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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Tideland (2005) direct by Terry Giliam

Any film the has a DVD release where the director basically begs the viewer to watch the entire thing and not shut it off in disgust before the film begins could be thought of as a sign that maybe you shouldn't watch the film at all. In this case, you would miss out on one fantastic movie.

The story of a young girl whose mother chokes to death and is then taken by her drug addicted father to his mother's abandoned farmhouse in Texas where he then dies of an overdose shortly after arriving is not an easy film to get through. Should all films be light fluff escapism, though? I think most serious film  goers would agree the answer is no.

The young girl has to survive on her own in a nightmarish situation she can not really understand or emotionally get her head around. In her mind, her father is just sleeping off another drug hangover and she begins to have conversations with the heads of dolls she puts on her fingers who give us some insight as to what is going on in her own head and gives her the feeling that she has friends and is not alone and afraid. As time goes on, she befriends some of the eccentric neighbours on the area who use taxidermy to preserve the body of the girl's father (which they also had done before to their own mother). The young male neighbour, who is mentally impaired, thinks there is a monster shark stalking victims throughout the fields of Texas and means to destroy it with some dynamite he has hidden in his bedroom. The shark is, in reality (if you can separate reality from fantasy anymore at this point), the nightly train passing though and in the end he uses the explosives to destroy it - causing a huge tragedy. A woman finds the little girl at the site of the train wreck and mistakenly thinks she is saving a victim of it when she actually saving her from a train wreck of a completely different kind.

Though the film was not universally panned it did get very sharp criticism.  Only 9 theatres picked it up for viewing so financially it was a disaster and many thought it was a sure sign the Gilliam had killed his own career by making such a terrible film.

This is NOT a terrible film, it is a film about terrible things and how someone unequipped to deal with them finds a way to survive in spite of it all. This is a theme throughout Gilliam's filmography and in many ways is a logical extension of previous works going back to Time Bandits. The director himself has described it as a film about the ability of children to live through the most terrible situations and persevere and I agree with him. Adults put children though literal hell - in wars, through abuse, exploitation, a  far too long list of things -  and many of them find ways to go on in circumstances that no adult could possibly adapt to.

This is not a disgusting film revelling in the tortured life of an innocent little girl but rather a twisted but beautifully done look at how a small child can persevere in the most horrifying of situations though her imagination and innate mental stamina. It is not a movie everyone can deal with but if you can, it's well worth watching.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Moana (2016) directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

I, for one, like Disney films, and Pixar films and many other animated films coming out from various studios these days. Even the ones with more limited budgets have access to fantastic tools and talent to make beautifully done animation.  Where some of them get less points is for the storylines and the types of stories (which can be very receptive).

While Moana doesn't exactly throw away the mold Disney has made over the years, it's a great film and recently with films like Zootopia, the Good Dinosaur etc, Disney has shown it's still more than capable a telling a good solid original story with great characters within that framework.

The music works, it's funny, visually stunning and tells a compelling story. The directors also worked on The Princess and the Frog, Disney's last non 3D generated film and that was one of my favourites in their entire history. Moana's tale is based on real Polynesian mythologies and the mystery of why they stopped being a sea-faring culture 3000 years ago and then resumed - again mysteriously - 1000 years later.

The only thing I could critique against this film is mind boggling minor. I personally thought the "ocean" character was little lame. It looked too much like a tongue and I thought needed some additional  anthropomorphizing to work better. I NEVER thought I would be saying that about a Disney film!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

King Kong 1933 directed by Merian C. Cooper

The story, which has become the basis of most of the later King Kong remakes, is simple. A down on her luck actress is hired by a somewhat sketchy film producer to star in an adventure film on a mysterious lost island that only he knows how to find. When they get there, they discover a lost world of savage natives and prehistoric animals ruled over by a legendary figure - King Kong. The natives capture the actress in order to sacrifice her to Kong but when he arrives, he is smitten with her and take her into his care, fighting all sort of creatures as her human love interest follows and attempts to free her. When he succeeds, they rush back to the boat with Kong in hot pursuit and the monstrous ape is captured and brought back to New York City to be exhibited as the 8th Wonder of the World. Opening night the beast escapes, gets the girl back and flees to highest structure he can find, in this case the Empire State Building where he is shot down by bi-planes and falls to his death.

Kong’s lasting popularity, I will argue, stems completely from his first film appearance. Not one of the re-boots comes close to the original. The monstrous ape is not so monstrous in the hands of legendary animator Willis O’Brien who infused a small puppet moved one frame at a time with such real emotion and personality that he became not an amazing special effect but as real as any human actor that has graced the silver screen.

The 1933 film started not just the legend of Kong but giant monster movies in general. This film developed a look and style of its own - partly from the limits of the era and partly from the incredible imagination of Willis O’Brien who not only animated Kong and the other creatures but did the matte paintings and overall design. Skull island is at once a real place and a fantasy world. 

On release, this film was a blockbuster. No one had ever seen anything like it and they flocked to theatres for a decade… literally. The film was re-released in 1938, 1942 and again in 1952, a release that out paced not only the previous ones in profits but also most of the new movies released that year. Looking at the movie with modern eyes, it might be hard to imagine, but this was a terrifying  and shocking motion picture, so much so it was censored for violence and sexual content after its debut. My Aunt Helen saw it back then and she often recounted to me how scared she was each time she saw it. It was her favourite film. 

While the film’s effects are legendary, it was also the first film with a totally original music score. The sets of the film were also amazing and were used for another production, The Most Dangerous Game, filmed in tandem and using many of the same actors. 

Is King Kong a perfect film? 

Some might say it’s THE perfect film and it’s hard to argue it isn’t. In its favour is its longevity, the story is still being told and retold as recent as last week. It does have plenty of flaws, but even they are hard to criticize. Kong’s varying size throughout the running length is an often stated problem with the production - but is it? I would say no as the director Cooper deliberately changed the titular character’s height (to the chagrin of Willis O’Brien and the effects team who wanted it to be a real as possible) to match the content of the scene. On the island the great ape is smaller, more human, if that can be said of a monstrous monkey, and in the big city he is 3 times that size to avoid him looking small among the skyscrapers. Kong must look like the king of his surroundings at all times for him to work as a character and frankly, while watching the film you would be hard pressed to notice his leaps in grandeur. The film is just too compelling for the viewer to be distracted by anything but other than what is happening on the screen. The effects are dated, but also they are so stylized looking that Peter Jackson’s 2005 overly long and somewhat over the top remake tried to recreate the look and feel of the 30s version to sell the idea better to modern audiences. Yes, you can see where the animators fingers moved the fur on the puppet as it moves about and the dinosaur designs are out of date by today’s Jurassic Park standards (which are in turn now out of date as well) but it really doesn’t matter one bit. The acting is definitely from it’s time, but it is a style of acting we all accept and in many ways expect see in films. What makes this movie at least seem perfect is how it plays. We buy it all. When Kong breathes is last after falling from the Empire State Building, we feel it in our bones and even though Carl Dedham tells us it was beauty that killed the beast, we know it was us and our pride that brought him to his fate and if he was real today, the same thing would happen. The success of King Kong comes not just from it’s innovation but the universality of it’s story which is just as relatable today as it was almost 85 years ago. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Vandemonium (plus) Ann Magnuson 1987 Cinemax

A lost classic of early cable, this almost impossible to see Cinemax Special is AMAZING. I am a fan of Ann Magnuson, so my enthusiasm is expected and this is the project that endeared me to her early on. I recorded it on VHS and it now resides in a digitized crappy looking file on my computer. 

The story is that of a biker chick (Magnusson) on her way to the red-neck-orama (or something) with her boyfriend (Meatloaf) when she has a terrible accident and flies off the bike and into the world of van art. Trying to find her way home before the show start (Vulcan Death Grip - Also Magnuson) she meets version of Stevie Nicks, Gala Dali, Shirley Maclaine and a televangelist (also all played by Ann). The comedy special also has appearances by Eric Bogosian and Joey Arias as Salvador Dali(!). In the end the good fairy (also Magnuson) appears and tells her she had the power to get home all along. Oh and she has a talking bong throughout. 

So, yes, this 30 minute of WTF, art references and pop culture parody as only Ann can pull off. I, of course, made everyone I ever met watch this so they would understand why I would occasionally scream « ES SURREAL! » and demand to see the « pizza sex machina ». This may not be for everyone, but it’s wildly funny and out there. So why is is impossible to see now?

One reason this has fallen into obscurity might be it’s timing. It wasn’t broadcast at a time where Cinemax could have created a cultural phenomenon out of a 30 minute special from a New York performance artist. Another reason was it might have only been shown once because of some odd controversy from one of the jokes. This is all from my not very strong memory, but there were a lot of AIDS activists upset because the bong tells Ann who has just shook herself out of the televangelist character that they better get out of the TV van quickly « before they find out who we are and sentence us to an AIDS camp ». This was an especially sensitive time for people with AIDS… putting them (and all gay people) into camps was an actual plan the religious right was promoting. However, in another case of humourless and misguided outrage, the fact this was a joke bringing that to light and mocking it - not encouraging it was completely missed. Most of the special still dates well enough but I think this one problem will forever sink the chance of this brilliant special ever getting restored and up for sale again.