Friday, December 29, 2017

The Martian (2015) directed by Ridley Scott


The biggest surprise in this film is that Ridley Scott can actually still make a good movie. His last two Alien franchise films are visually stunning but in all other aspects, especially intellectually - terrible. His Film Exodus: Gods and Kings was just straight out offensive. All that makes The Martian seem like a miracle as it's not only visually amazing but has great performances, is intellectually gripping and throws away Scott's recent ridiculous religious themes in lieu of a film that - to quote Matt Damon's character - Sciences the shit out of making a movie.

Based very closely on Andy Weir's novel, the film doesn't shy away from the science of a mission to Mars. In fact, science is the star of this film, outshining even Damon who must be given kudos for giving us a realistic and honest feeling scientist/astronaut main character. The tech stuff is presented in ways that expose how complicated it all is but also explains it so anyone can understand what is going on. Like every film every made, there are some things that are simply not possible in it, but -especially in this script- those things are easily forgiven and overlooked because of the excellent way they are shown and the drama they bring more than makes up for any inaccuracies they might add to the project.

Released after the movies Gravity and Interstellar, this almost makes a nice trilogy of cinema based more or less on hard(er) science  and proving that the public does in fact like to see smart films. It did very well a the box office and we can only hope that the future brings us not only to colonize the planet mars, but movies that show how the real science of the exploration of space is dramatic enough to hold a film and an audience's attention.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Backstory


A different sort of post this time out. A short film, very well made, very thoughtful and beautiful. It's a bittersweet look at one man's life from start to finish and everything in between.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Shape of Water (2017) directed by Guillermo del Toro


This film has had a lot of lead up to its release. Limited releases had critics swooning and the internet, being the internet had all sorts of opinions about it ahead of its release. Is it a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon? Is the monster a retread of Abe Sapien from Hellboy, a previous del Toro film?

Firstly, the film is excellent. It is filled with tropes we are all familiar with but they are presented in new ways and the performances have been lauded for good reason. Sally Hawkins is, as usual, amazing but she is given addition support by everyone else in the cast. Not one bad performance in the entire picture. Doug Jones, who is making a career by playing creatures it seems, is the man in the monster suit but - again as usual - he elevates it to something so much more.

The story is simple enough. An amphibious creature is kept in a secret U.S. government facility in the 60s and is experimented on for possible use winning the space race. The Russian have spies in place who want to take it or kill it, doesn't matter as long as the Americans don't learn anything from it. A young mute cleaning woman befriends (and more) it and learns to communicate with it and eventually helps it escape while the government forces lead by Michael Shannon try to recover the creature.

Its not the story but how it and the characters in it are handled that sets this apart from a B movie horror film. Michael Shannon is less evil and more just a total douche bag, having bought into every single character trait that was wrong but encouraged by much of society at the time. He is sexist, racist to be sure but it's how those traits are portrayed that make it work. Del Toro does a great job showing less over the top bigotry and goes instead for that kind of bigotry that masquerades almost as politeness. He repeatedly asks the black cleaning woman (Octavia Spencer - again so good in this) if she understands a word he just used when it's plain who the ignorant one the conversation really is. Richard Jenkins plays Hawkins older neighbour who is surely gay, but who, like many gay men at that time, doesn't seem to really understand his sexuality and pushes it to the back and instead prefers to live in the world of old movie musicals ( in a way that somehow comes of as not stereotypical). A minor character, the soda jerk is revealed to be a real jerk over time. At first he seems like a sympathetic ear to Jenkins' character but he personifies the underlying bigotry of that era pretty well when he refuses to serve black customers and rejects Jenkins the instant he innocently touches him on the shoulder and then bans him from the soda shop because it's a "family place".

The look of the film is everything you'd expect from a del Toro film, lush, detailed and a little surreal. The effects are seamless. In fact, as I read the end credits it was amazing to see how many post production people there were. Its proves you CAN have CGI in a film that actually works invisibly to enhance a film instead of taking you out of it. The music is not intrusive either but like the effects enhances the experience. Production wise there is nothing to complain about in tis movie.

Things I did not like as much in this movie are things I don't like as much in many other movies though you can find good reasons for them to be included in this film. If you don't like nudity in movies, this has a bit of it and like many de Toro films there is some graphic violence (especially involving cheeks - what's up with that in his films?).  As I said earlier there are many tropes in the scripts, it really does not go too far from convention plot devises and ends exactly how you would expect it would. I wish he had dropped in a few surprises in that regard.

Worth seeing? Absolutely! As good as his earlier film Pan's Labyrinth? Don't be crazy, that is a bar far too high to jump over more than once in a career. He may yet do it again, but the Shape of Water is not that movie.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Dramatic Readings: Swim! Eddie, Swim!



This time famous actor at large, Charles Webster Billingsworth the third takes on a dramatic scene from the film classic, Jaws 2.

Voice work once again by Mike Luce.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dramatic readings: To Be or Not to Be, a short animated film


I have finished a new animation project with the always helpful voice work of Mike Luce. Basically, it's a filmed theatre piece of a great (platypus) thespian (over)acting Hamlet's most famous speech in front of an adoring audience.

The purpose of doing this (other than getting it out of my head like all my other projects) was to expand my possibilities with cartoon-like characters. Making them and rigging them has always been difficult for me but I seem to have broken through a wall and made it to another place this time out.

I normally rig my characters using Cactus Dan's tools for C4D, but sadly, he has passed and I realized if I ever upgraded C4D above version 16, I will lose access to those tools and needed to try the character object autorig. Very luckily, Everfresh (from the C4D cafe) has made a cartoon rig template for the character object and provided it for free and it is a glorious thing. His tutorials on how to use it also clearly explained some things about the auto rigging that had prevented me form using it before so I expect for now on, I'll be going that route.

Mike Luce was an amazing help getting this done and always encouraging. In fact he has already voiced a second one of these to be done... soon-ish.

I hope people like this, it takes a lot out me mentally and even physically to incarnate this sort of character and bring it to life. To Be or Not to Be in sort of proof of concept project - meaning I made it more difficult than it needed to be to see if I could pull it off.

Friday, November 3, 2017

My Dinner with Andre 1981 Directed by Louis Malle


When I saw this film in 1981, at the urging of my roommate at the time, it was a phenomenon in Boston and played for a year at the cinema. People took sides on who they thought was "right" in the conversation in the film.

The synopsis could not be more simple to describe. Two old theatre acquaintances meet for dinner and talk about their lives and everything else. The film had a very modest budget of 475,000$ but made over 5 million on release, a great success by any reasonable person's standards. It was one of the most talked about films on the art circuit of that time and found itself referenced and parodied for many years to come.

The filming by Louis Malle is not complicated and he rightly concentrated on the faces of the two principals and occasionally the waiter, who is pretty neutral throughout - but that neutrality led quite a few movie friends at the time to read DEEPLY into his performance. A little too deep, I thought.

The writing is exceptional as a film about two people talking over dinner could have been boring as hell, but this is far from that. The conversation is light an comedic much of the time but also delves into two points of view about what life is all about. One is very hippy-dippy, if I might say that, and seems to come not just from a deep curiosity but also from a privileged financial state that allows someone to explore their curiosities without worrying about mundane things like paying rent.  The other perspective is much more down to earth, also curious and intellectual but bound by the need to live in the real world, make living and deal directly with those around you - like it or not. Just to be up front about it, this conflict is not settled by any meany by the movie's end credits and that is one of it's strengths.

A myth that has grown around the film is that it's biographical because the two actor are playing themselves to a large extent. This is not the case, while the event mentioned are from their real lives more of less, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory have made it clear that they could have switched roles and would if there was a remake. It's a piece that references their personal lives but isn't about them personally.

My Dinner with Andre is the sort of film you pretty much never see anymore, willing to find the discussion of deep subjects interesting and worthwhile for their own merit and , indeed for the pleasure of it. It opens the way for conversation after it's over and oddly, is not pretentious but funny and eye opening without taking itself too seriously. The power of this film is it doesn't tell the viewer what to think, but instead give the viewer a lot to think about.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Films of Frankenstein

If any character is is the running for more films than Dracula... it's Frankenstein. First appearing the classic book Frankenstein - the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley in 1818, it is the story of a scientist who learns how to piece together dead tissue and re-animate it - in effect creating a new life. He is horrified by this accomplishment and rejects the creature which leads to both their deaths many years later and after considerable tragedy.

As with Dracula, there are far to many films that take inspiration from Shelley's book to every be listed fully. In light of that I am concentrating on films that are more landmarks of the monster's movie career and focus more or less (usually less) on the original story.

Frankenstien 1910



While only 16 minutes long, this is the first film adaption of the book and begins the long standing tradition of ignoring most of what was in the original story. The creation of the monster, done by burning a puppet and playing it reverse, is still kind of creepy looking. In the end the creature is touched by the love it's creator feels for his new wife and disappears into a mirror.

Frankenstien 1931


This is the best known version on film of the tale. Directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as the creature, it cemented the look of the monster forever in the mind of popular culture. If you combine this film with it's sequel, the Bride of Frankenstein (1935) you could edit together a more complete version of the story but each film stands on it's own as classic examples of Universal Studio's horror films. There was also a third movie, making it a trilogy which was also very well received and successful at the box office. (Son of Frankenstein - 1939)

The Curse of Frankenstein 1957


Hammer studios decided to take on the character, as it would later with Dracula, even to the extent both were played by Christopher Lee. The film was savaged by critics for lack or originality and being depressing and gruesome, but the public loved it enough to warrant a series of Hammer films to be made that featured Doctor Frankenstein and less so his creation.

Frankenstein 1973 (TV film)


Dan Curtis threw his hate into the ring with this TV adaption. It remains fairly close to original text but suffered from a low budget by today's standards and was filmed on video. Not long after it was aired Frankenstien - The True Ttory, a British 2 part production, was shown on NBC and overshadowed Curtis' attempt.

Young Frankenstein 1974


While more a take on the previous films from Universal than the novel, this Mel Brooks parody sets the standard for many film parodies. Even though it's a very funny comedy, the cinematography and music are truly top notch, way above many serious takes on the topic. It's funny and beautiful at the same time.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 1994


While following the plot very closely for most of the film, it jumps the shark at the end - pretty much ruining an otherwise strong attempt to finally tell the actual story. Starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh and nicely filmed with a dream cast - including Robert De Niro as the monster and a slew of great supporting actors and actresses. It's a worthy attempt at least and it does introduce us to a very sexy, sweaty Doctor Frankenstein. So 10 points for that.

Frankenstein (miniseries) 2004


This multi-part hallmark adaption of the Shelley gothic novel is perhaps the most loyal to the source material to date. Well received and lauded for it's treatment of the subject, it was later edited to a movie for British audiences.



The list could go on, but in recent years less attempts to be true to the spirit of the novel have been produced in lieu of flicks like I, Frankenstein. The novel's monstrous creation becomes less and less monstrous as time goes on. In far too many versions, the creature just looks like a muscular pretty boy with some scar makeup applied to his face. I think this is shortcut to make the viewer feel compassion for him, but who really feels bad for well built fashion models? Following his arc in the book, anyone would easily feel the horrible position the Doctor has put his creation in by abandoning him to the world.  My personal favourite Frankenstein is the book version illustrated by Bernie Wrightson and I wish there was a film version using that as a template.

Oh - there was a ballet which I did not see but I will provide this photo for you to decide for yourself how faithful to Shelley it was.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The 14th Another Hole in the Head film festival



The 14th Another Hole in the Head film festival will be held in San Fransisco October 25th - November 8. My two recent films, Staley Fleming's Hallucination and The Oval Portrait will be shown, but so far no times have been published. If you are in the San Fran area... please go and gush over my work and make sure everyone sees you!

Dates and places for the shows!  Click to see where and when.

Staley Fleming's Hallucination

The Oval Portrait

Watch this post for updates!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Creature from the Black lagoon


The Creature from the Black Lagoon
was maybe the last of the classic Universal monsters to be created. Released in 1954 in 3D, it was a success and contemned to be re-released in various forms - both 2D and 3D - for decades to come. It's screeching theme music (which must be played 100s of times during the course of the film) is truly iconic and always gets a reaction from audiences. The popularity of the creature got it not one but two sequels and while remakes have been rumoured for decades, the soon to be released The Shape of Water looks like the reboot fans of the monster have been waiting for, but for legal reasons, it isn't technically the creature from the black lagoon. 


After a scientific expedition discovers a fossilized hand of an amphibious human like  animal - another group goes to the Amazon to discover more about it, only to find out there is still one of the things swimming around in the titular black lagoon. The gill-man kills off most of the crew and manages to develop a crush on girl scientist Kay Lawrence. (The 1950s, while known for a certain sexism, always seem to have female scientists as bait for monsters but also they always show competence in their fields - which I suppose can be taken as a positive aspect of these films.) Of course the creature's lust becomes it's downfall and after being shot multiple times, sinks to the depths of the lagoon only to rise again in the sequel.



The Revenge of the Creature.
Haven't not been killed by bullets in the first film afterall, the monster is captured and taken to the Ocean Harbour Oceanarium in Florida where he, of course, escapes, developed another girl crush and while dragging her into the sea gets once again shot by bullets until he releases her. This 1955 film was also released in 3D but didn't capture the public's imagination, or the critics praise nearly as much as the first film. The creature did, however, walk again.




The Creature Walks Among Us,
released in 2D only in 1956, takes up right after the last film left off. A group of scientists from the oceanarium led by jealous misogynist Dr. William Barton along with his wife recapture the creature who is badly burned  in the process and taken back to the oceanarium. While there he begins to transform into something more human and is therefore given clothing.... OK I don't get it either. In any case, the jealous Doctor kills a colleague he thinks is going in on his life, and shifts blame for the murder to the gill-man. The evolving creature is not happy being a scapegoat and goes on a rampage, eventually making it to the ocean where, because he no longer has gills, seems to drown himself. This film isn't as bad as it sounds and does give us some sympathy for the creature not present in the first two movies.

The production of these films is as spotty as you might imagine but the design of the creature is stunning. Much harder to pull off than Dracula, Frankenstein or even the Wolfman - the costume is really well done and truly scary looking. The underwater shots are wonderfully composed and executed. The scene from the first film where the creature teases Kay by swimming directly under her is both captivating and terrifying. By the time of The Creature Walks Among Us, the new look of the gill-man seems cheap and has transformed him into something more human and oddly enough, less relatable. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Universal’s already cursed Dark Universe


It was inevitable that the success of Marvel’s superhero universe would spawn others from other studios. When Universal made it clear they were going to jump into it with a monster-verse it seemed like a really great idea. As this plan has rolled out and revised with the failure of each film slated to be the « start » of the Dark Universe, it seems clear that modern Universal studios hasn't a clue what they are doing.

It can be argued that Universal started the whole connected film series thing and already had a universe of films starting from 1923’s Hunchback of Notre Dame up to 1960’s The Leech Woman - which is quite a long run. While not all those films were classics, to say the least, many of them were and quite a few more were good, fun films. They were doing mash-ups before the word was invented and relating sequels and combining storylines in ways no one else had thought of doing. Those ideas ran their course, the pubic opinion of them changed and the loosely related series was abandoned… until recently.

They remade Dracula with Braodway heartthrob Frank Langella successfully in the 70s but in the 2000’s they came back in force with the Mummy series starring Brendon Fraser and seemed poised for another long run with their remake of the Wolfman in 2010 - which had so much potential but in the end turned out to be something like the original Hulk movie but with werewolves. They did many of the right things - the victorian setting, the makeup by Rick Baker was astounding - and then replaced it mostly by lame CGI. The film had the look but not the soul of a classic gothic horror film worthy of their legacy.

It got much worse with Dracula Untold - which will not be spoken of. These films, first stated as the start of the new series of gothic horror classic updates were so bad they were quickly dismissed and all hope was set on the 2017 version of the Mummy, another flop in most senses. They had done this before… why are they so off-base now?

I think the decision to go CGI in the Wolfman says a lot. Apparently, marketing wanted CGI because you know, the kids like that sort of thing - even thought film did not need or call for it. Kids want to see good movies, they don’t really care how the monsters are made, just that they look cool and work in the film. The attempt to modernize the old stories for today’s audiences isn’t a bad one, though the gothic victorian nature of the source material does limit how modern it can be and still work. Already having decided to keep the stories in the past they were sort of stuck with that idea, but even that could have been handled by setting a new film, let's say the Mummy, in today’s world then re-introducing the other characters in present day later on… most of them are immortal monsters after-all! There is so much opportunity and life left in these old stories that even going back to original stories and novels and simply updating them could have been fantastic.

Another problem is the idea these creatures are « like superheroes ». Yes, they have amazing powers, sure enough - but the rules and origins of those powers are literally in another universe than those of Marvel’s line up. Plus, they need to be frightening, not heroic. They need to be creepy, not funny. The Fraser Mummy series was light hearted and worked, but keeping that formula for the rest of the classic line up is just not tenable, in my opinion. Don’t be chasing Disney’s audience, create a new one based not on wholesome family faire but scary and with their gothic sensibilities intact. They don’t have to be R-rated, super violent or sex filled, just add enough of that stuff to keep modern cinephiles on their toes. Keep the elements that made these movies work in the first place and stop thinking of them as action films with creatures that in almost no way resemble their origins. The lore of monsters is not about action and more about what we fear, a way to point out it’s often we who are the monsters and the creatures, our victims. Create NEW monsters that fit into this new horrifying world and don’t rely solely on known properties. The biggest problem with the current crop of Universal Dark Universe flicks is the complete lack of risk they take with them.

Oddly, the best updated gothic horror films are not coming from the old studio. If the trailers and advance reviews of The Shape of Water pan out. Guilermo del Toro, more than anyone else with this new film, added to others like, Crimson Peak, Pan’s Labyrinth or even Mimic, shows he knows exactly what works and how to produce the films Universal should be. His films expand the gothic horror sensibility to today, take risks and mange to touch, inform and scare the pants of us that I am afraid none of the Dark Universe will even come close to doing.

Universal has a done a great job presenting and restoring the old films, I wish they could apply some of that talent to producing new ones.