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 Fran├žois 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.