Monday, March 30, 2009

Tell Me I'm Not the Only One...

The Art of the Studio Logo

When I go see a movie in theatres, I like to arrive early. There are several reasons for this. Save a good seat. Have plenty of time to get snacks. Not having to search around for a seat in the dark. See all the previews. But, there's one more reason that may or may not be unique to me. I like to see the logo(s) at the beginning of the films. You know: the brief animated shots telling you what studio made the film, be it Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Disney, whatever. There are dozens of studios in America that produce films that show in public theatres, hundreds more that make independent films. The possibilities for logos are endless.
I'm fascinated with logos, for reasons very much explainable. The colors are so vibrant, it's like actually watching a painter finish a masterpiece. No matter how small or how bad the film is, the logo is allowed to be huge and beautiful. The music is usually very big and theatrical, like the announcing of the arrival of an emperor. But it can also be very quiet and thoughtful. Some filmmakers choose to use their own music for the logo, or even unoriginal music or a song, or background noise of the opening scene. Some logos are absolutely silent.
The very existence of logos in films is a paradox. They are essentially unnecessary for viewing the movie; after all, they are never part of the story and often stand alone from the entire film. But, they are mandatory if the studio wants to make any money. Just like an author puts his or his name on the cover of a book, a director puts his or her name in the credits. The publishing company puts its logo on the spine of a book and on the cover page, where the reader can easily skip it. The producing company must puts its name on a movie to show the work it's done; but it's so much more than giving credit where credit is due. It has a place that cannot be equalled in any other medium: books, radio, even the Internet.
Think about it: logos are at the beginning of almost every single movie you've ever seen, regardless of what kind of movie it is, or even how old it is. (I can only think of one movie that doesn't open with a logo: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl simply opens with the title fading in. Of course, Disney made the film. The only reason I can think of for them not slapping a logo on it is because they thought it would be a flop. That, coupled with the fact that is was rated PG-13 and was not suitable for children maybe made Disney want to back away from attaching its face to the film. This, of course, backfired because the film was a big hit, and they actually used the sequel, Dead Man's Chest, as the first film to feature their new logo.) Depending on the studio, you'll see very different things. (see photos below for examples)
Most studios choose the big, theatrical logos. After all, they want their company associated with greatness and epic filmmaking. 20th Century Fox is a good example, as it starts with a drumroll that combines with trumpets and big fanfare, almost like a military march. The shot is a sweeping vista of the large words and spotlights on top of a large hill, supposedly overlooking Hollywood. Paramount is another good example, as the logo follows a line of stars until they form a half-halo around a tall mountain above the clouds. This shot is incredible and makes you feel like you're looking at the summit of Everest. Oddly, this logo is silent and requires the filmmakers to put in their own sound. The logo for Walt Disney Pictures for a long time was simply the outline of a castle and a half-circle drawn around it, followed by the words flashing on beneath, while wistful kid-friendly music plays. Then they changed it to a strange dark logo that was looked like it was supposed to be a candle looking upon the logo carved into the side of a cave. This logo was not consistent with the kid-friendly movies the studio produced. But then they changed it to the big, epic shot that is an awesome update of the original. The shot shows a peaceful, beautiful land guaraded by the familiar castle. Once the camera pans out in front, exposing the river leading through the front gates, a tiny Tinker Bell makes the half-circle and pixie dust creates the words. The same music is brought back and updated to be much bigger.
My personal favorite would have to be Universal: those big words floating around the planet Earth as big, epic music plays. So simple and yet so complex and beautiful. And of course it exemplifies the name of the studio perfectly.
Other logos are smaller and prefer tradition and sticking to the classic values to the big, epic ones. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is a good example. That logo has barely changed for almost a hundred years. That lion's roar is still as dramatic today as it was back in the 20's. Warner Bros. Pictures, while updating its logo to put the big letters in front of a beautiful cloudy sky, still keeps its same basic look. The music now features the tune from "You Must Remember This" from the legendary Warner Bros. movie Casablanca, then it becomes a big fanfare.
Other logos are less impressive and show a considerable lack of effort. New Line Cinema is particularly unusual. It features falling ladders connecting to a black box in front of a blue light. It makes no sense and features very simple music. I've also never understood the logo for Touchstone Pictures; a lightning bolt on a rock. Uh, did they pay someone to come up with that? The Weinstein brothers, after leaving Miramax (which has a fairly cool new logo) formed The Weinstein Company (or TWC, as it is sometimes seen to be called). Their logo is fairly disappointing, simply three triangles fading away, leaving the words at the bottom on a black screen, and cheesy dramatic music. The logo for Lucasfilm Ltd. is in the middle; it is simply the words starting out in green glittering to gold, against a black screen. It's very simple, perhaps too simple, but it leaves the filmmaker (basically George Lucas or Steven Spielberg) room to do whatever they want with it. For all the Star Wars films, Lucas actually merged it with the 20th Century Fox logo, allowing the fanfare music to play over his own logo.
Independent studios always have interesting logos because they can essentially do whatever they want. Fox Searchlight Pictures, being owned by 20th Century Fox, copies its parent company's logo with the same words on top of a hill and fanfare, but the words look unnatural. 'Fox' is too spread out and 'Searchlight' is too squished. The now-extinct Warner Independent Pictures had an interesting logo: starting out with the WB logo, fading out the B, and dotting one line on the W to make an I. The only logo I've never really liked is the one for the independent Picturehouse, also extinct. It's also the only logo that is more than one shot. It shows the words being lit up on top of a large building, supposedly a theatre. It tries to be very dramatic and like it's part of the film. A logo is not supposed to look like part of the film, it is simply supposed to introduce the company and show its values in less than ten seconds.
Of course, the longest logo I know of is that for Pixar Animation Studios, which features the adorable hopping lamp crushing the I and taking its place. This company makes movies for children and families, so this is oddly appropriate. It shows that the company has a sense of humor and strives to bring the best possible animation quality, even in its logo. You're even entertained a little bit before the movie even starts. Could you imagine anything else in front of a Pixar film?
Some random miscellaneous logos: DreamWorks is very odd, featuring a man fishing from the moon, which fades into the words among the clouds. I've never understood this, although it seems very much like a dream, so I guess it fits. Lionsgate's new logo features a very complex city/machine that zooms out to reveal a door, which opens to reveal the word floating in a heaven-like cloudy place. This is probably too dramatic, but a great improvement over its boring standard logo the company began with. The logo for Marvel Studios is slightly different for every film, flipping pages from the comic books that the particular movies are based on, and they somehow fade into the white letters over a red background, which echo the actual logo shown on the comic books. DC Comics films also shows black-and-white renders of comic-book pages, which then transforms into the logo, which also is very similar to the actual comic-book logo. They're both similar, but Marvel does it better.
Well, I realize this post was kind of pointless, but I hope at the very least I've caused you to think about the logos and not ignore them the next time you see a movie. I know they're not needed, and a good logo has nothing to do with the quality of the movie. In fact, in a comedy, drama, or low-budget indie film, the logo might be the best visual effect in the entire film. I just find them fascinating to look at: like little mini-movies in themselves that tell mini-stories.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I Love You, Man **1/2

I Love You, Man
**1/2 out of ****

Many critics have dubbed this movie a "bromance" or "bromantic comedy." Well, that's because that's exactly what it is.
I Love You, Man is a love story of friendship between two straight men. There is also a love story of a man and a woman, but that is almost secondary. It is also a comedy from the Judd Apatow school of film. It stars Paul Rudd as Peter and Jason Segel as Sydney. Peter just got engaged to Zooey (Rashida Jones, who you'll recognize from The Office), the woman of his dreams, but quickly realizes he has no male friends to be his best man. Thus starts the comedic montages of Peter's misadventures in trying to find a friend. He eventually meets Sydney, basically the coolest guy in the world, and they become instant buddies. A problem develops when Zooey thinks Peter is spending too much time with his new best friend. The funny supporting cast include Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly as an oddball couple and Lou Ferrigno as himself.
The film is predictable, with a few belly laughs here and there, but its real charm lies in Rudd's performance as a complete dweeb who tries too hard to connect with the guys. It seems like he's improvising most of his lines, because he probably is.
This film marks the beginning of a new era in romantic comedies, a genre before now mostly limited to chick flicks, but now stepping out to appeal to guys as well. (Films like Knocked Up were early pioneers in this department, but they were marketed mostly to guys, while this film is directed towards everybody.) Like most chick flicks, this film is unremarkable, but not terrible or even inherently bad. It delivers the laughs and the (scant) tears in an entertaining way, which makes it a great date movie, even if you're not going with a date. Like Peter and Sydney do in the movie, make this a man-date.
I would recommend this movie to fans of the stars and to fans of Judd Apatow movies like The 40 Year Old Virgin, and people who like simple comedies.

You can watch the trailer here:

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Watchmen ***

*** out of ****

Let me begin with the disclaimer that I have not read the graphic novel and have no intention to in the near future. Going into the movie, I had only a vague idea of what it was about and what to expect. I was told it was a love-it or hate-it thing, depending on whether or not you had read the book. I had seen the trailers and TV spots and was not very impressed with my first impression. It seemed that Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. were attempting to make the biggest, most epic, and not to mention best, superhero movie ever. Because all of the heroes in the movie were unknown except to those who had read the book, it seemed destined to fail. But being the movie buff that I am, I had to think of another project that was a similar love-it or hate-it prospect. In the late 1980s, Robert Zemeckis attempted to make the most epic animated movie in history, by inserting animated characters into the real world in a way no one had seen before. This movie, of course, was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It was decided that the star of that movie would be a completely unknown character, not a famous one like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. Like that movie, Watchmen would not have worked if it was about a famous character like Superman or Batman. Although the formula is not perfect, Watchmen has certainly earned the title of most epic superhero movie ever. As for being the best, well, it falls a little short.
The characters that dot the film are all unique to the mind of the original writers and have never been seen in anything else. Some are more enjoyable to watch than others, but all are extremely well-developed. The Comedian is a big brute that likes to womanize. The smiley-face is his logo. Silk Spectre, the only girl in the group, is simply following her superheroine mother into crimefighting. Nite Owl is the peacemaker that tries to avoid a conflict at all costs, but can kick serious ass if need be. Rorschach, brilliantly played by Jackie Earle Haley, is a loner psychopath with a troubled childhood that doesn't like being part of a group. He spends most of his screen time hidden behind a mask shifting into different ink blots, a disguise he adopts as his true self, shown in that he calls his mask his 'face.' And, Dr. Manhattan is an omniscient being covered in blue light that can be in several places at once, see the future, and become as huge as he wants. Ironically, he is the only one with actual superpowers and arguably one of the most powerful superheroes ever invented in all comics.
The film takes place in an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon has been elected to his fifth term as president and crimefighters are people in masks claiming to be superheroes. The Watchmen were a group of six superheroes that dispersed when a law was passed outlawing masked crimefighting. The movie opens with the Comedian, a former Watchman, being murdered in his apartment. Rorschach investigates and warns his fellow team members that he thinks someone is out to kill them all. The Watchmen reunite with each other, causing some old alliances to be broken and love interests to be switched. Giving away any plot points beyond this would be spoiling, but I will say that it is a very complex story with many twists and turns that lead it in interesting and unique directions.
The movie plays out like a serial from the 40's or 50's with its sometimes cliched story, but its characters and content are completely contemporary. The film has gratuitous nudity, mostly from Dr. Manhattan, who apparently is so distant from humanity that he never feels the need to wear clothes. It also has so much gruesome and bloody violence that it competes with the Saw movies in hacking up people. They were really going for the R rating on this one. Also, its use of 80's songs is cool and sets the timeframe, although some were used inappropriately.
Watchmen is flawed, of course. The best example is its structure, which feels like the serialized graphic novel it originates from, in that some scenes go on too long and it lacks the many gripping action sequences that mark all superhero movies. It also goes on too long, but a film this complex is allowed to be long. The film is epic in scale and will surely bring attention to the already-famous graphic novel. It is a good film that deserves some recognition, if not for being the best superhero movie ever, at least for bringing an unfilmable novel to the screen in a way no one could have imagined.
I would recommend this movie to fans of the graphic novel, fans of comic book movies, and dark action films. Not intended for girls who don't like violence. Absolutely not intended for children.

You can watch the trailer here: