Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Disney's 'Earth': Life's Rough and Then You Revel In It

As nature documentaries go, "Earth" has a lot to live up to. The first film released under the Disneynature label, it automatically conjures up comparisons to Disney's "True-Life Adventures" series that set the standard for nature films over 60 years ago. I'm pleased to say "Earth," in theaters nationwide today, carries the mantle of its predecessor quite proudly.

Traveling from Pole to Pole, "Earth" encapsulates a year in the life of our mother planet, showcasing the exquisite beauty of Arctic ice flows, tropical rain forests and vast oceans without shying away from the harsh realities of nature. Thus we see a family of polar bears frolicking in fresh snow even as they are struggling to find food at the edge of an ever-receding ice shelf. We watch in bemusement as young mandarin ducklings "fall with style" in their first flights from their elevated nest. We also witness the steely determination of a cheetah hunting its prey on the African plains.

Last year, when Disney introduced Disneynature for the first time, it smacked of a brand about to caught up in its own self-importance. In the wake of growing public fears about climate change, Disney announced "Earth" would be released on Earth Day 2009 and, oh look, we've got Mr. Circle of Life himself, James Earl Jones, to narrate. "Earth" was already screaming "I'm an important film. You better pay attention." Marketing rhetoric aside, it's a relief to see jaded suspicions melt away as "Earth" draws you into its lyrical beauty. Jones's narration is grandfatherly and understated, not stentorian, with plenty of touches of humor and whimsy. While it makes plenty of references to global warming and the encroachment of man on the animal kingdom, it never belabors the point, allowing you to celebrate the grandeur of earth without fearing for its existence.

"Earth" is a film that avoids nattering on about theories of apocalyptic futures, and instead shows you, in grandiose splendor, what's worth preserving right now.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Disney Screens 'Toy Story 3' Trailer at NAB

Showing off Disney's digital handiwork at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas today, Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group, gave a sneak peek of upcoming 3D releases including "Toy Story 3," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tron 2." Security was extremely tight, so there are no photos or video clips to share, but here's a brief description of what what was shown and what you can expect from Disney in the coming months. There are some potential spoilers, so be warned:

Toy Story 3 Teaser Trailer

In a 3D trailer that will be released in theaters in about a month, Woody is organizing the gang to put together an elaborate "Toy Story 3" sign. We see the army men shimmying down a jump rope, on their way to assist. Cowgirl Jessie bounds around on a pogo stick. Mr. Potato Head throws out his back (literally) helping Mrs. Potato Head carry a blackboard. Rex the dinosaur is generally confused and almost mucks up the operation. Hamm the pig scoots across screen in a wagon, "supervising," he says. Woody (Tom Hanks), of course, is all positive energy and encouragement as the sign is finally assembled amid bouncing balls and tangled Christmas lights. Pan over to Buzz (Tim Allen), who has created nearby a more impressive, professional looking "TS3" sign by himself.

In introducing the trailer, Zoradi said the story will be about what happens to the toys when their owner Andy grows up and prepares to leave for college. "TS3" premieres on June 18, 2010. It will follow the re-release of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" as a 3D double feature on October 2nd of this year.

Beauty and the Beast

Disney will bring "B&B" back to the big screen on February 12, 2010 in "Disney Digital 3D" because, well, they can. I'm not sure if this will really add to the film's legacy, but I will say the preview clip--the entire "Belle" opening musical sequence--looks fantastic. In the busy street scenes, particularly, there is incredible depth between the foreground and background animations, something I don't think Walt even envisioned when they first fired up the multiplane camera. Zoradi hinted that Disney will be doing more 3D enhancements of their 2D animation library. Gilding the lily, if you ask me, but stay tuned.

Tron 2 (or Tron 2.0 or Tr2n)

The original "Tron" is a movie that's often remembered for being better than it actually was. It's computer animated visuals were groundbreaking at the time, but they masked a film that was otherwise pretty stiff and bland. Still, fanboys are going ga-ga over the announced sequel and today's preview clip didn't disappoint. It's a test sequence showing (what else?) a light cycle race on an elaborate 3D game grid. Two cycles dodge each other (or not) on virtual chutes and straightaways and maneuver through a winding canyon. Cut to a grizzled Jeff Bridges appearing to observe the game from a real-world vantage point, only to reveal himself as one of the cyclists. And, hey, doesn't that cyclist look like him circa 1982? OK, you got my attention.

"Tron 2" is scheduled for a 2011 release and, according to Zoradi, started principle photography last week.

A Christmas Carol

Robert Zemeckis directs the latest version of the Dickens classic, using motion capture technology like he did with "The Polar Express." Jim Carrey will play Ebenezer Scrooge (great choice), and, like Tom Hanks did in "Express," will play multiple characters. The preview was a montage of enhanced production stills--Zemeckis is keeping a tight lid on the final product--but they looked quite lovely even as their style suggested a dark interpretation of Currier and Ives.

"A Christmas Carol" will be in theaters November 6th.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

'My Bloody Valentine 3D' Director Inspired by . . . Hannah Montana?

Patrick Lussier gets a kick out of making horror films. He edited all three "Scream" movies and has worked with scare master Wes Craven for over 15 years. This year, Lussier directed "My Bloody Valentine 3D," his first foray into 3D film making, featuring a relentlessly graphic display of in-your-face, blood-spurting, bone-crushing attacks by a psychotic miner with a pick axe. Oh, and did I mention the full-frontal nudity?

So what inspired Lussier to give "My Bloody Valentine 3D" just the right look?

Hannah Montana.

Come again?

I know Miley Cyrus could motivate some of you to go on a violent rampage, but I'm not sure sharp implements upside the head are what you had in mind.

Hannah/Miley and Red: The similarities are frightening

Seriously, Lussier gives major props to last year's "Best of Both World's Concert Tour" from Disney. Not so much for the musical content, mind you, but for the slick 3D production. Speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention in Las Vegas Saturday, Lussier said, "With 'Hannah Montana,' watching that movie, you're like 'holy shit, this is amazing!' It was beautiful to watch. I'd never seen anything like it . . . It was inspiring to think of all the possibilities that were available."

Keep in mind the last 3D movie Lussier saw before "Hannah" was the long-forgotten 1983 sci-fier "Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone."

Ohhhkayyyy. Moving on . . .

Lussier's talk was part of a two-day "Digital Cinema Summit" at NAB. No longer just about radio and television, NAB in recent years has reached out to a broader spectrum of entertainment media. This week, 3D is getting its due at NAB, just like it did in Las Vegas earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Showest. Digital technology is putting eye-popping 3D movies on the big screen clearer than ever (see "Bolt," "Monsters vs. Aliens," "Up"), and it's also bringing it to more HD screens at home. What's missing, though, is an open-source 3D standard for both movie theaters and home consumers, and it's this roadblock that could doom 3D to be no less of a fad now than it was in the 1950s. Various associations within the entertainment industry have said they are working on a non-proprietary standard, but it appears to be a long time coming.

Lussier sees the continued potential for 3D and would love to do another film in the format. He knows from experience, though, that it requires greater attention and care to pull off. "Until you get it right, (3D) is not a painless experience. But once you get it right, it is one of the most surprisingly beautiful and intoxicating formats to work in."

It's easy to be intoxicated, of course, when your $15 million movie grosses $51 million at the box office--and most of that on 3D screens. "We had a 3-week run," said Lussier. "And then 'Coraline' came in and we were asked to leave the theater. And then, of course, 'Coraline' was asked to leave by the Jonas Brothers . . . and the Jonas Brothers were asked to leave not soon enough."

Lussier gets the laugh he wants from the audience, and then offers a winking apology to the JoBros. "They're lovely, cute little boys. But they're no Hannah Montana."

"My Bloody Valentine 3D" comes out on DVD May 19th.


I'll be at NAB all this week, seeing what Disney and a few other entertainment big shots are up to. On Sunday, Mark Zoradi, president of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group, will share his thoughts at the Digital Cinema Summit. If he says he's inspired by blood gushing at theater audiences in 3D, I'm outta there.

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