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Interview: Nick Park talks Aardman stop-motion comedy ‘Early Man’

For a movie about cavemen, the new Aardman Animations stop-motion animation feature “Early Man” is, ironically, quite evolved. In technical terms, it’s a far cry from writer-director Nick Park’s early “Wallace & Gromit” shorts from the late 1980s and 1990s, when Park himself shot the stories on film and even had a big hand, so to speak, in making the characters move.

And while digital technology has eased the burden of the ever-so-precise medium of stop-motion filmmaking, Park found himself taking a step backward to create the opening scene of “Early Man.” Beginning in prehistoric times, the opening scene is a tribute to stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen that features dinosaurs appropriately named Ray and Harry.

“The whole movie was shot with digital cameras, so it looked immaculate when we shot the whole dinosaur sequence,” Park said in a recent phone conversation from San Francisco. “The sad thing is, we had to distress the footage to make it look like film shot in 1970. So, ironically, we had to put digital dust and grain on the scene and had to make the colors look a bit more like slightly old Technicolor. It seemed criminal to do that since the scene looked so wonderful at the beginning, but that’s what we needed to do to make it look like a Ray Harryhausen movie.”

“Early Man” tells the story of Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne), who along with his pet warthog Hognob (Park) and tribe, have their primitive existence interrupted by progress, as the villainous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) and his minions from the Bronze Age City begin to expand his kingdom into the forest. Before he can do so, though, Dug lays down a challenge: If he and his tribe can defeat the Bronze Age City’s formidable soccer club in a match, Nooth must let his primitive neighbors live in peace. The problem is, Dug and company don’t know a thing about soccer, even though his ancestors by happenstance invented the sport.

Dug (voice of Eddie Redmayne) and Hognob (Nick Park) in 'Early Man' (photo Lionsgate

Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “Early Man” also stars Maisie Williams (“Game of Thrones”) as the voice of Goona, a spunky citizen of the Bronze Age City who helps Dug’s tribe find their full potential as soccer players.

Given the lighter tone of previous Aardman hits like “Chicken Run,” the Wallace & Gromit adventure “Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” Park, who has won four Oscars for his stop-motion work, knew he had a great way in to lightening the proceedings of “Early Man.” The story is inspired by the beloved worldwide sport of soccer — better known as football outside of the U.S.

“It just struck me as idea — I’m always waiting for the ‘lighting strikes’ ideas that make me stand up and want to make me make the film,” Park said. “I didn’t want to just make a caveman epic. It had to have some sort of different, off-the-wall idea that makes it a bit quirky and a bit Aardman. That’s when I had the idea of, ‘What if cavemen played sports?’ Then I began to think that maybe playing sports was a way of civilizing insolence. If you think about it, it’s true that primitive aggression is channeled into the tribalism that surrounds a sport like soccer.”

Of course, the aggression we see in the family-friendly “Early Man” is very playful and done in a comedic sort of way, which is a hallmark of every Aardman Animations production to date. Rooted in cheeky British humor, Aardman’s films separate themselves from other stop-motion works not only in tone, but in style, given that the characters are molded from clay (hence the reason the company’s films are often referred to as “claymation”).

“Why I love stop-motion with clay, is that it’s done in this sort of style that has kind of humor and charm that comes with it,” Park said.

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And if Aardman keeps that sense of humor and charm that separates itself from most movies, Park is confident that the art of stop-motion will endure, despite ever-burgeoning technological advancements in the field of computer-generated animation.

“I remember 20, 30 years ago with the rise of CGI, we would think, ‘How many days do we have left?'” Park said. “But today, there’s a great flourishing of stop-motion, still, with studios out there like Laika, and filmmakers like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson — who is getting ready to release another stop-motion film — it’s incredible. As for Aardman, I know our style stands out against all those CG films, and there are some great CG films out there.”

Tim Lammers reviews movies weekly for The KQ92 Morning Show,” “KARE 11 News at 11” (NBC), “The Tom Barnard Podcast” and “The BS Show” with Bob Sansevere.

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Movie reviews: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ unleashes magic; ‘Bleed for This’ delivers knock-out punch

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (PG-13)

The magic of J.K. Rowling is back with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the first of five planned spinoff films rooted in the author’s “Harry Potter” universe. Forgoing the traditional sequel or prequel route to satiate the legions of fans wanting more from Rowling’s blockbuster book-turned-film series, “Fantastic Beasts” ingeniously taps into Rowling’s witchcraft and wizardry mythology as it examines the adventures documented in one of Harry’s textbooks featured in “Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone.”

The end result is “Fantastic Beasts” feels like a Potter film with no mention of Potter (“Fantastic Beasts” takes place 70 years before the story of “The Boy Who Lived”), and instead concentrates on former Hogwart’s student Newt Scamander (the always great Eddie Redmayne) and his adventures to capture fantastical beasts all over the world.

Listen to Tim’s reviews of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Bleed for This” on “The KQ Mornings Show” with Tom Barnard.

But in an odd twist of fate, a bumbling factory worker (Dan Fogler) accidentally unleashes some of Newt’s creatures during a stopover in New York City – and the exposure creates a panic among a secret society of witches and wizards that fears the persecution of their human counterparts.

While the cast — including Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell — is terrific, “Fantastic Beasts” comes off a bit too heavy on the special effects. They’re great effects, no doubt, but unless you’re familiar with the source material (Rowling published the 128-page “Fantastic Beasts” in 2001), you may struggle to keep up with all the wizard-speak amid all of the crash-boom-bang.  As for everybody else, they’re in for, well, a magical good time.

Lammometer: 7.5 (out of 10)

“Bleed for This” (R)

Fans of hard-hitting, true-life drama will want to climb into the ring with “Bleed for This,” the incredible true story of champion boxer Vinnie Pazienza and his struggles to get back into the ring after a head-on car collision nearly left him completely paralyzed.

Led by Miles Teller as Vinnie, the cast is stellar all around, including brilliant supporting turns by Aaron Eckhart and Ted Levine, who are barely recognizable as Vinnie’s trainer Kevin Rooney and promoter Lou Duva, respectively.

Even though the film falls into the trappings of the boxing genre (there are only so many ways you can replicate a boxer training for a comeback), “Bleed for This” is an amazing study of character and determination in the face of adversity. For the lack of better words, it delivers a solid knock-out punch.

Lammometer: 7.5 (out of 10)

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Interview: Alicia Vikander talks ‘The Danish Girl’

Alicia Vikander in "The Danish Girl" (photo: Focus Features)

By Tim Lammers

Alicia Vikander couldn’t be more thrilled over the release of the critically acclaimed drama “The Danish Girl” to the masses, considering it’s the seventh film here this year to feature the rising film star from Sweden.

But speaking louder than the volume of her work, the 27-year-old actress said, is the importance of “The Danish Girl” because it reveals the extraordinary true story of transgender Danish artist Einar Wegner/Lili Erbe and his wife, Gerda; a story that has remained a mere footnote in history until now.

“Everybody I’ve talked with who worked on this film but (director) Tom Hooper — who’s been working on it for seven years — seems to be in the same position, going, ‘Wow, how come I don’t know about this story? How come I don’t know about this extraordinary love story? How come I don’t know how pioneering these women were 100 years back and the transition Lili made?'” Vikander told me in a recent phone conversation. “I read the script and was blown away, and went online as we do nowadays, and I was surprised by the fact that there was not much information about her. That made it even more important for us that the story be told.”

Now playing in select cities and expanding into more theaters Christmas Day, “The Danish Girl” stars Eddie Redmayne and Vikander as Einar and Gerda, starting with their life together in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the mid-1920s. Their lives take a dramatic turn one day when Einar, a successful landscape painter, is asked by Gerda to sit in for a female model who was late to session of a portrait she was working on. Wearing the woman’s wardrobe proved to be a fateful event for Einar, as the realization set in that he was most comfortable identifying himself as a female.

Dubbed “Lili” by Gerda’s friend, Oola (Amber Heard), Einar begins his complex transformation into Lili Erbe, who has become a muse to his wife and her paintings. Despite the fame this brings Gerda and comfort it brings Lili, the revelation is also tearing their marriage apart.

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While the film is titled “The Danish Girl,” the film is just as much about the struggles Gerda faces when she comes to the realization that Einar’s transformation into Lili could end their relationship.

“Lili doesn’t have a choice to but to become who she is and be herself, while Gerda has to make a choice,R

21; Vikander said. “She makes a choice and becomes so supportive, being the one who stands next to her loved one. She chooses to stay and remain loving, even though she had to risk the possibility of losing somebody along the way. I found it extraordinary that she had that bravery of doing that.”

Playing Gerda and her complex range of emotions — love, confusion and even jealousy — presented Vikander perhaps their most challenging roles to date.

“Both Eddie and I had so much to play with every single scene and every single take,” said Vikander, who to date with Redmayne have each been nominated for Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Movie Award honors. “It felt we could always push each other to explore different emotions and thoughts that weigh into a scene.”

Essentially, making “The Danish Girl” was a transformative experience for Vikander, making her admire the courage both Gerda and Einar had in a time where the defiance of social mores and in Lili’s case, gender reassignment, was virtually unheard of.

“I love that in the beginning of the film how Einar is a supportive husband to a woman who is not only an artist, but a working woman. I saw that in her marriage, too. She must have felt loved and supported,” Vikander observed. “But there were also a lot of issues that they went through that made it so difficult. Lili was going through a transition at the time where there were no references, and it was all illegal. They also faced a lot of issues, sadly, that are still current 100 years later.”

Although she’s won acclaim for her roles in such films this year as “Testament of Youth” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” it was Vikander’s stunning turn as the android Ava in “Ex Machina” that catapulted her career into the stratosphere. But now that the actress has made such of an impact in dramatic films like “The Danish Girl,” don’t count her out to do more films in the vein of “Ex Machina.” No genre — especially science fiction — is beneath her.

“I love sci-fi. I said to my agent before ‘Ex Machina’ came to my table that I had seen ‘Moon’ for the second time and I would love to do something in sci-fi — and then the script for ‘Ex Machina’ showed up,” Vikander said, laughing. “There have been a lot of sci-fi films over the last few years, but because of ‘The Martian’ and a lot of films in the making it feels like the genre has a new swing.”

Reviews: Tim talks ‘Dumb and Dumber To,’ ‘Theory of Everything’ on KARE-TV, more

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Tim reviews the buddy comedy “Dumb and Dumber To” and the historical drama “The Theory of Everything” on KARE-TV in Minneapolis with Bryan Piatt below. Also, you can read Tim’s review on BringMeTheNews.com and hear Tim review the films on WCCO-AM (13 minutes in), K-TWIN-FM, KKLN-FM and KSCR-FM.

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