Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: Me & Orson Welles

| by Allan Stackhouse |

For the younger generation out there that is only seeing Me & Orson Welles for Zac Efron, they will be treating themselves not only to ninety minutes of Zac's statuesque looks but also to a classic film made in modern times. Orson Welles is a legend in early filmmaking and for this film to come along to remind - or introduce - us of his existence is terrific as not only a concept but also as an ode to to someone who helped forge modern filmmaking. I found this film funny, charming, and altogether very entertaining. Though the story line was on the simpler side, the drama played out quickly and succinctly.

I am the first to admit that I do not like period pieces because of the incessant melodrama and the poor choices in cinematography with characters so irritatingly pompous that they make me want to destroy something. However, this film had excellent cinematography, enough to convey a classic time without some stupid bleached out effect. The set design more than successfully created an old American environment and time. Its entire existence pleases me because nothing about it is "modern" but it still holds up as a film. The love story is a little on the dated side but it fits for this generation because there can be more to an adult love story than sex. The story follows Richard Samuels, played by Zac Efron, in his quest to become part of Orson Welles' theater production of Julius Caesar. A concurrent love story develops when Richard becomes interested in Claire Danes' Sonja Jones.

English actor Christian McKay fabulously portrayed theater director and actor Orson Welles. Just from the few movies and articles I've come across of Orson Welles, I gathered that this portrayal was wholly accurate while Christian did add some of his own panache to the role. His delivery of lines for the distinct fashion that Orson Welles spoke was spot on. While Richard's character was the only one to have any significant arcs, Claire Danes provided a great a supporting character to Richard.

Of Richard Linklater's previous works, I've only seen Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly but I found those brilliant and I think him incredibly versatile to have produced such avant garde films to a completely traditional film with Me and Orson Welles. The performances he garnered from the cast and the consistent building up of each character provided scenes that never lost their connectivity and never ceased to be interesting. In fact, I didn't pause the film once throughout my viewing of it.

The consistent conflict of the film is launching Julius Caesar, the play. Orson continuously pushes the opening date back, at the chagrin of the theater owner. All of the characters are trying to get ahead in this film: Orson wants to produce the best play that ever existed, Richard wants respect and the affections of Sonja, and Sonja wants to climb the theater ladder. These characters, having distinct motivations, were instrumental in creating such a complete film.

I found the story to be interesting because it's a cautionary tale of what life in theater or entertainment can potentially be like. It is entirely too rare for someone in entertainment to be looking out for anyone other than themselves. Zac Efron makes this mistake when he quits the play. Orson does come crawling back to him but only for the sake of opening day. After the first show, Orson sends him packing and doesn't even do it to his face. This might villainize the persona of Orson Welles but I believe it to be an accurate portrayal of what a man of genius can be like.

Narratively, the ending is appropriate. It doesn't tie things up in a nice bow, and what kind of message would it send to viewers about theater if it did? A bad one.

Despite my overall reluctance to watch this in theaters, I'm glad that I gave this film a chance. Even if you have absolutely no idea who Orson Welles was or don't care who he is, the film stands on its own two feet and proves itself as a cautionary tale while not restorting to any ridiculous gimmicks. The acting is great and the characters are interesting; a marvelous effort by director Richard Linklater.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cosmic Toast Studios Appoints New CEO - Former William Morris Agency General Counsel takes company reins

BURBANK, Calif., September 23, 2010 – Cosmic Toast Studios (CTS), a cutting edge, full-service production company that specializes in animation, music scoring, and sound effects, has appointed David J. Kekst a partner and chief executive officer.

Mr. Kekst will oversee the Studio’s business development and production operations as it grows its library of original content for film, television, and digital distribution and expands its work-for-hire business.

“David is a seasoned executive who brings strong management skills to our company,” says Cosmic Toast founding partner and animation head Kenny Gage. “His relationships within the entertainment and investment worlds will help us tap into new opportunities for growth, and his deep legal and business experience will be invaluable to our success. He’s a tremendous strategic asset.”

David previously served as Senior Vice President and General Counsel for the Beverly Hills-based William Morris Agency, the largest and oldest talent agency, until its merger with the Endeavor Agency last summer. For more than twelve years, he helped manage the agency’s administrative and legal affairs and supervised its legendary agent training program.

“With a stable of incredibly talented and creative people and a robust collection of original intellectual properties, Cosmic Toast Studios has significant untapped potential,” says Mr. Kekst. “I’m privileged to join the team and am looking forward to leading the expansion and diversification of the business into graphic novels, comics, and the corporate marketing realm while capitalizing on original content successes. In these difficult economic times, it is also an enormous advantage that we offer comprehensive, one-stop services that maximize budget and time efficiencies. We intend to broaden our reach by playing to these strengths.”

About Cosmic Toast Studios
Cosmic Toast Studios (“CTS”), located in Burbank, California, is a full-service production studio that specializes in animation, music scoring, and sound effects to create remarkable worlds and memorable characters. Every step of the pre-production, production, and post-production process is completed within the studio, including animation (both 2D and CGI), writing, storyboarding, animatics, shooting (CTS has its own green screen facility), editing, sound design, music scoring, and song and voiceover recording.

CTS also boasts a comprehensive portfolio of original intellectual properties for television, film, and print media, including comic books, graphic novels and motion comics.

Visit Cosmic Toast Studios at www.cosmictoaststudios.com for more information.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Coco Avant Chanel

| by Allan Stackhouse |

If you're completely lost when it comes to the French language, remember that avant means before in English. The French language film is immediately framed in a time when women were not treated as equals in society. It tells a tale of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel's past, avant she becomes the household name she is today. Unfortunately, the events in this tale are not particularly interesting. As much as I cared about Chanel's character, the dramatic elements in the film that acted as the focus of the film were not very deep or meaningful.

Gabrielle and her sister Adrienne work in a brothel as singers when the majority of the female employees there work as prostitutes. The male patrons treat them as objects and √Čtienne Balsan expresses his distaste in Gabrielle's bold attitude. Gabrielle despises this weak image of women, expressing her disgust of it to the general. I found it hypocritical of her to have so vehemently denied the old image and roles of women yet slip into them herself later in the film.

I was largely disappointed with cinematography in this film. Perhaps the standard definition should take the blame but I noticed many opportunities where better uses of lighting and focus could have done wonders. The shot at the end with the models going down the staircases with mirrors was a golden opportunity to show something interesting instead of just a medium shot with Coco in focus and the models walking past her as she observes them. The lighting was basic and overly diffused, a technique that's so stereotypical of period pieces. Perhaps not having been able to see this film in high definition was a good thing since the image would have been clearer but the focuses and shots would look just as bland as they were.

Regarding the clothing as a visual tool, this was done very seldom. Her claim to fame being a fashion designer, I was expecting more of an appropriate use of this instead of just this recurring element that sets up drama with the other character but not here career. In one scene, Coco observes the clothing among the gentry-folk.

The catalyst to the explosion of Coco's design creativity is evidently placed on Boy's death. This was troubling for me because whatever momentum that Coco had left as a woman and designer after her willingness to be his mistress was gone at the action's of someone else, not through her own willingness. Because Boy died, she will now become the designer she was destined to become. If this was actually what happened, fine. However, as a film, this does not play out well. I think it's sending the message that men, no matter how independent women are, will always be needed by women in order to get further in life. Perhaps this was true at the time but the concept does not work here.

In the middle of the second act, I began to find this film overly pretentious with the characters' constant dance around what everyone was actually trying to say. Whether the love triangle between Coco, Balsan, and Boy happened in real life or not, I found this indirect way of speaking and doing things to be very irritating and stereotypical of period pieces. If you can stomach this old form of speaking and handling relationships, perhaps you will enjoy this film. The refrain from saying what anyone really wanted to set up long and irritating conversations that promoted this turn of the century melodrama.

As a side note, when you think of fashion's most famous houses, do you think of Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Gianni Versace? What do all of those have in common? They're male-headed houses ironically for women's fashion. The text at the end of the film reads something to sort of, “She achieved success in a man's world.” This is a great fact to know but there was not enough of this in the film. What was there were these constant looks of disgust or disapproval.

The elements that I did find interesting were her interest in fashion, her relationship with her sister. Multiple times throughout the film, Coco mentions her parents and her time at the orphanage, the story always different than the last time. Did she experience shame over this? Adrienne came in and out of the story and her storyline was not concluded. Her last appearance in the film is at Coco's house/studio

I was not “gripped” by this film in the least, even though whoever wrote the back of the DVD claimed that it would be. The drama that's also touted in the film I found to be very pretentious and uninteresting. Where there was a lot of opportunity to make this film more visually pleasing, the film chose instead to focus on the melodramatic elements of Coco's story instead of playing up her independence and drive to succeed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New on Blu: The Book of Eli

| by Allan Stackhouse |

If you're like me, you didn't bother to see this film. It may have interested you at the time of its release but it just wasn't enough to get twelve or however many dollars out of you to see some Denzel. Even with my $12 in tact, Denzel delivers in The Book of Eli. Not only is his acting great but the technical elements were visually stunning as well. I unfortunately had to rent this on DVD because the Blu-ray copies were out at Blockbuster but even displayed with an upscaled image, the cinematography was well done.

In its first eight minutes, there is no dialogue. Nothing but Eli's actions and the disarray and shambles of his surroundings tell a story. There are no people around him except the dead. Everything is barren, indicating some sort of post-Apocalyptic event. He searches in a cautious manner, despite the silence, for something we come to find out are shoes. This dependence on setting, props, costume, and cinematography to set up the story is brilliant. I wish more films would rely more on those features to tell their stories.

Eli as a character is complex - he is a fighter, intelligent, and religious. There is a scene where he slowly drifts into the shadow from a tunnel and, as just a silhouette, quickly dispatches seven armed hijackers. The action is beautiful. Body parts fall and blood flies from Eli's whetted blade. Eli is established early on as an anti-hero. He does not allow the hijackers female member to come with him. At the point when Eli sees a couple getting murdered, he does nothing except recite, “Stay on the path” while the woman screams for her life. This reluctance to assist others despite a small amount of effort to do so asks the viewers if he's really a hero or if his quest is really that important.

The fight scene in the bar was lively on its own with heads being offed left and right but the camera's movement adds another layer of dimension to it instead of this angle after that angle and another angle to feature this move, etc. The camera completes two 360s, mixed with some rotating closer angles, before Eli dispatches the last of his attackers.

The conflict of the film is centered around the book, its value worth taking lives to protect. That importance is unfortunately manifested in a very melodramatic manner in the film's second and third acts. Gary Oldman's Carnegie hurting Solara's mother (Jennifer Beals) to get her to tell him what Eli had? Call me very bored. The action fortunately makes up for it with its revelation that Eli is bullet proof, simply walking away from the gunmen and using no more than 1 or 2 bullets to dispatch each one. The reasoning behind this being holy is acceptable but the revelation that Eli was blind the entire time was too much.

One actor's acting that I did not appreciate was Jennifer Beals'. Her vacuous stare into nothingness and ability to still walk around unaided was so distracting. It wasn't until the end of the film that I realized she was blind. There could have been any number of things to help indicate to the viewer that she was visually impaired but I found the question to nag me like a mosquito. I understand that this was to give Carnegie his final blow but we see it coming and we don't care because it was so poorly constructed in the first place. Gary Oldman's performance is way too over the top. It's abundantly theatrical in comparison to Denzel Washington and Mila Kunis' restraint.

The sepia tones helped to give the sense of a barren atmosphere. It's not explained what exactly has happened to the earth, which is fine since the story is not a dying human race story. The brownish tones indicate some sort of massive pollution or something going wrong with the sun. The visual storytelling in this film was very well done. In one scene, Solara stops in the middle of their walk, still reeling from her attack. Eli comforts her, revealing growth in his character.

I was a little confused as to what the message the film was trying to convey. Was it save the environment? Save religion? I don't know. This ends up being the film's downfall. The story is not particularly exciting. Eli is trying to get to the copy of the bible to the west so it can do what? Save themselves despite the country being laid to waste? There's no actual stakes in this film which is very unfortunate since it was complemented by rich images and terrific action sequences.

Despite my high marks for its technical achievements, I didn't completely enjoy The Book of Eli as a film. The film's entire focus is on the importance of this book which, in the end, did nothing. Talk about anticlimactic. Had the story's choice been to use this anticlimax to highlight a more tangible or visual purpose, I would have understood. The film ends with book being published and placed on a shelf. Okay, so it's just going to sit there? It's not going to be spread to the masses and change the ways of the vagrants in the few and small towns that still exist? This importance completely gets away from the film when it could have easily provided an appropriate conclusion for an otherwise okay film.

As a side note, I adore that Allen and Albert Hughes, two African American brothers, are making a name for themselves with their now second big budget film but if they expect to make films higher than their average 6.8 rating on IMDb, they are going to have to be more aware of the direction of the story.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

True Blood: Season 3 Review

| by Allan Stackhouse |

While it's a little bit of a bummer for the last taste of an otherwise great season be the incredibly disappointing season finale, this season of True Blood was fangtastic. See what I did there? Glorious deaths, a slew of new characters, and character origins abounded in this season's tale of some nefarious characters seeking to do harm to our favorite residents of Bon Temps.

A plethora of characters were introduced and many met their “true deaths.” The body count was particularly high this season, much higher than the previous seasons. Also stepped up were the extremely well done special effects, providing very satisfying scenes to characters we hated. Franklin's midair explosion into gallons of blood was absolutely fantastic. Not only did it end the character who terrorized Tara but it was a marvel in traditional special effects. The use of live animals was taken just a smidgen further than a cow or pig from season 2 - in season 3, we got not only wolves but a ton of them graced the screen as well as a panther. How about the makeup on the near-burned to his true death Russell? And the orange glows where he was sprayed with silver? Woo!

What was different from the seasons before was the lack of sex scenes. I hope I'm not coming off as perverted by pointing this out but there were multiple suggestions of the act while not many actual scenes of it. There is less focus on Sookie's telepathy but perhaps that was because she spent the majority of her time around vampires. A welcome return for me were the reunions between Sookie and Tara. It's these unbreakable bonds between the human characters that are the show's core elements, one that can be returned to despite any craziness that falls upon them.

The focus of vampire politics carried through the majority of the season. There are some serious plays for power by Russell, the vampire King of Mississippi. The focus changes after Eric kills the Russell's lover Talbot. Bill and Eric had competing ulterior motives, one always threatening to expose the other. It was a big chess game with Sookie unfortunately caught in the middle. The balance on the scales of the vampire world were tipped to a shocking level as Russell beheads the magister. In an effort to contain Russell, Eric is completely honest to the Authority but it fell upon deaf ears, resulting in the killing a newscaster on live television, a single act that will no doubt shape the future seasons.

The delve into Sookie's origins, which we've been wondering about for two seasons, finally came to a head in a rather anticlimactic manner but the subsequent gradual build up to her significance as faerie (or her faerie blood) completely made up for it. The growing control of her powers happens at exactly the right amount of narrative time. Bill and Sookie's appearance in the ethereal faerie realm delivered in that it constantly asked questions, revealing only painstaking bits of information at a time. The finale's final scene is Sookie going with Claudine into a world possibly deeper than previously seen served as a great setup for season 4. If only the finale wasn't so full of these lengthy scenes for each and every other character, this would have made a bigger impact.

A standout performance was that of Alfre Woodard as Lafayette's mother, Ruby Jean Reynolds. Alfre is such a talented actress and made her character so memorable, despite only appearing in a few scenes. She gave her character so much life for a paranoid schizophrenic while still a loving mother on the inside. A contrast to this is unfortunately Crystal, played by Lindsay Pulsipher. She offers nothing to Ryan Kwanten's expertly played southern bumpkin. Honestly, what's so hard about playing white trash? I haven't seen any of her other work so perhaps she's actually a decent actress but this was really really not her role.

Speaking of Crystal, one storyline that I did not like this season was Jason's. This was a travesty to me since he's one of my favorite characters. He's not providing the same amount of humor that he was in season one and two which was a big let down. Too much effort is being made to develop Jason into an upstanding character. Savior to the inbred werepanthers? Give me a break. What's wrong with having just a normal funny character? The whole character of Crystal seemed a little undercooked and the show could have easily done without this particular story.

Despite the missteps, the season did well in telling a story about a quest for power. Russell, in just the span of one season, established himself as a vampire worthy of fear. He had history with Eric. As always, a king's blind quest for more results in his downfall. As always, Sookie's involvement with things is underestimated, her attackers unaware of her ability to prove herself useful as a human or faerie.

As in the previous seasons, hints at the following seasons are included but there were too many setups and not enough conclusions. As was pointed out to me, half the episode was more of a jump into the next season. I feel like Alan Ball's little prologue message was there to make up for the lack in quality of the last episode. The foreshadowing that was done to previous seasons' standards was in Arlene's possibly evil baby. And what was up with the doll in Hoyt and Jessica's house? *shiver* Witches are going take over Bon Temps and I'm only a little bit excited... okay, a lot.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Machete Don't Text (but it's a good movie)

| by Allan Stackhouse |

If you saw Grindhouse, you are aware of the sheer awesomeness of Machete just as a trailer. Now made into a feature film, Machete has nearly swept the weekend box office, coming in at #2. The over the top hilarity of the trailer continues on in the film. It has the makings of a cheesy B movie but it's written well and has enough money to afford some great special effects and stunts. Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis directed one heck of a ride with this film while still drawing viewers' attention to a very important issue in this country, one apparently very close to Robert Rodriguez. I will use the term 'immigrants' instead of 'Mexicans' because I know many Hispanic illegal immigrants are not Mexican.

The classification by Robert Rodriguez of this film as a Mexploitation film takes away from the legitimacy of the film's message of being aware of immigrants' roles in this country: dishwashers, day laborers, nurses, chefs, gardeners, you name it. While the action is of course entertaining, the most interesting element of the film was this social commentary on race in America. The inclusion of Mexican immigrants in all their various occupations in this country serves as a reminder to everyone that this particular group of people, regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, is very much ingrained in the function of our country. Extremists who want to keep all immigrants out, immigrants themselves, and everyday American sympathizers all have a voice in this film.

The portrayal of white characters highlighted one particular extremist group of white people. The ridiculousness of these individuals was accurate in my mind. For those white people out there that say this isn't an accurate portrayal of white people, I will say that this is likely not about you. And if you still have a problem with it, you should watch just about any live action film out there to make yourself feel better - many films portray black people as ghetto, Hispanics as servants, and Asians as brainy types. The film's language is often very crude and portrays the people who use this language of very low intelligence.

The violence in the film is on the gratuitous side and judging from the sudden fade outs from many of the scenes, I assume we've got a lot coming to us in the unrated version. By the direction, the violence serves both as a tool to convey humor and drama. The crucifixion of Cheech Marin's Padre is a particularly violent scene that is not intended to be funny. One sequence in particular that got the audience cheering at the show I caught was Machete's hospital escape. He uses the foreshadowed length of a human intestine to secure his escape and it's so over the top that just thinking about it makes me smile.

Michelle Rodriguez stole the show. Besides looking absolutely amazing in the film, she gave a completely convincing performance of Luz, the taco truck lady who secretly helps immigrants. Her transformation at the end of the film when she returns as She was hinted at during the opening credits but was nonetheless amazing. Just by name alone, the cast was jaw-dropping but the performances they gave lived up to each of their long list of credits. Danny Trejo didn't have many lines, just as many heroes in late '80s/early '90s films, but he did play a very convincing character whom I found myself rooting for in the film.

The story itself is fairly basic but having the perspective changed did provide a fresh viewing experience. The only part of this film that I didn't like was the third act. I feel like it was too straightforward and provided no real conflict to the main character, whereas the preceding acts had a lot of impossible situations. The kidnapping of Jessica Alba's Sartana was supposed to provide a sense of urgency in the film but it did not. Had there been a scene in which Steven Segal's Torrez tormented Sartana instead of just depending on the revelation to Machete that , more of the drama would have been heightened.

As much as I love Sin City for reminding today's youth of the wonder noir, I find this film to be Robert Rodriguez' most significant film to date. Despite the violent nature, Machetecame from a place of awareness of one's own race, deliberately pointing out the role of Hispanics in this country and their depiction in film. As a person of Asian descent and a filmmaker, I truly appreciated this as a film as well as drawing attention to a subject that many of today's American minds – young or old - don't realize is an important part of what the USA is made of.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Black Dynamite = Dynamite

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Spoofs are a funny business. When they try to hard, they turn out like Epic Movie. When they're done with restraint, they turn out like the outrageously hilarious Black Dynamite. Though the film made fun of blaxploitation films of the 1970s. While there are no silver bullets to making a successful spoof, what will help is making a film that can stand on its own with the satirical elements as just the stitching for the garment as opposed to the actual fabric. Take for example Austin Powers - it's a hilarious film whose satirical '70s elements are wound across a cohesive tale of spies and super villains. The shots are not simply showcasing spoof after spoof of this recent funny thing in the news and that horrible movie. Black Dynamite is in the vein of Austin Powers but completely takes it to that next level that most big budget comedies shoot for yet only independent films seem to get (see Sunshine Cleaning).

There are two enormously funny winks in the scene with Michael Jai White's Black Dynamite and Kym Whitley's Honeybee. Kym herself is a master of comedic acting (Friday After Next) and she is a great scene partner for Michael. A boom mic drops into the shot above Michael and it seems like it's there for too long but Michael's glance at it resets the comedic clock. The genius in that is amazing is unspeakably brilliant. Honeybee, in a stressed exclamation to Black Dynamite, places an unlit cigarette to her lips and her subsequent smokeless exhale are simply too funny. The amount of comedy in such a small scene in dialogue, props, and acting all work together to provide such a richly funny scene.

Michael's physical prowess is noteworthy as well: ceiling high kicks, amazing nunchuku skills, and punches strong enough to break through brick*. The action scene following was surprisingly well done. It was pretty inventive to have the camera focusing only on one victim on the ground with bodies flying and falling around him. Black Dynamite's appearance only when that victim tries to escape was something out of a horror movie but made to work in a comedy.

The overacting in every scene was almost too much for me to handle. When on the phone with Black Dynamite, Aunt Billy calls him to inform him of his brother's death. She then sobs for a beat and then proceeds to berate him about a promise he made to his mother. That little purposely placed bit of crying was so hysterically funny that I had to watch it a few times. Overacting is a much better route to go down instead of half-witted pretty faces. Actors who are aware and capable of making their acting sound and look forced to the point where it's composed at the same time are truly skilled.

On the technical side, the film still managed to find a few to spoof itself as well. After struggling to hang up the phone with Aunt Billy, there is an obvious jump cut with Black Dynamite in frame. Also, Black Dynamite's dark skinned brother Jimmy is portrayed in a flashback by a lighter skinned actor – not the longest bit you could grasp the humor out of but still amazingly funny. Long lines of dialogue are kept to a minimum in normal films but Black Dynamite uses these lesser-used opportunities to garner humor from something of which you'd normally get a serious explanation: “This one child, I'll never forget. Poor little bastard was still alive. His little Chinese legs were blown clean off. Still see his little shins and feet hanging from the ceiling fan across the hut. He was charred from his head down to his little Chinese knees. He tried to get up but he fell over when what was left of his right leg broke off.” That's not the entire monologue but you get the picture. Everything is over the top but still pays mind to the film and not just the jokes.

At this point I must declare myself a fan of Michael Jai White. He has consistently proven himself as an actor in more than one genre, across years of films. I suppose it's not exactly by choice but it just came about somehow, just like it did with Gerard Butler. Now, as a screenwriter and producer, I admire Michael's many talents. As a film, Black Dynamite is a gem amongst a sea of lab-made stones. I am in total admiration of its filmmakers and their ability to make such a cohesive and hilarious film.


P.S. Thanks to Mr. Ben Jones of Sekretagent Productions for the awesome recommendation.