Saturday, November 29, 2008

A week in review.

Last week, I saw things you couldn't believe. Actually, they are plenty easy to believe, I just felt like saying that.

This is late, but I had a lot in the way. Last week, Don Hertzfeldt, one of my indie idols, came to New York and visited both Pratt Institute and the IFC theater (the latter as part of his current tour). At Pratt, Andy London conducted a Q&A with Mr. Hertzfeldt, who is currently promoting his newest creation, I Am So Proud of You, a sequel to his last masterpiece, Everything Will Be OK. The Q&A was pretty basic, with information I already knew from previous interviews. Of all things, one part of the interview that excited me was when Mr. Hertzfeldt said he had recently seen Morrissey in concert. Andy later turned questions onto the audience, and I got a turn: I asked Don "Can you name your least favorite movies?", and I think he got caught off guard. It seemed like a fair question at the time, but I think he felt a little too cautious to answer it. Instead he turned the question into something I can't remember now (again, sorry for being late. Crazy schedule). I felt really bad, but everyone assured me it was all fine.

The next night, Mr. Hertzfeldt made it to the IFC theater, where the place was totally packed. It was a mix of animation locals and hard-core indie/Hertzfeldt fans. Watching Hertzfeldt's films on actual film was a real treat. Real Unorthodox-Old School. And I Am So Proud of You is a beautiful piece of work, possibly Hertzfeldt's darkest film to date.

The next night was ASIFA-East's annual animation art auction. Due to my financial instability at the moment, I couldn't afford to buy anything over $25. And of course, as the night went on, all this (I guess) amazing stuff went as high as $400. And all the while, I am thinking how can people afford to buy some of this stuff given the shape the economy is in? President Dave Levy stunned me with his excessive spending of the night. I sat between animators and friends Tony Lamberty and Katie Cropper, and gawked at the their spending the whole time, though they were not as excessive as some.

An ink drawing by Christy Karacas, based on his own brilliant, inhumane creation, Superjail.

I really liked this drawing from Maxwell Atoms of his characters from Billy and Mandy.

There were five animation cels/drawings from Mark Kausler's brilliantly animated short, Its the Cat. Katie got one of the sets, and gave me the cel as a birthday present. Thank you again, Katie.

I'm usually very cautious about stuff at auctions, because if I want to buy something considered so rare and once in a lifetime, it has to be something I can be inspired by in years to come.

On the other hand, MC Tom Warburton (creator of Codename: Kids Next Door) was very entertaining and really let loose.

Finally, the 22nd came. My Birthday
I had a nice gathering at an English chip shop, and then we all congregated off to a local bar (with a chalkroom in the back, yay). Although I am feeling weird around birthday time now, its still a good reminder of all the things to take care off in my lifetime.

My sister Clio and I looking deep in thought, yet fully engaged, as always.

And finally. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Madagascar 2: A few steps forward for Dreamworks

Dreamworks animation is a touchy and often unpleasant subject for me. The studio revolves around money, and as far as commercial animation goes, Dreamworks is the worst of the lot. The last few years, it has seemed like the movies with the worst reviews make the most money. Now that is tragic (at least for me). For all I know, it is nothing new. But some of these films may never be revisited again, and I wonder if they are going to inspire artists in the future.
I recently caught Dreamworks' Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa. It picks up right where Madagascar left off, with the animals and guests making their way off Madagascar and hopefully back to New York.

As usual, the movie goes overboard with celebrity voices behind the characters. I am not the biggest fan of Ben Stiller (I'm not sure if I have met one yet), hence I don't enjoy seeing a character (Alex the Lion) who acts and sounds just like him. Its more or less the same with Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, and David Schwimmer (although Chris Rock has some nice control vocally on the microphone).

The top performance of the film belongs to Sacha Baron Cohen as King Julien of the lemurs. This is no surprise as Cohen is a brilliant comedian, as well as chameleon. Cohen does what any great voice-over actor should do: he masks himself behind the visual, and breaths life into another character. In fact, I don't think Cohen has allowed himself to be photographed or taped performing his recording sessions for the movie, which is kind of admirable, as it maintains some mystique. This is the kind of celebrity that works best in animation.
The late Bernie Mac, who has a nice silent tribute at the end of the movie, does a pretty decent job as Alex's father. But the rest of the actors in the movie seem to be underused, and merely there to give some star credibility.
And of course, there is the issue of dialogue. Though its not all bad, some of it could have been better and less predictable. The parts of the story which are considered the emotional center, the dialogue felt predictable and used before.

However, there are some perks. A hallmark that has made me dread Dreamworks features is the overuse of pop-culture references. I don't mind a few, but I take artistic issue when the entire script is based all around them. The first Madagascar was no exception. But a couple of Dreamworks' last movies have cut back on the excess references, and here they continue to cut back. Because of this, I found the story to be less cluttered and easier to sit through.

And visually, as well as the first movie, it stands out from other Dreamworks pictures with a more unique design and color scheme. All the characters have simpler yet interesting shapes, and show a better focus on design than an obsession with realism. I love the way the lemur characters are designed. Although they are based on various species of lemur, their designs are all unique and have some features that distinguish them. And it is much more colorful, with an emphasis on coloring associated with African art.

All in all, not a great movie, but a pretty good movie.

There are vast improvements here that give a good impression. I can only hope the artists at Dreamworks continue these improvements, and their movies may actually reach a level of timelessness. And hopefully, Dreamworks can make some innovations of their own, instead of copying the innovations of Pixar. One innovation which I don't mind being copied is the idea of the credits being presented in original 2D graphics and animation.
Maybe one day, independent animated features will really take off, and Dreamworks will copy those.