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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

my week at the movies: ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars,’ ‘Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer,’ ‘Hounddog,’ ‘Henry Poole Is Here,’ ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’

UPDATE: Just heard about a screener of The Rocker [opens wide August 20] that I’ll attend today. Rainn Wilson as a washed-up musician who gets another chance at fame? It could go to 11, I guess…

I like the Clone Wars stuff from Cartoon Network just fine, but I’m not so sure what to think of Star Wars: The Clone Wars [opens wide August 15]. Will it just be more of the same? Will the beauty of the animation be enough to overcome the lack of actorly performances? (At least the CGI is stylized enough that it’s not attempting to be photorealistic, which always results in creepy corpselike human faces.) And how can any of it really be all that involving when it’s all foregone conclusion? I’d hate to think I’d ever say no to more Star Wars, but this could be the first time…

Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer [opens limited August 15] is a little indie about a guy who’s a plumber by day and a, well, monster slayer by night. It sounds like it should star Bruce Campbell — it doesn’t — but Robert Englund is in it. Not as the monster slayer, but I bet he ends up being one of the monsters.

Hounddog [opens limited September 5] is that flick that created such a stir at last year’s Sundance with one scene — which is apparently fleeting — in which a young girl (played by Dakota Fanning) is raped. Speculation then was that the film would never find a distributor. Looks like that speculation was wrong.

In Henry Poole Is Here [opens limited August 15, expands August 29], Luke Wilson is a sad man seeking redemption or his own soul or cookies or something. I’ll report back and let you know if he finds it.

Quentin Tarantino is back! And, frankly, Sukiyaki Western Django [opens limited August 29] sounds exactly like the kind of pretentious pseudo-retro, ersatz pulp he’s always getting up to. Turns out, though, that Tarantino is only starring in the flick: it’s from Takashi Miike. Which means it’ll be just as bloody and violent as if it were a Tarantino film, except there’ll be subtitles.

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  • I’d hate to think I’d ever say no to more Star Wars, but this could be the first time…

    I don’t have any difficulty whatsoever saying “No” to more Star Wars. George Lucas has overstayed his time in that particular universe and it’s time for him to come up with something original. Heck, I’d even settle for him to use all those resources of his to develop some really classic SF stories into movies: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Rendezvous with Rama, Neuromancer, any of Alfred Bester’s work, etc.

    I will maybe watch The Clone Wars when it hits HBO or Cinemax and I can watch it for free.

  • wilsonhl

    Clone Wars : I have seen few images if this one, and the best I can say is that I don’t think much of the design of the characters (gee, they look like something out of a not really well-made video game)

    About Hounddog : This one was mostly reviled at Sundance and that’s probably why everyone thought it would never get released. From what I heard, it’s like Tideland all over again (and that doesn’t sound to good).

  • Accounting Ninja

    O_o Very weird, Clone Wars appears…
    I caught some of the animated mini-series on cartoon network, and it had beautiful 2D animation, very stylized. But why do they have to make it 3D?? It’s in the same angular style that worked in 2D, but now puffed out and it just looks w-e-i-r-d.

    I agree with wilsonhl, even video games look better than this…

  • Accounting Ninja

    Just read the synopsis for Hounddog, and….well, it sounds dreadful, really. Did I read it right? She tries to seduce her stepmother?? And only by the mentoring of an old man can she “break free”?

    Not to sound nasty, but just once I’d like to see a tale of a boy from a highly dysfunctional background who becomes provocative and/or gets raped. The closest one I could remember is the Prince of Tides, but even that’s not the same at all…

    It’s almost as if the movie is disguising a somewhat perverse desire to see a young girl sexually exploited under the cover of “art”. Eeeewww.

  • MaryAnn

    From what I heard, it’s like Tideland all over again (and that doesn’t sound to good).

    *Tideland* was brilliant. Strange and disturbing, but brilliant.

    But why do they have to make it 3D?

    *Clone Wars* is not 3D.

  • MaSch

    Damn, I thought I could skip Tideland, now I guess I will have to check it out …

    Oh, and the male counterpart Accounting Ninja is asking for would probably be “The heart is deceitful above all things”.

  • wilsonhl

    “*Tideland* was brilliant. Strange and disturbing, but brilliant.”

    I respectfully disagree with you here : I think it’s as bad a movie as Gilliam (one of my favorite director, ever) has ever done. Strange and disturbing indeed, but instead of brilliant, I’d say creepy and tedious. And since Hounddog seems to be an equally creepy “American Gothic movie with off-putting sexual behavior involving young girls” only this time adressing the subject matter more directly than Tideland, with less severed head dolls and more Elvis Presley music, let’s just say that I’m not sure that I’ll watch it.

    Sukiyaki Western Django : according to some fans of both Miike and Tarantino who watched it (it was released about a year ago here in France), it’s a messy, failed hommage.

  • Accounting Ninja

    You mean it only looks 3D rendered, but it’s really regular animation? Still weird…

    I’ll probably have to see it though. Animation is my “thing”.

  • Bill

    No way that’s 2D animation, right? It’s not ‘3D’ in the way “Journey to the Center of the Earth” was, but that’s 3D animation – or am I just crazy?

  • JoshB

    Clone Wars is rendered from 3D. It’s not being presented in 3D on the big screen, as in no funny glasses or nausea.

  • MaryAnn

    What does “rendered from 3D” mean? And how is that different from how live-action films are “rendered from 3D” when they’re shot, but still end up 2D on the screen?

  • JoshB

    Technical jargon alert: 3d art applications like Maya (which may very well have been the program used on Clone Wars) store their information in 3d, i.e. using xyz coordinates. Rendering is the process of taking that 3d information and converting it into 2d images that can be displayed on TVs, monitors, movie screens, etc.

    It’s actually very much analogous to how live-action works, except it happens entirely within a computer.

    The distinction to note is the artistic process that created the image. The artists had to build and animate using techniques that are more akin to sculpture and puppet animation than drawing on paper.

  • In other words, they’re using 3D models just like Pixar does. The main differences appear to be how realistic the surface detail is (Pixar = very, Clone Wars = not so much), plus a certain amount of line drawing technique at the edges of things that makes the Clone Wars stuff look somewhat like it was drawn, rather than rendered.

  • MaryAnn

    Well, everything not organic in *Clone Wars* looks as realistic as everything not organic ever looks in CGI: which is very real indeed. Organic things — like faces — look stylized, but quite pleasant to look at. There isn’t that dead, corpselike quality to them like we saw in, say, *Beowulf.*

  • JoshB

    faces — look stylized, but quite pleasant to look at. There isn’t that dead, corpselike quality to them like we saw in, say, *Beowulf.*

    You’ve hit on the last big obstacle for photoreal CGI. Traditional animation like cartoons (and Clone Wars follows the principles of traditional animation) handles facial expressions by simplifying the anatomical structure of the face and exaggerating the emotion. 3d artists are the first to be tasked with generating animations that look real.

    The movement of human expression is controlled by a complex and very flexible set of muscles that 3d programs so far have terrible trouble emulating. That’s why cartoons like Clone Wars or Wall*E looks appealing while Beowulf looks creepy. It’s also why non-human characters like Gollum or Yoda can manage to look real next live actors, because the structure of their faces is different enough from our own that we don’t have subconscious expectations of how their expressions should move.

  • JoshDM

    Be careful about your inevitable, probably warranted, Clone Wars slam-review, as apparently Lucasfilm has been squelching them.

  • MaryAnn

    Enforcing an embargo isn’t the same as “squelching” reviews. Embargoes — usually till opening day or opening week — are not at all unusual, though it *is* rare that outlets that break embargoes get called on it. But those reviews will be back up on opening day.

    And for what it’s worth, I’ve given the movie a green light. My review is embargoed, though, too.

  • Accounting Ninja

    JoshB, I totally agree with you. Also, I found “cartoony” humans like the Incredibles very pleasing, and their expressions exquisite. The more “photo-realistic” they attempt to get the more they fail.
    Just for the record, when I say 3D I generally mean Computer Generated, non-cell/ink/paint animation (2D) that attempts to create a 3 dimensional appearance. Something like South Park, though done now with computers, would not be called “3D” by me. I’m probably not using “official” terms…

    Though, your comment about live-action did make me chuckle, Mary Ann.. :)

  • Bill

    I agree with you all about the creepiness of the photoreal CGI human faces, but I do always look forward to the next attempt. One day they’ll get it right and it will be glorious, right?

  • JoshDM

    So… do they generally embargo reviews that are coming out for “good” movies?

  • Accounting Ninja

    But Bill, here’s the thing: Why on earth do you want to do that?!

    I am a lover of animation and comics, and am an artist myself. To make animation indistinguishible from a photo takes the very soul out of the artform. You may as well just use real actors. Animation has been used to create fantastic worlds that may not work in real life (at least without a huge budget, like Star Wars- but I do consider models. Plus, in animation, you get to be as stylized (or not) as you wish. The very design of a character or place can impart a mood that pages of dialogue would fail to convey.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Oops! I mean, “I do consider models” and puppetry to be a form of animation too.

  • Bill

    Ninja – I’m not so sure that photorealistic CGI is the soul deafening activity that you describe. Isn’t the job of the artist to push the limits of their medium? And, most importantly, when Bruce Banner’s brain merges with the Hulk’s body, don’t you want smart, talking Hulk to look as convincing as possible?

  • Accounting Ninja

    Yeah, but the Hulk is big and green, hardly an example of what a human might actually look like.

    Look at, say, Princess Fiona (the human version) from the Shrek movies. Human-looking, moves wonderfully, yet is not creepy or corpse-like in any way.

    Contrast that to the people in the Polar Express. Living dolls with dead eyes.

    I thought about it: what the heck makes Fiona so life-like, and the kids in PE so dead?? They are both human renderings. Fiona’s not cartoony in design: her hair and eyes and skin are made realistically. So what is it?

    The only conclusion I’ve come to is that PE seemed to want to duplicate real life too much, whereas Shrek’s human princess was not designed so.

    If you have another theory, do share! :)

  • Bill

    But The Hulk’s face IS very human. It’s big and brutish, but we recognize it as essentially human. Thus far, his expressions have been fairly limited and there was relatively little need for subtlety. Not so with the a new, intelligent Hulk. We would certainly have “subconscious expectations of how expressions should move”, as JoshB stated above. We need advances in the art form to tackle these hurdles. For human-like motion and emotion, I think characters such as the new hulk will demand precise mimicry of nature rather than approximation.

    I haven’t seen Shrek or Polar Express, but I think I get what you are saying.

  • MaryAnn

    So… do they generally embargo reviews that are coming out for “good” movies?

    Embargoes are generally for movies the studios expect will receive bad reviews. Though not always.

    But The Hulk’s face IS very human. It’s big and brutish, but we recognize it as essentially human.

    But we’re not looking for a sensitive, finely shaded performance from the Hulk. That’s the difference: we’re not expecting to see complicated emotions crossing his face. When a film demands that — as with *Polar Express* or *Beowulf* — the results are horrifying.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Yeah, it’s almost like photorealistic + complex emotions= creepy.

    One of my favorite scenes from the Incredibles *could be spoilers*:
    Helen Parr has just discovered that her husband Bob may be having an affair. As he leaves for work, he is unaware that she has found anything, and says a quick goodbye as she stands by his driver’s side window. The look that passes over her face and the barely-perceptible shudder in her voice is some of the best emoting from a cartoon I’ve ever seen. You can see her struggling to keep her secret and trying to convey how much she loves him.

    But it works so very well. Is it because Helen is far from photorealistic? She is highly stylized, with body proportions that defy reality (like everyone else there).

    Now, I haven’t seen Beowulf, but I do remember thinking upon seeing the trailer scene with Angelina Jolie’s character: “Wow, it looks like they animated the corpse of Angelina Jolie!”

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