather take her research even further and hopefully make a difference for people around the world. Since she wears the pants in her relationship, she convinces Clive to help her out with this in secret. She also doesn't tell him that she's used her own DNA for the human portion of the creature's genetic code.

They push forward and are ultimately successful, creating an organism that is oddly reminiscent of a human yet has many differences as well. Elsa grows very attached to it and ultimately treats her as if she was her child. It's around this time that we learn Elsa's mother was very cruel and abusive toward her and Elsa is clearly using this opportunity to heal her own troubled past as much as she is trying to make a scientific discovery.

As someone who had a difficult relationship with my mother, I sympathized greatly with Elsa at this point. I think most of us feel that there is something our parents may have done wrong in raising us, and if we ever had children, we would swear to do it differently. But in reality, would we just repeat those mistakes? Elsa refuses to deal with the things her mother did to her as a child, refuses to even speak about them in any kind of detail to Clive. As such, she is pretty much doomed to repeat them. While she originally puts forth a great effort to treat the creature, which she names Dren, with love and care, the more independence Dren shows, the more she is unable to trust her. Instead of allowing her child to grow and giving her a degree of freedom, she tries to control her all the more, returning to treating her more like a lab rat than her baby. Once she severs the emotional connection between Dren and herself, she is able to finally isolate the protein that the company so desperately wants to sell.

Clive, on the other hand, starts off distant with Dren, believing they never should have created her and it was a mistake to allow her to live, but he becomes more and more attached to her as she grows. Too attached. I think, since Dren is made with Elsa's DNA, we're supposed to think he's seeing Elsa within Dren and that is what he is attracted to. Personally the "bond" between the two of them was just plain grossing me out, and why Elsa even kept talking to him at all once she found the two of them together I can't say I understand. Yes, Elsa and Clive both crossed lines in their creation and treatment of her, but I think there's a quantifiable difference between cutting off a creature's tail after it kills something and having sex with said creature. It's gross and considering Dren's maturity level, it's essentially statutory rape.

I've seen online that people claim Clive was under a kind of spell, or perhaps Dren was releasing phermones. Personally, I didn't really get that vibe at all.

The two of them realize that regardless of how they may feel about her, Dren is their responsibility. I think they both feel a degree of relief when they believe her to be dead. Much like Dr. Frankenstein, they were not prepared for the results of their intentions and could not fully handle her. Unfortunately for them, Dren was not actually dead, but simply entering a final evolutionary stage. She has now become male, and exacts her revenge on her creators. It is interesting that now that Dren has changed genders, her treatment of both her "parents" flip flops.. Clive is tortured and killed whereas Elsa is raped. After the way Elsa ultimately treated Dren, it is is as if Dren now feels it is equally important to leave Elsa emotionally violated as well as physically. It is perhaps this violation that gives Elsa the courage to deal the killing blow. As we see in the ending scene, Elsa is now completely emotionally dead inside.

While you could perhaps argue that she has learned nothing from the whole experience, being so willing to allow this new creation to come to term, I think Elsa has learned - she simply no longer cares. If the company truly wishes to use this new child of hers for experiments, she may as well let them. As she says to her boss "what's the worse that could happen?" Certainly nothing much worse than what she has already experienced. Sadly, I think Elsa truly has become her mother by this point.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Women in Horror Month: Aliens

February is women in horror month. It sounds like a great excuse for me to catch up on seeing a ton of horror movies and also revisit some of my favorites. So you can expect to see at least a few entries from me this month all about the bad ass women in horror movies.

My first pick is a chance for me to talk about one of my most favorite movie characters of all time. I suppose some would try to argue that Aliens isn't horror, but I assure you as a child I have very distinct memories of being unable to watch this movie from fear, and quite possibly screaming at a certain point on The Great Movie Ride in Disney World. Of course now the xenomorphs are one of my all time favorite monsters.

I personally prefer the more suspenseful Alien to Aliens, which is more of a straight action movie. That isn't to say the film isn't good. I made the mistake of watching the director's cut the first time I saw it, which made the movie seem to drag a lot more than necessary. The original theatrical cut does still have a slow build - it is almost exactly one hour before we see the full grown aliens for the first time, but a lot of the build up provides us with a lot of mythology and a deeper understanding of what is going on with this series, so I think it's worth it. Aliens is also I think the strongest of the films in terms of Ripley's character and therefore the best pick for Women in Horror month.

As the film begins, the shuttle craft Ripley escaped with in Alien is being found, 57 years later. Ripley wakes up to a world that has advanced a bit from last she knew it and seems to be full of jerks. None of them are willing to believe her story about the alien creature, especially since a terra forming colony has been on the planet for quite awhile now. The only person who is moderately interested is Carter Burke (played excellently by Paul Reiser) and that's just because he's hoping to make some money off the whole thing. Ripley is plagued by nightmares of her experience. When Burke asks her to join a team that is investigating the lack of contact from the terra forming colony, she originally says no, but soon realizes that the best way to make the dreams go away is to rid the universe of these creatures for once and for all.

If you're going to make any criticism of this film, I'd say it's that nearly all the males in it are idiots. Corporal Hicks seems to be the only one with any amount of intelligence and decency - I'm also excluding Bishop because he is a synthetic and not an actual man. While it's great to see so many strong female characters, I'm not sure we had to see them at the expense of men. One of the great things about the first film is that it treats all the male and female characters as equals. Unfortunately that's not what's going on here.

Regardless, Ripley is largely the only one in the film who knows exactly what is going on and the best way to handle things. When the Lieutenant guiding the squad of marines basically falls to pieces, Ripley takes charge. When nearly all the marines are dead and Corporal Hicks is severely injured, Ripley doesn't hesitate to go back into the virtual hornet's nest to rescue Newt.

One of the things this movie does right, and I think credit goes to both Sigourney Weaver and James Cameron for this, is that Ripley does keep a sense of femininity while also being really tough and strong. She has fears and she shows her emotions, but when it matters most she finds the strength to do what needs to be done, and that makes her a truly strong hero. One element I learned from the director's cut that I think should have remained in the film is the knowledge that Ripley was in fact a mother, and that her daughter died in that long period while she was in hypersleep. It really helps you understand her motivations when it comes to taking care of Newt.

Newt herself is a pretty strong female character - she managed to outlive every other person on the colony and escape from the aliens until Ripley and the marines arrived. She even guides them through the tunnels to escape toward the end. It really is a crime that they chose to kill her character off at the beginning of Alien 3. I think they could have done great things with her had they taken the series in a different direction.

Of course, there is one other really strong female character in this film, and no, I'm not talking about Vasquez. As much as I enjoyed seeing a female marine who was tougher than pretty much all her compatriots, Vasquez isn't much more than a stereotype in the film and therefore doesn't count to me. No, I'm talking about big bad Momma(as I like to call her), the alien queen.

I think one of the reasons I can't help but love these monsters is that they can't help what they are - they are doing what they need to do to survive. As Ripley torched the mass of eggs laying in front of the queen, I found myself shouting, "You're killing all her babies!" The queen is just doing what she was born to do - lay eggs. She can't help that the continuation of her species requires another species to serve as a host. Her drones are also playing their part, gathering up more human hosts so that more of their brothers can be born. When Ripley destroys all the eggs and most of the drones, Momma takes matters into her own hands and seeks her revenge. She is just as strong a female as Ripley is, and a simple twist of luck could have resulted in her winning that final match. In a way, Momma did ultimately win this battle - we just don't realize it until Alien 3.

While the series was ultimately squandered by the studio (check the wikipedia entry on Alien 3 if you want to see what can happen to make a movie go so very wrong) I think all 4 films are great as a character study - Ripley continues to grow and evolve throughout all of them. There is a prequel currently in development and I'm glad to say that the current plan does not involve Ripley. It wouldn't make any sense for her to be there. Hopefully though it will still feature as least one strong female hero.
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