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'What does Crustimoney Proseedcake mean?' said Pooh. 'For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.'

Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

The origin of Kung Fu Panda

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Last week we watched Kung Fu Panda (capsule review: it’s mostly like Advil), which is a fun and funny DreamWorks Animation film about anthropomorphic animals in mythological China.

As expected, it manages to pull most of the ‘right’ levers. The Chinese references are mostly good, in a non-patronising way, although they do pull a Katzenberg (e.g. where all the characters are ‘in-character’ but the main character is Robin Williams) with the Panda, US accent and all. The actual animals are either Chinese, or from the Chinese culture, with some interesting choices (a mantis and viper as Kong-Fu fighters, a turtle as the ancient master). Also, no dumb pack animals are shown pulling crates or working, a usual miss in anthropomorphic works. The Red Panda Shifu (a Chinese word for martial arts master) is probably the best character in the whole film, artfully played by Dustin Hoffman.

The morals of the movie are also hit-and-miss, they do base on a lot of Zen/Chinese ideas, but it is the Big-Mac version. On one hand, the Panda remains an obese slob throughout the film (good), on the other, that is his “inner strength” (wot?). There’s a huge gap between saying “the power is within you” and showing you a mirror. The art is mostly good, although its Computer-Generated nature sometimes gets a bit overdone. I’m a fan of hand-drawn animation, so I’m biased, but I prefer my CGI “obvious” as in the Shrek, or Toy-Story way, rather than in a “drawn 2d” way. But I digress.

The whole reason for this review is that I kept wondering about where does the whole “Panda as a martial arts master” idea comes from? It’s obviously not original, DreamWorks are not known for inventing wheels. After all, we are talking about the studio that released “Antz” two weeks before “A Bug’s Life“, both starting production about the time Katzenberg left Disney (Pixar’s former publishers and current owners). But it’s more than just that. Pandas are not connected with martial arts the way other animals are. The film’s Furious Five (a tigress, a crane, a monkey, a mantis, and a viper), represent familiar Kung-Fu styles. The Panda, while is a Chinese animal, does not have any connection with Kung-Fu, or anything seemly resembling martial arts.

That is, if you stop looking at history and culture and start looking in pop-culture.

In April 1st, 1999, Blizzard, deep in the production of Warcraft III, “announced” that a new race was in the works for the game: Pandaren Empire.

The page included a fleshed history of the race to make it look an integral part of WarCraft’s world, complete with some units details, art and mockup screenshots.
Reaction was immediately favourable. The race, basically Panda Samurai, appealed to a lot of WarCraft fans and gamers in general (regardless of the Pandas being Chinese animal and the Samurai being Japanese), and managed to create a buzz around the concept, soon leading to some interesting results.

In the WarCraft III expansion pack, one of the playable characters was a Pandaren Brewmaster, sort of a Drunken Master warrior, but a panda. Here, once moving from the mock to the official, the character moved from the oriental mashup of panda samurai to a more Chinese oriented ideas.

Once this became “official” it just kept rolling. In World of Warcraft, there was an idea to capitalise on the Warcraft/Panda connection, with Pandaren Xpress, a delivery company for Chinese food. Later, a Panda cub was added as a pet.

With World of Warcraft being the no. 1 online RPG for several years now, its no wonder that Dreamworks Animation decided to roll their own version with a Kung-Fu Panda. With the last Warcraft-panda hulabaloo taking place circa 2005, it should coincide with the film’s production start, and nail this conspiracy on the head.

Written by Erez

Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 18:13

Test-Driven Development, cyberpunk version

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From the OneTrueWiki:

add a test, get it to fail, and write code to pass the test

From Blade Runner:

Tyrell: Is this to be an empathy test?
(…)
Tyrell: Demonstrate it. I want to see it work.
Deckard: Where’s the subject?
Tyrell: I want to see it work on a person. I want to see a negative
before I provide you with a positive.

Written by Erez

Monday, August 25, 2008 at 20:37

Look, up in the sky.

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Just finished watching “Sky High“. Two things. One, on every level, this is the best visualisation of a Superhero comic book. In the attempt to replicate the comics in a live-action movie, Sky High became the best Superhero movie I’ve ever seen.

On the other hand, guys, the twist? You radio’d it from a mile. And the part about “even a sidekick is a hero” and the cliche about all the sidekick’s esoteric power becomes crucial? It was so forced. The kid that glows lights the tunnel? Like that was needed. I would bet my life on that the Guinnea-Pig girl will be needed. The Flower-Girl (BTW, kudos on that nature vs tech angle. Loved it) was Superhero material from the word “go”, it was so much not surprising, although the “peace-loving girl becomes she-tigress” cliche was very well handled, i.e. once the Septlet hit her, she had the basic demand on “protecting myself”, so in that sense it was “Big Mistake” on the Septlet part. But still, so exhausted. (edit: either that, or I’m reading much too many comic-books)

Other than that, spot-on.

Written by Erez

Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 0:50

Posted in Comics, Movies

A pirate I was meant to be

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I take it everyone who happen to this site this has read Watchmen, Alan Moore’s seminal masterpiece. I’m saying “read” I mean either read it, or will do so immediately. There’s just no excuse for not reading/owning/knowing it by heart. One of the layers in this opus’ complex weave of threads is the “Tales of the Black Freighter”, which is a pirate comic book being read by one of the side characters in the book. Later we find that the creator was one of those working for Ozymandys at the island… all right, I’ll spare the spoilers in the rare case you haven’t read the book.
At any rate, the concept of comic within comic serves both as an atmosphere setter (a very dark and foreboding one), as well as another method of realising this alternate reality. You see, in the world of Watchmen, superheroes are a reality, therefore, they don’t occupy the comics. In their place, pirates have become the comic books mainstay. This isn’t completely far-fetched, mind you. After the “Golden Age”, and the fall of superhero comics, the publishers turned their efforts to Westerns and horror.
The story “Tales of the Black Freighter: Marooned”, unravels slowly, issue after issue, until it gets to the chilling conclusion. While I believe the best (and up until now, the only) way to properly experience this is as part of the original context (i.e. by reading it as part of the Watchmen books), it holds its grounds enough to be experienced as a stand alone. Enter “Marooned (The Reconstruction)“.
The guy behind the site, collected each appearance of the TotBF story in Watchment and compiled them to one “issue”. It’s not fully realised/reconstructed, as he refrained from adding any art that wasn’t there originally (which means the first couple of pages contain nothing but narration), but all in all, it really displays the power of Watchmen, that inside that magnificent work, lies a full-blown comic issue.

Speaking of “real” superheroes, I watched “Mystery Men” last week. It’s very much influenced by Watchmen (as anything comics-related, in all honesty, the influence of that book was staggering), but also has a lot of original concepts to hold its own weight. For example, the cast is made of the lower tier or actors. Like their characters. Another thing is the “powers” which are more of a theme than meta-human abilities.
In fact, this idea of real-life superheroes becomes more and more with movies like “The Incredibles“, “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” and the new TV series, “Heroes” (Flash warning). Naturally, this might have the tendency of getting really boring really fast, but until then, enjoy the ride.

Written by Erez

Friday, August 25, 2006 at 1:10

Posted in Comics, Movies, Television

More of Moore

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I’ve thought about my previous post regarding Alan Moore and the movie version of V for Vendetta. I believe some clarifications are in order.

First, I kept referring to Moore’s cinematic writing, which might seem to be inappropriate, as we tend to think of the art – the drawing – as the cinematic part. This would’ve been correct, had Moore’s writing style been different. An Alan Moore script includes everything we will see: the position of the characters in the panel, the POV, what the characters do, what they look like when they do it; making the artist less of a creator and more of a deployer.

For example, this opening panel from the (unpublished) Nightjar script:

Two tiers of three frames each with all the frames the same size, then a narrow strip along the bottom with frame seven quite small and frame eight being the title logo. If you’ve got a better idea then please don’t feel intimidated by all this junk – just go ahead and do what you like.

First of the six flash-back frames that form the opening sequence. I’m still quite fond of the idea of maybe using some different medium for these first few panels to give them a different look. If you’re doing the rest of the strip using a half-tone maybe you could do these frames in pencil? Just a thought… This first frame shows a view of an overgrown and untended terraced garden, looking towards the peeling back door which is opening towards us showing a rectangle of darkness within. Someone unseen is opening the door from inside – we can see his fingers clasped round the edge of it. The garden is deathly still, maybe just a couple of insects droning somewhere. There’s junk everywhere – bricks, pram wheels, tin bath, plant pots – I want to give the impression of a frozen instant, like something out of an old photograph album. As an almost subliminal detail there is a small bird swooping low over the garden, it’s shadow falling neatly beneath it. We have caught it at one split instant of it’s flight. It’ll be gone by next frame.

So yes, we are basically talking about much more than just the writing/narrating/plotting. This style places the writer in the role of scriptwriter, director, and actor, while the artist is the cameraman, set designer and “puppeteer” of the actors. It’s a writing style which has become synonymous with Moore, and at times is even referred to by name.

Second, I am well aware that movies are not made for the sole reason of realising a story in another media. I mean, I’m sure Kubrik’s main reason for creating “The Shining” was to reimagine Stephen King’s horror story in cinematic tools, but to his producer, and that producer’s boss and so on, the main reason was “Successful book by famous writer + famous director = Mucho $$”. Movie licenses cost money, and a director/writer/producer can stand in a Hollywood studio and scream till he’s blue in the face about the innovative qualities of the original piece and the cinematic breakthrough that the adoption will be, but the guys with the money only care about whether the original’s name will sell tickets, and whether the adoption will be marketable enough for them to shill out the dough for the license.

This is partly the reason why Alan Moore’s Magnum Opus, The Watchmen, still rolls around unproduced. A complex book that always been more critically than commerially acclaimed, and no real way to make it into a 90-120 minutes movie without losing either the comic fans (for being unfaithful to the original), or the movie-goers (for being too complex and heavy), or, more likely, losing both.
I think this is also the reason why V for Vendetta was made into a movie. I’ve no idea on how successful was the comic book, but the movie equation is golden with script written by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix), and featuring Natalie Portman. Add a dark, gothic atmosphere and recent success of comic-book movies, and you have a seller. Sadly, not the seller I’m looking for.

Finally, I think my point regarding the cinematic qualities of V for Vendetta being the exact element that would make it a bad movie wasn’t explained fully. I’ll leave the overall concept, which was detailed in the previous post, alone, and focus on the key elements that “make” the comic book and would break the movie.

V for Vendetta has a very strict format. The story was seperated into 3 volumes, which are made of 3-4 issues, each issue split into 3 episodes. There are visual – monochrome, full page – separators between every episode, issue and volume, which help set the tone, like some grave, monolithic bookends. The plot develops accordingly, the internal and external narrative progresses accordingly. This almost beckons a movie trilogy, separated into acts and scenes in correlation with the segmentation of the comics. Any attempt to make it into one 2 hour movie forces some serious cuts to be made, damaging the story.

The panel narrative is built by short action scenes. Character enters room, waking woman, CUT to detectives brainstorming on computer, CUT to character and woman talking, CUT to police officer being informed, CUT to detectives talking, CUT to character saying goodbye to woman, leaves room and is stopped by policeman. (I’m leaving the actual details to limit the spoilers). The pacing of the panels, their positions, how many panels for each scene, etc. Those were created with the idea that the action will be read and viewed by a comic book reader, not on a screen. To adopt this to a movie would demand two things; either maintain the pacing of the action, and kill the scene, or ignore the original and “reimagine” the action (which would probably kill the scene…)

The comic book format offers some unexpected advantages. It’s a silent film, and Moore takes full advantage of it. There is no background music to dictate the tone, for instance, but more than that, there is only as much “sound” as the writer allows us to experience. The above scene ends with the death of one of the characters, and the whole fight between the two is fast and silent (no sound effects like “Pow!” or “Wham!” etc.), the dying character looks at us with what is obviously a terrified shriek, made even more terrifying by the lack of sound. Just think of watching the same scene in the movie, and there is no sound. No music, no voices, nothing. Wouldn’t have the same effect. On the contrary.

Superman’s origin has been told about 4-5 times already (not including the changes forced by the Crisis and Zero Hour); Batman’s origin was told about 3-4 times as well. The X-men were “rebooted” about 3 times, not including the “ultimate” version and similar projects. All of DC/Marvel characters have a history full of retold, retconned, reimagined, rebooted and rephrased stories told over and over again by dozens of different writers and drawn by dozens of different artists. In this view, the movies are just another link in the chain.
V for Vendetta was told once. Start to finish. It was drawn once. There was only one artist drawing it. This isn’t “yet another version”. So why make it?

There is an ounce of vanity to creating such a movie. A writer/director taking on themselves to create such a movie don’t usually think “I will humbly deliver the genious of Alan Moore to the masses”, but rather “I love this story, bet I can make a hell of a movie out of it”, which roughly translate to “I can do this better”. This doesn’t fit the Wachowskis, whose breakthrough project was a philosophicalhilospohical mash-up full of narrative holes (which they attempted to plug with CGI effects and martial arts scenes) that failed to hold one movie, not to mention three. Any shred of actual, solid, cinematic quality was thrown to the four corners of the earth with the two bloated sequels which did nothing, told nothing, went nowhere, and cost gazillion of dollars to do it. There are some good directors/writers who are probably more capable of “doing it better”. Terri Gilliam comes to mind. Tim Burton, perhaps. Johnny Depp as V would probably be perfect, and might give enough of his own interpretation to make us forget the original V, one of comic books greatest anti-heroes. Just for reference, Evey, a 16-year-old girl, is played by the 25-year-old Natalie Portman. There’s a scene where Evey is supposed to fool another character into thinking she is less than 15. I just don’t see that happen here.

Written by Erez

Thursday, March 23, 2006 at 18:13

Posted in Comics, Movies

R for Redundant

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A lot of hoopla has been thrown around due to the latest release of the V for Vendetta movie, based on Alan Moore’s comics by the same name.

I’ve not seen the movie, so I can’t really commend about it (let’s just say that fans of Moore, and the writer himself are Not Pleased), but I think that Alan Moore’s works would, in general, make a lousy movie, as they are very cinematic.

I know this sounds like arguing for the sake of argument, but there’s a very simple logic behind this one. Take any Alan Moore comic, and you’ll realise what I mean by “cinematic”. The quasi-camera movements of the POV (the sidewalk to top floor zoomout at the start of Watchmen comes to mind as a good example, as well as the train scene from the first V for Vendetta), the way characters move around the panels, etc. It’s all very “cinematic” and makes the panels almost spring out of the pages and come to life, as if you’re watching a movie instead of reading a comic. And for that reason, it will never work as a true, live-action or animated, movie.

If it’s still not clear, the whole concept of Moore’s writing revolves around making the comics itself an engrossing, moving, vivid, immersing and, in general, cinematic. This works in the confinements of the media, i.e. a printed comic book. Taking this, and presenting it in a movie just doesn’t work. If anything, it’s redundant. V for Vendetta’s plot is spread across 10 issues, dictating the narrative development and the pace of the story. This isn’t a Batman movie, based on a comic that is 70 years old with a thousand issues to its name, but a short, concise, and self-containing story, created with the format in mind, and for the format. Transposing it to a 2 hour movie would mean crippling it, removing all that is good about it, and hanging it to dry. It might be a great movie, but it will be a great movie despite being a poor representation of the original material (not that it’s a bad thing, Kubrik’s The Shining basically butchered the Stephen King book, but was a masterpiece nonetheless).

There’s also been rumours that the Watchmen movie license is rolling around in Hollywood, looking for someone to take it and make a movie out of it. Here’s to hoping it will never find one.

Written by Erez

Thursday, March 23, 2006 at 10:26

Posted in Comics, Movies

One day, they’ll run out of books

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Courtesy of the Site at the End of the Universe (whos RSS feed is constantly feeding me with up to 20 of past articles, read and unread) comes this interesting Wired article about Holliwood execs being less reluctant to authorise Philip K. Dick based Science Fiction movies. Who would’ve thunk it? I wonder if any of them actually read any of Dick’s works to realise they stand for everything he hated. Still more power to us. Unless that power is anything like Lawnmower Man 2, *shudder*.

Written by Erez

Saturday, February 25, 2006 at 20:51

Posted in Books, Movies