Actors of Sound

Posted on February 25, 2018 at 10:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Brief archival footage has some violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 26, 2018
Copyright 2016 Freestyle Digital Media

It’s the climax of the film. The hero and heroine finally kiss. The power of the moment comes from the emotion built up by the story, by the acting talent and screen charisma of the performers, by the heart-tugging swell of the music — and by the sound of the kiss itself, probably so subtle you don’t notice it, but if it wasn’t there, you would notice its absence. That sound was not made by the tender touch of two beautiful movie stars’ lips. It was made by a Foley artist, the “actor of sound,” whose profession is the subject of this documentary.

Skip this next part and go to the next paragraph if you want to preserve the illusion: the slight smacky sound you hear is probably some burly guy kissing the back of his hand. And when a beautiful actress walks down a hall or street in high heels, that same burly guy is probably wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and high heels, stepping on one of the dozen or so different surfaces in the studio to match the shot. The sound of the trudging footsteps of the enormous football player in “The Blind Side” was created by a woman, who explains, “I had to become a 300 pound man who was feeling alone and like no one cared about him…I gave myself a sense of heaviness.” Another woman “was” Mr. T in “The A-Team,” at least the sounds of his feet.

The Foley artist is the person who provides everything from hoofbeats on dirt to the clacks of high heels on a wood floor, from the sound E.T. makes when he walks to the sound of Walter White taking off the mask he uses for cooking meth to the sound Robert de Niro makes when he slams a baseball bat into a guy’s head in “The Untouchables.” That last one, we learn in this fascinating and engaging documentary, was made with a combination of a raw turkey (gizzards still inside) and a coconut. We learn about sounds like the snap of Batman’s cape, the flutter of paper floating through the air, and the “hyper-real” coin toss in “No Country for Old Men.”

Foley was a real person, a pioneer in the field. While the technology for recording and editing the sounds has advanced along with most other aspects of filmmaking, the technology for creating the sounds has not. They are still using the same kinds of props — and sometimes even the exact same props — that go back to the heyday of radio. If it’s a period film and someone needs to dial a phone, you’re going to need a dial phone to create that sound. And nothing beats corn starch for the sound of walking on snow.

The documentary includes archival footage showing how sounds were created for some of the most iconic moments in film history. ET’s walk? Let’s just say that when the Foley artists were served Jello at lunch, it gave them a good idea. It also includes Foley artists from around the world and some discussion of how changes in the industry and technology may affect the future of the profession.

All of the participants are wonderfully imaginative and dedicated, and their stories and perspective make this essential viewing for anyone who is interested in film. “The sound has to pan, too,” to help create the illusion of movement. And they will do anything to get the sound just right — even a condom over the microphone.

As one of them says, a Foley artist has to be “an athlete, a musician, and an actor all in one,” and as another says, they are “painting a picture with sound.” So far, no one has been able to produce sounds digitally or via a sound library that feel real, not robotic. Being a Foley artist requires “imagination, tempo, coordination, and love,” and this film is filled with all of that as well, a welcome appreciation for an essential and often overlooked profession.

Parents should know that this film includes brief violent footage from films being discussed.

Family discussion: What movie sounds do you remember? How will this movie make you listen more closely?

If you like this, try: “Harold and Lillian”

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Black Panther: The Accents, The Villain, The Women

Posted on February 25, 2018 at 2:20 pm

“Black Panther” is now more than a blockbuster, record-smashing superhero movie. It is a genuine cultural phenomenon, with thought-provoking and remarkably nuanced issues of identity, race, gender, and politics, and it has inspired some fascinating commentary.

Slate goes behind the scenes in an interview with Beth McGuire, director of speech and dialects at Yale and dialect coach for the film.

Aisha Harris asks:

In general, even if you’re a classically trained performer, do you think there’s a greater jump from an American accent to an African accent than there would be from a British accent to an African accent?

I think so. It depends on the country, because if you’re doing Liberian, then American’s gonna help you. If you’re doing Rwanda, neither British or America’s gonna help you because it depends on who colonized the country. But if you’re doing Nigerian, then yes, definitely British is gonna help you. If you’re doing South African, you know, that’s a call, because you had the Dutch. Honestly, it depends on who the damn colonizer was.

Copyright Marvel/Disney 2018

I always say that the most important character in a superhero movie is the villain, and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik may be the best bad guy in the history of superhero movies. He isn’t some alien who wants to control the universe. He’s just an American guy who has experienced and witness a lot of injustice. As Ryan Coogler told me in an interview, at the beginning of the film he is more altruistic than the hero. But because of the losses he has suffered, he is a damaged person and his empathy does not extend beyond the people he identifies with.

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer compares Killmonger to X-Men Antihero Magneto:

Killmonger’s stated purpose, to liberate black people all over the world, has sparked a lively discussion over whether he is a bad guy to begin with. What could be so bad about black liberation? “I fist-pumped in the silent, dark theater when he was laying out his plans,” writes Brooke Obie at Shadow and Act. “IT’S A GOOD IDEA!” That Coogler’s villain has even inspired this debate is a testament to how profound and complex the character is.

“In the end, all comes down to a contest between T’Challa and Killmonger that can only be read one way,” writes Christopher Lebron in a well-argued piece in Boston Review, “in a world marked by racism, a man of African nobility must fight his own blood relative whose goal is the global liberation of blacks.”

This is not actually what happens in the film. Killmonger’s goal is, in his eyes, the global liberation of black people. But that is not truly his goal, as Coogler makes clear in the text of the script and in Killmonger’s interactions with other characters. Like Magneto, another comic-book character who is a creation of historical trauma—the Holocaust instead of the Middle Passage—Killmonger’s goal is world domination. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire,” Killmonger declares, echoing an old saying about the British Empire, to drive the point home as clearly as possible. He sees no future beyond his own reign; he burns the magic herbs Wakandan monarchs use to gain their powers because he does not even intend to have an heir.

In The Root, Carolyn Hinds and Clarkisha Kent talk about the themes of duality in the film.

During the challenge ceremony, M’Baku chastises Shuri (because what he sees as a child who is in charge of all the tech in Wakanda and thereby the future of Wakanda) for showing disregard for traditions that T’Challa himself is taking part in. What I also appreciated about that scene was when T’Challa told M’Baku to yield, he did because he realized that his people still needed his leadership.

Now, what Ryan Coogler did so brilliantly with the challenge scene is that at the climax of the film, T’Challa and Killmonger are practically in the same situation, but instead of yielding Killmonger chooses death later on over instead of yielding to T’Challa. When he said that he’d rather be thrown into the sea instead of being in bondage, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and started to cry because that imagery and history is so real to me that I didn’t pick up on his other reason. Over time, I came to realize that in his mind, Killmonger would rather be dead than owe T’Challa anything—including a life. He chose death over possibly being locked up for what he did.

The gender politics of the film are as thoughtful as the race politics. In the Washington Post, Shanon Lee writes:

From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching on film. The women’s sex appeal is obvious but secondary to their personality and skill. They are strategic opponents in battle, saving the life of Black Panther T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) several times over. Equally entrusted with guiding and protecting the nation, they do not need to be rescued, sustained or lauded by men.

When romances are revealed between Nakia and T’Challa, and Okoye and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), we get to see the dynamics of each relationship play out.

And Slate calls Black Panther more feminist than Wonder Woman. “Black Panther confidently performs the tricky balancing act of writing fully realized women characters into a traditionally male-centered narrative by wholeheartedly believing that they are integral to the storytelling.”

TIME’s Arica L. Coleman writes about the real-life inspiration for “Black Panther’s” women warriors.

In the film, the fictional Dora Milaje — “adored ones,” an all-female military group that protects the King and the fictional nation of Wakanda — are perhaps the most obvious example of female strength. The Dora Milaje were introduced in Black Panther comic by Christopher Priest, who took over as lead writer of the series in 1998; since the series’ relaunch in 2016, they’ve become much more central to the plot. (The title character, who was Marvel’s first African-American superhero, was created in 1966.) In their initial appearance, Priest’s narrator describes the female bodyguards as “Deadly Amazonian high school karate chicks,” who were also the King’s “wives-in training.” While many have speculated about the inspiration behind these warriors, it is clear that one of their main antecedents was the famous all-female African military corps of Dahomey, West Africa (now The Republic of Benin), whom the French dubbed “Dahomey Amazons” after female warriors in Greek mythology.

Those who want to understand the history of the character will enjoy these comments from one of the leading writers on race and politics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written Black Panther comics:

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Game Night

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 10:54 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual references and some violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, knives, chases
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 21, 2018

Kylie Bunbury, from left, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in “Game Night.” (Warner Bros.)
Game Night” is yet another raunchy action comedy about (mostly) white suburbanites who accidentally get in over their heads with criminals and manage to work through their personal issues as they win out over the bad guys with a combination of luck, plot contrivances, and learning opportunities. Thanks to winning performances from the always-reliable Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams this little trip from boringtown to crazytown and back is watchable, with a few clever twists and across the board strong support from the cast.

Max (Bateman) and Annie (McAdams) share a strong competitive streak, a love for games of all kinds (their wedding reception featured a Dance Dance Revolution machine), and a fertility problem, that, in the fairy tale world of this movie, seems to be attributable to Max’s stress over his more successful brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). When Brooks returns after a year in Europe just in time for game night at Max and Annie’s house, Brooks’ passive aggressive and sometimes just aggressive needling just adds to the stress.

The regulars at game night are Kevin (Lamorne Morris of “New Girl”) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), a couple since middle school who get caught up in a conflict over a sexual encounter one of them might have had when they were on a Ross and Rachel-style break, and Billy (Billy Magnussen), a dimwit who brings a different and even dimmer girl every time. At one time, the group included the next door neighbors Gary (Jesse Plemons), a cop, and his wife Diane, but after their divorce Max and Annie stopped inviting Gary because he is kind of creepy.

Brooks invites everyone to the house he has rented for the next game night and promises it will be bigger and better than ever. This time, Billy brings a date who’s got game, Sarah (“Catastrophe’s” Sharon Horgan). Brooks tells them he has hired one of those companies that stages fake crimes for them to solve and the prize is the vintage red Stingray that was Max’s dream car. Just as it begins, though, Brooks is kidnapped for real, which everyone thinks is part of the game. Mayhem, and occasional hilarity, ensue, too often undercut by unnecessary sloppiness in the screenplay, which subverts its own tired premises for no particular reason. All of the highlights of the film are in the trailer except for a funny sequence at the beginning of the credits. If they had given the same attention to detail to the rest of the film, Max and Annie would really be winners.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong and crude language, extended comic peril and violence with some grisly and disturbing images, guns, punches, chase, knife, characters injured and killed, and sexual references including fertility issues.

Family discussion: What makes some people extra competitive? What’s your favorite game? How do gaming skills help these characters solve problems?

If you like this, try: “Date Night”

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Annihilation

Posted on February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, many grisly and disturbing images, animal attacks, guns, explosives, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 23, 2018
Date Released to DVD: May 28, 2018
Copyright Paramount 2018

Annihilation” is based on the Nebula Award-winning first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, adapted by director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”). Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, who joins a group of woman investigating an ominous anomaly the government is calling the shimmer. It looks like an rainbow prismed oil spill in the air. An area around a lighthouse is glowing and oscillating. Is it aliens? Is it God? Is it dangerous? Well, take a look at the title of the movie.

Whatever it is, it is expanding rapidly, posing a threat to pretty much everywhere. “The silence around it is louder than usual,” one observer notes. All missions, manned and unmanned, to investigate have produced no information and no human or drone sent inside has come back. Until one, an Army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband. A year after he left, he shows up at their home, dazed and critically ill.

And so Lena joins the next group going inside, along with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist leading the team, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a shy physicist. The film is told in flashback, as Lena is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know that she will be the only one of the group to survive. We know what happened. We will see how.

The New Yorker calls VanderMeer “the King of Weird Fiction” and the Southern Reach trilogy “arresting, unsettling, and unforgettable” and “meditations on the theme of epistemic pessimism, in the tradition of Kafka.” I think what that means is that many science fiction and fantasy writers, even the most imaginative and compelling, base their stories on extrapolating what is already here, whether apocalyptic destruction of the planet due to environmental neglect or aliens who are a reflection of whatever geopolitical issues we are struggling with.

Generally, though, the fundamental rules, the ones we take for granted so much we are not even aware we are taking them for granted, apply, including the rules of dramatic fiction that go back thousands of years. Hubris invites catastrophe. Bad guys want to control everything. Courage and honor triumph. VanderMeer, let’s just say, goes another way. Instead of taking what we have and know and projecting it in a more extreme form, he takes what we have and know and bends reality — and our minds — to make us think about how much we do not know. Inter-species mutations are occuring, suggesting that the shimmer somehow dissolves what we think of as immutable barriers, the ones that define our sense of the world and our sense of ourselves. “It’s literally not possible,” a team member says. “It’s literally what’s happening,” another responds.

One of the first questions we hear at the beginning of the film, as Lena is being something between interrogated and debriefed, is “What did you eat?” Her group had rations for two weeks but survived for months. “I don’t remember eating,” she says. Later we will see the group, dazed, trying to remember what has happened and trying to figure out how much time has gone by based on how much food is gone. They do not know where they are or how long they have been there. Their communications technology does not work. Even the most basic technology, a compass directed only by the magnetism of the North Pole, does not work. They are literally disoriented. The women are there because of their expertise in science, but they cannot even manage some of the most fundamental cognitive tasks. They are not sure whether they cn trust each other. They are there to observe and report but they cannot trust their perceptions or analysis.

And we may not be able to trust our own. This movie puts its cards on the table with an opening that reveals the end. This will be an escape room/haunted house set in the wilds of the Florida swamp story with Lena as the “final girl,” the last woman standing. “It all goes back to the first cell,” we hear Lena tell her class of biology students. Cells do not die; they reproduce. Everything alive is a piece of the first cell. As the women on this mission have to decide whether they want to understand or fight the shimmer, another option presents itself.

Garland uses luscious, even seductive visuals in the verdant Florida swamp setting to beguile and horrify us, sometimes both at once. This is more than mind-bending; it is mind-expanding, something of an intellectual shimmer creating a cognitive distortion of its own.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and some very grisly and disturbing images, guns, grenade, fire, suicide, animal attacks, some strong language, and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: Why did Lena say she owed it to Kane to go on the mission? Why didn’t she tell the other women about her relationship to Kane? What would you do if you were in charge of containing the Shimmer? What is the relationship of this story to Lena’s lecture about cells?

If you like this, try: “Arrival,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Solaris,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Midnight Special,” and “Coherence”

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Black Panther: Behind the Scenes

Posted on February 20, 2018 at 8:25 pm

I was lucky enough to be able to interview “Black Panther” co-writer/director Ryan Coogler for rogerebert.com.

The movie places an African and an African-American in opposition. “I’m an African-American male born in the 1980’s in Oakland,” he said, “and there’s a dynamic between being African and African-American that’s very interesting.” This is a key element he explored in the film, with African characters from the fictional country of Wakanda, which has never been colonized or even had any trade relationships with western countries, and African-American characters, who reflect the stress of living in a country still confronting racial divides.

“The question for me is what does it mean to be African? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I first knew I was black, since my parents sat me down and said, ‘You’re black and that’s what this means. You’ve got to navigate the world in a certain way.’ That’s the conversation every person has had to have because of the way the world works. If you don’t have that understanding you could be in a situation that costs you your life,” as Coogler’s first film, the fact-based “Fruitvale Station,” showed. “Nobody who was telling me what being African means had ever been there. My parents had never been, my grandmother had never been.” So it was essential for him to spend time in Africa, researching the cultures that Wakanda would represent.

“The African culture the world knows best is the African-American culture,” he said, citing the worldwide dominance of hip-hop. But working on the film and spending time in Africa helped him realize that the African culture he thought was erased by bringing Africans to the United States as slaves was much more intact than he thought. “I grew up thinking the African culture had been taken away from us, that it was lost. But the truth is, we didn’t. We hung onto it.”

And as the mother of a costume designer, I was especially excited to speak to Ruth Carter, whose costumes play such an essential role in the film. She talked about the African inspirations for the traditional tribal attire of the Wakandans, and the way African patterns are even reflected in the iconic superhero suit.

Actual African fabric as we know it is Dutch and Dutch-inspired and brought to Africa. Africa liked it and adopted it so all of their African fabrics come from Holland or from China. Wakanda was never colonized, so I didn’t want to use them. Every time I started to use the African fabrics I felt like it was not this movie so I created my own fabrics, based on the sacred geometry of African art. Usually it’s a checkerboard or it’s pyramid shapes or it’s striations of horizontal and vertical strikings so I use that and we created prints. Lupita’s green dress in the casino is one print that we created based on the Nigerian kente cloth. We just extracted the line work and we printed the fabric the same way we printed T’Challa’s superhero suit.

Once I get the illustration of the super suit I can’t change it; I can’t give him a Shaft coat, all of a sudden. I have to stay within those confines because they have already been working with merchandisers and all kinds of other people. The one thing that I did do which was my contribution was the Okavango pattern, a triangle shape.

That fabric is completely made up. The triangle is definitely a big part of African artistry. It’s a mystery within the African culture what that triangle shape actually means and everybody has their own theory. So the panther suit was printed with that triangle shape all over it so that when you’re looking at it, it’s this superhero suit that has this Wakandan language traveling through it; veining throughout it, and you also see an Okavango pattern and which makes it feel like he’s in the place of Wakanda, he’s in Africa and he’s an African king and gives it texture.

Vanity Fair posted a scene analysis with Coogler explaining what was going on in one of the film’s striking action sequences.

More commentary about this brilliant, groundbreaking new film coming soon.

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