Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Entertainment Roundup for 2011

Below is my annual round up of books, films, concerts, plays, etc., that I took in during 2011.

Downtown Abbey

This past year, it was television programs—watched mostly online or on DVD, though I did catch a few when they originally aired—that really enthralled me. Especially British ones. These include my belated discovery of my current obsession, the character-driven and heart-breaking Downton Abbey, currently airing its second season on PBS as I write this; Law & Order UK on BBC America, which provides an interesting British spin on the iconic American TV series while remaining addictive and familiar; and the Inbetweeners, another belated discovery, of a series that also originally aired in the U.S. on BBC America but which I watched in its 3-season entirety uncut on YouTube.

Despite its stumbles this past year, Netflix Streaming continued to be a major resource for catching up on television programs and films, providing users like me a conveniently way to quickly check out films and TV shows and mini-series with little risk or effort. That's how I discovered Downton Abbey as well as a few other British TV shows and mini-series like Monday Monday, The Way We Live Now, and Any Human Heart. It also gave me the opportunity to catch foreign language films like the The World, a Chinese film, and French comedies like I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single and Shall We Kiss. Thanks to the streaming service, I also discovered several enjoyable indie gems like Middle Men and Tenure (both coincidentally starring Luke Wilson), Gigantic, and The Extra Man. (The former two starred Luke Wilson while the latter two featured Paul Dano.) Another highlight was Made in Dagenham, a film I wanted to see in 2010, which I finally rented through Netflix and found to be a delight.

Below is a clip from the recent Inbetweeners feature film. Parental discretion advised!

While there were several mainstream films I enjoyed in 2011, none captured my attention quite like Downton Abbey and the Inbetweeners. But among my favorites were, in no particular order, The Artist, Cedar Rapids, Our Idiot Brother, The Adventures of Tintin, and Captain America: First Avenger. The Artist was great fun due to its novelty and the high bar it set for itself, while Captain America ranked so high because it took me by surprise. In its own way, Captain America is a perfect popcorn movie—really fun and smartly done. I usually like to name what I think is the worst movie I saw for the year and, for me, it's no contest: Mars Needs Moms.

For some reason, in 2010 I didn't seem to have read many books, but this year I picked up the pace again. When you look at the list, you'll see I went through a serious Lincoln phase. Highlights were Team of Rivals and the harrowing yet inspiring Unbroken.

And now without any further ado....

Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin by Pierre Assouline (2/3/11)
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (3/7/11)
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Goodwin Kearns (3/21/11)
Lincoln at Cooper Union by Harold Holzer (4/4/11)
The March by E.L. Doctorow (4/27/11)
Ulysses S. Grant (5/11)
The Hobbit (9/15/11)
Lord of the Rings (10/11)

Exit Wounds (1/15/11)
Tintin: The Crab with the Golden Claws (2/4/11)
Scenes from Impending Nuptuals by Adrian Tomine (4/16/11)
Bone (4/27/11)
Smile (8/5/11)

Dear Edwina, Jr. (6/4/11)

Metales 5 - Valley Performing Arts Center (5/5/11)
Vaud and The Villains (9/17/11)
The Taiko Project (9/17/11)
He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister (9/17/11)
4 Lads From Liverpool (12/11/11)

TIm Burton @ LACMA (6/19/11)

Orson Welles & Me -DVD (1/1/11)
Night Train to Munich - DVD (1/7/11)
Extract - Showtime (1/8/11)
National Lampoon's Van Wilder - Showtime (1/8/11)
Adventureland - Showtime (1/10/11)
The Babysitters - Showtime (1/11/11)
For Your Consideration - Netflix streaming (1/28/11)
Shall We Kiss - Netflix streaming (1/29/11)
Marty -TCM (1/29/11)
Man of the Century (1/29/11)
Seven Years in Tibet (2/8/11)
Cedar Rapids (2/12/11)
I Love You Man - DVD (2/20/11)
Good Night - Netflix (2/23/11)
Last Word - Netflix (2/25/11)
The Extra Man - Netflix (2/26/11)
We Live Again - TCM (3/12/11)
Mars Needs Moms (3/20/11)
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story - Netflix (3/23/11)
The Auteur - Netflix (3/24/11)
The World - Netflix (3/27/11)
Any Human Heart - Netflix (4/4/11)
The Way We Live Now - Netflix (4/5/11)
The Wild One - TCM (4/17/11)
Under the Greenwood Tree - Netflix (4/28/11)
I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single - Netflix (5/23/11)
Gigantic - Netflix (5/23/11)
The Special Relationship (5/26/11)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (5/28/11)
Downton Abbey (5/28/11)
The Inbetweeners, Seasons 1-3 (7/3-15/11)
Made in Dagenham - DVD (7/7/11)
Zookeeper (7/25/11)
The Crowd Roars - TCM (8/9/11)
Captain America (8/13/11)
The Narrow Corner - TCM (8/14/11)
It Happened One Night - TCM (9/3/11)
Our Idiot Brother (9/4/11)
Johnny English (10/23/11)
The Middle Men (10/31/11) - Netflix
Lost in America (11/2/11) - TCM
Green Lantern -DVD (11/6/2011)
Moneyball (11/6/2011)
Monday Monday - Netflix
The Muppet Movie (11/24/11)
The Artist (11/27/11)
Take Me Home Tonight - Netflix (12/10/11)
Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (12/18/11)
The Adventures of Tintin (12/26/11)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (12/30/11)
Tenure - Netflix (12/30/11)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

REVIEWS: Overcoming the Uncanny Valley

When Robert Zemeckis’s Mars Needs Moms fizzled at the box office, many considered it the death knell for motion capture (mo-cap) movies. Zemeckis was a filmmaker who had particularly embraced mo-cap technology with films like the Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. However, the poor showing of Mars Needs Moms forced Walt Disney Studios to cancel a planned mo-cap adaptation of Yellow Submarine and its longterm relationship with Zemeckis’s mo-cap production company.

With the release of the Adventures of Tintin, however, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have taken a big leap forward with mo-cap and appear to have somewhat overcome many of the problems with the technology.

Actors Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis performing as Tintin
and Captain Haddock in their mo-cap suits

The complaints with mo-cap stem from a hypothesis from robotics and 3D animation known as “the uncanny valley.” The hypothesis postulates that “when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.” In films like the Polar Express, complaints about the creepiness and “dead eyes” of the characters created aversion among many viewers.

While I’m not a particular proponent of mo-cap, I’ve always said that execution plays as important a role as the medium in determining a film’s success or failure. I saw Mars Needs Moms in the theater and the bottom line was that it was an awful movie with unlikable characters and unappealing art design.

For the most part, the Adventures of Tintin has largely avoided these pitfalls by making Tintin as immersive and integrated a universe as possible. More importantly, the characters in the movie—like the characters on which they’re based—are fairly cartoony, creating some distance from the photorealistic look previous mo-cap films tried to capture. Weta Digital–Jackson’s special effects company which provided the mo-cap technology for Tintin–no doubt also made advances in the technology, particularly in capturing the nuances of facial expression and in the eyes. (As I was viewing the film, I could see that the animators had painstakingly given the characters eyelashes—a tiny detail but one that added to breathing life into the characters.) Ironically, Tintin is perhaps the most photo-realistically rendered human.

In contrast to Mars Needs Mom, Tintin is also a triumph of direction. In Mars, I was always conscious of the actors providing the performance capture. In contrast, for the most part, Spielberg and Jackson clearly sought a more stylized, exaggerated movements, which well suited a film based on a comic-book series featuring well-known iconic characters.

As to the film itself, Tintin is a fun romp that captures the innocence of purity of high adventure without the need to wink at the audience. Spielberg has said that he discovered the character after many in Europe compared the first Indiana Jones movie—Raiders of the Lost Ark—to Tintin. It seems fitting that one of the earliest prototypes for globetrotting adventurers like Indiana Jones has been adapted by Spielberg into a timeless, classic film that is as fun, unironic and uncomplicated as one can find in the modern day world.