Archive | November 2011

Blu-Ray Review: Super 8

1975-1985 was the decade that really brought the name Steven Spielberg to the forefront of the world. Spielberg’s films were an amazing amalgamation of special effects, music, and ordinary people experiencing extraordinary things. That last bit was what really entranced me about his work, and even carried over to many of the films he first produced under the Amblin Entertainment production banner. These included such films as Gremlins, The Goonies, and Back to the Future (my favorite film of all time). That idea that you (the viewer) could be the everyman who discovered pirate treasure, aliens in your backyard, or travel back in time was really incredible.

Writer/Producer/Director J.J. Abrams was greatly influenced by Spielberg’s films as well. In fact, he actually managed to help repair Spielberg’s original 8mm home movies when he was in his teens. Eventually, Abrams would be one of those rare filmmakers who ended up working with one of his inspirations, when Spielberg teamed up to executive-produce Super 8. Most filmmakers have a film that feels very intimate, as if the Director has gone into themselves, and put it on the screen. With Steven Spielberg, it was E.T. Cameron Crowe had Almost Famous, and George Lucas’ love of cars brought about American Graffiti. Super 8 is most definitely J.J. Abrams’ most intimate film, regarding his love of making movies as a youngster, and his love of the supernatural.

The Film

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In Super 8, a group of kids in Lillian, Ohio, set out to make a film for a film festival. One evening, their attempts to film a scene takes an unexpected turn when a train derails. As the group continues to try and make their film, the Air Force rolls into town, and strange things begin to happen.

What’s interesting to consider is even though the kids are living in a world where Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind exist, they are more into the horror/monster-movie aspect of film-love, which surely offputs some who felt that the entire film would turn into a Spielberg tribute of outright love and worship. Even so, there are plenty of little homages that are there if you’re steeped in Amblin productions. For example, they don’t confirm it, but a monologue scene with Elle Fanning’s character of Alice Dainard feels eerily similar in tone and camera movement to one done by Phoebe Cates in Gremlins.

Much like some Amblin productions from yesteryear, the characters in Super 8 all feel very grounded and believable. So believable, that you may find yourself making a connection with some of them. Plus, it’s just great to see kids actually being kids: they argue, they banter, they curse when their parents aren’t around, and one of them is a pyromaniac (when was the last time you saw that in a movie?).

If there’s any place where the film may falter, it’s in the last quarter of the film. There are a couple areas where it feels that J.J. Abrams either wants you to draw your own conclusions, or could be considered to have gotten lazy and wrap up the film before the audience starts to lose interest. Even so, the film was one of the most fun times I had in the summer of 2011, and tapped into a great feeling of movie-going nostalgia that is hard to come by when your summer movie lineup is largely comprised of $200 million sequels.

The Special Features

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Previous releases from Abrams’ Bad Robot production company have included Cloverfield and Star Trek (2009), both of which carried a great number of extras and behind-the-scenes material, and that tradition has carried over to the Blu-Ray release of Super 8.

One of the downsides to the Super 8 release, is that like many other releases, you need to have a Blu-Ray player in order to experience the extras. Still own a DVD player? Well, the packed-in non-Blu-Ray DVD that comes with the release package only has the film, along with the ability to download a digital copy of the film. However, there is a regular 1-disc DVD release that includes the filmmaker’s commentary, and 2 of the featurettes.

Unlike some people, I usually enjoy listening to filmmaker’s commentary, especially if they have something interesting to say or discuss. The commentary for Super 8 brings together Abrams, Producer Bryan Burk, and Director of Photography Larry Fong. While there are some self-congratulatory pats on the back, they do point out some interesting little tips and tricks. During the commentary, they even attempt to find a way to get Steven Spielberg in on the commentary. Though if they succeed or not, I’m not telling (hey, it’s a J.J. Abrams film-you need some secrets here and there).

Speaking of the train crash scene, the sequence gets its own extra-feature in Deconstructing the Train Crash. This is the one feature where Abrams throws a great amount of TLC into the mix. Bookended by a script page and the final scene, we get rough storyboards, images of set pre-visualization, physical effects, and even multiple passes of a scene done by special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic.

There’s over 14 deleted scenes included, some that act as added character development or ‘filler.’ A couple of them that concern Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) are good, including one in which he and his friends visit an Army/Navy Store looking for props and costumes, and another in which he and his friend Cary (Ryan Lee) discover a rather chilling-yet-cool site in their explorations.

My main interest in reviewing this release, has been held by the releases’ Featurettes, of which there are 8. These include:

– The Dream Behind Super 8: J.J. Abrams and some of his friends (like Cloverfield Director Matt Reeves, and Director of Photography Larry Fong) discuss their roots as young filmmakers. Steven Spielberg also comes aboard for part of the featurette and discusses a little of his own dabbling in 8mm filmmaking. We also get some snippets of Abrams, Reeves, and Fong’s Super 8 films interspersed within the featurette.

– The Search for New Faces: This chronicles the audition process and casting for many of the young actors in the film. It’s interesting to note that they did a worldwide search for their casting choices. We also see the kids talking about experiencing the late 70’s in the film, and yes, they do find the clothing pretty ridiculous.

– Meet Joel Courtney: Super 8 is Joel Courtney’s first feature film, and the featurette gives insight into who he is, and a day in his life on the set of Super 8.

– Rediscovering Steel Town: This is the one featurette that I applaud Abrams and his team for doing, as something like this would have easily been glossed over by most special feature makers. The town of Weirton, WV, stands in for the fictional town of Lillian, OH, in Super 8. We hear from the filmmakers about choosing Weirton, and also get some insight into the town’s history by its local officials, and one young man raised there named Josh Foglio, who got the chance of a lifetime to be a Production Assistant on the film.

– The Visitor Lives: For those who are intrigued by the creatures/monsters that come out of a film with Abrams’ name attached to it, this will probably be their starting point for Special Features. We get everything from discussions, pre-production artwork, to walk cycles and characterization, including a ‘cameo’ by actor Bruce Greenwood (previously seen as Captain Christopher Pike in Star Trek (2009) ).

– Scoring Super 8: To me, composer Michael Giacchino is the John Williams of the 21st Century. In this feature, we get the chance to see him discuss the themes of the film, as well as how John Williams and Spielberg’s films influenced his home movies, and love of music as a kid. In a couple fun snippets, we see that Giacchino and his friends shot Super 8 movies of themselves pretending to be Elliot and his friends in E.T.

– Do You Believe in Magic: This is more of a ‘fun’ special feature, chronicling the magical might of Director of Photography Larry Fong’s amazing magic skills.

– The 8mm Revolution: This featurette is a love-letter to Super 8 film and cameras. It chronicles the history, and even gives insight that modern-day Super 8 filmmakers can still shoot and process films. However, unlike the old days, you can’t get the film developed at your corner drug store or local camera store.

In Conclusion

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When DVD’s first started to change the home-viewing experience over a decade ago, I was incredibly excited. Filmmakers talking about their craft, seeing how special effects scenes were deconstructed, hearing insight from the filmmakers moreso than the big-name stars: it was heaven for a person who wanted to know more. However, in 2011, much of that dream has been tarnished due to studios trying to cut corners and grab up as much money as they can get. What once was a smorgasbord of special features has been drastically reduced by some studios. However, it’s nice to see Abrams and his team making the experience of seeing Super 8 an enjoyable one to revisit over and over again. It’s not bursting at the seams like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Extended Editions, but it shows that there was an effort made for the fans of the film and J.J. Abrams’ work. Those fascinated by the process will surely enjoy the ride. In a way, it almost feels like Abrams wanted to also inspire today’s up-and-coming filmmakers.

Final Analysis:

Super 8: The Movie – B+

Super 8: The Blu-Ray – A-

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In closing, I thought I'd share one of my favorite scenes in the film. This shot reminded me of my Grandmother's home in California: the wood-paneled furniture, a sun clock on the wall, afghans on the sofa, & a coffee table with slots big enough for young people to stick their legs through.

Toy Review: My Keepon

My Keepon, produced in conjunction with Wow! Stuff & Beatbots

Over the years, many of us have seen numerous toys come to prominence in time for the Holiday Season. After all, nothing says Happy Holidays like grown men and women fighting in the toy aisle to get that must-have toy in order to please their little child. This year, there’s one toy that some are figuring may become that must-have toy for Billy and Betty: My Keepon.

The Original Keepon; (Left) Minus his base and rubber skin, (Right) Fully decked out

Originally named Keepon, it was developed as a miniature robot to study and help children with social communication disorders. Keepon sits on a black base that houses the four-motor mechanism that gives him movement (an ‘exposed’ version is on the left in the photo). His eyes are actually cameras, and his nose is a microphone that can pick up sound. A rubber skin is placed around the mechanism, and gives Keepon his simple-yet-cute shape.

The little ‘beatbot’ soon gained popularity in 2007 when a video debuted with him dancing to the song I Turn My Camera On, by the band Spoon.

After the video debuted, many eagerly wished for a Keepon of their own. However, the cries turned to gasps when it was revealed what a personal Keepon would cost: $30,000-$40,000.

Keepon, from his appearance at the 2008 Nextfest in Chicago, IL

Though a pricey little entity, this didn’t keep Keepon cooped up indoors. Several Keepons toured across America as part of NextFest, sponsored by Wired magazine. In September of 2008, the tour stopped in Chicago, and I got to see/interact with Keepon up-close. A couple Keepons were set up to listen and interact with people on a face-to-face basis, but one was hooked up to a Nintendo Wii controller that allowed you to control Keepon. The hands-on nature actually made me come back to Nextfest for several days while it was in town, and it was intriguing to watch adults and children interact with the different ones on display.

Finally, less than 2 years later, UK toy company Wow! Stuff made the announcement that they would be partnering with the group Beatbot to make Keepon available to the general public. A year-and-a-half later, the consumer version debuted under the title My Keepon, and a price tag of $50.

I became one of the early adopters of My Keepon, out of fear that he would sell out (or simply not be restocked appropriately as has become the case with many retail stores these days, but I digress). Online pre-orders did sell out, but luckily, the ‘purchase-early’ strategy helped , and the little guy been sitting by my computer for a few weeks now.

For those expecting a spot-on, exact-replica of the original Keepons, there will come a huge disappointment. Sorry folks, but you can’t expect to get $30,000 worth of technology for only $50 (but if you can, I’d really like to know how).

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You must choose...but choose wisely.

The base still houses much of the electronics, but My Keepon now sits on a small turntable that extends outside of the under-body area. The base also features at the bottom, a speaker for My Keepon’s noise-making, and two buttons: one to set him for touch interaction, and the other for him to go into dance mode.

What are you thinking about, Keepon?

The original’s camera-eyes and microphone-nose have also been altered for this version. The camera-eyes are non-functional plastic pieces, and there is a small microphone/sensor in the nose that if tickled just right, will cause My Keepon to sneeze. However, this doesn’t always work, and I’m still trying to figure out the proper ‘prodding’ that set him off those few times.

His rubber-skin is also of a different texture and creation, most likely since the toymakers reasoned that the little beatbot would be put through his paces more times than the original. The rubber that is used is somewhat sticky-feeling, and visually, reminds me a little of the texture of an orange. I have heard from some other reviewers that the skin attracts dust and hair like crazy, but mine has stayed relatively clean. Instructions with My Keepon do suggest using a damp cloth and mild soap for cleaning.

To cash-in on interactivity, My Keepon also has several sensors around the body portion, and on top of his head. Touching the body sensors will cause him to squeak, or make a purring sound. Tapping him on the head will illicit a squeak, and Keepon will give a little ‘bounce’ in return. If you tap him on the head numerous times, he will ‘bounce’ back the same number of taps he was given. I have compiled a short video on Youtube that demonstrates these interactions:

But what some may be eager to know is: how well does he dance? Well, this could be the deal-breaker for alot of folks. While My Keepon does have a dance feature, it’s not going to give you perfection (as previously explained, we are dealing with a lower-end version of a $30,000 research robot). Using a microphone in his nose, My Keepon will dance to a beat for a bit, but then slow for a moment, and listen if the beat changes. Your best bet is to have My Keepon listen to something that has a constant beat throughout. However, I cannot guarantee perfection.

For those of you wondering what My Keepon looks like in action, I did some tests with different songs on my iPhone. For some unknown reason, My Keepon really likes the song People are Strange, performed by Echo & the Bunnymen. You can watch My Keepon’s full ‘performance’ of the song in the video below:

Another deal-breaker is his power supply. The little guy made me flashback to Sega’s hand-held Game Gear, which would suck up double-A batteries in no time. My Keepon needs 8 double-A batteries to function properly, though this will limit his power usage to under a few hours. I have noticed that when his juice starts to run low, he starts acting like a little child, almost crying out for more nourishment. Mine chirps, whirls around, and ‘bows’ without stop. This isn’t to say that Wow! Stuff made My Keepon entirely dependent on batteries. There is a plug on the back that can take (according to the manual) a power adapter with a rating of 12V DC, 1.5A with 3.5 mm plug. Rumor is that Wow! Stuff might release future shipments of the toy with an included adapter, but that’s still speculation.

So in the end, how do I like My Keepon? Well, I will say that it’s a good, but not great toy. The inclusion of interactivity by giving My Keepon sensors in his body and atop his head only slightly make up for the opportunity that was missed in giving him a sound/voice-sensor in his ‘nose.’ I would have enjoyed the ability for My Keepon to hear my voice on the other side of the room, and turn his attention to me.

The $50 price-point is also going to work its way into the equation for some. My use of rechargeable batteries has helped soften the blow, but what of those families that buy regular batteries? a 24-pack of double-A’s is pretty much a power buffet to My Keepon. As well, the exclusion of a power adapter may have some refusing to pound the pavement in search of one.

It bears remembering that this is the first iteration of My Keepon. Whose to say that Wow! Stuff may not make more advances in the next few years?

As of this posting, purchase options for My Keepon are greatest in the UK, with several different places selling the little guy. State-side, it’s only available exclusively at Toys ‘R’ Us. A week ago, I stopped into my local TRU, and saw a cart that had about 18 My Keepons, all on sale for $40. This sale price is also said to be sticking around for Black Friday, according to an early ad I saw. There’s also a silver lining to the purchase of My Keepon. A portion from each purchase will be used to continue research and fund creation of more Keepons (aka the higher-end models, which are now called Keepon Pro) for research and therapy methods that the original Keepon has been a part of for over 8 years now.

It’s rather interesting to note how far we’ve come with objects that deal with interactivity, be it human or rhythmic. I still remember specialty shops in the late 80’s that sold dancing Coke cans, and dancing plastic flowers. In recent years, Hasbro’s Furby became a runaway hit, and with the release of the iPod, a plethora of dancing thingamajigs came to prominence. I don’t have the figures on just how well My Keepon has performed sales-wise in its first four weeks of release, but if it does succeed in becoming the surprise hit of the Holiday Season, I’m sure we’ll hear about it soon enough.

Domo Arigato

Music Review: 1941 – The Expanded Score

The late 70’s and the early 80’s was a great time of cinematic discovery. The dark ages of special effects were slowly ending, and several directors were rising to prominence with their visions. One of these directors was Steven Spielberg. However, along with Spielberg’s name, another soon emerged into the collective minds of many young filmgoers: John Williams.

The films he composed during 1975-1977 are the ones where most of us can trace our first listening/love of his themes, or musical scores. I still remember that among the myriad vinyl LP’s my parents had, there was only one soundtrack/score album: Star Wars.

In 1979, Williams composed what I feel is probably one of his most underrated scores to this day: 1941. For the uninitiated, the film is a farcical take on American ‘war nerves’ in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor’s attack by the Japanese. Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who would later go on to pen Back to the Future), the film is almost a juggling act as we have at least 5 different intersecting stories all vying for our attention. The critical reaction to the film would not be pretty, with many labeling the film a mess or a failure. Bob Gale once said that one reviewer even equated the film to ‘having your head stuck inside a pinball machine for 2 hours.

Up until 2011, the only recording of the score available, was the 9-track, out-of-print release put out by Varese Saraband. The surprise savior in releasing the expanded score came in the form of La-La Land Records, who are known for putting out rare or never-before-released scores. La-La Land chose a very limited release of the expanded score for 1941 in late September, with only 3500 units pressed. Some fans I talked to wondered if there would even be any interest in the score, but according to La-La‘s website, all 3500 units have sold out.

Being a fan of behind-the-scenes material, La-La Land has given this release plenty of TLC. The CD ‘booklet’ is plenty-thick…so thick in fact, that you may need to use some ingenuity to get it out. Starting with an analysis of the film and its history, the booklet then goes on to summarize each track, telling what is happening in each one, as well as explaining the musical cues and motifs that Williams is utilizing.

For the film’s music, La-La Land has provided 2 separate CD’s. The first includes 29-tracks of the ‘Expanded Score.’ The majority of these tracks have not been released, while a few are similar in nature to the original 9-track CD released previously.

Speaking of those 9-tracks, they are included on the second disc. This was a nice little gesture on the company’s part, to give us a disc of new material, and one with the older tracks some may remember. The second disc also contains source music, like In The Mood, and Down By the Ohio. Bringing up the rear, are 9 tracks dubbed Additional Music. Eight of these are alternate tracks that were not used in the final release, but the ninth is very interesting, as it’s the music that Williams composed for the promotional trailer that was released a full year before the film was released. You can see (and hear) the promotional trailer here:

(What’s interesting to note is that Jim Belushi says his name is ‘Wild Wayne Kelso,’ whereas in the final film, it’s ‘Wild Bill Kelso’)

One thing I’ve grown fond of over the years, is listening to scores for familiarities to other works done by a musician. Overall, it feels like there are thematic elements that would then weave their way into the films Williams would score over the next 6 years. While some of the more bombastic tonalities remind me of the work done in the Indiana Jones scores, some of the more subtle pieces utilizing the strings and some of the woodwind section, puts me in mind of what would be coming with the next Star Wars films in 1980, and 1983.

Of course, what will stand out to many is the overly-patriotic March of the film. Williams’ use of trumpets is prevalent once the song ramps up to speed, as they give a punctuated fanfare that almost seems to be in a stand-off with the percussion section. The two almost seem to be trying to out-do each other in a display of rampant patriotism. Steven Spielberg remarked in one interview, that he felt that Williams’ march for 1941 was even better than the one he’d compose for Raiders of the Lost Ark 2 years later.

Over the years, Spielberg has often said that he would like to do a musical, and in one of the film’s big scenes, a dance contest is held at a USO club. For this scene, Williams attempts to parody Benny Goodman’s song Sing, Sing Sing, and make it his own, in the form of Swing, Swing, Swing. The big-band piece is probably just as memorable to Williams’ fans as the main title of this film.

Williams even goes in and riffs on his own works. This is prevalent in the brief track titled, Encounters. A familiar 5-note motif plays out on french horns as American Citizen Ward Douglas (Warren Beatty), spots the Japanese Submarine off the coast from his family’s cliff-side home.

It isn’t often that a release has me ready-and-willing to fork over my money, but the promise of what La-La Land Records had in store was too much to resist. This was my first purchase from them, and I was very satisfied with the final product. I consider it money well-spent, as it seems that one must often go underground to find good scores, or even decent releases in the wake of motion-picture studios these days putting out Music-Inspired-By releases for their films.

Ebathe-Ebathe-Ebathe-That’s All, Folks!