The Meg vs. Jaws: The Revenge

Posted on August 12, 2018 at 9:05 pm

Slate’s has a great essay by Keith Phipps comparing “The Meg” to the nutty “Jaws: The Revenge,” asking “Which is the crazier shark movie?” It is wonderfully passionate, thoughtful, and thorough and tons of fun to read.

Everything about Jaws: The Revenge, from its borderline incoherent story to its chaotic action to its iffy effects to co-star Mario Van Peebles’ attempt at a Bahamian accent reveal it as a patchwork movie with little holding it together.

And it gives me a chance to share my all-time favorite stand-up routine ever, from the late, much-missed Richard Jeni.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Interview: Brigham Taylor, Producer of “Christopher Robin”

Posted on August 10, 2018 at 8:00 am

For The Credits I interviewed “Christopher Robin” producer Bringham Taylor, who talked to me about bringing together the old (Disney legends Jim Cummings returning to voice Pooh and Tigger and Richard Sherman writing new songs) and the new — a grown-up Christopher Robin, some new voice talent, to tell a story for all ages.

I think you have to respect not just the intelligence of the kids, but also the adults’ intelligence as you are approaching that material. It’s not easy. You need to try to have a multilayered kind of story that way. I think it’s one of the greater challenges. Having worked at Disney virtually my whole career, it’s always been a challenge. You don’t always nail it, but you always want to strive for something that feels universal, both at the idea and thematic level, but also in the visual. Something with enough visual sophistication and enough charm — visual sophistication for the adults in the audience, but also the appropriate amount of color and charm and whimsy for the younger kids.

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The Meg

Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:51 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Character drinks to deal with stress
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, characters injured and killed, characters sacrifice themselves to save others, some grisly and disturbing images, sad death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 10, 2018

This is what an international distribution deal come to life looks like on screen. Take an assortment of actors of various races representing the nationalities of the major movie markets, especially China. Come up with an instantly recognizable concept (a prehistoric shark 75 feet long that can chomp through a whale with one bite!), an instantly recognizable bad guy (arrogant, selfish billionaire, in case that isn’t redundant), an instantly recognizable action hero (yay, Jason Statham!). Let’s put an adorably precocious child in the group, and give her angel wings, for goodness’ sakes, to make sure we see how adorable she is.

Add tons of first-class stunt work and digital effects, and make sure the dialogue is disposable enough it won’t matter if it translates well. In fact, with lines like “Man vs. Meg isn’t a fight. It’s a slaughter” and some painfully awkward romantic banter, this movie would be better viewed with no dialogue at all.

Copyright Universal 2018

Jason Statham plays Jonas, an expert at deep sea rescue who in a prologue has to make a split-second terrible decision. He saves some people, but many others are killed, and he is blamed. He insists that it was the only choice, and that if he had tried to rescue the others, everyone would have been killed, but the official finding is that he was suffering from underwater-pressure induced diminished capacity that caused hallucinations and poor judgment. Five years later, he is living in Thailand and drinking to forget everything he has lost.

That is when he gets a visit from an old friend, Mac (Cliff Curtis). The giant shark they said was a hallucination is real. It is a megladon, previously thought to have been extinct for millions of years, but now discovered in an expedition funded by Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) a crass billionaire all faux bonhomie and limitless entitlement. The research operation has gone to Earth’s deepest spot to prove that what had been thought to be its bottom was a layer of gas, with a deeper part of the ocean underneath. The exploration ship, piloted by Lori (Jessica McNamee) has been trapped and no one else has the experience r expertise to rescue it.

“You’re going to offer me a job,” Jonas says, “and I’m going to say no. You’re going to offer me money, and I’m going to say no. You’re going to appeal to my better nature and I’m still going to say no.” But they bypass all of that to skip to the ultimate persuader: Lori is his ex-wife.

So, back on the job after a quick check-up with the team doctor. Fortunately, five years of drinking have not had any adverse affect whatsoever, as we will later confirm when we see Jonas in nothing but a towel. After that, it’s pretty much one action/rescue/escape scene after another, which is fine because the parts in between are not very good. A tragic death is played as romantic foreplay. And a racist stereotype is played as — the same racist stereotype? If there’s an effort to go meta, it fails.

Here’s the good news — the action scenes, stunts, and digital effects are really well done! Director Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) stages them well, with a series of different settings and circumstances that actually feel now and then almost like a real story. Each one builds on the next with an additional layer of difficulty and a different balance of stakes. The audience did cheer when one character was eaten. and we never fear for a second that anything would happen to that child, but overall, there are enough characters and enough variations of threat and logistical complications to keep each one interesting.

It would be easy for this movie to slide into “Frankenfish vs. Dinocroc” SYFY territory, but Statham strikes the right tone and it is great to see Curtis, who always brings great humanity and authenticity to the story.

SPOILER ALERT: The cute dog does not die.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop peril, suspense, and violence, with characters injured and killed and some grisly and disturbing images. Characters sacrifice themselves to save others. The movie also includes some strong language and drinking to deal with stress and depression.

Family discussion: How do Toshi and Heller decide what they should do? Can we explore without disrupting the environment or putting people at risk?

If you like this, try: “Jaws”

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Posted on August 9, 2018 at 5:24 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Very strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie

Copyright 2018 Focus Features
Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is undercover through most of “BlacKkKlansman,” and not just on the job, but in the job and outside of it, too. The real-life Stallworth was the first black police officer, and later the first black detective in Colorado Springs, back in the 1970’s and he really did go undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan — over the phone. Spike Lee’s film is based on Stallworth’s book tells how Stallworth saw a classified ad, called the Klan, and, with the help of a white partner who was “Stallworth” for the in-person meetings, ended up a member in good standing, having phone conversations with the head of the organization, Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace). (All of this really happened.)

Stallworth also really went undercover at a lecture by black activist Stokely Charmichael, who had just changed his name to Kwame Ture, and who is played here by Corey Hawkins, conveying Ture’s magnetism and fiery brilliance and making an impression so strong in his brief scene that it resonates throughout the rest of the film. This rally is really the pivotal, as Washington shows us as close unguarded as Stallworth gets, which opens him up to pursuing Patrice (Laura Harrier), a pretty activist he meets there. But of course he has to stay undercover with her, too — personally, not professionally — because she has strong political feelings about working within the system in general and about the police in particular. (This character and their relationship are fictional.) Adam Driver, as Stallworth’s white partner, has his own double-undercover moments. He thinks it does not matter that he is Jewish, but as Stallworth tells him, he has skin in the game, too. Near the end of the film, Stallworth is undercover at least two levels when he is assigned to Duke’s security detail and must stand close to the man who does not know Stallworth is the man he spoke to in confidence over the phone.

Law enforcement might have been an unusual choice for a black man of that era, but in every other respect Stallworth seems born to be in law enforcement, happy to accept the offer, and clearly aware of the challenges he will face, from the superiors who assign him safe but boring jobs to racist comments from some of the other officers. Washington (a former pro football player and regular on “Ballers”) projects an easy physical confidence, nerves of steel, and a personal meticulousness, from his perfectly shaped Afro to his neatly ironed shirt and shined shoes. Lee, working with production designer Curt Beech, costume designer Marci Rodgers, and director of photography Chayse Irvin, bring a light touch to a 70’s vibe that owes as much to the movies and pop culture of the era as to what ordinary people and settings looked like. There’s a nice nod to 70’s movies as well in the graphics and sinuous, jazzy camerawork and the way the handsome, athletic Washington is lit like Shaft or Superfly.

There could be no better depiction of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” than the Klansmen and women in this film, who chat casually about hatred and terrorism the way other small groups of like-minded communities might talk about an upcoming bake sale. We can almost sympathize with a 1970’s wife who just wants a chance to do something important like the men do or the men who get a sense of fellowship in a shared interest. Topher Grace shows us Duke’s silky, ingratiating manner, and Lee shows us that complacent hatred may be the most insidious.

It may seem to some viewers that an opening montage of racist imagery, including D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and a scene of Alec Baldwin as a racist businessman are over the top, until we see the footage from 2017’s white supremacist rally Charlottesville one year before the release of this film. Lee is one of my favorite directors, but he sometimes has more ideas than story or characters in his films. Here, with Stallworth’s remarkable true and timely story, a star-making performance by Washington, whose resemblance to his double Oscar-winning father is more in his voice than his face, he has made one of his all-time best, most purely entertaining, and most important films.

Parents should know that this film includes depictions of terrorist activities with peril and violence and very strong and offensive language. Characters drink alcohol.

Family discussion: How did Ron and Patrice differ in their ideas about the best way to solve problems and make things better? What has changed and what has not since the 1970’s?

If you like this, try: the book by Ron Stallworth and Lee’s films “Inside Man,” “School Daze,” and “Chi-Raq”

Recommended reviews: Odie Henderson on, Travis Hopson on Punch Drunk Critics

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Based on a true story Drama movie review Movies Movies Race and Diversity

Interview: The Digital Effects Geniuses of Halon Entertainment on “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and More

Posted on August 8, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright Universal 2018
In big summer movie blockbusters, the actors are not the only stars. Equal billing should go to the visual effects brainiacs who make us believe in dinosaurs and skyscraper-sized robots called jaegers, aliens called Kaiju, and a prehistoric 75-foot long shark called a megalodon. At San Diego Comic-Con, I had a chance to talk to Peter Chiang (visual effects supervisor at DNEG) and Ryan McCoy (previs/postvis supervisor), and Brad Alexander (previs/postvis supervisor) of Halon Entertainment about their work on “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and a little bit about this week’s “The Meg.”

First of all, tell me the difference between what a previs and a postvis and visual effects supervision.

PETER CHIANG: I was on the production side so I supervise the film. I sit with Steven DeKnight and work out all the visual effects aspects of the film.

BRAD ALEXANDER: And so previs is where we come in at a very early stage and work with the director to translate the story in a very loose form using 3D animation and edit with as much constraint that we can put in as far as the lens used and how we’re actually going to get the shot.

RYAN MCCOY: After that, we take the film or movie so the principle photography happens. What we get back is a bunch of shots about a character reacting to a monster on a green screen but there’s no actual monster there.

They’re looking at a tennis ball, right?

RYAN MCCOY: Right, reacting to a tennis ball, so we have to make the tennis ball more frightening so that when you look at it in the context of the edit it makes sense and you get what is going on. That’s when postvis comes in. We’ve quickly put together a mock-up of what the final would be like and then the scene goes through iterations real fast without spending a whole lot of money so they can figure out if the scene works really quickly.

BRAD ALEXANDER: Postvis is almost a scaled down version of what a final visual effects shot is, probably it’s maybe 1/100th of the effort put in to convey what needs to be there.

PETER CHIANG: It’s a bit more than one percent. I think Brad is just being modest.

When the actors are looking at the tennis ball have they actually seen drawings of what it is they’re supposed to be looking at to help them create their performance?

BRAD ALEXANDER: Yes, on set we have the art department do amazing visuals to support that idea and we’ve already worked out really how high the robots are and so we’re counting floors on the building to talk to John Boyega and say “Hey, look, it’s going to be roughly about that high and he’s going to come at you from that way,” We do little tricks like we set up balloons and markers. We will put up two weather balloons and tell them to go A to B at a certain time. You’ll see him go like this and we go “No, no, no, no; he’s going to go like thiiisss” .

BRAD ALEXANDER: Or you fly a drone

I was very impressed with the believability of the weight and gravity that your Jaeger and Kaiju characters have and the physics of moving them around. What goes into making that work?

PETER CHIANG: We looked at a lot of things. We looked at lot of oil tankers and large objects moving. And so there was a tug of war constantly between physics and keeping the sequence alive and exciting. I think if we portrayed it in real physics people would have gone to sleep, because it would have taken a long time for that robot to walk down the street so there was a payoff. But even then we had to slow them down so on the set we would say to John and Cailee , “Hey look, you’re moving too quickly, you’ve got to feel like you’re lumbering a bit to slow him down”

BRAD ALEXANDER: At the very beginning when we were doing previs before we had the opportunity to work with Peter a lot of our shots and sequences to me personally just felt like they were moving so fast. It was frustrating. Coming from an animation background, you need to show weight. You need to show secondary motion. You want the plates to jiggle when you have a lot of mass. We kind of got cut off in the beginning phase of doing that and we had to send it off and let it go and then it’s kind of like I bowed my head and prayed to the Gods that someone would fix it. And then Peter came in and they actually fixed it so I think we found a middle ground that worked.

RYAN MCCOY: Yeah often in previs it’s hard because we have to cut down on all of the nuances of the animation and just the lightng and the contacts with the ground and a lot of those little things. That last five percent that polishes it off and makes the photo real is often what really gives it the weight that’s necessary. and so sometimes it can be challenging where it kind of looks okay in previs and then you do it in a final scene and when you see it, it’s like, “Oh well, that’s crazy.” So often what we have to do is put in a little extra work on some of those shots to really get it to sell, to start to understand how that weight would really work and how it would move and just the physics of it.

I was also impressed with the personalities of the different characters, particularly Scrapper who had a believably junkyard feel. I know some of that is from the sound guys but some of that is what you do.

BRAD ALEXANDER: The art department works very fast when they build their models and the model that they initially gave us looked like someone had taken a bunch of engine parts and panels from airplanes and whacked everything together. It wasn’t ribbed at all and I had to figure out — where are the joints going to go on this thing? Are there any gears that I can use as an elbow? Where are the hips going to be? I had to figure a lot of this kind of stuff out and then change some stuff around. Then I pass it off to the art department and say, “Can I move this? Is that okay?”

I think my favorite thing in this movie was that you got to play around with scale in such a dramatic way. We thought the last movie had very big creatures and big robots but now we’re in a whole other level. But you have to keep them all in the same shot, so how did you do that?

RYAN MCCOY: Wide lenses — put the camera really low with the wide lens and go back.

If I came over to your house is there anything I would see that would show that you worked on this project?

BRAD ALEXANDER: I got a Gypsy model from the first film and I had that on my desk the whole time. I have a little shelf in my house that has a little thing from a lot of the movies that I’ve worked on, my memento things.

Some people have pictures of their families…

BRAD ALEXANDER: I have robots.

RYAN MCCOY: Robot children.

PETER CHIANG: I love the toys. I’ve got all the toys; got the four main robots and Obsidian and Fury.

What are the qualities that make somebody very good at doing previs?

RYAN MCCOY: Being close to their inner child. Being able to embrace it while still being mature.

BRAD ALEXANDER: I think it’s generally a skill set. If you are as a 3D artist I think gives you the most to bring to the table as a previs artist because if you can rig a model, animate two effects, you could do everything and that opens you up to most work that we can give you.

RYAN MCCOY: Yeah for previs and postvis we really want filmmakers. We want people that understand storytelling not just people who know one skill particularly well. Alot of schools focus on just perfecting one specific craft and making a character feel very fluid in movement or whatever really is making one image look really beautiful and that’s all great — we need that too — but you can’t tell a story if you don’t know how you cut to one shot and all of a sudden it feels jarring and strange because you crossed the line or this is a weird framing of this creature or you don’t know what lenses are or how to use them effectively. There are so many tools.

BRAD ALEXANDER: Ultimately it’s film language and it all boils down to the composition, screen direction, and all of that kind of stuff.

What’s your next film coming out?

RYAN: He and I worked on “The Meg.” I have no idea if this is going to be good but it was a hell of a lot of fun to make. The whole end scene is what we worked on. And we did the whole ending of “Aquaman,” so that was quite a big endeavor.

Those scenes are underwater, which must be another challenge of physics calculations.

RYAN MCCOY: It was, I feel for Industrial Light and Magic, trying to make that come to life and I can’t wait to see what they do with it. it was a lot of fun to do previs for it because of the vastness of what was going to be told and it was just this big collaboration to try to get it into a really good shape so that it was really exciting. Yeah, the whole thing was fast and really fun.

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Interview Special Effects
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