Christmas Crazy: Christmas on Mars – Wayne Coyne (…of The Flaming Lips) (2008)

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http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/the-gist/for-reels/christmas-craaaazy-christmas-mars-wayne-coyne-yes-singer-flaming-lips-2008/

There may be no more odd person ever to be set upon this planet than Wayne Coyne. It’s the genuine strangeness of a brain that fires its synapses in a different manner all together. It’s only a brain as strange as his that could claim credit to this kind of output, for Christmas on Mars is nothing but a series of strangeness.

It’s Christmas Eve on the newly colonized Mars and everything is going wrong for the colonists. Their oxygen and gravity generators are failing and it’s leaving everyone on edge as the colony’s first baby is due. In the oxygen deprived basecamp, Bethlehem 2055, people start having visions of the baby’s horribly wrong future — in the most horrible vision, the baby is born only to be left to be crushed to death by an oncoming marching band… who all have vaginas instead of heads, or, as Adam Goldberg’s psychiatrist puts it: “this vaginal-headed marching band from hell”. The colonist who has this vision, the man who was set to play Santa Claus later that night, promptly commits suicide by rushing out of the air lock.

Into the mix lands a Martian, played by Coyne. He says nothing, he just observes and wanders as the station’s crew slowly lose their sense of hope for their futures.

With it’s mix of 50s atomic age camp and oddball Flaming Lips style, it’s somewhat of a surprise that Christmas on Mars turns out to be something of a sincere nativity play, albeit an atheist interpretation of it. There is nothing traditional about it, but you wouldn’t want there to be. It’s not a film that was made for reverence or silence. It was made to celebrate to, and talk over, and to get drunk with friends to, which is basically how all Christmas movies should be anyway.

Frost/Nixon – Ron Howard (2008)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=14032

For those born after the incident, director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan’s dramatization of the 1977 interview series between British TV presenter David Frost and then-former President Nixon offers a comfortably Sorkin-esque glimpse behind the scenes of Frost’s landmark grilling of Nixon over Watergate, the coverup and the aftermath that dominated an era of national politics.

Frost (Michael Sheen) is an ambitious TV man whose once-bright star is fading after his American talk show is canceled. He is stuck in entertainment’s second tier, longing for another taste of fame, American-style, and sees the resignation and subsequent pardon of Nixon (Frank Langella) as a way back into his table at Sardi’s. Laying out the hefty sum of $600K to secure the interview with the tough-as-nails Nixon – at the time living in pitiful seclusion and writing his memoirs – Frost and his team of researchers quibble over their goals and are wholly unprepared for the cagey Nixon on the big day; Nixon talks circles around the process, deflecting from the real issues with glancing blows of sentimental minutiae.

If Ali-Frazier was the fight of the century, Frost-Nixon was to be the sit-down of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred tête-à-tête meant to be, whether for redemption or conviction, the real final words of the chapter. Ali lost – he was unprepared for the Champ’s left hook – but Frost comes out the prettier one in this battle. Sheen plays Frost with a dopey smirk that’s off-putting enough to Nixon to lead him right into the eventual sucker punch.

The knockout blow isn’t the star of this picture, however. Nixon is, and what Langella lacks in physical likeness he more than makes up for with the depth of the Nixon spirit, which, 30 years later, comes off like a mean, ugly dog, as repugnant as it is empathetic.

Nixon moved on (and became richer), but the fact that the interview changed nothing – not the Cold War and certainly not corrupt politicians or a tougher press corps – is not the point. The timing ofFrost/Nixon’s release, in these lame-duck last moments of the George W. Bush presidency, won’t be lost on most viewers, and Howard utilizes the Nixon-Bush connection of corruption to create the kind of after-the-fact liberal catharsis that Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic sorely missed. As Nixon tacitly confesses, his admission of guilt in the film is more heavily defined than in the original interviews, but it’s a cherry that sits nicely on top of an “Obama won” sundae. What it does is give us some hope, slim as it might be, that there is a new Frost out there waiting patiently for his chance at flustering Bush into a “whoops, sorry” moment, even a tacit one.

Ms. Couric, line one.

Lou Reed’s Berlin – Julian Schnable (2008)

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http://www2.orlandoweekly.com/music/review.asp?rid=13904

(My first ever film review)

There are few genuine musical happenings anymore. The world has evolved into the kind of interactive place where the musical happening should thrive, but instead it’s succumbed to the corporate clenched fist. Now, instead of Axl and Elton rocking a wet Wembley to bed with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the closest we get to an event is a demand for a public apology to the Jonas Brothers for ridiculing their purity rings.

Lou Reed pisses on that apology. In 2006, the rock pioneer dusted off Berlin, his 1973 rock opera album telling the story of Jim and Caroline, two strung-out lovers and their inevitable downward spiral, and brought it to the live masses with a small orchestra and choir. The Brooklyn concert, Reed’s first in a tour series, was documented by Academy Award–nominated director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and the resulting film was recently released on DVD. It was a musical happening as pure as the driven snow, honest and without corporate hindrance, and it was done just because he felt like doing it.

“[The album] didn’t really get a chance for people to hear it,” Reed says about Berlin’s original release during a Q&A at New York City’s Film Forum in July. Coming off his first solo effort, 1972’s breakthroughTransformer, Reed should have been bulletproof. But Berlin, released the following year, was an unmitigated flop, critically and commercially failing to live up to the still-unflagging popularity of “Walk on the Wild Side,” a song musically dissimilar to his other work.

“It’s the other side of ‘Walk on the Wild Side,’?” Reed says. “It’s the real one. Maybe no one wanted to hear or see that. It was in the middle of glam rock and it was a dose of reality – a certain kind of reality.”

Thirty-five years later, Berlin is a cult classic. Reed’s voice isn’t as steady as it used to be, but he easily commands the stage.

“I’d performed a couple of the songs out of context [in past concerts], but the way it really works, for me anyway, is in context,” he says. “I always thought of it as a whole piece.”

Berlin is a concert film at first blush, but as it proceeds, it becomes something closer to the theatrical production Reed intended to produce in the early ’70s. Thanks to the loving orchestration of sequences shot by Lola Schnabel, we see the lives of Jim and Caroline and their struggles with drugs, abuse and suicide coming alive to the pace of the songs. The enchanting Emmanuelle Seigner (also of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as Caroline, the heroine of heroin. The years it took for this project to be fully realized were well worth it in the end, as Berlin digs out a new spot in the conversation of best concert films.

The Pixar Story – Leslie Iwerks (2008)

http://blogs.orlandoweekly.com/index.php/2011/10/underrated-the-pixar-story-leslie-iwerks-2008/

Most of tributes that are pouring in for Steve Jobs are focusing on Apple, but I think Pixar is just as an important legacy for Jobs.

Even though his involvement was more in the role of Godfather than creator, Pixar would have been little more than a footnote in the story of Lucasfilm — the story of an unprofitable subsidiary that creating the digital tools that eventually made The Special Editions possible — if not for the long distance vision that Jobs possessed.

You can love or hate Apple, but there is no denying whatsoever that Pixar has enriched all of our lives, and it’s just as much about Steve Jobs as it is John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Andrew Stanton or Pete Docter.

“The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.”

Ever since the first time I saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as a kid, I’ve been in love with the idea of cartoons. I’d always loved cartoons. What kid doesn’t? But the idea that they are made, that there is a “behind the scenes” to them became intoxicating for me. Like the young John Lasseter, I became obsessed with Disney and Warner cartoons and was astounded that people did this for a living. I wanted to do it to.  Well, it worked out a little bit better for him than it did for me.

Along with Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and a handful of other visionaries, Lasseter changed the world of animation, and even — thanks to their state-of-the-art computer Renderman — feature motion pictures forever.

Pixar started out as a faint, impossible idea rattling around the heads of a few scattered idealists: to create a feature length computer animation. Not only had it not been done yet, but the tools were not even invented. But this random collection of PHds and would-be artists eventually settled in together as an unprofitable arm of Lucasfilm that was just too far ahead of its time. So how did it come to be the animation juggernaut that eventually took over Disney Animation Studios? The beginning is not all that different from Disney, really.

Before making a name on Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney began to eek out a living with the Alice comedies, a series of short subjects wherein the live action Alice (played by Virginia Davis) was inserted into a cartoon wonderland by Ub Iwerks, the “man behind the mouse”. The Pixar gang inverted that beginning, taking their first steps before Woody and Buzz by inserting a CGI stainglass Knight into the live action Young Sherlock Holmes when Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic couldn’t achieve the shot. It was from there that they grew and never looked back.

The Pixar Story was directed by Leslie Iwerks, the granddaughter of the innovative genius Ub Iwerks. Ub has a unique place in the world of film, first as the head animator of the Disney Animation Studio, the heart and soul guy who made the place tick, and later as a special effects wizard who, amongst other things, made the birds attack in Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Disney runs deep in Leslie Iwerks’s blood, and it shows. The film is a delicate, loving story about the birth and adolescence of insane greatness, tracing the story back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success.

It is a one sided love affair, yes, but honest in it’s approach nonetheless. Hand-in-hand with the love-in, the original version of Toy Story 2 is thrown under the bus, though the creative team is not. As a Walt Disney Studios production, the film makes the pre-Iger Disney its main villain. The bumbling heavy, Disney is the company that could not see the talent in John Lasseter or the rich future of digital animation, and when it finally did, it wrongly axed the entire hand drawn animation division.

Iwerks starts out with a quick trip through the history of animation, starting out at the dawn of animation, from the mechanical zoetrope and Muybridge’s horse photos on through the computer graphics in Tron. Tracing the story of Pixar back from inception, to growing pains on through it’s massive success, Iwerks interviews all of the important players, from the animators and designers, to Lucas and Jobs and even the star voice talents, like Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal. The love affair with this company seems to be ubiquitous with everyone who comes in contact with it (less Michael Eisner, who is upset when they won’t let themselves be ripped off for short-term profit).

Leslie Iwerks is a fantastic filmmaker, very much in the Disney storytelling mold. Both The Pixar Story and The Hand Behind the Mouse are timeless creations of both fact and fancy. They make you wish you were there at the same time as making you feel as if you were. She simultaneously creates an immersive experience and causes a great swell of emotion through music cues and knowing exactly what shot to cut to at the right moment.

It’s a special talent — more of a filmmaker’s talent than a documentarian’s talent — that few have. She doesn’t just deliver the stories but the feelings behind the stories: the sadness of Ub and Walt parting ways, the “oh, shit” moment when Pixar realized they had to do it again after Toy Story and that none of their old tricks would work a second time. She makes you feel what it was like in that small computer lab, with John Lassiter’s futon stuffed under his desk, working for three days straight to help make the company what it is today.

It’s a remarkably exciting and insightful film, and shows Pixar to be the kind of fun filled place to work we wish we could work at, while also giving us a glimpse of the pressure to perform on the entire staff. Once success is achieved it has to be maintained, and that’s a tough bit in their business. But they deserve every scrap of it they’ve gotten.