Friday, July 30, 2010

Comic-Con Part 4: Ray Bradbury, Human Target, Mythbusters

Ray Bradbury's work was such an influence on my formative years, and missed so many chances to see him over the years, I still can't believe I was in that panel, three rows from the front, surrounded by other fans who loved him just as much as I did. He came with his biographer, Steve Weller, to promote a new book, "Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews." Weller did most of the talking out of necessity, as Bradbury is wheelchair bound, a stroke survivor, blind in one eye, and every question had to be simplified to its basics and whispered directly into his right ear. Every precaution was made by those assisting to make the experience as easy on him as possible. Nonetheless Bradbury spoke articulately, though haltingly, and was very aware and responsive.

A quick video introduction showed Weller at Bradbury's home, discussing the highlights of his life and career. The panel was more or less the same thing, with Weller interviewing Bradbury on various topics, often prompting him to tell certain anecdotes. The answers sometimes came slowly, but they came: He believes man should return to the moon and set our sights on Mars, as this is a path for humans to live forever. He considers himself a Zen Buddhist. He wished he'd spent more time with Bo Derek, who he once encountered on a train. He grew up loving comics, especially Prince Valiant. His current favorite is Mutts. He was partly responsible for the genesis of "The Twilight Zone," and provided Rod Serling with reading material. He doesn't like digital books or the Internet, and once told the president of Yahoo to take a hike. He loves libraries. He has never driven a car, but during a visit to NASA he drove the Mars Rover and was presented with a Martian driver's license. If he could travel back to one particular moment in his life, he'd pick all of them.

Bradbury was wonderful to listen to, by turns cantankerous and joyful. There was still a lot of fire in the man, and he claimed that he was simply a twelve-year-old boy who had never grown up. He'll turn ninety in roughly a month, and there will be various local events and retrospectives to celebrate his work and achievements. Yet he refuses to rest on his laurels and is still working on new material - poetry, essays, and of course more fiction. He promises a new book of collected short stories in the near future. Film adaptations of his work are still being made, including a recent one based on "Chrysalis." One funny factoid that emerged is that Mel Gibson owns the rights to adapt "Farenheit 451," and since he's in so much hot water right now, we shouldn't expect a new film version anytime soon.

And just as impressive as the man was his audience. I've staffed a lot of bookstore author events and I've never seen a room as courteous, as respectful, and yet so obviously full of adoration for an author. I heard a few pre-show grumbles about bad experiences at past events, but there were no cranks or cynical jerks in the crowd. Everyone who got up to ask a question did so with great restraint and consideration for Bradbury's physical state. Several expressed their gratitude and admiration. And at the end of the panel, after a massive standing ovation, everyone spontaneously started singing "Happy Birthday" to him. I wasn't sure at first if he could hear us, but then I saw the look on his face, and it was clear that he did. When we were finished, he thanked us all, and told us to "get out of here."

After the panel, a book signing was scheduled. I was one of the lucky ones who managed to get a wristband that secured you a place in the signing line, distributed that morning by lottery. Originally I wasn't planning to go for any autographs because of the wait times involved, but when the moment came, I got in line. Bradbury was wheeled in, and made it through about a dozen signatures before he had to stop, visibly wearing out toward the end. I wasn't anywhere close to the front of the line, nor was anyone who attended the panel, but I got lots of good photos and heard several wonderful stories from the other people in line with me, who had all been inspired by Bradbury's work. I was happy to be there and wasn't disappointed at all.

By then it was Saturday evening, and my Comic-Con experience was rapidly approaching its denouement, with only one event left that I wanted to attend: the "Mythbusters" panel in Room 6BCF. This meant getting back in another very long line, and I was worried that this was going to turn into another disastrous Ballroom 20 experience. However, the wait wasn't nearly as bad as I thought and a friend who showed up nearly half an hour after I did still got into the room for the panel. During the wait, I also got calls and texts from friends who were queued up for the Marvel film panel over at Hall H, to tell me about the stabbing. There was some worry that the police were going to shut everything down and cancel the remaining programming that night, and my friends opted not to wait around and find out. We didn't learn until later that the altercation was far less serious than people were reporting, and the film panels were only delayed by about forty-five minutes.

I made it into Room 6BCF just in time for the panel that immediately preceded "Mythbusters," an action show called "The Human Target." I've only seen the pilot, and like "Leverage" is strikes me as a straightforward action program that doesn't quite fit the mood of Comic-Con. The main character, Christopher Chance, catches bad guys by switching places with their intended victims. Chance is purportedly based on a comic book character, also known as "The Human Target," so I guess the show has more justification for being at a comic-book convention than some of the others. I ended up in the back of the room and missed the introductory clip package, but was in my seat by the time they brought out the guests. Producer Matthew Miller was on the panel, along with actors Mark Valley, Chi McBride, and Jackie Earle Haley.

They actually had some major news for us, specifically that they were adding two female cast members to the previously all-male team, including Indira Varma from "Rome" as a new boss-lady authority figure. The other will be a younger twenty-something, whose actress is yet unknown. Less encouraging was the announcement that FOX is moving "Human Target" to Friday nights, where struggling shows are traditionally sent to expire. The panelists tried to shrug off the move, citing "The X-Files" as a program that had thrived on Fridays. Funny how no one remembers that "The X-Files" didn't hit its stride in the ratings until FOX moved it to Sundays. I felt a little bad for the show's creator because a good portion of the questions were about guest star possibilities and the actors' other work rather than the show itself. Chi McBride has been on a lot of other programs like "Pushing Daisies" and "Boston Public." Jackie Earle Haley, of course, is best known as Rorschach from "Watchmen."

Also, while the panel was going on, the convention staff were doing their best to cram as many people as possible into the seats for "Mythbusters." There was a steady influx of attendees into the room during the entire presentation which must have been an awful distraction. And after it concluded, almost no one got up to leave. I'm not very familiar with "Human Target," but I thought it had potential and I like all the actors involved. The cast and crew clearly appreciate their fans. Jackie Earle Haley called a cosplayer made up as his character from the show to the front of the room for special kudos. Mark Valley thanked his fans in attendance for their support in an internet campaign to get him cast as Captain America. For the record, I think Mark Valley would make an excellent Captain America!

I can't say I was too sad to see them go, because next up on the stage was a familiar robot skeleton by the name of Geoff Peterson, sent down to San Diego by Craig Ferguson to introduce the "Mythbusters."

It was a great panel, very simple and very fun. They put the five cast members, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Tory Belleci, Grant Imahara, and Kari Byron up at the front of the room with a moderator and just let them talk. It was Kari's first visit to Comic-Con, which meant that this was the first time the entire cast had made the trip. The show has been on for over seven years now, but the Mythbusters themselves all came across as very down to earth and still seem to be getting used to the fame. Adam described geeking out when meeting Guillermo Del Toro in the parking lot, only to be geeked over himself and being invited to the director's man cave. Grant, currently planning for the impending robot uprising, has been dubbed the Keith Richards of robotics, which he chooses to take as a compliment. Jamie was bright red throughout most of the panel, clearly not used to all of the attention. And ladies, Tory is available.

There were a couple of announcements. Edited-down versions of older "Mythbusters" episodes with new "how-to" segments aimed at the junior-high set will be shown on the Science Channel in an after-school slot, hosted by Kari, as part of a federal education initiative. The show is apparently very popular with educators. And we can expect "Mythbusters" to be around for a long time to come, because the cast's contracts have been renewed for a whopping seven more years. Jamie promised that they aren't even close to running out of myths to test, thanks to all the material generated by the Internet. Adam also announced the winner of the yearly Comic-Con contest to identify Adam while he was in costume on the Exhibition Room floor. This year he was dressed as a Stormtrooper, a member of the famous 501st, and the winner was awarded an exclusive "Mythbusters" themed iPad which the audience ooohed and aaahed over.

I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes stories most. The cast builds and creates nearly everything we see on the show themselves, with very little help. They are constantly sending their insurance carrier into conniptions, though they have a good liaison who used to work for "Jackass" and "Fear Factor" to help them negotiate around tough spots. Kari, who took a brief leave from the show last season after the birth of her daughter, actually put off having kids thinking that she would wait until after the show ended. Except the show didn't end and isn't going to for the foreseeable future. Lots of ideas for myths really do come directly from fans, and in one memorable case viewers sent rare gun scopes and ammunition to help prove a myth the Mythbusters had busted. Jamie also explained how he and Adam first got together for the show - Jamie had previously worked with Adam, and when the opportunity for "Mythbusters" came up, he though Adam's personality would be a good complement to his on television, and invited him on board.

We also got a couple of different clip packages. One was a rough cut from an upcoming episode that did not feature the familiar "Mythbusters" narrator, a Canadian who works out of Australia where the show is edited and assembled. Instead, we heard the early temp track voice of one of their producers - Australian or British accented, I can't remember which - speaking over a clip of Adam in Batman armor, trying to withstand hurricane force winds generated by a 747 jet engine turbine. Later in the hour came the trailer for the new season, which I believe was a subtle spoof on the "Inception" trailer, except with more explosions and science. The clips went by very quickly, but one of the myths will be testing whether or not someone's body temperature drops when they're scared. Thus Grant will be stuck in a box of spiders and Kari will have to eat bugs. Another will be testing the aerodynamics of driving a Porsche backwards.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The panel finished a little after 8PM, and after six panels I was pretty much finished too. So concludes my Comic-Con coverage. I hope I'll get to do it again sometime.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Comic-Con Part 3: Leverage, Venture Brothers, Cartoon Network Action

A couple of very big, well publicized film panels happened on Saturday in Hall H, which is why I think it was possible for me to hit a lot of the smaller ones without too much trouble. First stop was the Indigo Ballroom of the Hilton. Both the Marriott and the Hilton hotels, which stand on either side of the convention center, were hosting programming this year. I showed up for "The Venture Brothers," the Adult Swim action cartoon, and ended up sitting through the "Leverage" panel first.

"Leverage" is one of those shows that doesn't quite fit the Comic-Con groove. I've seen two or three episodes, and it's decently entertaining, but there's nothing really geeky about it. Timothy Hutton leads a group of con-men who have decided to use their skills for altruistic purposes, so they take on "Mission: Impossible" style jobs every week to con baddies, help goodies, and look photogenic while doing it. There was a slightly awkward moment when one of the cast members remarked that they didn't think they were popular enough to fill the Ballroom, which seats around three thousand. Judging from the number of Dr. Girlfriend and Monarch minion costumes I spotted in the crowd, I suspect they were right.

Still, they put on a good panel. Producer Chris Dowdy, and actors Timothy Hutton, Christian Kane (in desperate need of a haircut), Beth Riesgraf, and Aldis Hodge came to talk up the show. And there was also a surprise guest in the form of Wil Wheaton, who plays a recurring character named Chaos. The banter among them was great, and Wheaton forking over cash to Hodge after Hodge revved up the crowd for the return of Chaos got a huge laugh. I don't know enough about "Leverage" to get into many of the particulars of the discussion, but there was speculation about a romantic relationship between Riesgraf's and Hodge's characters, which no one would confirm or deny, mentions of actors working special skills into various episodes, and some hints of future developments. The upcoming finale of season three is promised to be the most ambitious thing they've done yet.

The best tidbit I picked up was that "Leverage" is filmed in Portland, Oregon, which is passed off for various locales across the globe, including a small island nation for an upcoming episode. Still, the visuals have a nice Pacific Northwest vibe that is reminiscent of all the shows that used to be filmed in Vancouver like "The X-Files" and "21 Jump Street." The Oregon foliage was in full display in the clip that was screened for us, from the episode that was scheduled to air Sunday evening. It had Kane's and Hodge's Odd Couple characters separated from the rest of the team, handcuffed to each other, and running around in the woods while being chased by extremist militiamen. At one point they are literally up a tree. The audience liked it, especially the fight sequence. It's a lot of fun watching this kind of footage with a huge crowd, where you can hear every little reaction multiplied a thousand-fold.

The hour went by quickly, and then it was time for true geekery to take the stage.

By far, the best panelists I saw at Comic-Con were Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, the creators of "The Venture Brothers." They went up in front of the room with James Urbaniak and Patrick Warburton, who voice the show's protagonists, and just talked a blue streak for most of the allotted time. No moderator, no prompting from questioners necessary, though a few brave souls tried. They talked about the show, but they also took time to rag on Warburton's teenage son Talon (!) who was in the audience, ponder the possibilities of Moppet/Pupa Twins action figures, and gush over cool cars. Doc Hammer was especially good at going off on amazing tangents. At one point he spent about eight minutes extolling the virtues of a terrible decade-old Jason Patric crime film called "Incognito." You got the sense that this was just an extension of other conversations these guys had been having with each other off and on since the dawn of time. It was fantastic.

They brought us a trailer for upcoming new "Venture Brothers" episodes, claiming they'd worked all night to edit it together for us. It used the same music and same format as the Season Four trailer, with flying text at the beginning running through a list of possible names for the new season, which is apparently really the back half of Season Four that got delayed a bit longer than everyone was expecting. There is no way to describe the footage to someone with no knowledge of "The Venture Brothers," because the show has expanded from its original "Jonny Quest" spoof origins in such weird and wonderful ways, and there are so many minor secondary characters to keep track of, I'd spend half of this post just trying to explain who everyone was. Urbaniak and Warbuton confessed that they couldn't keep track of all the details, and though Publick and Hammer could, sometimes they slipped up or had to be reminded of things too. If you're not a "Venture" fan, skip the next paragraph.

The trailer went by pretty quick, but we saw scenes of Brock working with Hunter at S.P.H.I.N.X., Shore Leave and Mile High discussing inappropriate undergarments, Sergeant Hatred morosely singing about how much he missed Princess Tinyfeet with an acoustic guitar and a cringing Pete White as his audience, Pete and Billy Quizboy in some kind of "TRON" themed motorcycle-and-sidecar combo, the Monarch and Dr. Mrs. The Monarch enjoying domestic bliss, Hank back in his pre-Season Four outfit and hairstyle being teased by Doc Venture and Hatred, and Dermot getting beaten up. The money shot was the Monarch being cornered and menaced by a horde of Hank and Dean clones, zombie style. They played the trailer twice, the second time at the end of the panel with Publick and Hammer providing snarky commentary. The crowd really ate it up. The creators clarified a few details for us. Brock is still living with the Ventures, but Hatred got to keep his job as the new bodyguard, even though Brock is better at it, which is going to change the family dynamic a bit. They also promised the return of other minor characters such as Baron von Underbheit, but sadly we will not be seeing Dr. Henry Killinger in the near future.

It was all over too soon, and the panel wrapped up with everyone dressed as a "Venture Brothers" character being called up to the stage for an impromptu costume contest, with newly released action figures as prizes. I wish I could have stuck around to watch, but there was no way I was missing the one event that played a huge part in my decision to come to Comic-Con in the first place. Just to be safe, I went over to room 6DE and sat through the panel that took place immediately prior. Again, I got the strong sense that most of the attendees were not there for that particular presentation, which featured cast and crew from three of Cartoon Network's current and upcoming action shows, which is kind of a shame because I did enjoy it.

As a diehard animation fan, I like keeping an eye on current kids' cartoons though I don't watch any of them regularly anymore. I knew who most of the creators who came to the panel were, even if I didn't know their new shows. Glen Murakami, Dwayne McDuffie, and Genndy Tartakovsky have all worked on cartoons I watched back in the 90s, so it was good to see that they were still turning out new programs. Murakami and McDuffie were there to promote "Ben 10: Ultimate Alien," the third incarnation of the popular "Ben 10" franchise. Tartakovsky has a new one set to premiere in fall called "Symbionic Titan," which looks like a cross between "Voltron" and "Dexter's Lab." Easily the most impressive of the bunch was "Generator Rex" from a couple of creators who are known collectively as Man of Action.

Now I love a lot of the work that Glen Murakami has done, especially the shiny anime-flavored confection that was "Teen Titans," but I don't think his style works with "Ben 10." I saw a few random episodes of the original show with the ten-year-old version of the protagonist, and found it a little obnoxious, but fun and well-made. The "Ultimate Alien" series with the teenage Ben looks terrible by comparison. We got a trailer for the big movie-length season premier set for October 10th (10.10.10. Get it?), and I found the simplified designs and limited animation really sub-par. There were fans in the audience who seemed to enjoy it though, who grumbled over the news that Ben was getting a new love interest, and perked up at the promise of more backstory about one of the secondary characters. Who knows? Maybe the writing on the show is better than the visuals.

"Generator Rex" looked much more interesting. It was described as darker and more intense than the norm for Cartoon Network, which came through in the clips we saw. Man of Action created the original "Ben 10" and "Rex" has similar production values and graphics. Except this time the hero is a little older, so the action could be more visceral. From the questions the fans were asking, though, I got the sense that the real draw might be the characters. One girl wanted to know if Rex was a Latino character since he speaks Spanish occasionally in the show. Her ecstatic reaction when they confirmed it was the best moment of the panel. And it took me a little while to realize it, but I recognized both of the voice actors who made appearances - Daryl Sabara from "Spy Kids" is Rex and his mentor is voiced by "General Hospital" regular Wally Kurz.

I was curious about "Symbionic Titan" because Tartakovsky created it, and it looks different than anything else he's done. This is his take on the Giant Robot genre, complete with anime-style transformation sequences where the fighting mecha combine into bigger brawlers. The main characters are a pair of aliens who crash on Earth and take on the guise of human teenagers. Between the Giant Robot fights, they'll be discovering the joys of high school and adolescent angst. I'm pretty ambivalent about this one. I didn't see any of those great stylistic touches Tartakovsky brought to "Samurai Jack" or "The Clone Wars," but that could just mean he's taking a different approach to the visuals this time. It feels too early to tell.

Finally there was one moment in the Q&A after the "Generator Rex" presentation that deserves mention. An audience member asked why there weren't any shows on the Cartoon Network action lineup starring a female character. The panelists quickly pointed out that there were strong females in the ensembles of their shows, but the point was a good one and I agree with the sentiment completely. They don't make cartoons for girls anymore like they did back in the 80s, the heyday of "She-Ra" and "Jem" and "My Little Pony." But nobody seems to have a problem with making cartoons, especially action cartoons, aimed squarely at boys. The girls are a bit left out these days, and it's not right. Cartoon Network was the home of the Powerpuff Girls for all those years, so we know they can feature girls if they want to. And I'm glad someone got up and said it. We want them to.

After the panel was over, as I suspected, very few people left the room. Next up was one of the legends of science-fiction, and my favorite author: Ray Bradbury.

To be continued tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Comic-Con Part 2: Bill Plympton, Joss Whedon, and JJ Abrams

There's so much going on at Comic-Con at any given time, you could have completely different experiences depending on which activities you chose to participate in. You could spend entire days stargazing in Hall H or Ballroom 20. You could never leave the exhibition hall and amass mountains of swag and exclusive merchandise. You could have a full schedule of comic book industry panels aimed at the professionals and would-be professionals. With the stunning variety of cosplayers in attendance, the people watching experience alone could fill hours. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a little of everything.

I knew I was taking a risk leaving Hall H and trying to go back later in the day, but I had to see Bill Plympton's panel. Plympton is one of the legends of American animation, the first animator who ever drew every single frame of a traditional animated feature length film by himself, long before the advent of Flash or other animation software programs. He produces his shorts and features independently, outside of the major animation studios, with small budgets and limited crew. I found his shorts through Atom Films in the early days of the Internet, then his films, "I Married a Strange Person" and "Mutant Aliens." All of his work has a distinctive hand-drawn style and a wonderfully ribald, twisted sense of humor. Animation is so labor intensive the length of his filmmography is astonishing. And you'd never see this kind of animation from a major commercial studio - at least not with all the sex and violence intact. Among his recent shorts are such titles as "Santa: The Fascist Years," and "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger."

Bill Plympton showed up for the panel with a pair of young filmmakers in tow, who were making a documentary feature about him, and also a man in a chicken suit. Chicken man was there to hawk water bottles, a portion of the proceeds from which would go to support breast cancer awareness, and also to pass out coupons for character T-shirts, to be redeemed at Plympton's booth in the exhibition hall. We were in Room 8, one of the smaller classroom/meeting rooms on the opposite end of the convention center from Hall H, but it comfortably accommodated the hundred or so people who showed up. Plympton started off the presentation by introducing himself and explaining who he was for the benefit of any audience members who weren't familiar with his work. After some DVD player issues, he started showing us clips from his most recent films and shorts.

First, came the trailer for "Idiots and Angels," a film he completed in 2008 that I've been hearing good things about from the festival circuit. It'll be getting a very limited theatrical release in a few major cities soon, but Plympton is still looking for help with distribution. The trailer was my favorite out of all the clips, introducing us to the plight of a man who sprouts white angel wings that keep growing back despite his attempts to get rid of them. Plympton briefly described the plot for us as a contest of wills between the man, who is a normal schlub, and the wings, that keep trying to make him do good deeds. Next came a pencil test from "Cheatin,'" Plympton's current work in progress. I'm not sure whether it was a short or a film, but we saw what appeared to be one of the early scenes. Not as much surreal imagery here, as we followed a woman snubbing a pack of would-be admirers, including a very insistent auctioneer.

Then came a shorter clip from the feature film "Hair High," which had its theatrical release way back in 2004, but literally only hit DVD a week ago. I remember it being in production back when I watched "Mutant Aliens" around 2002 or 2003, and I'll have to remember to add it to the Netflix queue. I hope we don't have to wait until 2016 for "Idiots and Angels"! "Hair High" was followed by "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" short in its entirety. "Cow" had a very different look to it than any of the other animation we were shown. Everything was drawn in thick black lines, and filled in with bright, solid colors. Our bovine protagonist was mustard yellow, and had a grape jelly-colored mother. The short was actually having its premiere at one of the Comic-Con short film festivals, so we were one of the first audiences to see it. As is the norm for Plympton's work, it was a little sick and very funny, and the premise is exactly what the title says it is. The audience loved it.

The microphone was then handed over to the documentarians, who gave us a peek at the work in progress. There were a few quick celebrity cameos from Weird Al Yankovic and Terry Gilliam, who declared themselves fans, and some footage of Bill Plympton in his native New York. The best bit was Plympton explaining the origin of his popular character Guard Dog, an overzealous pup who has starred in four shorts so far, with a fifth on the way. The documentary is yet unfinished, though the filmmakers are hopeful they can generate the funds to complete it through online crowdsourcing. I did my part and bought a Guard Dog T-shirt at the booth later that afternoon, and got a sketch and autograph from Plympton to go with it. I found the whole panel mighty impressive, because you really got a sense of the tenacity and guts that were necessary to get these indie projects made and get them in front of audiences.

And then it was back to the Hall H line again for the Entertainment Weekly "Visionaries" panel with Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams.

I was worried that I wasn't going to make I back inside the room since a lot of the people in line with me were queueing up for the "Expendables" panel that was taking place immediately after the Whedon and Abrams panel. However, the crowds from that morning were mostly gone, so there were only a few hundred people in front of me when I got in line again, and I made it back into Hall H without a problem. Of course, this also completely screwed up my expectations for the Ballroom 20 line the next day, which resulted in me missing the "Big Bang Theory" panel I had planned my whole Friday around. I did make it into the Joss Whedon Experience panel that was scheduled a few hours later in the same location, the only panel I saw that day. Ironically, both of the events featuring Whedon have popped up on Youtube in their entirety, and you can find transcribed versions over at Slash Film.

But back to Thursday afternoon and two of the most beloved genre-friendly creative types currently working. I don't know JJ Abrams' work as well as I know Joss Whedon's, but I found myself mentally checking off the list of his films and TV shows that I'd seen. I'd completely forgotten that he was involved with "Lost" and that he had created "Felicity." The panel itself was an expanded Q&A, with the moderator, an Entertainment Weekly writer, pitching questions and later letting the fans ask a few too. There wasn't much cross-talk between the two - they had never worked together - except toward the end when they started comparing writing techniques and disagreed on whether it was worthwhile to go to film school, as one of them had and one of them hadn't and both were happy that way. The questions touched on a lot of different topics, from the prevalence of 3D films to their favorite comic books to network television's love/hate relationship with serialized storytelling.

Easily the best part of the panel was hearing their stories about working in Hollywood. Abrams relayed a great one about his first near-encounter with Steven Spielberg after winning a Super 8 film contest. Whedon acknowledged some of the mistakes he'd made with "Dollhouse" and "Dr. Horrible." I don't know why I was surprised that Whedon talks like the dialogue that he writes, but he does. He sounds like an older, marginally less sarcastic Xander from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Also, there were a few teases about new projects, and Joss Whedon officially annouced that he's been tapped to direct "The Avengers," while Abrams gave up absolutely nothing new about "Super 8" or the next "Star Trek" movie. In fact, no one even asked about "Star Trek." Sheesh. If I'd known, I'd have gotten in the Q&A line on behalf of my fellow Trekkers!

The Joss Whedon Experience panel on Friday went by in sort of a blur and I probably should have skipped it, but by that time I'd been in the damn Ballroon 20 line for nearly three hours and figured I should at least have a look inside. I agree with everyone who has complained that the venue was way too small for the size of the Friday events that were being held there. In the past, the film panels might have been considered the biggest of the big events, but these days TV has not only caught up but exceeded the popularity of many of the major film franchises, not to mention the smaller, less anticipated, yet-to-be-seen horror and action pictures that dominated the Hall H schedule that day. And though there were few "Twilight" fangirls in attendance this year, since the promotional push for "Eclipse" is largely over, I found plenty of "True Blood" faithful in line at noon for a panel that wasn't going to start until 6PM. I count myself lucky that I got in at all.

So yes, I as there when Nathan Fillion crashed the panel by getting in the Q&A line to ask Whedon who his favorite actor was. And when Whedon announced that Nathan Fillion would be playing Ant-Man, one of the Avengers. Alas, Ant-Man will not actually appear in "The Avengers," so we will still be bereft of his presence. Woe. Mostly, the topic of discussion stuck to Whedon's shows, and since the man wasn't sharing the stage or stuck behind a table, he was much looser and more energetic, his schtick was funnier, and he seemed to be having a great time up there. The only major announcement was that there is going to be a "Firefly" comic that delves into the backstory of Shepherd Book, the Ron Glass character who was killed off in "Serenity," leaving the fans with a lot of unanswered questions. Alas, no mention of any peripheral "Dollhouse" projects, though Whedon did clear up that Boyd Langdon was not originally the show's SPOILER. Also while some of the deaths in his shows are unexpected, in a few cases the actors know long, long in advance, like SPOILER in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Still no word on any new projects aside from "The Avengers," but Whedon gave every indication that he's probably not coming back to network television anytime soon. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. On the one hand, Whedon's already made his mark in long-form television serials and it'll be nice to see him branch out into more ambitious projects. On the other hand, he's one of the few who really knows how to do these kinds of genre programs right. Maybe JJ Abrams can pick up the slack. He has a new action show premiering in the fall, "Undercovers."

Hope springs eternal. I'll be back with Saturday panels tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Comic-Con Part 1: Megamind, TRON, Disney Announcements

I saw four panels on Thursday, one on Friday, and six on Saturday, so dividing these recap posts up by individual day is doomed to failure. I'm just going to keep writing until I hit what I feel is a good stopping place for each post. I also want to quickly note that most of the footage that was shown in the larger panels, and in some cases the panels themselves, can easily be found through Youtube or official websites.

First up on the Thursday schedule, I went straight from the registration line to the Hall H line for "TRON." The wait wasn't nearly as long as I thought it would be - probably only about an hour and a half before they started letting people in for the 10AM "Megamind" panel that immediately preceded "TRON." Contrary to the claims of the Comic-Con website, no one cleared any of the rooms after panels, not even the smaller ones, not that this was necessarily a bad thing. The less popular panels benefited from bigger audiences than they would have attracted on their own, so the promotional efforts were seen by more ambivalent crowds who weren't already fans. Me included, in the case of "Megamind."

A couple of thoughts on Hall H first of all. It's the largest auditorium in the convention center, with a capacity of over eight thousand, and its own restrooms and food services for those who wanted to stay there all day. What struck me the most was how dimly lit is was, even when the lights were up. Big, obscuring, black curtains lined both sides of the room, making the whole place feel like a big, cavernous movie theater - very appropriate as Hall H was hosting all the film panels. I was near the back of the room and wouldn't have seen a thing if it weren't for the three giant overhead screens giving us close-up views of the panelists at the front. The real benefit to being there in person was the crowd. The energy generated by eight thousand people is incredible.

After being handed a pair of 3D - ahem, Real D - glasses and a "Megamind" swag bag on the way in, we were treated to the new trailer, which has since been released online through Yahoo. I hesitate to say if it's better or worse than the first trailer, or to even describe it in much detail because it has so many potential spoilers, but the marketing is definitely taking steps to distinguish "Megamind" from "Despicable Me." Hero/villain relationships are the major theme, and it's not hard to predict how the story is going to play out jut looking at the promotional materials. However, the 3D didn't do much for me, either for "Megamind" or for "TRON," but there was nothing obnoxious about the use of it either.

Then they brought out the director and three members of the cast: Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Ferrell brought the cosplay spirit and was dressed as Megamind, with his face painted blue and a giant bulbous fake head. There were rumors that Brad Pitt was also going to put in an appearance, since Angelina Jolie was confirmed for the "Salt" panel later that day. Instead, Will Ferrell psyched us out with a full size cardboard cutout of Pitt, that confused at least a few fans from the screams at the front of the room. Cardboard Brad Pitt spent much of the remaining panel time on Tina Fey's lap. There was some nice banter back and forth, and the actors talked a little about their characters and answered a few questions - every panel left about ten minutes for audience Q&A.

Does Will Ferrell prefer playing villains or heroes? For "Megamind" he got to be both. Does Tina Fey find voice acting or live action roles easier? Voice acting. Was Jonah Hill going to reveal the big twist about his character? No, but he was going to play up the fact that there is a twist for all he was worth. In the end, the presentation did its job. I'm more likely to see "Megamind" now than I was after the initial teaser trailer. The story looks stronger and the visuals have a bigger scope. I'm still getting the vibe that this is Dreamworks' very late answer to PIXAR's "The Incredibles," with double the sarcasm and about half the charm, but it's a formula that works for Dreamworks, and they've surprised me before with "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Kung Fu Panda." We'll see in November.

Now on to the main event.

The minute the "TRON" panel started, you could feel the tension and anticipation in the room rising. Patton Oswalt came out to moderate, greeted by cheers. We got a clip package on the impact of "TRON" first, a collection of clips of other media with "TRON" references and spoofs, including the famous "Homer3" from the Simpsons, the Cheech and Chong web parody, and of course the TRON guy. "TRON Legacy" director Joe Kosinski, producer Sean Bailey, original "TRON" director/creator Steve Lisberger, and cast members Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Michael Sheen, Bruce Boxleitner, and Jeff Bridges took the stage, and the room cheerfully erupted for them. Bridges and Boxleitner were the main event from the start, as they reminisced about the production of the original "TRON," where most of the film was shot on all-black soundstages and the effects were added later by animators. Kosinski had video game machines on the set, a fatal mistake since Bridges would often get caught up in "research" between takes.

Kosinski promised that the new film was being shot for 3D, with the same system James Cameron used for "Avatar." Technological advances mean that the "TRON" production is very different this time, and one of the biggest upgrades will be that the illuminated sections of the suits will be a practical effect. Garrett Hedlund described being jammed into the very tight, very stiff costumes that required him to stand very still to avoid tearing them. The action sequences are likely to be much more fight-intensive. Hedlund had to pick up parkour and motorcycle skills, while Wilde talked about discovering she was going to have to perform her fight choreography in four-inch heels. One of the most talked-about effects will surely be the digital de-aging process used to create CLU, a character who is essentially an evil, 35-year-old version of Jeff Bridges. I've heard a few complaints that CLU looks too plasticine, but I honestly couldn't see the flaws in the brief scene we saw with him.

We were treated to both the new trailer, which was simultaneously released online, and an eight-minute clip that featured the full sequence where Sam, Garrett Hedlund's character, is picked up by a Recognizer. He's mistaken for a "stray" program, since he has no disc, and carted off with a group of other prisoners. They're split into two groups, one to be "rectified," and the other to sent to the Games - apparently a fate worse than death because one program leaps to his doom upon learning his fate, off the side of a platform and right into a giant fan blade. Sam ends up in the Games group, and gets a costume change with the help of four female programs, who strip him down, outfit him with a lightsuit and data disc, and then send him off on his way with only one word of advice: "survive." The sequence ends with the shot from the first teaser, where Sam enters the arena. We got to hear a good chunk of the Daft Punk score, which is a nice mixture of electronica and orchestral music. Also, I noticed that the programs speak with a slight electronic voice effect, some more noticeably than others.

The rest of the clip was a montage of finished effects shots, most of them shared with the new trailer. Bits that were exclusive to the Comic-Con footage included a quick glimpse of masked, winged soldiers who looked like the Superman villain Firefly, and a few different shots of Martin Sheen's and Olivia Wilde's characters. I liked what I saw and wanted to see more. The characters are still sketchy and the footage is still too scant to piece the whole story together, but there were mentions of exploring issues related to the dark side of technology use, and the father/son themes are going to be the backbone of the narrative, as Sam will spend a good portion of the film searching the "TRON" world for his father. That supports the rumors of "Apocalypse Now" parallels that surfaced a few months ago.

Between the second clip package and the trailer, we did a neat little foley exercise to provide some noise for the arena crowd scenes. They got the whole hall to spend several minutes shouting "Disc Wars!" "Rinzler!" and "De-Rez!" in time with video instructions on the screen. The takes we managed to get right might end up in the final film. If not, it was still a great experience to be one of eight thousand fans chanting "TRON" dialogue in unison. I've already covered most of the interesting tidbits that came up during the closing Q&A, but a common refrain from everyone involved with the first "TRON" was how surprised they were at the film's longevity, at being involved in the new project twenty-eight years later, and how much technology has changed since 1982.

But wait, there's more!

I think I must have been one of the only people in Hall H who noticed that the "TRON" presentation ended well before the schedule said it was going to, so I was fully expecting a surprise or two after the "TRON" panelists exited the stage. Most of the other attendees did not, because everyone was getting up to leave before Patton Oswalt returned to the microphone and told us all to sit ourselves back down. The lights dimmed, and Johnny Depp came onscreen in full Captain Jack Sparrow regalia, to vehemently deny that he was planning to go after the Fountain of Youth on his next voyage, and to extol the virtues of rum and Bloody Marys. Zombies, mermaids, and Penelope Cruz were mentioned offhand, before the title screen was revealed. "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" will be on its way to theaters in the near future. It was a good teaser and I hope the movie lives up to the cast being assembled for it.

The lights came up. Oswalt asked us which Disney property we'd like to see rebooted. After some confused murmuring from the crowd, he announced that "The Haunted Mansion" was going to get another feature film adaptation. Another short teaser followed, just a few seconds of animation of the a green logo being stretched out a la the famous "growing" entryway portraits in the Disneyland ride. There was a palpable sense of "that's it?" when the lights came back on, but then Oswalt told us that the project's director was going to come out to say a few words: Guillermo del Toro. I was screaming. Everyone around me was screaming. Del Toro took the stage and first quickly reminded himself that he had to watch his language because this was a Disney panel. Then he talked about how much he loved the Disneyland ride, how he was planning to make a genuinely scary film centered on the legendary Hatbox Ghost, and how he was not returning Eddie Murphy's calls.

I knew Del Toro was going to be at the "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" panel on Friday that I was going to have to skip, so it was great to be able to see him. At the time I thought that "Haunted Mansion" was the new directing gig he had been expected to announce at Comic-Con, though from subsequent reports this apparently is not the case. Del Toro later clarified that he probably wouldn't be directing "Haunted Mansion" because his slate was too full, but he planned to write and produce the film. The next one he's actually directing has yet to be announced.

Whew. I think this is the longest post I've put up on this blog, and I've barely made it through two panels. But this was a great kick-off to my Comic-Con experience. More to come soon!

Monday, July 26, 2010

I Survived Comic-Con 2010

I return victorious from my first visit to Comic-Con! I made it through three days (Thursday through Saturday), eleven panels, the Hall H line (twice) the Ballroom 20 line (once), had some wonderful surprises, terrible disappointments, saw so much, missed so much, collected swag, stood for photos, took photos, and paid unconscionable prices for bottled water and soft pretzels. This post will just be initial thoughts on the convention-going experience. I'll have three follow-up posts over the next few days detailing the content of the panels I managed to see.

I have no idea how many people attended, but the estimates I've heard are in the ten to twenty thousand range, which sounds about right. I was warned that Comic-Con was going to be immense, but I wasn't prepared for it. The Convention Center is massive, so certain areas seemed deceptively empty, but then you'd turn a corner and find five thousand people lining up for a presentation, or show up early for a smaller panel for an obscure artist, only to find the room filled to capacity ten minutes after you sat down. There was no possible way to see everything, or even a fraction of everything. There were at least fifteen things going on at once – a dozen panels and presentations, film screenings, off-site events, the madness of the exhibition hall, parties in the evenings, unannounced skulduggery, and general mayhem.

I went with a trio of other friends and we quickly gave up on trying to stay together. Our priorities turned out to be completely divergent and I think I only sat through a single panel with one friend, and briefly hit the exhibition hall with the other. All of Wednesday we were plotting out our schedules, making choices between the panels we wanted to see, trying to calculate how much of a gap would be necessary to leave between events, and trying to work in time for lunch and photo-taking and other activities. Any mistake in time management could have dire consequences, such as my failure to queue up for Ballroom 20 on Friday until almost noon, which meant I missed the "Big Bang Theory" panel and nearly didn't make it into the Joss Whedon Experience – after three hours in line. Eventually I adjusted my schedule to aim for panels immediately preceding the ones I actually wanted to attend.

I regret not being able to stay for much of the night programming because my ride left promptly at 7PM every evening, except on Saturday night when one of my friends and I arranged to stay until 8Pm for the "Mythbusters" panel. I was so exhausted by the end of most days, though, I don't think I would have had enough steam to go on for much longer. Also, not having any access to the Internet over the weekend, I wasn't very good about keeping on top of the convention gossip. I was vaguely aware that there were street parties and preview screenings of "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" going on in nearby theaters and would have loved to crash something, but alas I couldn't ferret out any details until long after they were over. Cell-phone reception was dodgy and I had to resort to a lot of text messaging, the first time I've ever had to rely on it so heavily.

The place where the massive numbers of people was most apparent was the exhibition floor, where the various film, television, video game, anime, comics, retailers, and artists all set up booths. The bigger commercial exhibitors had massive, elaborate displays. Lucasfilm had several "Clone Wars" Star Wars character statutes. Marvel brought props from the new "Thor" film, including Odin's throne. Warner Brothers had the horcruxes from "Harry Potter." Disney sent along a light-cycle and Recognizer from "TRON," with several costumed actors to pose for photos. This was also where all the freebies were being distributed, and there were lines were running all over the floor, often for simple things like T-shirts and buttons that I didn't think were worth getting excited over.

I found free T-shirts being given away at a booth promoting the film "Red" that required vouchers in order to get in line for them. The vouchers were being given away on the opposite side of the floor, which also required a line. And that particular line was capped at a certain length, so there was an unofficial line to get into the voucher line. All for a T-shirt. I heard some grumblings that the ever-increasing numbers of attendees and ravenous demand for merchandise were forcing exhibitors to cut back on their giveaways or engineer all these hoops for people to jump through in order to collect them. But from my POV, lots of stuff was still free and it was up to the individual attendee to decide whether or not to get in the lines and play the games or not. Like everything else at the convention, it was all about time management and prioritizing.

I didn't have much room to take a lot of the swag home, so I was extremely selective about what I picked up and ended up giving away a lot of things, like the gigantic bags that were handed out at the Registration tables with our events guides and souvenir books. Free issues of "Wired," "Empire" and "Entertainment Weekly" went to one friend for airport reading. Another got all my key chains. I went to the trouble of buying poster tubes, but they were too big and awkward for carry-ons, so I ended up converting a larger poster into a smaller tube that got my prints home unsquished. I think my favorite freebies were the button-pins that DC was giving away, all emblazoned with the symbols of their various superheroes. I went through the lines twice and ended up with almost two full sets – the second time they were out of the Flash logo buttons. I didn't make many purchases, but I did make a point to pick up something from Doug TenNapel, whose panels I couldn't make it to, and Bill Plympton, whose panel I did make it to.

All in all I was extremely impressed with the organization and the security of the convention. There were delays, such as an autograph line being held up for nearly forty minutes because the fire marshal couldn't be located for line approvals on Saturday, and there were dire mistakes in programming, such as the aforementioned "Big Bang Theory" panel and a later "True Blood" panel taking place in Ballroom 20 instead of Hall H, which has double the capacity and was comparatively empty for most of Friday. Many of the lines were horrendous, but I was assured that it was much worse in the past, when there were no tents set up to provide any cover from the elements, and the lines were unmonitored and ended up disrupting the flow of pedestrian traffic in the rest of the convention hall. Compared to the other media conventions I've been to, logistical problems were minimal.

I was not present for the stabbing in Hall H prior to the Marvel panel, though I was receiving texts about it from the friend who was in line. The fact that the panel wasn't canceled, Hall H wasn't shut down, and the delay was only forty-five minutes is, frankly, astounding. I've been at other media events that were canceled over far more minor problems. Still, I had some issues with the convention staff. I figured out very quickly that many of the security personnel gave completely erroneous or contradictory directions. I was ordered back and forth around the back of the upper level pavilion area about three times on Friday morning before I finally broke rank, found the escalators, and escaped. So there's definitely room for improvement there.

But easily the best part of the whole experience was the fans. The fun of spotting people dressed up as characters from obscure shows you thought only you knew about. The ability to hold conversations about the geekiest topics with complete strangers. I think my favorite moment of the entire convention was at the end of the Ray Bradbury panel, when the entire room spontaneously sang the legendary writer "Happy Birthday" to celebrate his upcoming 90th. Maybe Comic-Con is getting too big for San Diego, but I don't think it's too big at all. You can never have enough geeks, and the convergence of the geeky population is a strange and wonderful thing.

I'm exhausted, dehydrated, and definitely need some time to some digest everything that happened over the past few days, but I'm definitely going back to Comic-Con. I'm hooked and I'm already looking forward to my next trip.

Panel recaps starting tomorrow. Promise.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Year One of the Eleventh Doctor

What a great season it's been for "Doctor Who." After all the drama surrounding last year's changeover from Russell Davies to Stephen Moffat as the show's head writer and executive producer, not to mention a whole new cast, it turns out that everyone's apprehensions were for nothing. There were some iffy episodes toward the beginning of the year, and all the performers needed some time to settle into their characters, but the creative minds behind the show didn't let us down. The season was a keeper and ended with a real bang. I have a few odd thoughts to share, mostly on how the new characters are developing. Spoilers ahoy!

So the mystery of the cracks in the walls was finally resolved, and we got to double back to the first episode of the season and revisit the adorable younger version of Amy, attend that long-delayed wedding, and save the universe too. Not a bad day's work for the Doctor. Looking back over the whole season, I don't think the quality was much better or worse than any other year. The stand-alone episodes were the usual mix of bad and good, some very good like "Amy's Choice" and "Vincent and the Doctor." Of the multiple episodes scripted by Moffatt, I liked the season's bookends - the introductory episode and the two-part finale - but thought the others missed the mark. Probably the biggest disappointment was the return of the Weeping Angels, who came with different, confusing rules, and turned out to be pushovers next to that evil, glowing crack in space-time. But he made up for it by putting Rory in a Roman Centurion outfit and the doctor in a tux.

Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor has earned his place among the most beloved iterations of the character, giving us a more reserved, more stoic Time Lord than David Tennant's Tenth doctor. Yes, the actor is younger, but the character feels a little older and a little wiser, and provides a steadier presence in the face of danger. He doesn't have Tennant's intensity, but then Tennant doesn't have his subtlety. I think Smith still has plenty of room for improvement, and I'm sure he'll get better with age, but there's the part I'm worried about. The tenures of the actors who portray the Doctor and his companions are an awful lot shorter than they were in the old days, and I so want to see Eleven have a full, epic story arc the way Ten did, and I want Smith to stay in the role long enough for us to see him reach his full potential. The little tease at the end of the finale promises plenty of opportunity for growth next season.

And speaking of the companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are now among my favorites. I was so relieved that they survived the finale and found a happy ending. Best of all, the two of them tying the knot didn't mean either of them had to settle down or give up traveling with the doctor in some belabored metaphor for putting away childish things and assuming grown-up responsibilities. When the two of them threw in their lot with the Doctor at the end without a moment's hesitation - or even discussing it between themselves - I was beside myself with glee. If there's one way to quash the chatter about Doctor/Companion romances, it's to have the Companions married to each other - though knowing fandom, it's not likely to stop them entirely. I like both characters so much, I just know that Stephen Moffat is going to break my heart somehow next season with those two. Or get Russell Davies back to do it. He's better at it.

The award for most improved character goes to River Song (Alex Kingston), the Doctor's mysterious ally who might or might not be his future wife. I didn't like the character when she was first introduced last season, but this year she's been running around the universe, causing all sorts of trouble, and clearly enjoying herself. She also has a much more interesting relationship with this Doctor than the last one. Eleven seems genuinely bothered that she knows more than he does about their interactions in the past and/or future. It's great to see him at a disadvantage for once. There's still lots unexplained about River, and she's one of Moffat's most prominent additions to the "Doctor Who" universe, so I expect we'll be seeing more of her soon. This time I'll be looking forward to her.

As for things that could be improved, there are a couple of points I hope the creators will keep in mind. First, I think Russell Davies did go overboard at times trying to include characters with diverse ethnicities and sexual identities, but I think they've scaled back a little too much, especially regarding gay and lesbian characters. Stephen Moffatt created Captain Jack Harkness, so he's contributed plenty already, but I hope we'll see similar characters, even if it's only bit parts. Conversely, the Dalek episode was among the worst of the season. The classic "Who" villains are fine for cameos, like they were used in the finale, but the Daleks and the Cybermen are so campy, a little goes a long way. This year was light on camp, so they didn't fit in too well.

Finally, the whole season has done a great job of establishing these new characters and their relationships. It wouldn't hurt to acknowledge a few of the old ones in the coming year. Smith is already due to appear on "The Sarah Jane Adventures," with two of the Doctor's previous companions, but I'd like to know what some of the more recent ones are up to. Okay, what I really want is for Mickey and Martha to get their own spinoff so we can finally clear up how they got together last year. They're never going to tie that loose end up, are they? Oh well. I hope Moffat and company are more scrupulous about resolving their stories. They're certainly on the right track so far.

Here's to a very good year, and many more to come.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hide and Seek With "Caché"

I seem to be running into a lot of puzzle-box films this week. "Caché," the 2005 French mystery thriller directed by Michael Haneke is a subtle, insidious piece of work that is just as absorbing and provocative as any Hitchcock film.

Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) receive mysterious video tapes that show their house under surveillance. The police will do nothing because no threats have been made, and the Laurents initially speculate that it could all be a prank, perhaps perpetrated by one of the friends of their young son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky). Then the tapes begin to arrive with crude drawings that are similarly vague, but sinister in nature, and the content of the tapes changes. They lead Georges to a forgotten figure from his past, an Algerian orphan his parents once tried to adopt named Majid (Maurice Bénichou). The unwelcome reconnection forces Georges to confront some uncomfortable truths.

"Caché," which translates as "Hidden," plays with perspective and frames of reference in startling and ingenious ways. The opening shot is a static view of the Laurents' house, seen from across the street. It's only after the credits have come and gone from the screen that the picture sudden freezes, and we hear the characters discussing the image that we are seeing. The picture suddenly rewinds, revealing that we have been watching one of the mysterious video tapes sent to the Laurents. It's a jolting, disorienting realization that teeters on breaking the fourth wall. After the viewer has been lulled into a false sense of security, accepting the videotaped scene as the film's baseline reality, suddenly we're pulled out of frame and presented with a different reality that supersedes the original.

This happens several times over the course of the film, as videotaped images and what appear to be memories or dream sequences are interspersed with the main narrative. Similar tricks have been played before in other films, but rarely has there been such a menacing deliberateness about it. Haneke forces the audience to consider how the simple act of being viewed changes the context of certain scenes, how the illusion of privacy is essential to many acts and events. Georges Laurent is a television presenter who makes his living by being on camera, but finds himself persecuted by one that intrudes on his private life. And by inviting us to see what that camera sees, the director makes the audience complicit with the voyeurs.

And what are we to think of the last scene? It's another long static shot, one that captures images of the possible culprits. Or does it? "Caché" is purposefully vague about the details of its central mysteries. We get some significant clues about the purpose videos were made to accomplish and who was behind them, but there are no concrete answers. And if the last shot really does catch the video creator(s) and we're intended to believe that what we’re watching is itself another video, then who is the final voyeur? The director, Michael Haneke? The audience? The Laurents? The film is ambiguous enough to support all three theories and a dozen more.

This is the second Haneke film I've seen after "The White Ribbon," and I can see why he has the reputation he does. "Caché" is beautifully made – well shot, tightly edited, and the script is a marvel of escalating tension. Thematically, the two pictures are similar, examining familial estrangement, class tensions, the hypocrisy of elites, and the origins of horrific violence. "Caché" takes a more direct approach, systematically exposing the faults of its characters and tying them directly to tragic results. Auteuil and Binoche are excellent as the Laurents, a pair of seemingly well-matched intellectuals who surround themselves with books and friends, but the cracks in their façade are revealed under pressure.

Though we sympathize with them in the beginning, their behavior deteriorates, first toward each other and then toward others. By the time Georges confronts the man he believes to be the culprit, his guilty conscience and capacity for evil are exposed, if not his explicit responsibility for the crimes of the past. His greatest crime is the simple act of forgetting, and it's fitting that his reckoning should come through the use of a device that will never let him forget. "Caché" is a strong indictment of the information age, but it also portrays the camera as a brutally effective tool for justice that transcends social barriers. And though Haneke seems to love torturing his characters with it – and some might say the audience too – I suspect his also believes it holds the key to their salvation.

I'm a little wary of tackling the rest of Michael Haneke's films, especially the notorious "Funny Games," but I'll certainly keep an eye out for him in the future. And all the invisible cameras that are watching every move we make.

Friday, July 23, 2010

"Inception" Inside Out

I had a great time with "Inception," the new science-fiction thriller from Christopher Nolan. After diligently avoiding any spoilers for the film over the past few weeks, now I'm honestly not sure it would have been so terrible if I did catch a few more details in advance. The plot of requires the precise set-up and explanation of so many different concepts, there's really no way to spoil anything important with just a sentence or two. However, this review will be considerably longer than a sentence, and I waited this long to post it so I could discuss a few of the labyrinthine story's specifics. So spoilers ahoy.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an Extractor, a man who can walk in other people's dreams, using techniques and technology that the film does not waste time trying to explain. He's engaged in corporate espionage when we first meet him, invading the dream of a Japanese executive named Saito (Ken Watanabe) in order to steal information. The dream is revealed to be a fabrication, the job is botched, and Dom and his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are left with a choice – they can either go on the run to escape the wrath of their employers or take a job offer from Saito to perform a much more dangerous assignment.

Saito wants to implant an idea in the mind of one of his competitors, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), through a process known as "inception," where a target is brought into a specially designed dream, which allows invaders to simulate the natural genesis of an idea, and pass it off as the dreamer's own. Cobb quickly assembles his team, including a young dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page), a "Forger," Eames (Tom Hardy), who can assume others' identities in dreams, and a chemist, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who handles the vital sedatives and other compounds that control the dreaming. As the team makes preparations, Cobb struggles to deal with personal issues connected to his ex-wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose unexplained presence during recent jobs poses a looming threat.

"Inception" has been described as a heist film, albeit with a heist in reverse. The goal is not to steal information, as the trailers suggest, but to implant information deep into the subconscious mind of an unwary dreamer. It's an incredibly elaborate venture, requiring the dream manipulators to create multiple levels of dreams within dreams within dreams, and synchronize actions on each level. It's easy to lose track of what's going on, who is dreaming which dream, and what the rules are for each level. However, the visuals are so sharp and the structure of the story is so tight, it isn't as difficult to follow as it sounds. Christopher Nolan does an amazing job of creating and differentiating his dream worlds, and dropping little reminders at just the right moments to keep viewers up to speed. The way he handles the concept of time dilation in the various dream levels is especially novel.

The special effects in this film will be talked about for years, but what impressed me the most was how Nolan's use of them was fairly restrained. Most of the really eye-catching shots are featured in the film's trailers, but they don't figure that heavily into the story. It's fun to see Ariadne folding Paris in half and Arthur engaging in zero-G fisticuffs in a rotating hotel hallway, but it would have been easy to overuse those tricks, or let them become distracting. There's so much going on in the film, I never felt the need for any more stimulation. Some of the best visuals were the most subtle ones, like the dreamers' projections staring at an invader when they realize something is wrong. I especially appreciated that nearly every major effects sequence takes place during the daytime or in well-lit interiors, which is a lot easier on the eyes than the obscuring murk of "Dark City" or "Dreamscape," films that explore similar territory.

The characters are underdeveloped, which is inevitable in a film like this, but the performances are all excellent and we get a lot of subtle details about the various players that helps them register as three-dimensional personalities. At the end of the film I was surprised to realize that none of the team had turned out to be backstabbers or creeps, and you couldn't really call anyone a villain, though nearly everyone qualifies as an anti-hero. DiCaprio as Dom Cobb lacks the piercing, wild-eyed intensity we saw from him in Scorsese's "Shutter Island," but he's convincing here as a similarly troubled protagonist. The performance that really impressed me was Marion Cotillard's as the haunting Mal, a character whose integrity is shaky on all levels from the outset. Yet she provides such a strong emotional center to the film, Cobb's attachment to her is believable and this anchors all the other metaphysical parlor games.

There's been criticism that "Inception" is far too orderly and precise about its dream logic, especially in the way that it parses out the increments of time dilation and lacks any element of the bizarreness often associated with dreams, such as the flights of fancy found in Satoshi Kon's "Paprika." Nolan fanboys are already filling blogs and message boards with dissections of the film's structure, trying to figure out how the stated rules of dreams apply and how they might give clues to the ambiguous ending. However, after a single viewing, I'm fairly sure that the order and precision is just another illusion. None of the rules turn out to be hard and fast - most of them are subverted throughout the film. New tidbits of information are introduced at the last second to explain the discrepancies seem to make sense at the time, but fall apart upon closer inspection. Why does the lack of gravity affect the hotel level, but not any of the deeper ones? Why does suicide suddenly work as an escape hatch from Limbo instead of just sending the dreamer another level deeper into their subconscious? How did Cobb and Ariadne get to Limbo from the snow fortress level anyway?

As for flights of fancy, not everyone has them. I'm willing to bet that "Inception" looks a lot like the kind of dreams that Christopher Nolan has, full of nested puzzle-box universes and terribly intelligent people who say very reasonable, but impossible things. Batman fans are gunning for him to start working on a follow-up to "The Dark Knight," but if Nolan keeps turning out passion projects like this, I wouldn't mind if he kept the Bat on the back burner for as long as he likes. I'm not so sure that "Inception" is a great film, but it's ambitious, original, well made, and has pulled off a truly fantastic feat – it's gotten the summer blockbuster audience to *think.*

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The 10 Best Animated Films of 2009

2009 was a great year for animated films, and now all of them have finally made it to DVD release, thus allowing me to finish off those few odd foreign titles that I'd been waiting for (because my tragic flaw is that I'm a completist), so I can finally present my top ten of the best animated films of last year. The fact that there were more than ten films to seriously consider, and that traditional, CGI, and stop-motion films could all be represented, made me happier than you can imagine.

10. "A Town Called Panic" – This Belgian stop-motion film stars the plastic figurines of a Horse, a Native American Chief, and a Cowboy, who have a series of surreal adventures. Think of Cartoon Network's "Robot Chicken," but without the pop culture references and celebrity voices, and you have something approaching the feel of "A Town Called Panic." Of all the animated films released this year, this is definitely the most unique and unexpectedly enjoyable. The animation is cheap, the story is completely illogical, and the characters are clearly all insane. And it's marvelous.

9. "The Secret of Kells" – a Celtic-themed cartoon, with lovely, stylized visuals, that tells the story of a little boy named Brendan, who becomes instrumental in the creation of the famous illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells. This is the first full-length feature from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, best known up until now for their television work. After picking up a surprise Oscar nomination last year, the film got plenty of press, but I don't think it's quite as good as its supporters make it out to be. Both the animation and story are promising, but I don't think they're quite at the same level as some of the others on this list.

8. "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" – One of the most pleasant surprises of last summer was this delightfully silly cartoon comedy from Sony Pictures Animation, about a town with very peculiar weather. As a fan of the original picture book I was skeptical about the new additions to the story, like the wide-eyed young scientist who creates the food storms with a brilliant invention that predictably ends up running amok. But the humor and the heart were there, and I can't deny any film that has Mr. T playing the town cop – and sporting a reverse mohawk!

7. "The Princess and the Frog" – Disney's return to traditional animation, a category it dominated for decades, was a wonderful piece of nostalgia that finally gave little African-American girls a princess of their very own. Sure it follows a standard formula, complete with the animal sidekicks and song numbers, but it's a formula that works. My favorite moments all involved the villain of the piece, Doctor Facilier, and Ray the firefly, a character I'd initially written off because of his exaggerated design, but wound up falling in love with. I sincerely hope that the studio won't leave us again soon.

6. "Wonder Woman" – Warner Brothers' DC Comics direct-to-video animated films have been consistently entertaining, but I think this may be the best of them. Wonder Woman has a notoriously difficult origin story, but the animators nailed it this time. They successfully bring the character into the modern era, and let her tackle some of the contradictions of being a modern woman, while also keeping true to her classic mythological roots. I'm actually a little disappointed that this isn't the pilot for a full television series. If a live action "Wonder Woman" film must be made, the filmmakers should seriously consider using this one as a template.

5. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" – Wes Anderson directed an animated film? Can he do that? Well yes, he can, and it's a very good one. Using a Roald Dahl children's book as his starting point, Anderson combines intentionally retro-style stop motion animation, well-cast celebrity voice actors, and a lot of his usual trademark hipsterisms into a very thoughtful, sweet little movie. Sure, the hero is a talking fox with criminal tendencies, but otherwise the story is a familiar one, about dysfunctional families and loyal friends. And it turns out that animation is a great medium for Anderson's very particular visual sense.

4. "Up" – I like the first ten minutes of "Up" more than I like the rest of the film, and it's really just those ten minutes which I think people will remember in a decade or two. The other eighty minutes are a lot of fun, technically immaculate, and certainly up to the usual PIXAR standard for storytelling, humor, and everything else, but an awful lot of it was also pretty familiar. "Up" felt like leftover odds and ends of other films, tacked on to the touching story of an old man and his house – albeit all the bits were good. I just couldn't help thinking the film would have been much better as a short or a featurette.

3. "Coraline" - The glut of 3D films this year can be blamed in part on the achievements of "Coraline," which used them to amazing effect last spring to bring its chilling Other-world to life. A stop-motion feature from "Nightmare Before Christmas" director Henry Selick, this is one of the few animated children's films that could accurately be classified as a horror picture. That alone makes it more daring and interesting than most of the other animated films released last year. But the execution is what seals the deal, as it pits the young heroine against some of the most terrifying nightmare creatures ever animated: button-eyed doppelgangers of her own parents.

2. "Mary and Max" – This Australian gem is easily overlooked, as it didn't get much attention when it was released in the US, and aims for a more mature audience than the usual PIXAR film. Using crude stop-motion animation, it chronicles the pen-pal friendship of two kindred spirits, a little girl in Australia named Mary and a lonely old man in New York named Max. The story takes some dark turns as the years go by and Mary grows up, but it's never anything less than honest and candid and true. I really hope more viewers discover "Mary and Max," because it's one that deserves to be seen.

1. "Ponyo" – This is one of the strangest films Hayao Miyazaki has ever made, and that's saying something. The imagery that he employs for "Ponyo," however, is stunning stuff. The shots of Ponyo the goldfish-girl running on the tops of ocean waves, Sosuke's toy boat traveling through the flooded town, and the underwater wonderland of Ponyo's home are among my favorite things Miyazaki has ever done. This is a film aimed at a younger audience, which perhaps left some fans cold, but it's also one of Miyazaki's happiest and most charming pictures in years, and I hope to see more like it before he really does retire for good.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Trouble with "They Shoot Pictures"

I'm getting very close to the halfway point of the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They?" ("TSPDT") website's list of the top one thousand greatest films. It's been a great resource for getting into world cinema, and it's pointed me toward titles I never would have considered picking up on my own. The list has been in existence since 2006 and changes every year to keep current with the times. I haven't been watching the films in order, but I have been leaning heavily toward the titles that are at the top of the list, since they're usually easier to find and feel like more necessary viewing. But now that I'm getting into more of the mid-range and lower range titles, I'm becoming less satisfied with some of the selections and placement - even more so since I took a look at some of the movies that have been dropped from the list over the years.

Lots of different variables are involved with the designation of anything as the "Greatest." Many films on the list are there because they're of particular historical or cultural importance, because they were influential or because they pioneered some filmmaking technique. I get that pure artistic merit is only part of the picture and the perceived value of specific pieces of art always changes with the times. This year the French Impressionists are in and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is out. This year the filmmakers and critics polled for the TSPDT list decided the "Lord of the Rings" films were in and a couple of Werner Herzog's shorter features were out. So it goes. I can guarantee that the latter two "Lord of the Rings" films will drop in the standings in the years to come, if they don't tumble off the edges altogether.

However, there are several films that I don't see how anyone could justify keeping on the list or placing anywhere near as high in the rankings as they are. These are the lesser films of very well-known directors like Federico Fellini and F.W. Murnau, which I highly doubt would have been remembered, let alone elevated, if they had other people's names attached. The auteur theory of criticism popularized by Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael treats directors like painters, their individual films part of a collective body of work that can be evaluated for style and technique and artistry specific to that particular director. Thus, even less successful works reveal insights about their creator. It's a good approach to take if you're trying to compare directors to each other, but when you're looking at the specific films themselves, it can be counterproductive. Even given that comparing films is like comparing apples and oranges, I was really taken aback by some of the films that have earned kudos just by being associated with the great directors.

Frankly, I've never met anyone who likes "Juliet of the Spirits." It's Fellini's first color film and his third with the great Giulietta Masina, but it's a chaotic, confused piece of work that was a huge step down from "8 & 1/2," the masterpiece that immediately preceded it. But there it is, listed as #630, along with eleven other Fellini films on the list. And let's be honest. Whatever the revisionists want to say about the unfairness of the critical response to "Heaven's Gate" at the time of its release, the only reason it's on the list now, at #593, is because director Michael Cimino made "The Deer Hunter," one of the seminal works of 70s New Hollywood, and "Heaven's Gate" is the only other noteworthy picture in his filmography that "Deer Hunter" can be evaluated against. Similar factors no doubt kept the famously derided "The Godfather Part III" around, currently ranked #633 above every single Wes Anderson and Kon Ichikawa film.

I look at the films that have been squeezed out of the TSPDT list and grimace. Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant." Mathieu Kassovitz's "La Haine." The great W.C. Fields comedy, "The Bank Dick." George Cukor's "Gaslight." "From Here to Eternity," "Rififi," "Patton," and "Remains of the Day." Their only crimes are that they were made by directors that don't have as much cinematic clout as Francis Ford Coppolla. And sure, a mediocre Fritz Lang film is better than most directors' best, but am I supposed to believe that all sixteen of the Lang films currently on the list are more influential, more groundbreaking, and more worthy of notice than "The Thin Man" or "Jason and the Argonauts"? I understand the impulse to stay with the familiar and already acclaimed - I'm far more likely to reach for an obscure Kurosawa or Fassbinder film than I am to try something by a director I've never heard of with only a single, low-ranked entry on the list. But this is getting unreasonable.

To the credit of TSPDT, all the "ex-1000" films are listed on the site along with their former positions on the list, and readily accessible to curious users. And of course, there's the "Doubling the Canon" list, featuring a thousand films that didn't make the cut, including most of the castoffs I've listed. And there's documentation of all the critics' lists and ballots that were used to make the lists, and hundreds of pages of supplemental material to go with them, all making the case that the process was fair and free from the bias and any influence from the tabulators. Maybe the general consensus really is that "The Godfather Part III" contains significant artistic merit worthy of placing it among the greats.

But really - I doubt it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What a Lousy "Date Night"

I was all set to watch "Caché" last night, but I ended up at a $2 second-run theater watching "Date Night" with a Tina Fey enthusiast. I really wish I had said no. I didn't want to see this movie. Nothing about it came off right in the trailers, not the stilted dialogue, not the physical hijinks, and not the middle aged malaise that is supposed to be plaguing the main characters. I desperately hoped that this was one of those cases where all the really obnoxious jokes found their way into the trailer to play to same crowd that likes Adam Sandler movies, but the actual movie would have a little more substance. Alas, this was not to be.

Tina Fey and Steve Carell are two of the most lauded comedic stars on television for a reason. Not even the limp noodle plot this movie foisted on them could smother their charm and likability, though it tries its best. Fey and Carell play Phil and Claire Foster, who are long married, live in New Jersey with a pair of small children, and have fallen into a typical, boring suburban routine of work, childcare, and mundane social engagements. Every Tuesday they have a date night, which is as rote and familiar as everything else in their lives.

After their similarly frustrated friends announce their divorce, Phil decides to shake things up and takes Claire out to Manhattan on their next date night, where they impulsively steal the reservation of a couple of no-shows at a trendy restaurant. Said no-shows turn out to be mixed up with theft and blackmail, and the Fosters are mistaken for the criminals by other criminals. One thing leads to another, and Phil and Claire are forced to run around Manhattan for the rest of the film, trying to clear their names and get home to New Jersey.

Fey and Carell are a great match onscreen, and I would love to seen them paired up again with some better material. There are a few early scenes in the restaurant where they surreptitiously mock other couples and make up snarky conversations for them, that are genuinely fun. The emotional moments work, the rapport between the couple is right, and we root for them to sort out their marital issues and find a happy ending together. But so much of the movie is concerned with car chases, gun battles, and bargain basement plot twists, it's a chore to sift through the refuse for the good bits.

Perhaps the worst of "Date Night's" cinematic crimes is that it keeps trying to paint the Fosters as long past their prime just because they've hit forty and are in a domestic rut. The actors get a lot of mileage out of playing up the insecurities of their characters, but it's obvious that Tina Fey and Steve Carell are both attractive people, and their characters are successful, intelligent, and well off. Alas, they're surrounded by a sea of shallow morons who keep pecking at their self-worth and trying to drag them down to their level. It's like watching an existential zombie movie at times.

As for the comedy, you have a few moments that are passable, but the film only goes for the laziest, most obvious, jokes, relies heavily on celebrity cameos, and there are several sequences that don't work at all. A third act detour to a burlesque club results in one of the most awkward, uncomfortable dance scenes I've ever seen - and not in a good way. The funniest moments of the entire film, without hyperbole, are during the end credits where we get to watch Fey ad-libbing her dialogue and Carell blowing his takes.

Part of my disappointment comes from being able to see both of these actors in their own, far more competently scripted sitcoms every week on NBC's Thursday night lineup. Carell is the headliner of "The Office," and Tina Fey not only stars, but writes and produces "30 Rock." Both have successfully straddled the line between television and film work, and previously featured in far better cinematic offerings. This should have been an opportunity for the two of them to combine their comedic powers for something more ambitious, but instead this feels like a real step down for both actors.

I never thought I'd see the day when TV stars taking on a movie project would mean they were slumming it, but now we've got "Date Night," and there's no other way to describe it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Loving a Film About Hate

After being trounced by the French New Wave yet again over the weekend, I stumbled across a more recent piece of French cinema that I promptly fell in love with: Matthieu Kassovitz's "La Haine."

Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé play three friends, Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert. They are of Jewish, Arab, and African descent respectively, all hostile, restless young men in their twenties without many prospects for the future, and all inhabitants of a banlieu on the edge of Paris, the equivalent of council housing in the United Kingdom or a housing project in the US. The film gives us a look at twenty-four hours in their lives, the day after a riot in their neighborhood left one of their friends in the hospital, near death, and put one of the three in possession of a policemen's firearm. We follow them through their daily routines of casual vandalism and petty crimes, brushes with the police, and a failed attempt to visit the hospital. They make a trip into Paris to collect on a debt owed by a friend (François Levantal), but become stranded there after missing the last train, and have to make an arduous trek home.

Our protagonists aren't easy to sympathize with at first. They're the embodiment of everything we're taught to be wary of - aggressive, directionless young men who arrogantly break the rules and challenge authority, often for their own amusement. Their conversations are laced with obscenities and threats of violence, and trouble follows in their wake. Soon it becomes apparent that Saïd, the youngest, only talks big to build himself up and hide his insecurities. Hubert, a small time drug dealer and the smartest of the trio, hates the oppressiveness of the banlieu and longs for a way out. Vinz is the most openly anarchic, swearing he'll put a bullet in a policeman if their friend in the hospital dies, but it's not so clear if he'd actually go through with it. As we learn more about their lives and families, and watch them interact with each other, they emerge as distinct, vibrant personalities. The turning point of the film comes with the trip to Paris, where they're thrown out of their element in the big city and we see how they're treated by the police, local gangs, and ordinary people.

The obvious progenitor of "La Haine," which translates as "Hate" or "Hatred," is "Boyz in the Hood," which tackled similar social ills by examining the lives of young African-Americans in South Central Los Angeles. However, "La Haine" is a much slicker piece of work, shot in gorgeous black and white, with characters who are a little sharper, a little colder, and more acutely aware of their limited circumstances. Kassovitz is much more ambitious with the camera, giving us 360-degree pans, dolly zooms, and a famous helicopter-assisted shot that travels from a DJ's widow out over the banlieu, giving us a bird's eye view of the neighborhood below. Pop culture also permeates much of the film. Vinz sneers a Travis Bickle impression into the bathroom mirror, and the guys discuss "Batman" and "Tom and Jerry" cartoons on the way back from Paris. The Levantal character is nicknamed Asterix, after Asterix the Gaul (the Criterion subtitles call him Snoopy).

There's a wonderful energy to "La Haine," a sense of raw, unfiltered realism in spite of the film's stylistic conceits. The unspoken threat of violence hangs over every frame, keeping the mood tense, but this is not a dark or joyless picture. The three leads are casually charismatic, and the script gives them a lot of memorable bits of business, like Vinz seeing cows when he's high, Saïd's touchiness about his sister, and a random encounter with an elderly Holocaust survivor in the washroom. The crew of the film lived and worked in the neighborhood featured in "La Haine" for the duration of the shoot, and did their best to integrate themselves into the community. The extra effort comes across onscreen, where the setting is a tremendous influence on the feel and the verve of the film. The camera may turn cartwheels, but nothing about the performances feels staged or affected.

As an American viewer I can't say much as to the controversy that surrounded the film in France when it was released, about the perceived political messages or anti-police sentiments. It's clearly a film with a strong point of view in a particular context, but the messages are universal. Matthieu Kassovitz was only twenty-seven when he accepted the Cannes Prize for Best Director for "La Haine," and I wonder if an older director could have made this movie, taken all the chances and all the risks to bring this story to screen. The leads all were unknowns, the subject matter was difficult, and the budget was minuscule. And yet here it is, fifteen years later, still as relevant and timely as ever.

I think my luck has changed with French cinema. I'll try a few more modern films before I go back to Godard and Truffaut. Next up: Michael Haneke's "Caché."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Selling the Audience on "Inception"

I just got back from seeing "Inception," and it's brilliant. It's the movie of the summer and one of the best science-fiction films I've seen in years. But I'm not going to put up a full review of it for at least a few more days so I can take some time to go over it in my head and avoid contributing to the deluge of spoiler-filled commentary that is already permeating the internet. But while discussing the film with my fellow viewers after the screening, the conversation turned to the perfect marketing campaign that Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers put together for this movie. I think it's worthy of a post of its own.

Hard science fiction is not an easy sell these days, even if you have a cast full of big names and a director like Nolan at the helm. After a steady diet of mindless action-adventure films and idiot comedies, mainstream consumption habits have been dumbed down over the years, and the smarter filmgoers have learned to be wary of the multiplexes. So when you've got something like "Inception," that requires no small amount of brain power to keep up with and fully appreciate, there's a real danger of it failing to connect with the audience it was meant for, or worse attracting filmgoers who will fail to understand it and write it off as pretentious hackery.

It must have been tempting for the studio to push this film as a heist film or an action-adventure spectacle, and to center the campaign around all the gunfire and chase scenes that figure heavily into its latter half. There's so much here that is a challenge for marketers to sell to general audiences. "Inception" has a premise that is difficult to explain, it isn't a franchise film, and its stars are better known for their prestige pictures than their summer blockbusters. Even worse, it's a serious dramatic thriller, and nobody sees those anymore, right? I'm surprised Warner Brothers didn't take the easy way out and push it as something easier to digest. There have been plenty of recent examples of deceptive marketing, where the darker, more difficult aspects of a film will be hidden away from the public to push tickets. I can't count the number of times I've heard grumbles about misleading ads, that often string together the best special-effects shots and neglect to mention little things like story. Or the lack of one.

Instead, the "Inception" campaign never shied away from the fact that the film was going to be a difficult watch, and would probably confuse many people. In fact, that's what the early teaser trailers seemed determined to evoke – a sense of disorientation. You had a few intriguing images, but no context at all. But like the concept of "inception" in the film itself, those few glimpses - planted over a year ago - wound up germinating into significant speculation, interest, and buzz. By selling the film as an object of mystery, as a well-guarded secret that was going to require more than passive watching to solve, it got potential viewers into the right mindset to approach the film with. It was the ultimate in truth in advertising. Not only did the trailers not misrepresent what was going on in "Inception," it really didn't spell out anything at all. There were a few concepts introduced and a few nice effects shots to whet our appetites, but even the full two-minute trailer didn't delve very deep into the intricate plot – which is easily the best part of the film.

In the weeks leading up to the film's premier, a lot of the press made mention of viewers like me, who were eagerly anticipating the film but extremely sensitive about spoilers and getting too much information via Internet spoilers. This was shrewdly cued by the marketing campaign itself, which made keeping the secrets of the film part of the moviegoing experience. By not giving us the usual glut of exposition to set up the story from the outset, the message was that the less you knew about "Inception" before actually seeing the film, the better it would play. Old school science fiction fans like me already knew this, but it was interesting to see how the idea took hold more widely, the closer we got to the release date. It's really turned into an event film all on its own, as word has spread – not just about the film, but about the mystery surrounding it.

I really hope more films use the "less is more" approach in the future, because it's about time the pendulum started swinging back in the other direction and marketers got more careful with the amount of information oversaturating the marketplace. And for the ultimate proof that the strategy works, "Inception" is estimated to have taken in over $60 million in ticket sales over the weekend, easily surpassing all analyst estimates.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Daydreaming About Cake Decorating

I never understood how you could have an entire channel devoted to food until I got access to cable in college and became completely hooked on the Food Network prime time shows. "Good Eats," is like "Bill Nye the Science Guy" if Bill Nye was a foodie. And "Unwrapped" is a slicker expansion on those old "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" segments that showed us how they made peanut butter and pasta. My favorite though, is "Ace of Cakes," a documentary-style program about Charm City Cakes, a Baltimore bakery that specializes in very unique kind of cake decorating.

I had artistic ambitions once. When I was a kid, I filled sketchbooks with doodles and took just enough art classes to figure out that I didn't have the drive to make use of my talent. My secret dream was to be a Disney animator, and I'm still obsessed with cartoons, but I let my parents talk me into a more conventional and career path. I don't regret it, but watching "Ace of Cakes" makes me think that I could ditch my cubicle to embrace my creative side again - as a cake decorator. Not just any old cake decorator, mind you, but a decorator of those one-of a-kind, made-to-order special event cakes that can be real works of art.

When I used to think of cake decorating, the first thing that came to mind was always Middle American stay-at-home Moms with their chintzy Good Housekeeping magazines full of perfectly iced, and perfectly boring birthday cakes. At Charm City Cakes, Duff Goldman and his crew of decorators make cakes shaped like baseball stadiums, Chinese food takeout boxes, manatees, and Daleks. Dry ice, sparklers, electric lights, and motorized parts have all been incorporated into some of their creations. The decorators work under tight deadlines, and suffer occasional disasters, but most of the time they all seem to be really enjoying themselves, constantly tacking new creative challenges.

As much as I like seeing the finished cakes, watching them come together is the fascinating part. The real draws of "Ace of Cakes" are the decorators. These are the artsy, laid-back, slightly oddball types that I identify with best. There's Geoff the quiet, zen master guy who handles the most technically challenging cakes like replicas of motorcycles and guitars. There's Mary Smith, a full-figured woman you'd never see anywhere else on television, who turns out jaw-dropping, ornate, wedding cakes and adorable character cakes. And Elena, who has the rocker chic going on, and Ben and Anna, who were the Power Twins in a previous life, and Mary Alice, the world's greatest receptionist, whose hair is the primary indicator of which season an episode belongs to.

And of course, there's Duff Goldman, the leader of the gang, who may be the most genial, most personable baker alive. The cameras capture everyone on the job, their work days punctuated by humor and moments of fun, even when they're at their busiest. Several of the decorators, including Duff and Geoff, are musicians, and one episode even featured a visit to the local tattoo parlor so several cast members could get inked. Duff got a whisk on his forearm. There's so much personality in the cakes because there's so much personality in the decorators.

I've never gotten tired of watching the show, and I guess nobody else has either, because "Ace of Cakes" has been running for over four years now and the plot is always the same: the decorators put together gorgeous cakes, deliver them to delighted cake fans, and universe is safe from boring confections for another day. The events might get bigger, the bakery might expand, and the decorators might get busier, but the core of the program is always the same. I think the show has probably done more for the profession than anyone else in years. Not only have they changed the paradigm of what a good cake decorator can do with a cake, but they've also popularized these specialty cakes with a huge audience of fans.

Some cake, some fondant, a little icing, a little modeling chocolate, and a decorator could build their own Taj Mahal - which has been done on the show to great success. I'm sure it must be harder than it looks, but I'm so tempted to take a crack at it. Fondant doesn't look all that different from modeling clay, which I used to make into swans and dragons in high school. Once I get a little training and master the basics, who knows?