Jonathan Poritsky

Review: Wall•E


In the past I have driz­zled praise all over Pixar, specif­i­cally the fantasy-realist films that Brad Bird has made with them. There are many rea­sons to heap lau­rels on the Disney-owned ani­ma­tion stu­dio: its inno­va­tion in the field of com­puter ani­ma­tion before such a thing even existed, its cre­ative use of all avail­able tools at any given point in their his­tory, its abil­ity to cap­ti­vate the minds and pocket books of chil­dren and adults alike. “Wall•E”, how­ever, is some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing more than any of us thought these imag­i­neers were capa­ble of.
Read on…

Top 10 Films of 2007 (that I’ve seen)

Another year has flown by, far too fast I might add. So in the great tra­di­tion of the new year, I too will toss my hat in and break the year down to a list. What fol­lows is a list that I thought very lit­tle about before writ­ing. They are in some sort of order, but in truth, it makes no dif­fer­ent. By read­ing my lengthy blurbs, you’ll notice that direc­tion and impact make up a huge per­cent­age of my grad­ing cri­te­ria. 2007 is one of the best years in the his­tory of the movie busi­ness, and the audi­ences get to ben­e­fit from that cash­flow. That means there’s more money for bet­ter films to come along, but also more demand for fran­chise crap. When you look at my list, you’ll see some of those fran­chise bits can be amaz­ing. Enough pre­am­ble, enjoy and leave com­ments with your thoughts. Happy New Year. Read on…

HP Cycle">Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows/the full HP Cycle

In the sum­mer of 2002, after the release of Chris Columbus’ screen adap­ta­tion of the Sorcerer’s Stone, I vowed not to see the film until I attempted read­ing the novel. After com­plet­ing the first para­graph I became hooked. I devoured the novel with every free moment and sought out the sub­se­quent sequels. The past three nov­els I have pur­chased upon their release and made every effort to fin­ish them dili­gently. This sev­enth and final install­ment was the one I was able to com­plete faster than any of them, prob­a­bly because of a need inside to reach the end sooner rather than later. It may also be, per­haps, that this one will prob­a­bly rank as my least favorite in the series once I go back and re-read/rate each one. That cov­eted prize belongs to the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, which is also my favorite film for unre­lated rea­sons.

But onto the last book of the cycle.

I was hop­ing for “Return of the Jedi” and alas, I was deliv­ered “A New Hope”. This refers to the intro­duc­tion of Luke Skywalker in both films. By “Jedi”, our final install­ment of that great mythol­ogy, Skywalker is a war­rior, a for­mi­da­ble foe doing gym­nas­tics and pulling mind tricks left and right. These books are quite long and this is the sev­enth of the series, com­ing in just shy of 800 pages. For good­ness sake, J.K., why is Harry still such a dweeb? We have seen all of this before. We watched him learn of his near-royal past; we wit­nessed his first kiss(es); we saw him strug­gle with his crown of thorns amongst doubters of his impor­tance; and we have seen him strug­gle with his friends and elders. Call me old fash­ioned, but by now he should be ready for any­thing, he should be Skywalker, John McClane, Man-With-No-Name, Odysseus.

Part of what causes this issue is that, as many will for­get, this is still a children’s book. There was a time (Azkaban) when I con­sid­ered these nov­els high lit­er­a­ture, explor­ing parts of the human psy­che that other works dared not ven­ture. I still feel that way about much of the cycle, but now is the time for clo­sure, and the soon-to-be-oft-cited exam­ple of “The Sopranos” proves that audi­ences rebel when clo­sure is not given. So Ms. Rowling has offered a book of answers. Answers to nearly every ques­tion you have, and every­thing Harry has mis­un­der­stood through his tenure at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

What turns out to be most unfor­tu­nate in the end is that Harry is the least inter­est­ing char­ac­ter of the series. The most inter­est­ing through­out has been Severus Snape, which also plays out in the films. But just like in the films, he hardly gets any air time. And an even more unno­ticed char­ac­ter whose lay­ers could pos­si­bly fill vol­umes is Narcissus Malfoy, mother to the das­tardly blonde Draco. Then there’s the rel­a­tively unseen Aunt Petunia, who’s com­monly sug­gested arpeg­gio turns out to be just the same bor­ing note. As the audi­ence, we are given the unfor­tu­nate view­point of Harry, while a more omni­scient nar­ra­tor could have given us so many more oppor­tu­ni­ties to under­stand this world.

Of course, as the novel winds down, we see Harry the hero, fully aware of his pow­ers and his pur­pose. This where Rowling proves her pow­ers an action writ­ers. She builds these scenes toward the end of the book, what I will call the last night of the book as not to spoil the fun for you read­ers, up to a glo­ri­ous cli­max. This is where the right infor­ma­tion is with­held so that we can keep on the edge of our seats whilst read­ing the book right up to the bit­ter end.

There is a lot at stake with this novel. The audi­ence for this novel is so wide that there is no way Rowling can keep every­one happy at once. Like a great car­toon, the kids will be happy but the adults may actu­ally under­stand it. What’s so fas­ci­nat­ing about this series is that while the audi­ence and the main char­ac­ter have grown up together, the prose hasn’t. There is a def­i­nite pro­gres­sion to the deeper and darker side of things through each install­ment, how­ever, the writ­ing itself remains extremely sim­ple and direct with a wide-ranging vocab­u­lary. It may in fact be one of the best SAT study tools out there. This is rather unfor­tu­nate as an 8-year old who became hooked on the first book would have recently grad­u­ated high-school, already hav­ing con­sumed “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Beowulf”, and “The Sound and the Fury”, yet this final act is writ­ten for that same 8 year old.

I say all of these things because I can. In her genoros­ity, Ms. Rowling ded­i­cated the novel to me and all oth­ers who stuck with Harry this whole time. Well with that I respond that I wanted more. The plot is all there, the story makes per­fect sense, and I’m cer­tain some­where Joseph Campbell is smil­ing. But still, J.K., you cre­ated this beau­ti­ful palette of char­ac­ters, spells, and plot­lines, and in the end you took it and gave us exactly what every­one wanted: facts. I was hop­ing this go-round we could get even deeper inside. I sup­pose we’ll just have to wait for the spin­offs.

Coming soon…“Hermione’s Head“

I also want to talk briefly about what these books are all about. The series is so British, and in this novel more than any of them, the focus is World War II. Time and place is always impor­tant in such things, and read­ers would be fas­ci­nated to learn that the series does not take place in our own times, a fact that has never been appar­ent before this novel. Harry’s par­ents died on Halloween of 1981, at which time he was not yet a year old, mak­ing the books take place roughly from 1992–2000, in which case it would seem as though it may serve as post-cold war strug­gles, but alas, the WWII mood is unde­ni­able in my eyes.

There is an inde­scrib­able evil sweep­ing through­out the land, and the only way to stop it is to stand up in favor of good­ness and right. As with every­thing else about the book, I wish Ms. Rowling took more advan­tage of this rela­tion­ship. We Yankees tend to for­get what the 30s and 40s were for Europeans. We watched from across an ocean in hor­ror, but our lives were hardly affected through most of Hitler’s reign. Whereas much of London’s great­est archi­tec­ture was destroyed dur­ing the war, and there was a very real pos­si­bil­ity that one’s chil­dren may be raised by the Third Reich. The stakes are just as high in Harry Potter in which the Wizarding world is fight­ing not just for it’s own sur­vival, but for it’s exis­tence with Muggles, or the non-magic folk for those unaware of these terms.

Of course, as the book touches on but never resolves, there are other mag­i­cal races to take into account besides wiz­ards. This is one of those points of the book that is so poignant yet hardly rumi­nated upon as we must get back to the story to keep the kids enter­tained. My per­sonal favorite to decon­struct are the Goblins, who I find to be the Jews of the story. (although there is one wiz­ard who pops up with a name like Adam Goldstein or some­thing for no appar­ent rea­son) I remem­ber feel­ing a bit uneasy the first time Harry goes to Gringotts Wizarding Bank to find the gob­lins run­ning the show. Both in the book and their cin­e­matic coun­ter­parts (pic­tured right), they phys­i­cally share many char­ac­ter­is­tics with the worst of anti-semitic prop­ganda. Big nose, beady eyes, fangs, and stodgy stature. We learn in this novel not only that they not only keep the bank secure, but that they are rather greedy crea­tures who will not uphold their end of busi­ness agree­ments. Did some­one say Shylock?

I’m not accus­ing the author or the pub­lish­ers of any wrong­do­ing, sim­ply not enough doing to resolve these other wiz­ard­ing races’ lots in life. If good did pre­vail and evil has been van­quished, than can Muggle and Wizard live side by side? Who cares, when Giant, Elf, Goblin, and Centaurs haven’t yet worked their respec­tive shit? If the cli­mate over in Europe since WWII, and on our own shores, has taught us any­thing, it’s that the real social bat­tles had only begun. Let’s hope the next book from the 136th rich­est per­son in Britain addresses these press­ing matters.

On Reality

There is a scourge attack­ing our cin­ema today. It is an ail­ment that has been fes­ter­ing lit­tle more than a decade by my count. I speak not of a drought of inter­est­ing char­ac­ters, nor a dearth of orig­i­nal plot­lines. In many ways we excel in those depart­ments, though this is of course arguable. For this par­tic­u­lar tirade, I will speak of some­thing seem­ingly anti­thet­i­cal to the cin­ema of the writ­ten word: reality.

(a near ver­ba­tim essay could be writ­ten about doc­u­men­tary film if only one took my core thoughts and wrote the oppo­site, but another day, another blog)

The story of Go Motion is well known to those who have seen the spe­cial fea­tures on the Jurassic Park DVD or for those for­tu­nate few who remem­ber the behind the scenes fea­turette air­ing on NBC. For those unfa­mil­iar, Steven Spielberg was hell bent on cre­at­ing the most real­is­tic dinosaurs ever por­trayed on screen, and he knew, along with spaced out crony George Lucas, that inven­tion was the only way to achieve this. So a for­mer appren­tice of Ray Harryhausen pre­sented his new sys­tem for stop-motion ani­ma­tion, which improved on all of the short­com­ings of the FX style. Impressed beyond words, Go Motion was signed to cre­ate most of the film dinosaurs.

But Lucas and his ILM friends had a secret, the rea­son why he hadn’t directed any­thing in awhile. A new con­cept, a new sys­tem, a new form if cre­ation that would ulti­mately blow Go Motion out of the water. We all know how the story ends. It was dig­i­tal ani­ma­tion in the film, and the rousng suc­cess of “Park” fur­ther fueled the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion to the point where you can­not go to the the­ater today with­out see­ing an image that has some­how been dig­i­tally affected.

I put this as the final nail in the cof­fin for whimsy, which has been replaced by real­ity. This is the nar­ra­tive equiv­a­lent of the inven­tion of the car. Certainly we could get places faster, but man had to adjust to putting faith in a machine, no longer an ani­mal. Our tac­tile cre­ation and inven­tion ended with the death of Go Motion. And now there are no lim­its. We cre­ated this infi­nite dig­i­tal play­ground and have been strug­gling ever since to cope with its vastness.

But we’ve done more than cope. We’ve used this gift to our advan­tage on count­less occas­sions. Whether it’s a sum­mer block­buster filled with all dig­i­tal char­ac­ters (remem­ber not so long ago when Jar-Jar was an unprece­dented idea?) or your run of the mill roman­tic com­edy requir­ing spe­cific snow­fall on a Hollywood back­lot in July, the term “fix it in post” has become more and more legit­i­mate thanks to the dig­i­tal won­der. Back to the ear­lier anal­ogy: we couldn’t func­tion as a soci­ety any­more if we sold our cars and sad­dled up. Much the same thing has hap­pened with film thanks to dig­i­tal effects. But in both instances, we must ask our­selves if we can accept the con­se­quences of the life­less replacement.

To my orig­i­nal point in this matter.

Given our infi­nite cre­ative pow­ers, there has been this move­ment since “Jurassic Park” to por­tray real­ity on screen. Or rather to real­is­ti­cally por­tray imagery. I’m not say­ing this drive wasn’t there before, but sim­ply that it was never really an option. We could strive for it but fall short, gen­er­ally hav­ing to rely on our wits for a workaround. A clas­sic exam­ple might be “Planet of the Apes”. For its time, the makeup was con­vinc­ing and hadn’t been seen by audi­ences before. To a mod­ern eye, the cos­tumes still hold water, but if you com­pare it to the film’s more recent remake, you’ll notice that the post-digital retelling con­tains more accu­rate pri­mates, in regard to their faces, the sounds they make, how they carry them­selves. One can always shout back that the orig­i­nal ape makeup was all the more orig­i­nal for its “short­com­ings” in that it cre­ated a new race as yet unknown to us. Not the apes we see, but closer to humans beyond just their speech.

Which might bring us to “Transformers” next. A recent view­ing of the ani­mated film showed a world with no intent on seem­ing real, but one that jus­ti­fies itself. The film uti­lizes a color palette of nearly every color in the galaxy, using extremes in the spec­trum to show emo­tions and nar­ra­tive curves. These are com­mon ani­mated effects. But in the mod­ern film, we see the same bleak real­ity that is so often per­va­sive in mod­ern movies. The auto­bots may be dirty at points, and their col­ors, though far from muted, are still col­ors rather grounded in our con­cept of what we per­ceive on an aver­age day, wan­der­ing around Everytown, USA. And of course, it was so impor­tant nar­ra­tively to explain why the bots are there and how they work and how they speak. Almost no stone is left unturned (except of course how Megatron seems to have some form of Autobot power matrix in his chest) when it comes to explain­ing the real his­to­ries of the dif­fer­ent bots.

Perhaps it is our fault. Maybe audi­ences just can’t take a film seri­ously with­out real­is­tic rel­e­vance. The funny thing is that I would con­sider many of the block­buster type films I refer to as plagued by this dis­ease of real­ity to be escapist cin­ema. People go there to enter a world they can­not live in their nor­mal daily lives. So why must we go to the the­ater and see our world with some “other” traps­ing around along­side us? Why can’t we let our­selves go and enter another reality?

This needs to be wrapped up, and that last sen­tence seemed like a good enough spot, but I can’t fin­ish this off with­out giv­ing credit where credit is due. There is one small patch of peo­ple work­ing tire­lessly against real­ity on screen. I speak of course of our friends over at Pixar. Both the sto­ries they pro­duce and their method­ol­ogy com­bine to cre­ate some­thing wholly dif­fer­ent. Ever since “Toy Story”, we have been taken to worlds unseen by humans in ways we had never con­ceived. Or, as in the Brad Bird films, we view sub­strata of our real­ity. A world that looks like ours but is full of super­heroes with our same mis­giv­ings, or a world where rats’ hands were clean enough to cook up a peasant’s delight. And the rats did look alarm­ing real, I’ll con­cede, until of course, you looked into their big white eyes. The rest of us have a lot to learn off that mag­i­cal lit­tle mouse house studio.

Until next time, keep it real.

Review: Ratatouille

When Brad Bird, adorably pic­tured left, burst onto the scene as an untouch­able (American) ani­ma­tion guru with “The Incredibles” in 2004, we all hoped he wouldn’t be a one-hit wun­derkind. Of course, that’d be a fool­ish assump­tion given his exten­sive back­ground and impor­tant role in the his­tory of American ani­ma­tion prior to the Disney Pixar smash. After all, besides mak­ing the some­what seen “Iron Giant”, this guy was con­sul­tant and direc­tor on “The Simpsons”, the good Simpsons that is. As well as a strong influ­ence on The Critic and King of the Hill, show of the other ani­ma­tion king, Mike Judge. As far as ani­ma­tion the­ory goes, no one knows it bet­ter than Brad Bird, and his aspi­ra­tions for the art form are beyond what many peo­ple can con­ceive. Find some of his writ­ings about adults warm­ing up to a Bogart noir flick with a light­hearted car­toon, and you’ll see how strongly he believes in this side­lined art.

Anyway, screw our friends at the Academy for cre­at­ing the Best Animated Feature award (adorably pic­tured left), for there wiill prob­a­bly never be another ani­mated fea­ture up for Best Picture, leav­ing “Beauty and the Beast” perched atop that lone moun­tain of glory. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if that award didn’t exist, “The Incredibles” would have been up for top honor. I feel just as strongly about “Ratatouille”.

The film opens with bright col­ors in the French coun­try­side, but wastes no time tak­ing us into the dark world of rat-life. The first thing we hear from this beau­ti­ful farm­house: a gun­shot. And not a funny “car­toon­ish” effect either. the scene was rem­i­nis­cent of the cen­tral crime in “Capote” and there is no expla­na­tion imme­di­ately whether or not some­one is dead. Even if this doom-ridden moment is fleet­ing, we are imme­di­ately told that despite the three dimen­sional palace in the begin­ning, this ain’t yo’ aver­age Disney flick. We’re in Bird-land now. I’ll quote A.O. Scott’s sur­pris­ing review of the film:

“Written and directed by Brad Bird and dis­play­ing the usual metic­u­lous­ness asso­ci­ated with the Pixar brand, “Ratatouille” is a nearly flaw­less piece of pop­u­lar art, as well as one of the most per­sua­sive por­traits of an artist ever com­mit­ted to film. It pro­vides the kind of deep, trans­port­ing plea­sure, at once sim­ple and sophis­ti­cated, that movies at their best have always promised.“

Mr. Scott is some­one I nearly almost agree with, except of course in his dis­dain for many of the more pop­u­lar films out there. He is so care­ful in his assessment’s cin­ema, and will often leave his thoughts rather open ended to the reader, which is why I was thor­oughly sur­prised to see such a sweep­ing praise for a sum­mer block­buster. It is this review that made me recon­sider what I think I know about this film.

He is right. The story is not only com­pelling and tight, but it also is advanced through the cho­sen form, ani­ma­tion. This could not be a live action film and get its points across as well as it does. For that mat­ter, the ani­ma­tion is enhanced by over­tones of our real world. You’ll not how impor­tant not only the cam­era is to the story, but the “cam­era oper­a­tor”. And of course our “gaffer”. The visual story is infused with real world devices one can­not find within the soft­ware required to cre­ate a 3D film. Most notably, the steadicam. Watch closely and you will see the motion is not track­ing the char­ac­ters but rather the path of an iin­de­pently think­ing cam­era op. Of course, it’s all con­crete 1s and 0s in actu­al­ity, but the care taken to give us more than we are used to in ani­ma­tion.

Go back and watch any­thing ani­mated you can think of, espe­cially any­thing made for TV. Watch adult swim (one of the most cre­ative block of pro­gram­ming out there) for an evening and you will find a ster­ile world in which the script is a god, and all things point to what the writer demands. Who ever is talk­ing and what they are doing or hear­ing is all that can be heard more often than not. But not in our Parisian kitchen. The sound mix is glo­ri­ously nuanced with all kinds of real world effects, as well as those sound effects we can only call the stuff of car­toons. The imple­men­ta­tion of such devices is just as genius as the care taken to divide lan­guages among the char­ac­ters (mice speak eng­lish to each other, but peo­ple can’t under­stand what they say), a flaw that can be found in almost every American film tak­ing place abroad (see WWII films).

There are thou­sands to thank for this gem of a film, as you will find if you wait through the lengthy cred­its. But still, there is that one odd man out, the adden­dum to the Pixar agenda, and the man who has brought the con­cept of writer/director to the drawn image (as well as cin­e­matog­ra­pher and light­ing super­vi­sor). We have not seen the last of Mr. Bird, and we will not see his best work for some time to come. But thank good­ness for him. As long as he can make films that appeal to all four quad­rants, Hollywood will never drop him.

So what’s next. You’d never believe it, but an adap­ta­tion of the book “1906”. Here’s from the back cover:

“Every dis­as­ter has a back­story, none more thrilling than this one. Set dur­ing the great San Francisco earth­quake and fire, this page-turning tale of polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion, vendet­tas, romance, res­cue— and mur­der— is based on recently uncov­ered facts that for­ever change our under­stand­ing of what really hap­pened. Told by a feisty young reporter, Annalisa Passarelli, the novel paints a vivid pic­ture of the Victorian-era city, from the man­sions of Nob Hill to the under­belly of the Barbary Coast to the arrival of tenor Enrico Caruso and the Metropolitan Opera. Central to the story is the ongo­ing bat­tle— fought even as the city burns— that pits incom­pe­tent and unscrupu­lous politi­cians against a coali­tion of hon­est police offi­cers, news­pa­per edi­tors, cit­i­zens, and a lone fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor. With the appeal and tex­ture of “The Alienist,” “Carter Beats the Devil,” and the nov­els of E. L. Doctrow, James Dalessandro weaves unfor­get­table char­ac­ters and actual events into a com­pelling epic.“

He’s never made a film just for kids. Now he’ll show us all his chops in a live action film. Best Picture/Director on their from a fas­cist acad­emy that can’t see tal­ent sans flesh?