Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Ex Machina (2017) directed by Alex Garland

This is another example of an independent smaller budget film out-doing pretty much all the larger budgeted films made recently. made for only 15 million, the movie still manages to have spectacular, realistic effects that enhance the story and so natural looking you easily forget they are effects at all. 

Spoilers Galore:

When a programmer (Caleb) in a Google-like company wins a contest to spend a week with the companies reclusive genius owner (Nathan) he is flown to a remote location where he learns he is there to determine if his newest attempt at artificial intelligence has achieved consciousness. 

The AI is housed in a super realistic android, complete with facial expressions and the ability to cross examen her interrogator in ways that make him question his own humanity. 

Convinced that the AI (Ava) is not only conscience but in love with him, he hatches a plan to help her escape only to discover she has been in cahoots with Nathan as part of the test. Unfortunately for Nathan, Caleb had anticipated he was being watched and did the steps to make the escape possible while Nathan was passed out drunk the day before. So Ava is able to exit her small living area, conspire with another android whom Nathan has been abusive to and they kill him and lock Caleb into the complex… leaving him to die, presumably. 

This is one of those films that inspires conversation and keeps your attention with interesting characters and ideas over action. It’s a true hard sci-fi film that succeeds on almost every level. The acting is great and while the character of Nathan is a total douche-bag, you don’t particularly want him to die. Caleb is, of course, very sympathetic and leaving him trapped in the compound alone makes sense from Ava’s point of view since if he was to escape as well, the world could find out what she is. It’s a cruel decision a standard « Hollywood style » would never go near. 

The ending is (probably deliberately) ambiguous. Ava is in the real world and we have no idea what comes next. 

I find it hard to believe she would be able to walk around free for long, however. The owner of a Google-like company, no matter how reclusive he is can’t just disappear without someone coming to look for him sooner than later. Caleb might have had no family or girlfriend, but he did have friends at work, an apartment to pay for and was well known to have a won the competition to the compound -so after being a couple days late coming home, plenty of people would have insisted the police go looking for him. Once there, they would have seen the other robot models, maybe the videos of what happened and Nathan’s dead body. Possibly Caleb would be able to hang on long enough to be saved. Food and other supplies must be delivered there on a regular basis as well - so maybe AVA is less cruel than originally appearing to be. It’s also a little too far to think that while looking real, that Ava would feel real as well. You might buy that the special skin covering can move like the real thing, but a little more hard to believe it would be warm, humid and have all the rest of the characteristic real skin have. 

I would have liked to have some indication as to why Nathan drank so much as well. He didn't appear to be simply alcoholic but had something driving him to it. Loneliness? Guilt about what he was creating? Some indication that he was more than just an unpleasant egoist might have added more humanity to the film.

Still, the film is amazing, complex and thought provoking. Well worth seeing. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Arrival 2016 directed by Denis Villeneuve

Before going into Arrival, it might be best to watch this Channel Criswell post on Denis Villeneuve since it's a great example of his filmmaking style.

As the much anticipated/dreaded Blade Runner sequel looms on the horizon, I thought a little review of the director's last film might be in order.

I have been a fan of Denis Villeneuve since 2010's Incendies and this film only reenforced my opinion of what a good director he is. He took an obscure (for the non science-fi literary public) short story and expanded it into a huge storyline driven by very personal, intimate details. 

The story itself  can be boiled down to a simple "alien ships suddenly appear on earth and a team of people try to communicate with them". What grows out of that simple premise shows how human nature responds to dramatic unknown events but also posits that how we think of time and space is not necessarily how aliens might think of those concepts. In fact they have a completely different way of experiencing the universe. The main character, a translator has to come to understand the aliens by learning how to think like them is our window into that new world. 

The film made about 200 million dollars world wide on release, basically the budget of any of the Marvel superhero films but only cost about 40 million dollars - making it a financial hit. This is important because Villeneuve, while showing us some amazing effects and telling a story that is world-wide in its scope - keeps the whole thing intimate, personal and lets us enjoy the mystery of what is going on without having to be distracted by complicated action sequences to bring in a "wider market share". To be frank, the. arrival of aliens on the planet should be interesting enough without having to add needless explosions. In reality, anything smart enough to get here would likely be smart enough to destroy us in a heartbeat. There is military tension and intrigue but it's secondary to the thing that really draws you into the scenario - why are the visitors here? what do they want?

I won't spoil too much but we do get a decent, if not slightly ambiguous answer to those questions and, since this film has some time warping elements to it, there is a paradox that's a little too obvious that the film relies heavily on for it's conclusion. These things are easy to forgive as the lead up and ultimate resolution are so thought provoking and satisfying. 

A slower film that is a definite must-see with solid performances and some beautiful effects work that doesn't overpower the story. 

(Cinematic has excellent coverage on the effects in issue 150)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1977 Directed by Steven Spielberg

On September 1, 2017, a new 4K release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind will be released in theatres. I doubt I will get to see it myself, but if that's possible I will do it in a heartbeat. 

After the blockbuster Jaws, Steven Spielberg decided to make a film like none other. This was the same year Star Wars came out and science fiction was not a respected genre in any of its incarnations, be that literature or cinema. While Star Wars was a basically a fantasy film with Sci-Fi elements, Close Encounters is a much more serious venture. It follows a typical everyman, like many of Spielberg’s films, as he comes to grip with the fact he has been chosen, apparently by aliens for some unknown purpose. Richard Dreyfuss gives and amazing, textured performance (as does the rest of the cast including Teri Garr, Melinda Dillion, Bob Balaban, Lance Henriksen and famed French director François Truffaut). 

Everything about the 20 million dollar production puts today’s 200 million dollar films to shame in many, many ways. The special effects by the legendary Douglas Trumball are practically flawless and look as good today as they did then. I recently looked at some of Trumball’s  experiments, outtakes of effects that he felt did not work, and even they are amazing and would look fantastic in any modern production. The music by John Williams is iconic in a way that surpasses maybe even his score for Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back in that music itself is a crucial part of the plot and if it didn’t work, the film might have failed as well. 

Technical stuff aside, it’s the story telling that sets this movie head and shoulders above most others and makes it a classic. It’s not a fast cut, non-stop action film, it’s a well-paced character piece of people dealing with extraordinary events. A lot of detail both visually and in the dialogue gives even minor characters intriguing personalities. A good example is the poor guy hired to play the musical instrument used to communicate with the aliens. His reactions alone tell you he had no idea what he was getting into when he took the job and he struggles through fear and awe as he struggles to keep up with a giant spaceship which has somehow ended up in a duet with him at a secret base at Devil’s Tower monument. There could be a film about what happens to him alone after the events of this film. 

As only his third real full-length film, Spielberg established what would be become some common tropes in his work with the lighting, plot progression and effects integration while telling a simple, personal story. As well worn as some of them are now, watching this film they all seem new and fresh. 

While not exactly hard science fiction, it takes its subject matter seriously and was meticulously researched to be true to what were, frankly, nutty stories about flying saucers. It was too successful, maybe. As The Exorcist  brought an obscure Catholic ritual into the public eye and suddenly, people were getting possessed by demons all over the place and still are to this very day. Close Encounters did the same thing for UFO enthusiasts and after its release everyone, including President Jimmy Carter had some sort of « encounter » to talk about. 

Its effect in cinema was also quite impressive, but not as impressive as George Lucas’s space opera as this film was not a vehicle for sequels or toys but a stand-alone story that one would be hard pressed to market or merchandise for decades after its release. It was also a hard film to rip off, though believe me, many studios certainly did. As a result, I would say not too many people in their 20s today have actually seen the film, even though they certainly know a lot about it. Those five famous notes alone are enough to secure  it the public conscience. 

Maybe the coming 4K version will bring this classic back into the limelight where it belongs alongside Star Wars, Gone with the Wind and other iconic, unforgettable films. It might at least remind the movie going public of what a inspirational and well made film it is. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Obit: Jerry Lewis 1926-2017

While Mr. Lewis was not a favourite of mine by any measure, his contribution to comedy and film are not to be ignored. I did like him in the film "King of Comedy" and some of his physical comedy was quite brilliant. So here is a little summary directly from Wikipedia to make up for my lack of knowledge about him. 

Jerry Lewis (born either Jerome Levitch or Joseph Levitch, depending on the source;[1] March 16, 1926 – August 20, 2017) was an American actor, comedian, singer, producer, director, screenwriter, and humanitarian. He was known for his slapstick humor in film, television, stage and radio. He and Dean Martin were partners as the hit popular comedy duo of Martin and Lewis. Following that success, he was a solo star in motion pictures, nightclubs, television shows, concerts, album recordings, and musicals.
Lewis served as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and hosted the live Labor Day weekend broadcast of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon for 44 years. He received several awards for lifetime achievement from the American Comedy Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Venice Film Festival and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Shin Godzilla 2016 Directed by Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi

Shin Godzilla (Godzilla: Resurgence) marks a new beginning for the Toho studios Godzilla films. While it is the 31st in the series it re0imagines the creature’s origins - basing them more on the Fukushima disaster rather than the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in WWII. 

The results are mixed. 

Overall, this is your typical Japanese monster flick in style and substance and would not have been out of place on a Saturday morning’s Creature Double Feature TV show. There is a lot of filler exposition with government officials debating and running around trying to decide what to do about the giant monster attacking Tokyo. Two hours is little long for this sort of thing, but it’s a fun film to watch and the special effects are far above some of those earlier efforts in the 60s and 70s we all remember so fondly, and even better than more recent efforts as the mix of monster suits, CGI and puppets gets more sophisticated. 

Visually, Godzilla is huge and the redesign is interesting… but doesn’t always work. In this film it evolves quickly from a sea creature to the two legged creature we all know (more or less) but some of the earlier versions are a bit weird looking. The eyes are on the line between creepy and cartoon-like. The fully formed monster is a mess, mostly in a good way. It looks like a rotting corpse and that may be intentional. The atomic breath is well done and gets a slight laser beam upgrade at one point as well. 

The plot is where this, and many other movies like it, falls apart. It’s fun to watch but really makes very little logical sense. Godzilla is attacked repeatedly by missiles and bombs - which actually do have some effect - and is eventually crushed by knocking buildings over on top of him (her? Who knows?). They use the time he is on the ground to pump fluid into his mouth that will « freeze him »  when he uses his atomic breath and it works. The freezing solution is better than the military one which was to basically destroy Japan with atomic bombs so I guess considering the alternative, a giant decomposing monster in the middle of the city is the better choice. 

The film ends with a shot of Godzilla’s (comically long - seriously - it’s incredibly long) tail frozen while in the process of bursting open and revealing some sort of human-like creatures emerging from it. Creepy, effective looking but confusing and dumb - why on earth would that be happening? We know the monster is continually evolving according to the plot but that just comes out of nowhere. 

Watch it? Sure, if you like traditional Japanese monster flicks (and I do) this fits that need nicely. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Colinwood Fire - animated documentary

So much good about this short documentary/drama about the Collinwood fire. The first self was a terrible event and the website can give you the truly horrifying and heart-breaking details. It includes actual footage taken by a local theatre owner.

The Colinwood fire: 1908

The short itself is really well done. The people are cartoonish looking but manage to transmit a lot of emotion and the scenery and long takes really bring you into the story. It was filmed using a Blender, the free, open source animated software I have been slowing learning as a back-up to Cinema 4D. Seeing something like this makes you realize that a lot of filmmaking is all about the effort and skills of the filmmakers, not the price of the software they are able to get ahold of.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Working with Lovecraft’s racism and gothic sexism

One of the difficult things with adapting other people’s stories for films is the baggage that comes with some of them. Many times it’s just odd plot machinations or maybe older references modern people have completely forgotten. Sometimes, it's much more delicate.

H.P. Lovecraft was notoriously racist. There isn’t much of a debate about that. He wasn’t pulling an Eminem, saying he was just writing characters who happened to be racists. He was saying Italians are a filthy race living in squalor (as just one example) in stories, correspondences and personal interactions. I would argue it’s much less present in his literary work than his personal life and some of the offensive stuff in his writing might be us putting our modern sensibilities over those of a time where  racism was open and common - but I wouldn't argue it’s not in there or acceptable.

Gothic horror stories and many stories from that period in general, including Lovecraft’s, have an inherent sexism as well. The protagonists are almost always male, and often there are no women at all! When women are present they are often victims, or sickly or at the mercy of some guy she married. To be fair, that was the case for many women at the time so it’s no surprise that’s how they were represented in fiction.

So, why would I choose to make films from such problematic source material? For one thing, the stories themselves are fun, amazing, scary and have attracted me since I first learned to read. They are not about being racist or sexist, they are just trained by those elements. Since the authors are dead and the stories are for the most part in public domain, they are a rich source of ideas a poor filmmaker like me can actually make use of. As time goes by and immortal corporations have begun to own everything for forever and a day, making freely adaptable material more and more rare.

In the case of my Lovecraft films, I easily can cut the stuff I like out. In fact, it never has anything really to do with the basic story so it’s never missed. I am also not lining the pockets of some bigot with cash in order to make them. Despite his influence on the horror genre, he is still relatively unknown in the world at large and, face it my little films won’t change that. His stories are also simple enough at their root to cut down to 2-4 characters and a few settings. This is vitally important when you are a one man show making an animated film by yourself with no budget.

Sexism in gothic horror in general is little harder to get around and I haven’t been able to do what I would like to change them in a way I think would work. I have exchanged some men’s parts for women but then I can’t get a woman voice actor to record the part. The doctor in Cool Air would have been a woman if I could have found someone is one example. I added a mention of a sister in Staley Fleming’s Hallucination just to have the mention of a women, even though in that mention she is the grieving fiancĂ©.

In conclusion, I guess I still have some way to go to combat the problems in the stories of others I am telling. like many things, some of it because of budget, resources etc is beyond my control - but I do try.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Blade Runner

Ok, I admit, this is a mainstream kind of film to appear here on the Slammer. That being said, there's this new sequel coming out and I couldn't be less interested. Ridley Scott, a director I've come to really dislike since his 1982 epic has decided that there needs to be a follow up to the quasi-adaptation of the Philip K. Dick film that arguably made his name a semi-household name. "Blade Runner" is the one example I can give to people where the movie was, to me a far sight better than the material it came from. I've read some Dick (no joke here) and he just doesn't appeal to me. Characters are wooden and subservient to concepts that the stories explore. That's about the only thing that's really translated from the book to the screen in this movie and this is a good thing.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the idea that replica humans, called replicants, which were made for lesser tasks on off-world colonies might just becoming aware of their origins and their imposed short life-spans. A few of them revolt and make a beeline back to earth to confront their maker in hopes of getting a longer lifespan. Our 'hero' is a so-called Bladerunner, a cop who weeds out and takes down the replicants that manage to get back to Earth. The big question of the movie, one which was utterly in-obvious when it was released is whether or not the lead character is himself a replicant and what really delineates a human from one of these creations.
"Blade Runner" is a movie that would not get wide release today and which didn't do that well when it was released in the early 80s. There's little 'action,' no 'splosions and not even much for sex. It's slow-paced, atmospheric, experimental and nearly perfect. Its initial release, unfortunately, included some rather monotonous overdubbing by Harrison Ford as the producers seemed to think that the audience wouldn't 'get it' if they weren't led by the nose. There was a tenth anniversary 'Director's Cut' released which not only did away with most of this but added in one or two crucial scenes that made the question of Deckard's (Ford's) identity something a bit more forefront. It turns out this was not a 'director's cut' at all, but an alternative cut found in a film library in Europe and shown, unseen to a festival crowd at a 70mm print festival. It was very well received and there were then plans to release the movie as the 'cut.' Scott wanted time to actually make it his version but there wasn't time and this better cut was released without his approval. Too bad as this really is the best version of the film. When Scott would later make his final cut, most of the narration was back in which makes me wonder how much of a producer's choice this really was. Ford claims that he was given no direction on giving this voice over and so did it with no direction, hoping they wouldn't use it. Sadly, they did. I was lucky enough to see this cut in a nearly empty Charles St. Theater during a press screening. It's the most memorable viewing of any movie I have. Huge screen, utterly quiet and tiny audience, that's how you want to see this film.
There's not a bad performance in the bunch; even Ford's rather wooden read makes sense if you start to question his character's origin. And you should. While many have argued that Deckard is obviously a replicant, I take the theory one step further and say that he's been given the memories of his predecessor, a character named Gaff (Edward James Olmos). This character shows up to pull Deckard out of his supposed 'retirement' for one more job; to hunt down four replicants that have made it to earth. Thing is, Gaff obviously doesn't like Deckard for reasons we don't understand, speaks to him only in 'street-speak,' a brilliant mishmash of languages that Olmos made up himself and which adds a distinct flavor to the movie. Yet Deckard understands him just fine. Lastly, Gaff, who likes to make tiny origami animals, drops a unicorn in front of Deckard's apartment at the end of the film, an image that Deckard had been dreaming about (a sequence left out of the original cut, restored in the 1992 version). I believe it is Gaff's memories that have been given Deckard and the Gaff can no longer perform his job due to the injury he obviously suffers from. This explains the animosity and tension whenever Gaff is around.
Rutger Hauer supplied some of his own dialogue, including the iconic "like tears in the rain" sequence near the end of the movie. He was chosen on his work, having never actually met Scott before he was cast. Sean Young would never have a better performance. It seems to be a set that, while problematic, was open to artists' interpretation. This pays off greatly in the end.
The soundtrack by Vangelis is utterly perfect for this. Totally of the era, it predicted a lot of what would come out of later 80s music. The visuals were stunning for the time and also were such in the flavor of the decade that they can't really be removed from that time. They still manage to represent a future that never was. Supposedly, William Gibson saw this movie in the middle of writing the genre-defining "Neruomancer," and felt the need to hurry up and finish as "Bladerunner" was questioning some of the same things he was in his novel, though each was developed separately. To me, the short-lived genre of cyberpunk was never better shown than in this movie. Things weren't over costumey, there was a lived in quality, a silent grace to such overabundance like the giant animated billboards and dirigible-advertising. This is a film of moment, atmosphere and mood, not one of overt action. Nothing is used to club the audience over the head (in the 1992 version). It's for these reasons that I think the movie failed to do well upon initial release, couldn't be made today and why I love it so much. When I go to the movies, I want to be taken away, to be released from this world and put into another one for a short while. If I'm drawn in and made to question that world while in it, that's wonder, something nearly utterly missing from today's big budget movies.
So there's this sequel coming. Ford, who had distanced himself from this movie for creative differences, long and arduous shoots has been dragged back thirty some odd years later to feed the fan frenzy. Ryan Reynolds, who always looks as if he's about to smirk or laugh now plays what I can only assume is the Deckard role. And there's 'splosions and eye candy galore. 'Always leave the audience wanting more' is an old stage axiom, and one in which I fully believe. There isn't a single franchise out there that I think needs to exist past their first films (excluding, perhaps, the Godfather series as I haven't seen them). More is not always better. Moments of time should sometimes just be moments of time and left in their albums or crystal spheres. But that's just me. Billions of people want more Star Wars until the end of time. But I have to ask, does that make the original movie better or just water down the entire experience over a long period of time?
Do yourself a favor; if you haven't seen "Bladerunner" before or haven't seen it in awhile, seek out that 1991 version, turn out the lights, turn off the phone, sit quietly and just watch the movie. Get lost for a couple hours. Think.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mike Luce Etsy page

Mike Luce, regular collaborator to my work and occasionally this site now has an Easy page to sell some of his original drawings.

Mike's Etsy

Take a look and buy something/everything!