The Fast Forward Revue


Film Review: The Wackness by gaohippy
The Wackness, now playing in a limited run.

The Wackness, now playing in a limited run.

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Fast Forward Rating: FFFFF (5 out of 5).

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Whose world is this? The world is yours, the world is yours.The Wackness, directed by newcomer Jonathan Levine, opens to the tune of Nas’s track from Illmatic, one of the most celebrated hip hop records of all time. While this particular musical selection is sure to immediately win over some hip hop heads in the audience, it is the proceeding film that won me over. It takes place on the baking streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the summer of 1994. Pun intended.

Luke Shapiro is our protagonist, a ganja-dealer fresh out of high school whose shrink brings him as much confusion as women do. Actually, his dream woman happens to be the shrink’s step-daughter, and while this provides a great scenario for mischief and mayhem to play out, the movie’s real strength is honest characterization. What I love about The Wackness so much is that it feels like a long therapy session in which I get to consider the meaning of love, friendship, sex, and most importantly: youth. The film’s flagship romance between Shapiro and “Steph”, played by Josh Peck (all grown up since Nickelodeon days) and Olivia Thirlby respectively, is painfully true to the spirit of young love, tainted with naivety, exhilaration, and anticipation.

Then there’s Luke’s relationship with Dr. Squires, played by Ben Kingsley, one of the greatest character actors of our time. The two have a complex relationship that is all at once doctor-patient, dealer-client, friend-friend, and mentor-disciple. At first, Luke thinks that his doctor is a washed-up weirdo with no friends, and Dr. Shapiro is indeed jealous that Luke has his entire life ahead of him. They learn valuable life lessons from each other and their friendship is the most meaningful relationship in a film full of marriages and flings, provoking the audience to ask the question of the true meaning of love, and the blinding nature of attraction in romantic relationships.

On top of the heavy core of the film, Levine really takes the film’s 1994 setting to heart, giving it an exquisite aged film look full of warm, earthy tones. Everything from the World Trade Center being in the skyline to the film’s tastefully incorporated graphics brings us back 14 years into the past, down to Luke’s Adidas sneaks that would make even run DMC proud. In fact, it is so genuine and spirited that I find myself lamenting the fact that I wasn’t a teenager in the ’90s. The soundtrack is loaded with tracks from Tribe, Biggie, KRS-One, and Wu-Tang, leaving me convinced that director Jonathan Levine knows his shit.

I won’t spoil any more, just go see the film next time you’re not busy selling marijuana or hitting a bong.

GAO



Quickie Film Review: Mongol by gaohippy
July 15, 2008, 6:41 pm
Filed under: Author: gaoalexander, Cinema | Tags: , ,
Genghis Khan's troubling childhood.

Genghis Khan's troubling childhood.

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Fast Forward Rating: FF (2 out of 5)

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Mongol. Everything about this film cries, “Oscar, here I come!”. This is a film that was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, directed by an Oscar-nominated director. The script is more epic than that of Saving Private Ryan or 300, telling the story of Temüjin, known to the world as Genghis Khan, the man responsible for uniting all Mongols under a silly, albeit unified legal code. Critics laud the film, the photography is nothing short of spectacular, and yet… it doesn’t sit with me. The film’s structure is composed of dozens of plot points that lack a strong sense of causality, and as writer/director Sergei Bodrov concedes, the lack of recorded Mongol culture that would have served as the main intrigue of the story meant plugging gaping holes in history with corks of his imagination.

Characters lack development and while their generally stoic expressions provide some insight into Mongol culture in general, it is hard to mine much more information from the performances. Genghis Khan was not necessarily someone to be loved, or even liked for that matter, but it is especially difficult to get into this film considering none of the characters are particularly likable. Bodrov seems to struggle with temporal aspects of storytelling, leading to abrupt transitions, unexplained character transformations, and a deflation of overall suspense. I commend him for his efforts and for his ability to stretch $20 million so far, but overall, I can only consider Mongol to be a flop, much like the late PICTUREHOUSE, the company that picked it up.

 

GAO



Film Review: The Animation Show, Volume 4 by gaohippy
Animated Shorts From Around The World

Animated Shorts From Around The World

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Fast Forward Rating: FFFF (4 out of 5)

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The Animation Show is a medley of animated shorts gathered from around the world and compiled into a 100-minute extravaganza. The men responsible for stitching together this hot bundle of insanity are Mike Judge (creator of Beavis and Butt-Head and Office Space) and Don Hertzfeldt. For the fourth iteration, the curator duo hits many home runs with only a few strikes, and whether or not you are an animation connoisseur, the fast-paced programming is sure to engage all lengths of attention spans.

Introduced by a frantic hard-rock-themed title sequence, the creators lets the audience know from the start that they are in for a night of innocent, uncensored fun. One of the early standouts was “Burning Safari”, a 3D short directed by six students out of the French Gobelins L’Ecole De L’Image. It served as a great warm-up, focusing on style and character design/development over a complicated story.

Schwartz, Hazen, Horlocker

Schwartz, Hazen, Horlocker

Next came “Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Hazen & Mr. Horlocker”, a Cannes Film Festival award winner from Stefan Müller that was arguably the star of the night. Melding 2D drawings with quasi-3D elements to make an extremely stylish feast for the eyes, its color palette was similar to Psyop’s famous “Coca-Cola Happiness Factory”, with an orange warmth consuming everything. On close-ups, pencil marks were visible on the edges of the characters, giving the animation that little bit of human imperfection that frees and refreshes us from the boring world of digital perfection.

The simple drawings of Angry Unpaid Hooker

The simple drawings of Angry Unpaid Hooker

Voice acting plays an enormous role in giving animated characters life, as proven in Steve Dildarian’s “Angry Unpaid Hooker”. The character design was quaint and sparse, bringing to mind artists such as Quentin Blake. In the short, a guy’s girlfriend comes home after being gone all weekend only to be welcomed by a new house guest in the form of a yet-to-be-paid prostitute. The characters have skewed body proportions and hilariously rendered nostrils, all complementing the perfectly timed comedy of the voice acting.

stylistically delicious

Key Lime Pie: stylistically delicious

The Animation Show also serves as a ripe teaching ground for many fundamental principles of animation. “John And Karen” demonstrates the power of scale in perception of space, as well as the indisputable superiority of 2D animation over 3D in the right instances. “Key Lime Pie” and “Forgetfulness” teach that perhaps animation’s greatest power is the ability to convey inner workings of human psyche, as there are no physical rules or boundaries such as gravity to limit the mind. “Western Spaghetti”—resembling Michel Gondry’s stop-motion animations from The Science Of Sleep—challenges the brain’s ability to perceive everyday objects in unconventional ways.

This Way Up

This Way Up

Hot Dog”, “This Way Up”, and “Usavich” provide more heart-wrenching hilarity. Some of the weaker offerings were “Blind Spot”, the “Professor Nieto Show”, and “Operator”. “Raymond”, created by renowned visual effects studio The Mill was stylistically superb, but being the animation most closely based on reality, it felt very limiting to be subjected to gravity once again. “Yompi The Crotch-Biting Sloup” made up the cannon ball tied to the foot of the show, dragging it down with obscenity and poor animation quality.

The Mill\'s Raymond

Raymond from The Mill

Overall, The Animation Show was fantastic, although I realize that animation is a very subjective art form. Some people favor more abstract animation (check out “Jeu”), others lean more toward concrete characters and motivated stories. As an animation student myself, I found the “film” to be very instructive as well as inspiring and entertaining. I highly recommend The Animation Show to all audiences, and I would encourage both animation and live-action filmmakers to view it as a tutorial in warping the bounds of physical reality.

Click here to see if The Animation Show is showing near you.

GAO



411: A Google Odyssey by gaohippy
July 7, 2008, 1:57 am
Filed under: Author: gaoalexander, Technology | Tags: , , , ,
GOOG-411 is a phonebook for the digital age.

GOOG-411 is a free phonebook for the digital age.

Everyone knows that Google and Apple will take over the world by the year 2015. They are unrivaled in taking everyday tasks and making them easier, faster, better, and more fun. Take Google’s new GOOG-411 system, for example, released in late 2007. All you have to do is call 1-800-GOOG-411, and a series of voice recognizing prompts will lead you to the address and name of any proximate restaurant within seconds. Not only did it know that The Chop House is located on South Main Street of Ann Arbor, but it also tracked down John’s Pizza (a Manhattan favorite that I didn’t know the address of) and Greenwich Village’s Waverly Restaurant.

Oh, and just because food is the only thing that I have on my mind right now doesn’t mean it doesn’t track down other businesses like The Flash. “Michigan Theater. I’ll connect you,” says the soothing voice that apparently belongs to a yet to be disclosed member of the GOOG-411 team. It beats the heck out of Ticketmaster’s robot voice, and what’s more is that it doesn’t struggle with pronunciations. So what else is good about GOOG-411? Well, it’s 100% FREE, it moves faster than the TGV, and you can even opt for information to be sent to your phone via SMS. So, next time you don’t know a phone number or are vacationing in Mordor and need some help finding a good burrito joint, try GOOG-411. Oh, and for you Canadian readers, yes. It works in Canada! It’s truly great.

Click here to watch an introduction from one of Google’s very own.

For the technologically inclined: READ ON! (Wait, this is the digital age, so that means you!)

Of note is the brief “Calls Recorded” that plays when GOOG-411 picks up your call. Why would they need to record calls? Well, Google does have ulterior motives for establishing 411, although they are quite benevolent. Google executive Marissa Mayer explains:

“Whether or not free-411 is a profitable business unto itself is yet to be seen. I myself am somewhat skeptical. The reason we really did it is because we need to build a great speech-to-text model … that we can use for all kinds of different things, including video search.

The speech recognition experts that we have say: If you want us to build a really robust speech model, we need a lot of phonemes, which is a syllable as spoken by a particular voice with a particular intonation. So we need a lot of people talking, saying things so that we can ultimately train off of that. … So 1-800-GOOG-411 is about that: Getting a bunch of different speech samples so that when you call up or we’re trying to get the voice out of video, we can do it with high accuracy.”

(Source: Infoworld.com)

So, whether or not you trust Google with your life, GOOG-411 is still pretty rad.

GAO



Reflecting on Reflections by gaohippy

Opening scene of Unbreakable. Future comic-book-style villain Elijah Price has just been born. We don’t know at this point whether he has been dropped on his head or whether he has a fragile bone disease that will eventually inspire his childhood nickname, “Mr. Glass” (in case you haven’t figured it out by this point, it’s the latter). Aside from being a major plot point, this scene is an illustration of a commonly used directorial flourish: the action unfolds through reflections in a mirror. Maybe I haven’t really been paying attention, but I am starting to become more and more conscious of directors pointing their cameras not  at their players, but at reflections of their players.

In Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Flight Of The Red Balloon, the extent to which he places mirrors or window reflections between the audience and the action almost becomes distracting. Whether they they are inside the car and we are looking in from outside of the windshield or whether they are reflecting off of the windows that line the street, Hou must be trying to make a statement. After all, a visual theme for it’s own sake is like wearing too much makeup: it simply obscures whatever is beneath it. So, as an audience member, I find myself focusing more on trying to figure out Hou’s intentions than on paying attention to the story (which, by the way, moves slowly and in circles).

Claude Lelouch also introduces that element of indirect spectating in Roman De Gare. As we sit with the protagonist in question inside a rest stop gas station, we see an argument unfold between one of the film’s heroines and her boyfriend. Later on in the film, the two leading characters who we come to know as Huguette and Pierre have a conversation and of course, there we find ourselves again, hovering in front of the windshield trying to see our characters’ faces that are being partially obstructed by reflections on the glass.

For some reason or another, I feel a personal need to rationalize the use of the indirect point of view, and I’ve concluded that its purpose is to empower audience members as true voyeurs. Rather than being invisible onlookers to a scene, they are instead placed directly into the hustle and bustle; almost as if to avoid the awkwardness that comes with staring, they look indirectly onto the action. Perhaps mirrors and reflections also serve as personal mirrors for a film’s characters, reminding us that they are as self-reflective as we are. Please discuss further, as I’d love to learn from your insight.

I’m not sure if this kind of meandering post is even legal on the Fast Forward Revue.

GAO