December 21, 2007

Skeleton Frolics (1937)

In 1929, director Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks changed the face of animation with the release of the very first installment of their "Silly Symphonies" series, "The Skeleton Dance". Iwerks and Disney had been collaborating together since the early 20s, in Disney's "Laugh-O-Gram" cartoon series; however, their friendship suffered a tremendous blow when Iwerks accepted an offer by a competitor to leave Disney and start his own animation studio. That was the birth of Celebrity Productions, where Iwerks continued developing his style and technique (and where he created the character of Flip the Frog). While his work kept the same high quality, it wasn't really popular and by 1936 the studio was closed. Later that year, Iwerks was hired by Columbia Pictures, and Iwerks decided to return to his old skeletons for another dance, this time in color.

1937's "Skeleton Frolics" is essentially, a remake of the 1929 classic "The Skeleton Dance", the movie that borough him fame and fortune. Like that short film, it is set on an abandoned graveyard, where at midnight the creatures of the night come alive and begin to play. The dead rise from their coffins, ready for the show that's about to begin, as a group of skeletons has formed an orchestra, and begin to play a happy tune. Now, it's not easy to be a musician made of just bones, as some of the orchestra members have problems with their body parts, however, the band manages to put a good show and another group of skeletons begin to dance. A lovely couple of them faces the same problems that troubled the orchestra: it's hard to dance with loose body parts. Everything ends at dawn, and just when the sun is about to rise again, the skeletons run towards their graves.

Directed and animated by Ub Iwerks himself, "Skeleton Frolics" follows faithfully the pattern set by "The Skeleton Dance" years before, although with a crucial difference: Iwerks did the whole film in Technicolor. The bright tonalities allowed Iwerks to create a more visually appealing film, and also to use the many new techniques he had been practicing since leaving Disney, creating even better effects of depth and dynamism than those he conceived before. It is certainly a more experimental film than "The Skeleton Dance", although sadly, this doesn't mean it's necessarily a better film. For starters, the film is practically identical to the one he did with Disney, with the only differences being the music (more on that later) and the color effects. It looks beautiful, no doubt about it, but it definitely feels kind of unoriginal after all.

However, it is not the unoriginality of the concept what truly hurts the film (after all, Iwerks executes it in a wonderful way), but the fact that the musical melody created by Joe DeNat for the film is pretty uninteresting and lacks the charming elegance and whimsical fun of the one done by Carl W. Stalling for "The Skeleton Dance". In other words, while DeNat's tune is effective and appropriate for the theme, it's easy to forget about it rapidly while Stalling's song has a unique personality that makes it unforgettable. Being a musical film, this is of high importance, and so the mediocrity of the music brings down Iwerk's flawless work of animation. Personally, I think that with a better musical accompaniment, "Skeleton Frolics" would be remembered as fondly as "The Skeleton Dance despite not being as groundbreaking, as it's still a fun film to watch.

It's kind of sad that most of the work Iwerks did after leaving Disney is now forgotten due to his poor success, however, it must be said that if Iwerks lacked the popularity of Disney or Fleischer (Disney's main rival), he did not lack the quality of those companies' films. It was probably just a case of bad luck what made the man who gave life to Disney's mouse for the first time to face failure out of Disney. Despite its shortcomings, "Skeleton Frolics" is a very funny and visually breathtaking film, that while not exactly the most original and fresh film (one just can't help but thinking of "The Skeleton Dance" while watching it), it definitely reminds us that Iwerk's skeletons are still here to haunt us, and inspire us.


Buy "Skeleton Frolics" (1937)

December 18, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007)

Ever since first published in 1995, "Northern Lights", the first novel in the "His Dark Materials" series by British writer Philip Pullman, became a very popular fantasy novel, not only among young readers, but also among the adult population, earning several prestigious literary awards around the world. However, the "His Dark Materials" series of books also became the subject of controversy among fundamentalist Christians, who see in the book an attack to their beliefs, and a propagandistic tool for atheism. Controversies aside, the popularity of the "His Dark Materials" series piqued the interest of New Line Cinema after the success of "The Lord of the Rings" in 2002, and now, 5 years later, a film adaptation of the first book in the series is now a reality, under the title of "The Golden Compass" (as it's known in America) and director Chris Weitz at the helm.

"The Golden Compass" is the story of Lyra Belaqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young girl living at the University of Oxford, in a parallel universe to our own, similar but different, where life is ruled by the omnipresent organization known as the Magisterium, and the soul resides outside the body in the form of an animal called a "dæmon". One day, she hears her uncle Lord Asriel's (Daniel Craig) announcement to the College that he has discovered the existence of parallel worlds. This investigation goes against the Magisterium dogma, and immediately he is considered an heretic. Lord Asriel decides to travel to the north pole to continue his experiments, but when Lyra's best friend Roger (Ben Walker) is kidnapped by the mysterious Gobblers, she decides to go to the north too, beginning an adventure that will take her to meet armored bears, and discover a powerful secret.

Adapted to the screen by director Chris Weitz himself, "The Golden Compass" is essentially, an introduction to the universe of "His Dark Materials" and the beginning of Lyra's heroic journey. However, fans of the book should not expect a direct adaptation of the novel, as Weitz took several noticeable liberties with the plot, some done in order to make the story cinematic, some done with the idea of toning down the religious allusions that Pullman uses in his novel. While with this changes Weitz certainly sacrificed substantial parts of the story, he still manages to make an interesting and intriguing plot, that certainly makes one to know more about this parallel world and its ultimately fate. As the focus is completely on Lyra, there isn't a lot of character development for most of the supporting characters, and that's something that brings the film down a bit.

As he is better known for his work in comedies ("American Pie" and "About a Boy" for example), it was hard to think of Chris Weitz as a director of Pullman's epic fantasy, however, in this aspect his work truly shines. While his script isn't really up to the expectations, his visual design and overall vision for the movie is simply flawless. With an excellent work of cinematography (by Henry Braham) and art design, Weitz makes Pullman's work come to life in a grandiose fashion, and gives every scene a very special, almost ethereal touch. The work done by the special effects team is also remarkable, specially in the creation of the armored polar bears and naturally, the Dæmons themselves. Another element that's worth to point out is Weitz' work with his cast, as he manages to bring out excellent performances that work nicely despite his weak screenplay.

And it is the work done by the cast what practically rescues "The Golden Compass" from being just another fantasy film and bring hope that maybe the next film (if there's one) may be better. Young Dakota Blue Richards is certainly a brilliant discovery, as she brings to her role a charming rebellious attitude that works perfectly with her clever and witty character. In this her first work she shows a lot of promise and hopefully she'll realize her potential in her following films. The rest of the cast is excellent, despite the lack of development of their characters. Nicole Kidman is perfect as the cold and enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, and Sam Elliott shines as the charming Aeronaut Lee Scresby. As the voice of Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear, Ian McKellen is perfect, giving his character a fully developed personality that makes him stand out.

Now, while the cast's performances are excellent and Weitz' directing is honestly impressive, what definitely brings the film down is the way Weitz fleshed out his adaptation. As written above, Weitz took a lot of liberties with the story, in an attempt to make the complexities of the plot a bit easier to get by the mainstream audiences, but by doing this he turned Pullman's original epic into a fairly typical fantasy adventure. I'm not saying that he betrayed the novel's plot, but the way Weitz has developed the story makes clichéd what otherwise would be fresh and original, as Weitz transforms the novel's sequence of events into one that follows the pattern of classic series of films (like "Star Wars"). To make things worse, several of the changes done, while probably unnoticeable for most people, will definitely be disliked by fans of Pullman's book.

This last thing is probably what will damage the film more, as in the it's the target audience whom ultimately will give the film a good or bad word of mouth. However, I would still recommend "The Golden Compass", as despite the liberties taken with the source novel, it's still an entertaining film that keeps that sense of adventure the novel has. Personally, I would like to see what Weitz has prepared for the second installment, but his disregard for the fans may make a second part inviable. Despite it's shortcomings, "The Golden Compass" it's still a very good movie, although probably not the fantasy film of the year.


Buy "The Golden Compass" (2007)

December 10, 2007

The Skeleton Dance (1929)

It was in 1928 when sound entered the realm of motion pictures and with it a new age arrived to the young medium and the conventions of an art form were changed forever. This new technology, that allowed movies to be able to have their own musical score independent of the theater's orchestra, entered the mind of a young film director and animator named Walt Disney, who had been producing short animated films with the help of the brilliant cartoonist Ub Iwerks. Disney decided to take advantage of the novelty of sound and create a series of short musical animations to distribute along their Mickey Mouse cartoons (which also began to be produced with sound), in which they would be able to experiment with new techniques, characters and ideas. He named the series, "Silly Symphonies", and the very first one of them, 1929's "The Skeleton Dance", would revolutionize animation forever.

In "The Skeleton Dance", the action is set on an abandoned graveyard during a windy night under the full moon. It is the perfect night for the creatures of the night, and so the bats fly from the belfry, the spiders go out for a walk, and an owl watches scared the action that's about to begin: the dead rise from their graves, and they are ready to dance. A skeleton comes out first, scaring a couple of cats who were fighting, and then he calls his friends, other skeletons who are willing to play some music and celebrate. Using their bones as musical instruments, the Skeletons play a haunting tune, dance to the music, and even dance Ring Around the Rosie, having fun until the moon hides and the new day begins, because as soon as the rooster appears to announce that it's morning, the Skeletons must return to their graves, and prepare themselves for the next time.

Created by Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, "The Skeleton Dance" is, as its tag-line says, a talking picture novelty in which audiences where able to witness a good song accompanied by an animated film, pretty much similar to what we now know as a musical video. What makes the movie amazing is the way it perfectly mixes the horror atmosphere of its setting with the whimsical comedy that made Walt Disney Productions' short films so popular with the audiences. Skulls, bats, cats and spiders make an apparition in the movie, in what could be the perfect scenario for a horror film, but this time the skeletons only want to have fun. Carl W. Stalling, composer of the film's song (and another influential figure in the history of animation), creates in "The Skeleton Dance" one of the best Disney tunes ever, perfectly putting in his music that mix of horror and humor that the short film embodies.

Ub Iwerks' art shines through the film, and Disney makes sure to take the most advantage of his friend's talent. As written above, they saw the "Silly Symphonies" as a way to experiment, and "The Skeleton Dance" showcases Iwerks and his team making a highly dynamic film, as well as creating pretty impressive sequences where perspective is put to great use. It's also very imaginative the many things they do with their skeletons, specially when they made them use the things found in the cemetery as musical instruments (including cats, and later, their own bones). The choreography of the Skeleton dance is very funny, and one gets the feeling that this group of young animators were truly having fun when making this little film. In many ways, "The Skeleton Dance" was way ahead of its time, and includes elements that years later would be part of the horror genre.

Among Disney's early films, "The Skeleton Dance" is one of enormous importance, as thanks to its big success Disney was able to produce more cartoons of his established characters. It also produced many imitators (WB's "Merry Melodies" and MGM's "Happy Harmonies" being the best of them) and a completely new style of short animations. Sadly, the friendship between Disney and Iwerks would be broken and Iwerks abandoned Disney in 1930 to open his own studio and later to work at Columbia Pictures (where in 1937 he remade "The Skeleton Dance" in color, under the name of "Skeleton Frolics"). While he never found the same success he had with Disney, Ub Iwerks' work proved to be among the most influential in the history of animation, becoming the teacher of other masters like Chuck Jones, and even now, animators today study the magic of Ub Iwerks and his dancing skeletons.


Buy "The Skeleton Dance (1929) and more of Disney's early shorts

December 09, 2007

Frankenstein (1910)

By 1910, motion pictures already had 30 years of continuous improvement since the time of its invention. What started as simple shootings of common events in human life had turned into a brand new way of storytelling thanks to the efforts of early pioneers like Georges Méliès, Edwin S. Porter and Ferdinand Zecca. However, it was a new batch of pioneers who finally completed the creation of the new art, and gave birth to cinema as we know it. Among this new group of filmmakers, the name of J. Searle Dawley is probably not as well known as D.W. Griffith or Thomas H. Ince, however, Dawley was probably the first professional director in the history of cinema, as given his experience in theater, was hired by Edwin S. Porter specifically to direct films. And in this position, he would be the first one to bring to screen the horrors of Mary Shelley's immortal novel: "Frankenstein".

In this first version of the novel, Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) is a young student of medicine, who moves to college in order to continue his research. He is looking for the ultimate secret of life and death, and has as a goal the creation of the most perfect human being the world has ever seen. After months of constant research, he thinks he has discovered the secret and sets his final experiment in motion. With a mix of science, alchemy and black magic, Frankenstein creates his creature, but to his surprise, the creation is far from the perfect being he had hoped to make, as his creature (Charles Ogle), is a deformed monster who disgusts and horrifies the young scientist. Frankenstein decides to abandon his creation and return home hoping to rebuild his life, however, the creature has followed him, and is now envious of Frankenstein's bride (Mary Fuller).

Adapted to the screen by J. Searle Dawley himself, the story in this adaptation is very simple, although considering its short runtime (aproximately 16 minutes), it captures fairly the novel's core plot. Dawley's version of the novel introduces a notable element of psychology, as in this film the monster is literally the living physical representation of the evil in Frankenstein's soul. This original take on the novel's plot is really interesting as it not only deviates from the novel but is also completely different than the better known version done by James Whale for Universal in the 30s. While of course the movie lacks the more complex themes of the original story, this interesting addition certainly makes up for it and makes the film to stand out among other early horrors.

Being a professional of theater, it was natural that Dawley's films carried that feeling of being filmed plays; however, one has to praise the fairly original visual composition of the movie, and of course, the very inventive use he gave to the many tricks and special effects of his time. Particularly notable is the scene when Frankenstein creates his creature, as even today, almost 100 years after its shooting, remains an amazing and very suspenseful moment of silent cinema. Of course, given his background it is his work with the cast what separates Dawley's work from other pioneers. Certainly what he lacked in cinematic vision, he compensated for with a good domain of his cast, pulling off great performances from his actors.

While Augustus Phillips is perhaps a bit over the top in his role, he is quite good considering it was his debut on film, and makes a nice portrait of the Doctor as a young man. The mysterious Mary Fuller (who would leave the industry in 1917 at the peak of her fame) plays Frankenstein's bride, in one of her earliest works as an actress, and Charles Ogle completes the cast as the monster. While certainly not a Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle's performance as the Creature is extremely good, and his talent shines in many memorable scenes. Story says he also made his own make-up, as probably he had performed the Monster before on theater during the early years of his career. Ogle's performance is certainly the film's highlight, and through his interpretation one can see why this role is one of the finest horror characters ever written.

The first version of "Frankenstein" is not only valuable for its enormous historical importance, but also for its artistic qualities as a version of the novel. While many may disregard it due to it's unimaginative visual quality and its stagy style, it is one of the films that show the progression of cinema as a narrative art form. Despite its short runtime, it is a very entertaining movie that still manages to be impressive after all these years. Decades before Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle became a monster and brought the immortal classic to life with terrifying power. Fans of the novel and horror fans in general, this is a must-see.


December 07, 2007

Stardust (2007)

In the late 80s, a new generation of writers changed the American comic book industry forever with the complex mature-themed nature of their stories, effectively transforming what was considered an unsophisticated literary genre into a well respected art form. Among that group of storytellers was Neil Gaiman, a young British writer who decided to try his luck at comic books convinced by his friend, Alan Moore (writer of the classic graphic novel "Watchmen"). After landing a job at DC comics, Gaiman started the series that would make him famous, "The Sandman", the comic book where his taste for fantasy and great imagination found no limits. Years later Gaiman returned to prose, and so he decided to make a fantasy novel in the style of classic English fantasy, the one that used to be done before the days of Tolkien and Lewis' high fantasy. And the result was "Stardust".

"Stardust" is the story of Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a humble young man hopelessly in love with the most beautiful girl in his town, Victoria (Sienna Miller). To his misfortune, she has accepted a marriage proposal by Humphrey (Henry Cavill), so he decides to give her an ultimate proof of his love: a star has fallen from the sky, so he tells Victoria that he'll bring it to her, even if that means to cross the legendary wall that separates their town from the mysterious forest. What Tristan doesn't know, is that the wall exists to separate his world from the magical realm of Stormhold, and that he is not the only one looking for the star, as a powerful witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants it to be young again, and two princes (Mark Strong and Jason Flemyng) need it to claim the throne of Stormhold. However, the biggest surprise will be the star's identity.

Screenwriter Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn make a nice adaptation of Gaiman's novel that keeps the story's core points, although they toned down the darkness of the novel quite a bit. This is not really a bad thing, as in the process, Goldman and Vaughn remained faithful to the novel's spirit and the result is a movie that joyfully plays with witty comedy, fantasy and romance, and yet it's still completely in tone with the fantasy stories that inspired Gaiman's book. In essence, "Stardust" is what could be called "a fairy tale for grown-ups", as it's fantasy is whimsical, clever and very imaginative, but with a greater emphasis on the characters and their development than in any epic scale adventure. And this is where "Stardust" has its strongest point: the character development is remarkably well done, and even those characters with very short screen time are unforgettable.

While "Stardust" is a very different (and more ambitious) film to his previous movie, 2004's "Layer Cake", director Matthew Vaughn manages to make it work by concentrating in the story and letting everything else grow from there. Since comedy and romance are now the main ingredients of the film, Vaughn focuses the film on his characters, specially in the relationship the main couple. Still, while "Stardust" lacks the epic scope of high fantasy films, Vaughn manages to make his story a very beautiful looking one, giving life to the kingdom of Stormhold with a beautiful Victorian style and good care for details. Sadly, a fantasy film like "Stardust" fantasy films tends to relay a lot on special effects, and budgetary reasons prevented Vaughn from making truly stunning visuals, however, the ones that appear are good enough to make Stormhold come to life.

As written above, "Stardust" is a fantasy movie where the characters have more importance than the story, so a good cast is needed to make it work. Well, the movie is benefited by a great supporting cast that includes Ricky Gervais, Peter O'Toole, a truly unforgettable Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in what is definitely her great return to mainstream movies. Sadly, the main couple, Charlie Cox and Claire Danes, get easily overshadowed by the supporting cast's performances, specially Cox, whom despite having great natural charm still feels a bit weak in the lead role. Danes fares a bit better, as there are scenes that truly allow her to shine in her character. By the way, I must say that while his role is kind of limited, Mark Strong is excellent as prince Septimus, and delivers some of the best swashbuckling scenes of the last times.

Being an accomplished mix of fantasy, romance and comedy in the classic style of fairy tales, "Stardust"'s worst enemy may be it's very consciously attempt to pay homage to that kind of fantasy tales. In a time where adaptations of high fantasy books like "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" are popular, it would be easy to expect "Stardust" to follow that pattern, but it doesn't and it may turn off people expecting epic battles instead of romantic swashbuckling. If there's a recent movie that bears any similitude to this film, that one would be "The Princess Bride" (also based on a novel), although Reiner's film is certainly grounded even more on the comedy genre. There are details in the lead actors' performances, and the already mentioned troubles in some visual effects, but these are minor quibbles that don't really hurt the film.

While not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, "Stardust" is still one of the best fantasy films of the last years, and most definitely a worthy adaptation of Gaiman's novel. Whimsical and lighthearted but also witty and clever at the same time, "Stardust" proves that not every fantasy film must be about saving the world from an evil dark lord, and that romantic comedies must not be unnecessarily sappy affairs. This excellent tale of fantasy and romance is great for fans of both genres. Comparisons to "The Princess Bride" can't be avoided, but this film is almost as good as that fantasy classic.


Buy "Stardust" (2007)

December 02, 2007

Beowulf (2007)

Ever since the year of 1995 saw the release of Pixar's "Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film, a whole new way of creating animated movies was born, as while computers were already used in traditionally animated films, now they could be used to create animated feature length films. And just like traditional animation has developed several techniques (like Rotoscoping), 3D animation also developed its own styles, like photorealism, which attempts to mimic real life employing techniques such as motion capture. Director Robert Zemeckis has been working with this style for a while, with his first animated film being 2004's "The Polar Express", which showed the potential of motion capture. His next animated feature was also based on the motion capture technique, but this time he used it to recreate England's oldest epic narration: the Norse legend of "Beowulf".

Following closely the epic poem, the movie chronicles the story of how a monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover) terrorized the famous mead hall Heorot, slaughtering the people of danish King Hrothgar (Anthony Hokins) and bringing death to his lands. Hearing of the problems at Heorot, a Geatish hero named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives to Hrothgar's mead hall with his men, claiming to be the world's greatest hero and the only one able to kill the monster. King Hrothgar decides to give Beowulf and his men a chance to prove their courage and allows them to battle Grendel, however, this fight will prove to be decisive in Beowulf's life, as not only he'll face a monster beyond his imagination, he'll also be forced to confront his inner demons when he meets Grendel's mother (Angelina Jolie), and to make things worse, he'll fall in love with the King's beautiful wife, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn).

As written above, "Beowulf" follows the Old English poem quite faithfully, in the sense that it covers all the major battles and challenges that Beowulf faced. However, writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary use the poem's outline to add a back-story that ties all the poem's events, and at the same time explores the theme of the difference between man and myth in heroic tales. This adds an interesting complexity to the poem's characters (which are more archetypes than real persons), as while we do watch Beowulf as the mythic heroic warrior the poem talks about, we also see him as man whose greatest wish is to be remembered as a hero, and often falls in the temptation of exaggerating his feats. It's a take that many purists of the poem may dislike, but personally I found the script to be the strongest part of the film. The touch of sly humor is also another welcomed surprise in the screenplay.

Director Robert Zemeckis makes a good job at making the Norse legend come to life again in animated form, recreating in a very detailed way the atmosphere of myth and magic that the epic tale conveys. While Gaiman and Avery's script takes some liberties with the original story, Zemeckis makes sure to keep that sense of thrill and adventure that has made "Beowulf" to be a captivating story for over a thousand years. The technology employed in the film is definitely a big improvement over the work done in "The Polar Express", and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call "Beowulf" the best motion capture film ever done so far, however, Zemeckis' decision to use an extreme photorealism in the design (to the point that some actors look exactly as their real counterparts) isn't really as fortunate, as the closer the characters look to real life, the easier it gets to to spot flaws in them.

Now, this is not really a problem of the cast, as while they aren't all excellent, for the most part they all make an efficient job in their roles. As the heroic and proud Beowulf, Ray Winstone is very good and makes a very human portrait of the mythic warrior, taking advantage of the fact that the script has humanized his character a bit. As his best friend Wiglaf, Brendan Gleeson shines despite the small size of his role, and he gets some of the best lines in the film. Anthony Hopkins is good as Hrothgar, but nothing really surprising, and the same could be said of Robin Wright Penn as Wealthow. However, Crispin Glover steals the show as Grendel, as he manages to deliver a poignant performance behind the his computer generated facade. Angelina Jolie is also very good in her role, although her accent wasn't really the most appropriate.

With a very good cast, the best technology for computer animation and on top of that a solid script, one would think that "Beowulf" could be a flawless example of animated art, but sadly, something just doesn't work completely. The problem, in my opinion, is that once again Zemeckis seems to be too enamored of his technology, and in his choice of making an extremely realist animated version, he has put the animation's flaws on display to everyone. What I mean is that this search for realism brings to the spotlight a major problem: the quality of the animation doesn't look constant, as while some characters do look amazingly like the actors that play them (Grendel's mother being the most notorious), others look extremely fake (Wiglaf and Hrothgar for example), so the contrast between them is glaringly obvious, and that's really bad.

And this leads to another problem, or more precisely, a question: if Zemeckis wanted such an extreme photorealism in his film, why not use real actors to do it? But despite this, "Beowulf" is not only an interesting experiment, if one gets over the idea that it's an animated film, one will find that behind the flashy graphics there's a powerful story, a story that has been thrilling our imagination for centuries. And still can do that and more.


Buy "Beowulf" (2007)