Sunday, May 31, 2009

What I'm Listening To Today - Regina Spektor


I have been listening to Ben Folds for the last little while. He has a duet on his most recent album. The song is "You Don't Know Me," and Regina Spektor is the artist that joins him on the track. I enjoyed the track so much, especially Spektor's contribution, that I felt I should look her up and give her music a chance.

Spektor was born in the USSR in 1980. Her family is Jewish, an ethnicity that is not treated kindly and fairly in that region (just ask Stalin what he thinks of Jews). So when perestroika came along, they used the chance to emigrate to, by way of several other countries, America.

So far, I find her music to be cool. Below is a playlist that includes the Ben Folds duet as well as the tracks from her most recent album. Check it out, and see if you like it as well.


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Friday, May 29, 2009

A Bug's Life


Over the past month, I've watched all ten Pixar films with my kids, and I've decided to blog about the experience.

A Bug's Life was released in 1998, the second Pixar film to see theaters. At the time, I still wasn't a complete Pixar devotee yet ("Stop it. Stop it, you zealots!"), but I was well on my way. I remember, at the time, being disgusted by the release of Dreamworks' Antz (and not just because they put that 'Z' at the end of the title to try and make it hip, like the crappily named WNBA teams. Starzz anyone?). Antz, in my mind anyway, was obviously a rush job that Dreamworks pushed out the door as fast as they could to try to upstage Pixar's forthcoming A Bug's Life, and to perhaps capitalize on the less informed people who either had heard that the Toy Story folks we're making a movie about ants, but didn't know what it was called, or assumed that all computer animation came from the same studio.

At the time, Disney and Dreamworks were in a full scale war. Jeff Katzenberg (the K of Dreamworks SKG) had left Disney to form the Dreamworks studio with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen. Katzenberg was heading up their animation department. Disney, who were kings of animation at the time, were left in a serious lurch, and their royal status was soon to be lost. Katzenberg was the rudder, and without him, they floundered about, making horrible films like Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home On The Range. The only thing that was keeping Disney's star high in the sky were the folks at Pixar. While still at Disney, Katzenberg had made the deal that brought Pixar aboard. So, once he was on the other side of the fence, he, of all people, knew the value that this new computer animation had. The sad fact that Antz was the first animated feature from Dreamworks, says something about where Dreamworks would ultimately be headed, though--not towards great filmmaking, but toward creating products with all the replay value of a happy meal toy.

I remember seeing the trailer for Antz, though, and being intrigued. I was a film student at the time, and had an unexplainable love for the works of Woody Allen, and the trailer was classic Woody Allen. I went to see Antz (I went to see every movie that came out back in those days, film student remember) and I was disappointed. There were about five minutes of interesting things in that film, the rest was garbage. The trailer was far better than anything the movie had to offer. On top of that, the animation was a sub-par level to that of the Pixar studios.

Finishing off the Dreamworks rant, I remember, at the time, reading a newspaper article with a quote from Jeff Katzenberg. Dreamworks was releasing their first hand-drawn animation feature, The Prince Of Egypt. On the release date of The Prince Of Egypt, a new version of A Bug's Life hit theaters with all new "outtakes" in the credits. It was a trick to get people to come see the film another time, to see the "outtakes" they'd not seen before. It probably added another $20 million to the film's gross is my bet. Katzenberg, in the article, commented on how petty and small Disney was to try to undercut his film in this way, after all, this film was to be his crowning achievement. The memory makes me laugh. This from the guy who rushed out Antz to undercut and profiteer on A Bug's Life? Give me a break. It was a rather mild retaliation if you ask me.

On to the topic at hand--the actual film. Bug's life is a really good film. It's a sort of cross between Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and the fable of "The Ant and the Grasshopper." From any of the other computer animated studios, be it Fox, Dreamworks, or even Disney (when they used to make their own CG films like Chicken Little and Meet The Robinsons) this would have been the kind of film that they made sequel after sequel to a la Ice Age, Shrek, and Madagascar. With Pixar, it's only middle to bottom of the pack. But don't get me wrong, it's better than anything I've seen out of the other guys (then again, I've been snobbishly turning my nose up to the other guys for some time, so who knows).

The characters are interesting and rather well defined. Considering that there's a whole mess of bugs that come to help the ants, this is quite a feat. They definitely focused on Manny, Francis, and Heimlich, but the other's had a sort of an arc as well, perhaps more as a group than individually, but the arc is there, for sure. The main character, Flik, and the princess, Atta, were, of course the actual focus of the film. Flik's journey to prove himself could be an inspiration to any of us who believe we have something of worth, but aren't born into the position that makes it easy to share our worth with others. Don't give up, whatever your dream is. Also, always be honest with everyone in your quest to achieve your dream. Remember that everything it takes to make a giant tree is contained within each little seed.

The actors who lent their voices to this film made up a veritable cornucopia of known, but not well known names. At the time, with Seinfeld still sitting firmly atop the ratings, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was easily the biggest name. But there was the guy from The Kids In The Hall doing Flik (a fact that I just realized a few minutes ago looking at the IMDB page). There was the guy from Everybody Loves Raymond doing Dim the Dung Beetle. There was the guy from Frasier doing the walking stick, the guy from Spin City doing Molt the annoying Grasshopper, Phylis Diller doing the queen, Kevin Spacey doing Hopper, Dennis Leary doing Francis, Madeline Kahn doing Gypsy, Bonnie Hunt doing Rosie, and of course no Pixar film is complete without John Ratzenberger, the guy from Cheers!. The list just goes on and on. I noticed on the IMDB page, that there are a couple of other now stars that you might not have realized were in the movie, because they hadn't become stars yet. For example, Hayden Panatierre, who became a huge star when she was the focus of Heroes' first season "Save the cheerleader, save the world," storyline, was the voice of the baby queen ant, Dot. Also, in the realm of weird, Ashley Tisdale, of High School Musical fame, was one of the Blueberry Scouts.

The best part about all this, was that Pixar didn't try to sell the movie on the strength of the voice actors name recognition. Instead, they did what they always do best, and found interesting voices that matched with the characters they had created. It's a trap that every other animation studio seems to fall into, Fox, Dreamworks, and even Disney's 2D films (remember how they played up the voice of Demi Moore on The Hunchback Of Notre Dame thinking that for some reason that would put butts in the seats, all the while she was starring in Striptease on the screen down the hall. Duh!) Pixar has gladly never fallen for that siren song, choosing story quality over marketing every time.

Heimlich was a character that I sat down to watch with trepidation. He had been the center of all the pre-release ad campaign. He was the funny guy of the film, so they placed him front and center on all of the McDonalds commercials and so forth. Only, on the ads he was annoying. Annoying as hell. I was afraid that I would hate the movie for his sake. Happily I was proven wrong. He was never taken too far. His character didn't become some Robin Williams-like show stealer that began funny and ended up grating. Heimlich turned out to be one of my favorite characters in the film. And he was voiced by the late Joe Ranft, whose death still brings a tear to my eye, so you gotta love him. I admit, however, that I never thought it was all that funny when he came out of the cocoon at the end looking exactly the same as when he'd entered except sporting a tiny pair of wings. It was funny to hear him say, "I'm a beautiful butterfly, I'm flying so high that from up here you all look like ants," though.

Some of my favorite moments in the film...let's see. When the queen is talking about the annual visit from the grasshoppers with her daughter, Atta, she gives us one of my favorite lines from any Pixar film. "It's our lot in life. It's not a lot, but it's our life." It's a corny joke, but I laughed out loud at that one all the same, and I've quoted it again and again, when the situation called for it, since then.

Another really powerful moment is when the grasshoppers are trying to convince Hopper not to return to Ant Island. He illustrates his point by taking the grain from the bottle and tossing it at the grasshopper. "Let's pretend this grain is an ant...did that hurt." He does it again, and again, getting only laughs from the grasshoppers. Then he pulls the plug on the bottle, and a tidal wave of grain pours out, crushing the treasonous grasshopper beneath it. Hopper stands there, no expression on his face at all, as the grains pour forth. It's such a powerful moment, and I can't think of a more effective scene anywhere that shows just how bad of a bad guy we are dealing with here.

I also very much enjoyed the soundtrack to this film. I know a lot of people who say that if a soundtrack is made by Randy Newman, it can't be good, but I don't agree. Newman has a talent for making a tune you'll recognize and remember. Toy Story was chock full of songs sung by Newman in his iconic raspy voice. Those were all right, but it was A Bug's Life that had the music that drew me in. I'm much more a fan of instrumental film music, and A Bug's Life soundtrack was the first Pixar score that I owned a copy of. The themes have an interesting western feel, as though it was a film about pioneers crossing the plane and establishing a town rather than a movie about ants and bugs (I guess that means that it was a cross of The Magnificent Seven and "The Ant and the Grasshopper," but then again, The Magnificent Seven is just an Americanized remake of The Seven Samurai, so I was right after all).

Oh, one thing I almost forgot, A Bug's Life was screened theatrically with a short cartoon. Geri's Game was the first Pixar short to be shown before a Pixar feature, and it is, in my opinion, one of their best. Another cartoon has come along and surpassed Geri's Game's excellence, but I won't tell you which until I get to the post on that film. Geri's Game is such an excellent example of why every movie should be preceded by some sort of short cartoon. It is hilarious, good-spirited fun. It's hard to believe that Pixar could entertain children with cartoon about an elderly man playing chess with himself, but there's not a moment of lost attention from the kids. Like I said, this was Pixar's best until recently. If you've missed it, and you enjoy cartoon shorts like I do, you really should see it.

There's a lot more to say, but I'm going long, so I'll finish up with just a couple more things. My son loved A Bug's Life when he was a little guy. He especially thought the part when the rain storm arrives was cool. The inspiration for the rain scene was obvious to me at the time, because I had seen it in one of my film classes. I had a class on documentary films, and in one class, we talked about the film Microcosmos. This was a movie in which they used extremely small cameras to film bugs, slugs, and other tiny creatures. I think they invented the cameras for the making of the movie. It took what the average person knew about bugs to an all new level. Anyway, in my documentary class, we watched the scene where the rain storm hits. It was amazing to see how such a simple thing as a spring shower could be a mini-apocalypse to something as small as an ant or a beetle. Well, it was obvious that the guys at Pixar thought it was amazing as well, because they wrote a similar scene into A Bug's Life. I thought it was cool.

Lastly, this movie was the first to include the fake "outtakes" from the "filming" of the movie. It was a brilliant idea, and very well executed. Most of the outtakes were funny on their own, but the whole idea of outtakes to an animated film was sublimely humorous. Unfortunately, and this is something you don't have to complain about with Pixar very often, they took it too far. Having fake outtakes in Toy Story 2 and then again in Monsters Inc. was just a mistake. I wasn't too upset when they did it for Toy Story 2, but I went into Monsters Inc. praying that they wouldn't go back to that well again, but they did. So it was with a big smile on my face, that I watched actual credits roll for Finding Nemo.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Toy Story

Almost a month ago now, I was trying to get my kids to watch a Pixar film with me. For some reason, (perhaps it's my own overbearing exuberance for Pixar, who knows) the kids have been reluctant to watch any Pixar with me. Instead they invariably choose the 1990 live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film or one of the Barbie direct-to-video crap-fests.

I wanted to sit down and watch a movie with the kids, but I didn't want to be stuck watching a kids movie. So I hatched a desperate plan. "How about this guys..." I said, "There are nine Pixar movies. What if we watch them all together over the next month, and then, at the end of the month, when Up comes out, we'll watch that together in the theater?"

The idea of going out to the theater as a family, and watching an exciting new movie that they'd never seen before, was enough to push them over the edge. They agreed to do the unthinkable and watch the movie that Dad chose. So we popped some popcorn, grabbed pillows and blankets, and piled onto the couch.

The first thing that jumped out at me was Joss Whedon's credit for the screenplay. I know Rish, the authority I turn to for Joss Whedon knowledge, has told me before that Joss had written at least part of the script. His name isn't the only one on the credit for screenplay, Andrew Stanton and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow also get screenplay credit, and the Pixar big four, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Joe Ranft, get the story credit. So it makes me wonder just how much Joss actually did.

Also, considering his long history of getting screwed again and again, I wondered if, since there are so many names on the screenplay credit, he got screwed here too, and had the story ripped away from him before he could make it rightly his. I consulted Rish about this later, and he said that, as far as his knowledge went, Joss was not treated poorly in the making of Toy Story (I should have looked closely at the credits, because I think the SPCA requires that any movie with a Joss Whedon involved in it must have a disclaimer attesting to the fact that no Joss Whedons were injured in the making of the film, or maybe that was what the local Browncoats were pushing for, my memory's getting fuzzy as I get older).

Anyway, Joss Whedon's influence is felt all over this film, from the clever lines that I've come to expect from him, to the twists, turns, and emotional moments. It wasn't until 2001's Monsters Inc. that Pixar came close to matching the wit found in Toy Story, and that's probably due to the fact that they had two stand-up comedians as their two lead characters in that one.

The kids were surprised when I quoted Woody's first line, "Pull my string, the birthday party's today?" before he actually said it, but they would have been irritated beyond belief if I'd continued quoting all the lines I knew throughout the movie. Toy Story may be the film I can quote the most. I've grown up and acquired some kids, so a lot of the films I used to quote ad naseum have become inappropriate for the little ears lurking nearby. Also, when my son was about two years old, he loved Buzz Lightyear like the father he never had. We watched Toy Story and Toy Story 2 about ten times a week, each. There was a time when the little guy was sick and too drained to do anything but stare at the tube, that we watched the two movies back-to-back for an entire day. Fourteen hours straight of anything will make quoting it a lot easier.

Years later though, and the quotes haven't faded from memory. That's saying something, right? I mean the boy is nine years old now, but I can still quote the movie like I used to be able to quote Monty Python's Flying Circus. So there is definitely a proliferation of memorable lines in the film.

The entertainment value of Toy Story has not faded in the least over the years. The animation is still as impressive as ever. Yes, Andy, and the other human characters in the film aren't very convincing, but they never were. The toys, on the other hand, look as real as if I held them in my own hand, and some of the toys in the film I have held in my own hand at one time or another. (My favorite mention of a classic toy comes when the toys are trying to rescue Buzz, who has fallen out the window, by lowering a makeshift rope to him. One of the toys says, "we need more monkeys," to which Rex responds, "There aren't any more; that's the whole barrell." I was the proud owner of a barrell of monkeys growing up.)

Are there faults in Toy Story? I'm sure there's many, I mean nothing is perfect. I can only really come up with one. I never liked the fact that there was no consequences for breaking the rules of toy-hood. At the end, all the toys come to life in front of the dastardly Sid Phillips, causing him to have a mental breakdown and surely putting him in counseling for the rest of his sad, miserable life. There was no consequence to Woody or the other toys for breaking this rule. Similarly, throughout the film the toys are always on the verge of having someone see them out and about. They influence human affairs in a number of ways, and there is no consequence. If this was the way toys were, then very soon, humans everywhere would know that they were alive. It's a fault that only got worse in Toy Story 2.

When I was a kid, I saw a Jim Henson production called The Christmas Toy. (Eerily similar to Toy Story when you read IMDB's plot summary. I wonder if it was an inspiration to the creators of Toy Story, or just a coincidence.) In The Christmas Toy the toys have the rule that they must be back in their correct spot, the place where they were left, when the people come back, or they will be frozen forever (basically they die). It was a good ground rule to establish that explains why people never see toys out and about. I wish the creators of Toy Story had done some similar world building when they came up with the story for this film. It could have helped keep me from calling BS when, in Toy Story 2 the toys stole the Pizza Planet truck, then later stole a luggage train to get home from the airport. Then again, it would surely limit the story to do that. Perhaps it would have been boring if there had been rules like that. After all, Toy Story made hundreds of millions of dollars, and is the trademark franchise of the best computer animation studio in the world, and The Christmas Toy is a forgotten made-for-TV movie. I guess Toy Story got it right after all.

Rish has asked me to rank the Pixar films from greatest to least on more than one occasion, and I'm sure that I've placed Toy Story in the lower half at least once. After going back through and reviewing them again, I have to say that I was completely incorrect in that assessment. Toy Story is inspired. It's the kind of film that only comes along once in a while. However, with Pixar, that inspiration keeps striking again and again. Toy Story definitely fits in the top three, but it's still not their best. But that's okay, after all, it was their first. They were just getting started.