Monday, February 12, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

An Honest Liar 2014 directed and produced by Justin Weinstein

There will be spoilers!
Odd that a documentary has spoilers but the one does.

This documentary documents the life of James Randi, otherwise known as the Amazing Randi. It goes lightly into his early life and career as a magician and escape artist but concentrates more on his activities as de-bunker of supernatural and religious claims.

His magic years could have been covered more, but as he was born in 1928, there is a lot of road to all over to get to present day. I was little disappointed at the repetition of the older photos They are great photos but show up several times each. I suppose this might be because of photo right issues which can up the cost of a production in no time flat.

Randi exposed noted faith healers like Peter Popoff and notably exposed the trickery of spoon bender Uri Geller who, to his credit is interviewed in this film and while not happy with Randi's interference in his career, he is still rich and seems to hold little animosity against the escape artist. They also cover the guilt some the people who helped expose these scams felt. Yes, the scammers were thieves and users, preying on desperate people but a few serious scientists were also convinced what they were doing was real and found out the guys they thought were going to give you place in history as the guy who proved supernatural powers exist are only there to show how gullible you are. To be fair, they were given all sorts of clues and ways to expose the debunkers and never did.

Randi's young boyfriend, José Alvarez was a key part in bringing to light the scam of the channeling craze in the 80s. The introduction of José becomes the new thrust of the documentary as during the filming it is discovered he has been living under an assumed name the whole time after escaping to the USA from South America as a teenager. I appreciated how all this was handled in the film. Randi is interviewed talking about how he knew of the deceit and demands that the filmmaker not expose that in the final cut of the film. To Randi's great credit, he reverses this decision and lets it all come out. (Speaking of which, many did not know Randi was gay until this incident.) This is actually the doc's big reveal, not the gay relationship but the immigration situation which was refreshing and not a little heart wrenching. After over 25 years together, they must face the idea they will be separated.

It's a good watch and while lacking in details, it is a very good resume of one of the world's best magicians. skeptics and takes a surprising personal turn that humanizes a man who spent his whole life in the spotlight.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Pinocchio (1940) Walt Disney Productions

After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney went to the Carlo Collodi story The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881-1882). The film strays, like most films do, form the source material in many ways (the blue fairy for example plays a much more central role in the story) but the basics are still there. A lonely woodcarver, Geppetto carves a puppet out of a talking piece of wood and the puppet then spends the rest of the story trying to become a « real boy »  after learning this is possible through the intervention of the blue fairy and with the help of a friendly cricket. In Collodi’s version, Pinocchio kills the cricket almost immediately. This does not happen, of course in the Disney version and the puppet has a series of adventures that lead him back to his father and the realization of his dream to become human. 

This is one of, if not the most satisfying of all of Disney’s films. Made for about 2.3 million it has made about 84 million at the box office total but was a flop at the start pulling in less than ½ of it’s budget on first release. By 1994 the film was added to the National Film Registry in the USA and Time magazine has put it in the best 25 films of all time. 

The script moves from one adventure to the next with great skill and the animation is rightly considered some of the best ever done. The songs and background designs are top notch. Many breakthroughs in animations were brought about by this film. Disney had 3D models of the characters and set pieces made so the animators could have realistic perspectives to work from, early forms of rotoscoping and integration of stop motion were used to add realism. The opening shot where Jimmy Cricket jumps down the street to Geppetto’s shop window with everything moving in parallax is truly amazing. There is a story that having spent so much time getting this scene right, Disney was very disappointed it did not get the notice it deserved and was upset when a boat shot in Peter Pan,done with the simplest of techniques, got an ovation, prompting him to swear to never do anything as complicated as Pinocchio’s opening shot again. 

The movie pushed special effects animation past it’s limit. The fairy dust and especially the water effects are so impressive that I would take them over 3D simulations any day. The backgrounds are beyond amazing. I saw a few at an exhibition and they were not only just beautiful paintings but the ability to draw them in ways the camera could pan across them and give the impression of turning a corner or zooming in... all through use of perspective tricks on one canvas was mind boggling. 

Obviously it is on my top list of films ever made, I never get tired of seeing it and get choked up every time I see Pinocchio face down in the water after saving his father from Monstro the evil whale. I can’t explain why, but that simple shot is always a shock to me. The entire film is memorable from start to finish. 

In the last few years, Disney Studios has been making noises about a live action film, as it has done with and plans to do with many of it’s other animated classics. Please… don’t. Re-release the original in theatres instead and let new generations experience how magical it is. 

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.