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


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.

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 the latest 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 fiancé.

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!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Staley Fleming's Hallucination - new animated short

My adaption of the short Ambrose Bierce story done in Cinema 4d with the voice talent of Mike Luce as the doctor. 

Unlike the Lovecraft shorts I've done, this one needed some addition plot points to give the characters motivation and help it work as a short film. The written piece is very short and light on background details. Ambrose Bierce was not on my radar for this series of animation until he was mentioned by my friend Arthur Dion of gallery NAGA in Boston and I might take up another of his stories in future. 

I think I continue to refine my animation and rigging techniques with this project. I also delved little more deeply into effects work with the spectral hound and the fireplace details. I also discovered limitations to C4D i wasn't aware of.. like simulated hair doesn't show up in operate passes, like the depth pass, making it difficult to add focusing effects in post.  

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Devil's Playground (1976) directed by Fred Schepisi

This film follows the story of Tom a young man living in a Catholic seminary and also the lives of the Brothers who run it. Tom and the Brothers both have their challenges and stresses living within the framework of a religious institution and each deals with them in his own way. Some of the men in the order will "temp" their faith and resolve by going into town, drinking and then not picking girls in bars... but taking it just to to the limit of actually having sex. Tom's struggles are different as he tries to form relationships and live within the strict disciplines of the seminary. One of the most pious of the Brothers is tortured by fantasies of beautiful women as he keeps himself in shape by exercising and swimming and imagines them naked.  This slowly drives him crazy by the film's climax, leaving all involved to question the sanity of the vows and strict rules they agreed to live by. 

Nicely filmed and wonderfully acted, I found this small little Australian film a nice look into the struggles of some religious people and those left in their charge. The Brothers are shown as real men, struggling with faith and modernity and coming to terms with rules that, frankly, are harmful to any human's sanity. Nick Tate, who was Allan Carter in TV's Space 1999 plays one of the priests and i was surprised by his performance having only seen him in the space opera. (To be 100% honest, I first watched this film because I thought he was kinda hot in that show). 

As I noted in a previous post, this film also used the "allure"of pedophilia in it's posters and ads and I find it disturbing and misleading. A film this good might need something extra to gets seats in the theatre filled but promising sexual assault on film should never be how you do that. This was long before the exposure of the Catholic church's rape cover-ups but it seems worse to do even in light of that. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Little Prince (2015) directed by Mark Osborne

The many representations of the Little Prince

A few have taken up the challenge to adapt Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince over the years with varying degrees of success. It has been everything from a musical to a TV show. In 2015 Mark Osborne took on the story in a novel way that is very much worth watching even if it's not entirely successful in every aspect. 

This film is not about telling the story in the book, it is the story of a young girl with an overly driven mother who learns and is inspired by the prince's story through her eccentric neighbour who has written up and illustrated his experiences with the title character. Her mother does not approve, of course, and throws the pages of the story and the toy fox the old man has given her in the trash. When the man is hospitalized, the young girl goes on an adventure to find the little prince so he can be reunited with his old friend. 

This is an animated film, mostly CGI for the main storyline but also in stop motion to represent scenes taken directly from the book. Both work, but the stop motion, done with paper puppets is beyond exceptional. In fact, it might be too good as it overshadows the "real world" to the point I wanted to only see the original story from start to end and lost interest in the little girl’s part of the film. I also found the part where she searches for the little price to be a distraction, well done and as amusing as it was. There is just no competing with  Saint-Exupéry’s children’s book and I felt the lessons of his story got forgotten and lost by the end of the movie. I will not spoil it completely as this is still something really worth seeing, but the script leads up to a very real emotional moment which it throws away for something more family friendly and happy. The mother also has a change of heart about the old neighbour, but its hard to know why except that it was important to put her and daughter in the same page before the end titles rolled. It was nice they didn’t make the mother into a monster, you do feel she want the best for her little girl but has lost touch with what makes childhood magical to many. 

In both the stop motion and CGI worlds, the fox shines as easily the most endearing character. It hard to imagine a more charming and lovable creature and the CGI version steal every scene its in. I WANT ONE! 

So, despite some areas I have issues with, The Little Prince has far too many positives to do anything but recommend seeing it. The stop motion and fox alone make it a must see and it is the sort of project we need more of. It takes risks with the source material and animation techniques and promotes a book everyone should read - in my opinion. I have read it in German, English and French, in fact. So while I would have preferred to see a faithful animated adaption, this was by no means a disappointing way to tell the tale. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

In a Glass Cage (Tras el cristal) 1986 written and directed by Agustí Villaronga

In a Glass Cage is a film, simply put, about Stockholm Syndrome on steroids. A former Nazi doctor (Klaus) is still practicing horrific experiments on children while in exile in a remote village in Catalonia. After he kills one of the boys and takes photos, one of his former victims who has escaped, sneaks in and steal the photos plus one of the doctor's journals. Thinking he is about to be discovered,  Klaus tries to kill himself but ends up in an iron lung unable to move and under the care of his wife and daughter. Years pass and they hire a male nurse to help out with his constant care. The nurse is the boy is stole the photographs and now wants to torture the doctor but also recreate his cruel deeds while he watches helplessly. The wife almost immediately realizes the young man (Angelo) is trouble but Klaus insists they keep him on. The reason why is not clear... does he think he deserves to be tortured, or does he relish in the idea that his escaped victim now wants to carry on his "work"? After Angelo jerks off on Klaus' face while the wife looks on and then tells her to "clean him up" - she tries to get out of there but Angelo kills her. Angelo also lures and kidnaps young boys back to the iron lung where he tortures and kills them. The daughter, who found her mother cruel and uncaring, never asks what happened to her but does manage to listen to her father's warning to get out and get help. Angelo stops her and then manages to take control of her by playing the role of a strict parent... something she has obviously been accustomed to her entire life. Angelo removes Klaus from the iron lung, killing him and then - in the ultimate manifestation of stockholm syndrome - gets into the machine himself and the daughter begins to take of him as she did with her father.

I have to admit,  I had to watch this film in two parts. The cruel killing of the children by Angelo was just too much for me (and my boyfriend at the time) to see in one sitting. After he has lured a young boy to sing for "his friend" in the iron lung - he slowly walks behind the boy, knife out... we know he going to cut his throat as his sings and it was more than I could deal with. After a day had passed I finished the movie. Why? Well because this film, as unpleasant and uncomfortable it is to see is brilliantly done. David Sust is so young handsome and innocent looking, in complete contrast to the monster he has become as a result of his previous torture from the former Nazi. It is hard not to have some sympathy for him and heartbreaking to see the result of the horrors he has experienced. You want to cry at the screen "You don't have to do this! You don't have to be this person!" but he is well beyond saving by the time we seem him as an adult being hired as the nurse.

To say this film was controversial is understatement at it's best, but it was selected in 2016 to be shown at the Berlin International Film Festival - so it has made an impact. I certainly did on me.

*quick note
The poster for this film was similar to a few other films I've seen over the years in that it uses pedophilia (and torture) as some sort of "allure" for promoting the movie. The VHS release had simple a photo of Sust's face which was a much better choice, in my opinion. While I do not think we should shy away from tough subjects in film - eroticizing child abuse and torture as a marketing tool is simply wrong