Waking Life

Waking Life (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Richard Linklater
viewed: 05/11/02

Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is pretty close to a cinematic epiphany, maybe as close to an epiphany as a feature film has come in some time. This is particularly so in regards to digital animation and cinema. And even more specifically, for feature length digitally animated film.

I know that is parsing it down pretty fine.

This film wouldn’t seem nearly so radical in a short film format. Short films, being so much cheaper to produce, are of a medium that lies wide open to experimentation, and in short film format, this might be an interesting film, but hardly as significant.

The 2-D digital animation in Waking Life is unique, executed in a proprietary software designed by the film’s lead animator, Bob Sabiston(?). The style is a loose, hallucinogenic form of rotoscoping, capturing some naturalized movement but not absolutely adhering to it.

Scenes are animated by numerous artists, each scene by a different artist, all adhering to simple pallette rules (using only colors naturally occuring in the original footage). Because the animators are tracing digitally photographed images, naturalism is a rare priority. Rather, images sway between impressionist, expressionist, and surrealist styles. The animation riffs on the footage and dialogue in a free-form jazz acid trip.

At this point in time, the use of digital animation technology to render the photographic in a flatter, two-dimensional form seems a radical departure from the direction of most digital animation. The Rotoshop software transforms the “classic” animation technique itself into something new and fresh.

The film is a walking, talking, philosophically pontificating dream. Wiley Wiggins’ animated persona walks from place to place, encountering a slough of people/characters that analyze dreams, life, death, & philosophy in varyingly deep or crazed fashions. This could be utterly pretentious, but the animation transforms the scenes, elevates them. The narrative, if cohesive enough to call narrative, is Slacker-like, but somehow seems much more profound.

This is easily one of the most interesting films I have seen in a long time.

Ocean’s Eleven

Ocean’s Eleven (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 06/15/02

Steven Soderbergh has mastered many aspects of making poppy, popular Hollywood fare, and Ocean’s Eleven exemplies the style and character of his last four or five films. It’s entertaining, stylish, and more intelligent than at least 90% of the rest of the stuff that the Hollywood machine cranks out. It seems an ironic spot for a former “Indie” director to have worked himself into, but he definitely seems to be thriving as one of the current name directors in American mainstream cinema.

Out of Sight (1998), his previous teaming with George Clooney, was similarly up-tempo and fun to watch and was certainly less overtly a “social issue” film, like Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000). Soderbergh does seem interested in the conventions of genre in these films, and in Ocean’s Eleven, the film is almost unabashedly a “caper film” in which the storyline’s entertainment value far outweighs its need for plausibility.

And it is entertaining, though not spectacular. Though Soderbergh’s films tend to be up-tempo, they also play a little low-key (I guess as opposed to “over-the-top” or somewhere in between).

Ocean’s Eleven certainly played with the surveillence theme, envisioning the casino as panopticon and Andy Garcia’s casino operator as the all-hearing, all-knowing being behind it all. His control stems from his ability to know everything that goes on in his casino. And ultimately he is duped when the images that his equipment projects are pirated and falsified. And he is, without a doubt, the heartless villain behind the machine.

But I digress into an analysis that would definitely take some more thought and probably as second view to work up. And after all, this is just good plain fun mindless entertainment, right?

Zoolander

Zoolander (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ben Stiller
viewed: 06/16/02

This movie was as bad as the films of the dregs of the Saturday Night Live alums like Adam Sandler, David Spade, or Chris Farley.

That said, there is even a certain arrogance about this film, like it is so utterly assured of how funny it is being. Derek Zoolander is an underdeveloped skit character, of the ilk of which SNL makes the meat of its show. And like those badly conceived running jokes, this character hardly deserves the feature film treatment.

Ben Stiller, who wrote, directed, and stars in/as Zoolander can and should be held fully responsible for this awful film.

The film’s weirdest aspect is its cinematography. It’s not shot like a typical innocuous comedy. The shots are very stylized and dramatic, framing things in artistic, formal ways, though there seems no reason to do this. The cinematography seems totally out of touch with the tone of the film.

By the way, am I the only person in the world that thinks that Will Ferrell is one of the most dire comedic presences in the history of mankind?

Spider-Man

Spider-Man (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Sam Raimi
viewed: 06/08/02 at Selma Theater, Selma, CA

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man is a pretty successful popcorn movie, the kind of thing that Hollywood is supposed to do well, but in reality flops at more often than not.

And in that sense, it’s a pretty successful film. The cast seems well-chosen. I like Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, and Willem Dafoe, and they all pull their weight in the film (though it is indeed “light-weight” fare). They carry the film pretty well and it is pretty entertaining throughout.

However, the film’s digital sequences, which are pretty much all of the big action showpieces, seem far too much like video games. The animation is ambitious, attempting to switch between a fully digital (and masked) Spider-Man and back to the natural photographic image of the flesh-and-blood Tobey Maguire. But the animation lacks the depth and realism of the photographic sequences and settings (The film’s New York City location is often beautifully used, featuring many “flying” shots of the city from above). The contrast seems askew and the two forms fail to mesh on the whole.

It is possible to fault the animation’s failure to read as completely believable, as the movement of the characters lacks a naturalism that animation has always struggled to mimic. But it is a lot to ask of the animation to make believable a three dimensional human-like figure with weight and depth that is capable of fantastic impossible physical feats. It needs to look real while acting “unreal”.

A friend suggested that this lack of realism works just fine in that the actions depicted and the world of the film are obviously fantastic and unreal. It is, after all, depicting the stuff of comic books, simply, clearly fantasy. Perhaps it is the style matching the subject?

But I would disagree. At least, in this instance, I doubt seriously that the special effects are meant to be read as unreal. Though it is an interesting notion that the fantasy aspect might be meant to be purely unreal, a departure from the photographic, it seems unlikely that the filmmakers would not be attempting to achieve the utmost believability in their images, to make the fantastic so “believable” that it would be hard to imagine Spider-Man’s actions as impossible.

I believe that digital animation will become more and more able to mimic naturalism to a point that it would be virtually impossible to distinguish the digital from the photographic. And certainly, it becomes more so all of the time. This is just one instance in which the means have yet to achieve the (desired) end (result).

Amusingly, on the purely traditional photographic side of the film, the mushy emotional scenes in which Maguire is meant to emote are so painfully badly written, directed, acted, what-have-you, that they are jarringly hilarious. Their lack of believability is another story altogether.

Artificial Intelligence: AI

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 04/19/02

I was genuinely surprised by AI. The Spielbergian interpretation of the previous never-filmed Stanley Kubrick project is something unusual and moving.

Spielberg shoots the first part of the film in a style true to Kubrick and classically cinematic in a way that seems quite daring for Spielberg. Beautifully constructed shots, cold and methodical, set up the world into which the robot boy will be “born” and “adopted” and reflect David’s (Haley Joel Osment) purely robotic state, before his emotions are “turned on”.

Haley Joel Osment is amazing as the robotic Pinocchio. As his mother initiates his “love” and as David imprints on her, the tone changes, and it seems that Spielberg injects more of his typical characteristics into the film. It works very well, as the stylistic changes flow with the narrative.

The film is a dark fairy tale, poetic, tragic, and stunning, particularly the middle sequence in which David is abandoned among the many other lost machines.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is far from perfect, in fact, it is seriously flawed. There are many acting aspects of the narrative and acting style that are the bland, emoted worst of Spielberg. The ending is bizarre and overly emotional, though I have seen one reading of it that poses that ending as pessimistic itself. There is also a horrible sequence with a Robin Williams-voiced computer interface that seems so poorly envisioned that it might truly date the film.

I have joked with people — and I will say it here — that since becoming a father I have found myself much more tuned-in to certain types of sentimental crap. And I wondered how much that played into my connecting so much with this film.

Overall, I found the film very surprising. There are some wonderfully designed visuals, and the story is very compelling.

About a Boy

About a Boy (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz
viewed: 05/21/02 at Metreon, SF

Mediocrity.

This is the second of Nick Hornby’s books to make it to the big screen in recent years. It is also the second of which to make it to the big screen via some Hollywood interference.

The appeal of Hornby’s novels, of which I have read only this very one, seems steeped not merely in their depiction of the world of post-“generation x” thirty-somethings, but specifically, English post-“generation x” thirty-somethings. It’s certainly a significant part of their character and their charm.

In bringing High Fidelity (2000) to the big screen, the setting was converted to Chicago and the characters was all made into Americans. As directed by Stephen Frears, an English director, the film retained a good deal of the cynical humor that characterizes Hornby’s writing. So it seemed that having About a Boy set and shot in London, with an English cast, that the chances were good for a good adaptation.

But this film was directed by Chris & Paul Weitz, the brother team that brought the world American Pie (1999). Not necessarily hacks behind the camera, but not entirely polished, either.

Hugh Grant seems a weird choice for the lead, a little too posh for the character, though his charm carries the film for a lot of its worth.

Can’t help but thinking that this film would have been better with an English director.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Richard Kelly
viewed: 04/13/02

It’s a shame that it has taken me so long to get around to writing about Donnie Darko.

At the time I had originally watched it, I found it fairly thought-provoking, and I think I was waiting to collect my thoughts on it before writing. But then, I got busy and didn’t get around to it and other stuff happened, and now, now that I am finally getting around to it, it is far from fresh in my mind.

A lesson to me here in the film diaries.

Donnie Darko is an interesting sci-fi/80’s teen/coming-of-age film, set in October of 1988, which the writer/director, first-time filmmaker, Richard Kelly, envisions as the brink of the end of existence as was known at the late period of the Reagan era.

It’s an clever conceit, and Kelly plays it out literally. The world is coming to an end, and the eponymous hero is the only one who can save the day, a delusional, somewhat psychotic, very troubled teen, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, must accept some version of reality in order to stop the destruction of the universe.

The film’s nostalgia for the 80’s leans away from the purely tacky 80’s kitcsh that populates most films that seek to go retro in that dirrection. The music is more the moody, alternative stuff that most people weren’t making the top 40. And there are fewer jokes at the expense of the period. The film has a fondness for the time that only someone who had a significant period of their life situated in it would possibly have. And, of course, he seems to have maybe been just old enough to consider himself a “Gen X’er”…

The film has an earnestness that somehow grew on me. And I say that because I was thinking that overall direction of the film, the handling of scenes, and the actors, somehow seemed a bit sub-par and amateurish. But the script and the general ideas of the film kept me thinking about it.

Donnie Darko might well merit a second look. I found it pretty interesting and also found myself recommending it to a few people.