Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monsters vs. Connecticut

Irritated disclaimer: Blogger doesn't make it very easy to add text formatting, so I've decided just to insert boldfacing in a few of the places where I use it and skip italicizing altogether. I wish they'd just allow me to copy and paste RTF, the way LiveJournal does (, but for now my readers here get to settle for 2nd best.

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SASS*: Money doesn’t guarantee quality, but this week it’s the way to bet.

Rating scale: 9 (superlative) to 1 (execrable)
Short story: 9-7, recommended; 6-4, up to you; 3-1, eschew
Ratings intended for: adult SF&F fans

This Week’s SF&F Movies

Monsters vs. Aliens (PG, 1:34) — 7

(in both 2-D and 3-D at Eastgate, Point, Star, and Sundance; in Imax 3-D at Star)

This is a lot of low-key fun, as a small group of pretty easy-going “monsters” are released from decades of secret imprisonment by the government and, evidently bearing their erstwhile captors no ill will, help the US (“the only country where flying saucers ever seem to land”) fend off an invasion from an evil alien overlord. The invasion comes in 2 stages: 1st a gigantic robotic probe that our heroes battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, and 2nd the archfiend Gallaxhar himself and his army of not very perceptive clones. A 4-eyed squid descendant, he’s the sole survivor of his late planet, but he assures Susan, the 49’11”-tall woman, that she needn’t feel sorry for him, since he destroyed it himself.

You might think that a woman of that height would dominate every scene she’s in, but animation isn’t limited in scale, and the folx at Dreamworks weren’t just thinking big, they were thinking HUGE! Susan isn’t even the largest of Earth’s monsters; that would be the 350’-tall childlike Insectosaurus.

You might also think it would be a challenge to make the monsters (especially Dr. Cockroach and the slimy Missing Link) engaging and endearing, but Pixar showed the way back in 2001 with Monsters Inc., and this production is up to those standards in terms of both personality and technology. And the dimwitted but good-natured BOB the Blob is just a hoot.

The whole thing is played for chuckles, and they come at a nice, easy pace, not forced or frenetic. There are some good visual gags, too, including the president’s big red coffee-dispensing button on the wall of the war room and BOB’s romance with the lime Jell-O™.

I saw it in 3-D (tho not in Imax 3-D) and thot it enhanced the experience.

The Haunting in Connecticut (PG-13, 1:42) — 3

Ho-hum. Another formulaic tormented-spirit movie.

Years ago the house hosted seances conducted by the local mortician. Mysterious things happened. Dark doings were covered up. Spirits of the recently deceased were never released to their eternal destinies. They continue to hang around and annoy the house’s new occupants, who have problems enuf of their own without the added irritations. While the restless dead seek release, and are capable of manipulating all sorts of things in the real world (including carving arcane symbols on the body of a sleeping teenager who doesn’t seem to notice a problem until he wakes up), none of them ever seems to tumble to the idea of picking up a lipstick and writing a simple message on the bathroom mirror like “Hey, look behind the fireplace.”.

Virginia Madsen has stooped to this. How sad.

Shot in some house in Winnipeg. Should’ve been shot at conception in Hollywood. If you are the 1,433rd person to see it, congratulations, your ticket purchase means that Gold Circle Films has covered its production costs, which means we’ll keep getting more of these.

Ruminations on “Progress”

Voice Acting

Remember Jodi Benson? No? She was the star of the best SF&F movie of 1989 (20 years ago) — better than Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future Part 2, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — and I bet you remember who starred in those flix, don’t you?

Still not ringing any bells? She was Ariel in The Little Mermaid. But, of course, since it was animated, you didn’t actually see her, you only heard her. Her name didn’t appear on the poster or in the newspaper or TV ads. She was a voice actor, along with Christopher Daniel Barnes (Eric), Pat Carroll (Ursula), Paddi Edwards (Flotsam and Jetsam), Jason Marin (Flounder), Kenneth Mars (Triton), Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian), and Edie McClurg (Carlotta). ST:DS9 fans will perhaps recognize the name of Rene Auberjonois (Louis the Chef) from his role as Odo.

Probably the best voice actor ever in Hollywood was Marni Nixon, who did the singing for the soundtracks of countless musicals on behalf of actresses who could lip-synch but not otherwise match the crystal soprano that Nixon made to seem effortless. She had a tiny little on-screen role as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music, but otherwise did her work out of sight.

Who will be the Marni Nixons of today and tomoro? Sadly, apparently nobody. Check out the cast for Monsters vs. Aliens: Reese Witherspoon (Susan), Seth Rogen (BOB), Hugh Laurie (Dr. Cockroach), Will Arnett (Missing Link), Kiefer Sutherland (Gen. Warren Monger), Rainn Wilson (Gallaxhar), Stephen Colbert (Pres. Hathaway), and Paul Rudd, Jeffrey Tambor, Amy Poehler, and Renee Zellweger in minor roles.

Do all the big-name actors pull in a bigger audience? They’d have to, to justify their paychecks. It’s not as if the theaters charge more per ticket for their presence. But then why soft-pedal their participation? Just as 20 years ago, you don’t see their names on the posters or in the ads. Are people more likely to go to see a movie because of who’s in it, if they can’t actually see the actors acting?

I think it’s sad to see voice acting apparently dying out as a career opportunity in Hollywood. Try as I might, I can’t hear anything better about Witherspoon’s voice than Benson’s. Unless you’ve got an actor with a truly unusual voice (like Paul Rubens, Jennifer Tilly, or Gilbert Gottfried) and you want the voice to stand out, why not give the job to someone who won’t charge premium bux for participating? What’s wrong with letting the non-megastars make an honest living, too?


There was justification for the actual voice of Al Jolson being delivered in The Jazz Singer. There was justification for the screen lighting up in Technicolor as Dorothy arrived in Oz. There was justification for the triple-wide Cinerama screen conveying the emptiness of interplanetary space in 2001: A Space Odyssey.**

I find myself straining to find a comparable justification for 3-D. Yes, it makes for a more enjoyable experience overall. It was 1 of 2 factors (the other being the fact that I’m a total slut for human space exploration) that saved last year’s Fly Me to the Moon from an utter bottom-feeder rating. And it made Monsters vs. Aliens more real-seeming, tho in a different way than chancing the “uncanny valley”, where animation approaches verisimilitude while falling disturbingly, creepily short of it (as in 2004’s The Polar Express).

But the earlier advances in the film-going experience didn’t require you to bring more than a standard-issue set of eyes and ears to the theater. Sound and color didn’t even require more money.*** Cinerama did, which may explain why it was never more than a niche phenomenon and showed only a bit more staying power than William Castle’s “Percepto” effect for The Tingler.

So, how’s 3-D going to shape up? To experience it, you need a set of special glasses. These have improved considerably thru the years and now fit comfortably over my regular glasses. The ones they dispense at the Imax theaters have very large lenses, which I appreciate. The ones I got at Point Cinema to view Monsters vs. Aliens had smaller lenses then my hornrims, which I found a bit restrictive at 1st but stopped noticing fairly quickly.

By some accounts, this is 8th generation 3-D tech, and they seem to have worked out most of the bugs. The headaches and nausea that some viewers reported in the past have apparently been vanquished. Color fringes, poor focus, and dual-image projections mismatched either in space or in time have been subjugated digitally. They’ve learned to amp up the projector lighting to compensate for the reduced luminance getting thru the 3-D glasses.

People who pay attention to this kind of thing have been impressed. Time magazine featured Jeffrey Katzenberg (the “K” in Dreamworks SKG), James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg and name-dropped Peter Jackson in its article “Are 3-D Movies Ready for Their Closeup?” ( But that was by techno-geek Josh Quittner, who loves technology for its own sake. Not a week later, Time’s resident movie critic, Richard Corliss, expressed his doubts in “3D or Not 3D: That Is the Question” ( Like Quittner, he too liked the tech; like me, he thot it added to the movie-going experience.

But, again like me, he questioned whether people would, in any large numbers, be willing to pay a couple of bux extra and have to fiddle with prosthetics to get the benefits.

I emerge from the analysis a tad more sanguine than Corliss, for several reasons. 1st off, to repeat, it really is a more engaging experience, which is why I recommend seeing Monsters vs. Aliens in that format.

2nd, I’ve often praised the geniuses at Pixar for understanding that the best animation tech in the world (which is what they’ve got) must always be subsidiary to telling a good story. The rest of the practitioners of 3-D seem to have finally learned that lesson as well. They no longer have yo-yos or spears or tomahawks stabbing out of the screen at your eyeballs just to show you they can. If it isn’t integral to the story, it’s not worth doing.

3rd, this isn’t going to become something universal, the way sound and color are. It’ll continue to be deployed where the creative folx think it’ll be most effective, the same way that split screens, time lapse, overlapping dialog, and aerial views have always been used for artistic effect.

4th, it’ll be something that sets the theater-going experience apart from DVD rentals or on-line viewing, which aren’t (yet) capable of doing 3-D. It’ll make theater-going a special occasion, much as it used to be.

As always, if you have a crappy story, no amount of 3-D or other gimmickry will cover up its failings. Story always comes 1st. But, if you’ve got a good enuf story and want to juice it up a bit, 3-D does that and, if judiciously deployed, will find an audience willing to pay extra and keep coming back for more.

Just spare us the yo-yos.

*short attention span synopsis
**No, Larry, no matter what you say, I wasn’t there for the 1st 2.
***Indeed, theaters that didn’t have to engage a piano player for every performance may have been able to get by more cheaply with the advent of talkies.

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Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long.


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