Monday, October 31, 2011

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
first seen @ AMC Loews Harvard Square 5, Boston MA
circa 2000

Her name was Jeanette. 

I met her at a comic book convention in Boston back in the late 90s (I'm guessing either '97 or '98). This was back when I was still making comics of my own and going to cons to promote them. Actually, this was a period in my life when I toured non-stop - mostly along the Northeast but also as far west as Chicago and as far south as Charlotte. Plenty of good stories from that period. Maybe I'll share a few sometime.

Anyway, I had a table at this show in Boston and she came by at one point to check out my comics. We talked for awhile. Turned out she was a hardcore fangirl - she liked the superhero stuff, but she also dug independently-published comics as well, like mine. She bought a copy and I thanked her and that was that.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: Danny Elfman

Who better to listen to on Halloween weekend?

"This is Halloween" from The Nightmare Before Christmas

Theme from Batman (my post on the film)

"Ice Dance" from Edward Scissorhands


Also: This isn't directly related to Halloween, but it is music and film related. This past Thursday I saw a live Theremin performance in Brooklyn by professional Thereminist Kip Rosser. The Theremin, of course, is that creepy scientific instrument-turned-musical instrument that makes those human-like ooooOOOOooooo sounds you've heard in lots of old horror and sci-fi movies. Rosser also gave a fun-filled multi-media presentation on the history of the instrument. For more pictures and notes from the show, go to the WSW Facebook page. To hear what a Theremin sounds like, go back to my Bernard Herrmann post and click on the theme to The Day The Earth Stood Still (one of the many songs Rosser performed!).

Previously in Halloween Week 2011:
The Ghost of Yotsuya 
The Gorgon 

Friday, October 28, 2011


seen online via YouTube

When Steve and I worked at the Third Avenue video store, and later on, the Avenue A store, he would often talk about horror movies, especially obscure or foreign ones. I mean, no one I've met, before or since, knows this stuff as well as he does. There was one name he kept coming back to time and again, though: Italian writer-director-producer Dario Argento. At both video stores, we were fortunate to have had some movies that he worked on, so occasionally he'd put in one of them to watch (the only one I specifically remember seeing with him is one called Demons, which Argento produced). Of course, any talk of Argento would also have to include his actress daughter Asia, who has directing experience of her own (mostly shorts).

Steve is as left of center as one can get. I couldn't even find him on Facebook at first - it took a mutual friend to tell me that he has some bizarre alias, one that would not automatically make me think of him. Actually, Steve was the one who convinced me to go on Friendster, while we were at Avenue A. Almost everyone else at work was doing it, but these were all twentysomething kids, and Steve and I were considerably older. I figured if he thought it was the fun thing to do, then why shouldn't I? Most of the time, though, his tastes are aggressively skewed towards the underground and the fringe. I'm a bit surprised he even is on Facebook.

In that sense, I can see why he would dig something like Suspiria. It's kinda trippy, looks-wise, and it's as much psychological horror as blood-spattered gore-fest. As I watched it, I kinda went in and out of the story in terms of interest. I didn't really get it in parts, and I think I might've confused one character for another. Not sure. Since it's about a ballerina, I immediately thought of Black Swan, and while I don't doubt that that movie was inspired in part by this one, the two are quite different. For instance, weird as it was, Suspiria still didn't make me want to throw things at the screen!

Apparently witches are supposed to be the big bad in this story. There's one section in the second half where our heroine (who looks like a young Karen Allen) learns all about them from "experts" on the subject, who spout all the usual stereotypes. I can't help but be a little sensitive to that, because believe it or not, I've known a few. Seriously. Of course, the accepted term for them these days is "Wiccans," but they're not that different from other people. There's one I currently know who regards it as a kind of spiritual thing, a guide for living you could say, and one I knew from college who was more New Agey about it; collecting rocks and crystals and plants and stuff like that. Neither one made a practice of using spells to zap people with, or indeed, of using them all that often. They're both big believers in karma. I admit, Wicca used to creep me out at first, but honestly, it's no stranger than most religions.

I was more impressed with the visuals in Suspiria than in the story. I liked the use of color in high contrast with the stylistic shadows in the ballet conservatory in general and the rooms in particular. Maybe I'd watch another Argento film in the future. It depends. 

Previously in Halloween Week 2011:
The Ghost of Yotsuya 
The Gorgon

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gorgon

The Gorgon
seen online via YouTube

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are horror movie icons from way back, though these days they're perhaps better known as, respectively, Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars: A New Hope and Saruman from Lord of the Rings (and Count Dooku from the Star Wars prequels... sigh). Naturally, I had read about all the old horror flicks they made, together and separately, but I had never seen any of them until the other night, when I watched The Gorgon, a movie I picked specifically so I could see both of them in action.

Cushing and Lee were, of course, an integral part of the success and longevity of the British production company Hammer Films. Born in the mid-30s and lived through early financial difficulties (including declaring bankruptcy), Hammer got into the horror/sci-fi game in 1955 with The Quatermass Xperiment (AKA The Creeping Unknown), an adaptation of a BBC serial, which became a big hit. Over the next twenty years, they'd become the definitive studio for genre flicks, specializing in Gothic horror. They'd branch out into television in the 80s with a pair of horror anthology series, and eventually, the web in the 00s, and they continue to this day. Let Me In, the recent remake of the Swedish vampire flick Let The Right One In, was a Hammer release.

Cushing and Lee's first Hammer film was the same one, The Curse of Frankenstein from 1957, in which Cushing played Frankenstein and Lee played the monster. (Their first film together was actually Laurence Olivier's Hamlet; Lee's small role was uncredited.) This, also, was a big and influential hit. Cushing became known for his roles as Frankenstein and Van Helsing, while Lee specialized portraying Dracula, though they both made many different kinds of films at Hammer and elsewhere.

Now I know that Hammer horror movies in general and Cushing and Lee in particular are held in high esteem by horror fans, and I suppose there are better films of theirs that I could've picked for my introduction into Hammer horror than The Gorgon, but this is the one I got, so this is the one I'm gonna talk about. Sometime down the road I may talk about their better films.

So let's see: the identity of the female big bad is supposed to be a mystery, yet there's only one major female character. The Gorgon turns dudes to stone if they look at her, yet the transformation process isn't instantaneous, which is mighty convenient to the plot. When dudes get zapped by her, they stumble and flail around in a way that's more hilarious than shocking. And do I even have to go into the quality of the Gorgon makeup?

Cushing and Lee, at least, make this turkey watchable. Cushing strikes me as one part Vincent Price, one part David Niven. He's so earnest in his uptightness. Lee is more of a badass, at least in this movie. They don't have many scenes together, unfortunately. The costumes and sets evoke the Gothic horror trappings quite nicely, though the music is more than a little melodramatic. The story simply didn't sustain my interest for long. I'll try to watch a different Hammer film in the future, though; I realize they can't all be masterpieces.

Previously in Halloween 2011 Week:
The Ghost of Yotsuya

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


seen online via YouTube

I remember seeing The Blair Witch Project with Jenny when it first came out in 1999. It was at the Angelika, and if it wasn't a complete sell-out then it was close. While we liked it, we both found the hand-held footage kinda nauseating after awhile, especially when they were running all over the place in the dark. Perhaps it was inevitable that such guerrilla filmmaking techniques would spark a small revolution in horror movies, one that was exacerbated eight years later - at least in America - with Paranormal Activity.

Now, I don't follow horror that closely, so I can't speak with any authority on just how influential those two films have been, especially since I've not seen PA or its sequels. But I can understand why "found footage" movies, as they've been called, have taken off the way they have. They're reflective of this YouTube age, where anyone from Justin Bieber to Rebecca Black to the "Chocolate Rain" guy can grab their fifteen minutes of fame overnight, regardless of whether or not any actual talent is involved. Cameras have become standard in cellphones now, so it's easier than ever to make a video. And because they've become so ubiquitous, everyone has become documentarians, recording everything from the mundane activities of daily life to political protests and natural disasters.

Personally, I find it more than a little disturbing. I mean, there are already tons of hidden surveillance cameras all over the place, especially here in New York where we're constantly on the lookout for terrorists. Add to that regular people, secretly or not secretly, filming you with their cellphones, for all kinds of reasons, and it's all very Orwellian. Maybe you eat on the subway. Maybe you're the victim of a TV show prank. If one thought about the number of times one is on somebody's camera, daily, it could be enough to keep one from leaving their house. Personally, I've always been somewhat camera shy. I never like the way I look in pictures, because the image I have of myself never quite matches the image I see in a photograph or on video.

I'd heard good things about the Spanish horror flick [REC] and was pleased to find a dubbed version online. (The dubbing was actually quite good.) It too, is in the "found footage" vein: the hostess of a late-night reality TV show (and her cameraman) accompany a group of firefighters to investigate some strange goings-on in an apartment building, but get caught up in a sudden and unexpected quarantine of the building and its residents due to reports of a possible biohazard... but that's only part of the story.

Throughout all of the grizzly proceedings, the hostess constantly implores her cameraman to keep filming - and indeed he does, capturing every dead body and infected resident, in light and in darkness, running up stairwells and peeking through windows, and my mind immediately went back to watching Blair for the first time, and the feelings of disorientation and panic it stirred up. I also thought of how difficult a movie like this is to film. Yes, it's all hand-held, but even with this hand-held work, one has to still be aware of what to show and what not to show, as well as how. The cameraman is part of the story, and he can't hold the camera all the time. I noticed how whenever he does put the camera down, it's usually in a way that we can still see just enough of what's going on without being lost. That's the sort of thing one would have to plan and rehearse carefully.

I was pleased to see that [REC] takes place in Barcelona. I've talked about the summer I spent there before, and I had hoped to spot some familiar landmarks, but alas, I didn't - the whole film takes place at night and we see very little of the city streets.

[REC] doesn't end the way one would expect, so I suppose it's a good thing that they made a sequel that picks up where the original left off. I'll have to watch that too.

Previously in Halloween 2011 Week:
The Ghost of Yotsuya

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Ghost of Yotsuya

The Ghost of Yotsuya AKA Ghost Story of Yotsuya
seen @ Spectacle Theater, Brooklyn NY

I think my first interest in the paranormal began when I was maybe around nine or ten perhaps. I don't remember what it was that sparked it, but I do remember being fascinated with the idea of ghosts and telekinesis and stuff like that, and in particular I remember wishing that I could see a ghost one day. Of course, being a kid, I had no idea what I would do if I were to see a ghost, besides wet my pants, which may be why my initial interest in it didn't last.

My friend Sam actually takes part in expeditions to "haunted houses." I forget how often she and her friends do it, but they go around Central Ohio looking for houses and buildings that supposedly have some kind of supernatural jazz going on. She's posted images on her Facebook page of things that kinda sorta look like a ghost if you look at them long enough and squint your eyes, but they could just as easily be... I dunno, anything else. I think she does it more for fun than for any Agent Mulder-like hardcore belief in the supernatural.

I do believe there are certain things in this world that can't be explained by science - yet. One should remember that we know way more about our world now than we did even a generation ago, and while the gap likely won't be closed within even our grandchildren's lifetimes, it'll be a hell of a lot smaller by then. And the natural world has plenty of bizarre things in it as it is.

I'm told that The Ghost of Yotsuya is a story that dates back to a 19th-century Japanese play and has been filmed over thirty times. It's basically The Crow with swordplay: abused wife of a samurai dies at her husband's hands, comes back as a ghost for revenge. Don't expect any Kurosawa-type sword fights in this one; the few such scenes are lackluster and strangely choreographed. As for gore, there's a little, but by contemporary standards, it's not peek-between-your-fingers bad. What impressed me most about this one was its cinematography and use of color. It reminded me of Powell and Pressburger, the British duo responsible for classics like Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death. I'd recommend this movie for its looks alone.

I saw Yotsuya in a new venue, the Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To call it a theater is perhaps an overstatement; it's basically a tiny screening room - about 25-30 seats. It hasn't been fully renovated and it's very bare bones, but the sound and picture quality was good, and the proprietors clearly have a deep passion and knowledge of movies, if they're showing movies like this (for only five bucks!). I happened to be one of the first to arrive, and I thought perhaps their total audience would be me and the kid across the room from me reading a book, but then more and more people arrived, until the place was almost completely full! Should've known that even a joint as tiny as this would attract an audience in Hipster Ground Zero in New York City.

The seats just barely fit me, and of course, there was no legroom for me at all. I had to twist my legs out into the aisle, which was not all that roomy either. The back was low; another minus. The emcee said that among their upcoming events was a twelve-hour horror marathon, and I couldn't help but shudder at the thought of spending twelve hours in here. Don't get me wrong, though; the Spectacle plays a very eclectic and challenging lineup of films, from what I saw of the trailers they played before the film and the schedule on their website, and anyplace that does that gets a pass from me.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pearl Jam 20/The Swell Season

Pearl Jam 20
seen on TV @ PBS

The Swell Season
seen @ Cinema Village, New York NY

To be honest, I was more of a Soundgarden fan in the 90s. It was my old high school buddy John who got me into them. I was going through my brief metalhead phase in the late 80s-early 90s when John told me about this band from Seattle that sounded kinda like metal, only different. He let me listen to his copy of Badmotorfinger and that was what did it. Pretty soon I started hearing more and more about the new sound represented by Soundgarden and other Seattle bands called "grunge" and that was my new thing. (Before I first heard it, I remember thinking "Smells Like Teen Spirit" must be a Weird Al-like parody song with a title like that - and in a way, it kind of was.)

Pearl Jam was part of that wave, of course, and I loved them too. There are a small handful of songs that, to this day, still make me feel like I did the first time I heard them, and one of those is "Alive." The solo at the end always gives me chills.

John was always three steps ahead of me music-wise, but I think we both had an awareness, on some level, that "grunge" was a fabrication. Still, we didn't care. To us, it was just about the music - and we were certainly under no delusions that Kurt Cobain "spoke" to us. We were two black kids from the inner city (well, John's half black). Our experiences were fundamentally different from most of the MTV Generation. Sure, we identified more with rock than with rap (I've talked about growing up with rap before), and we dug grunge as much as everyone else did, but we also listened to Living Colour and Fishbone (and Tracy Chapman) and they were as important to us, if not more so. That's another story though.

Cameron Crowe's documentary Pearl Jam 20 (a censored version, since this aired on PBS) brought me back to this time in my life, not just when I listened to grunge, but "alternative rock" in general. I was never much of a huge concert goer, but I made it to Lollapalooza (with John) and I saw quite a few bands live during the early-to-mid 90s. Remind me to tell you about the time I saw The Cure at Nassau Colosseum - there's a decent story to go with that. (BTW, if you wanna know more about this period in rock, I highly recommend the book Life on Planet Rock by Lonn Friend.)

Pearl Jam was on the radio all the time, so I knew all their songs. Not that I'm any kind of singer, but Eddie Vedder's voice was right within my vocal range, which made PJ songs easier to sing along to than Soundgarden songs. Chris Cornell did a lot more wailing and screeching, which is cool and all, because he's great at it, but I think Vedder has a slightly better overall voice. Slightly. And of course both of them are better singers than Cobain, who just mumbled everything.

So I got older, my musical tastes evolved again, and like Devo, I decided I was through being cool. Whatever music I liked was whatever I liked, regardless of whether it was "in" or not. I drifted back into pop and rap a little, and I rediscovered oldies - music from my parents' generation. When I was in Columbus, my roommate Max told me about Pandora and I discovered a bunch of new bands (and old bands that were new to me) through that website. And then one day I went to see a small Irish film called Once...

Much has been written of the fairy tale-like romance between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of Once, who would win an Oscar for their song "Falling Slowly." I was quite impressed with the movie's unassuming, character-driven narrative, which flew in the face of 99% of Hollywood romance movies. I saw them with their band, The Swell Season, live last year, and again, let me reiterate - they're no genteel folkie band, at least not all of the time. Hansard is one of the most intense live performers I've ever seen.

Their subsequent post-Oscar success is chronicled in the documentary The Swell Season, which could be considered the sequel to Once ("Twice"?). I kept thinking about how young Irglova is (about 20 or 21) and how fame has been thrust upon her so suddenly. It's not like she's worked half her life for it, as Hansard has - and even he doesn't seem completely at peace with his newfound fame. In her case, it seems as if she just needs some space every once in awhile to be a normal girl again, which is completely understandable. The whole world has this image of the two of them together, almost like pop music royalty in a way, and it's easy to imagine how stifling that can be. It's perhaps no great surprise, then, that they did break up romantically, though not professionally.

For all that, though, their relationship as seen in the documentary seems rather chaste (the skinny dipping scene notwithstanding). Hansard met Irglova when she was something like fifteen, I think, and while she makes it clear that she fell for him as much as he did for her over the course of time, it's hard not to squirm a bit at the wide age difference. (Though in fairness, Europeans have a different attitude about that sort of thing than we Americans.)

So what, if anything, do these two films have in common besides the obvious? For one thing, they both go deeply into how both bands cope with the consequences of fame. Also, Vedder and Hansard both have father issues. "Alive" was written after Vedder discovered the man he thought was his father actually wasn't, and that his real father had died. A number of subsequent PJ songs deal with the relationships between parents and children, to varying degrees. Hansard talks about how his father kept secrets from his family right up until his death, secrets which he drank heavily to keep from them.

In addition, both films indicate, to me, how difficult finding the right chemistry for a band truly is. Pearl Jam 20 discusses original lead singer Andrew Wood (when they were still called Mother Love Bone) and how devastating his death was. Finding Vedder when they did was a godsend - and, as they admit later on, it changed the dynamic of the group significantly. Hansard, by contrast, played in bands for years prior to hooking up with Irglova, but when he did it was clear that something had changed. He jokes about how "Falling Slowly" was a less macho song than what he was used to while playing with guys for so long.

After watching Season on Saturday, I went to see an actual live band. My pal Dave and his wife Martha are part of a folk/country band called Home Cookin' (she sings, he plays the saxophone) that were playing in a Queens cafe. Apparently they don't get to rehearse too often, as some of them were reading off of sheet music. Dave has played in several different bands in the past, including his own, so maybe that's part of the reason why. Not sure. They sounded good, if a bit ragged in places (Martha was playing with a cold), and for a cozy basement room in a cafe, they got a fair amount of people (the last time I saw them at this venue, the crowd was a little bigger).

Once again, I thought of how important chemistry is in a band. For a band that doesn't rehearse often, they still sounded fairly cohesive. They didn't appear to feel any pressure, as was evident by their playful banter between songs, but then, it's not like they were playing the Beacon Theater. I'm not certain how the two of them would deal with sudden fame, though I have my suspicions. From what Dave has told me in the past, I get the impression being a musician is less of a career aspiration for Martha than it is for him, though she has been in a band before. Unlike Hansard and Irglova, they're much closer in age, and they have goals of their own outside of the band. They still enjoy doing what they do, though, which is good to see.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Kid in King Arthur's Court

A Kid in King Arthur's Court
seen online via YouTube

LAMB Acting School 101 is a regular event in which LAMB bloggers discuss the work and career of a given actor. This month's subject is Kate Winslet. The complete list of posts for this month will go up October 30 at the LAMB site.

If you're an Oscar follower, you may remember in 2008 when Kate Winslet made the cover of Vanity Fair with a blurb that said, "Do I want an Oscar? You bet your @*&%#ing ass I do!" Crass? I suppose so. Honest? Absolutely! A lot was made about Winslet's open Oscar lust, and of course, she would go on to win one, for The Reader from that same year, but I think one could argue that Winslet's place in film history would still be secure if she never won an Oscar at all. Consider:

- She's one half of the Titanic duo. Our generation's Gone With the Wind, no matter what you may think of the film itself. (Personally, I think it's half of a great movie.)

- She's a world-class beauty. Hitchcock would've loved her. It's quite easy to see her in the same context as Joan Fontaine, Grace Kelly, or Ingrid Bergman, those great Hitchcock leading ladies. For awhile she kinda went up and down weight-wise, but I always thought the extra pounds made her look more womanly and sensual.

- She's a world class beauty that has been NAKED a lot! The Titanic scene alone would be enough, but very few A-list actresses have bared all as often as Kate has, the key distinction here being "A-list." It's not like she's some bimbo that does direct-to-DVD horror movies.

- She's a legitimately amazing actress who has worked with great directors. James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Kenneth Branagh, Ang Lee, Michel Gondry, Marc Forster, Sam Mendes, Stephen Daldry, Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, and Roman Polanski, all before the age of 40, all of them either critical or commercial successes, or both (well, we won't know how big the Polanski film will be until it opens later this year).

And then there was that Golden Globes acceptance speech. Angelina Jolie won't forget it, even if everyone else does.

I'd seen Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, Hamlet '96, Titanic, Hideous Kinky, Holy Smoke, Quills, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Children, and The Reader, but I wanted to remind myself of what she was like before she blew up, so I chose to watch what may be her worst film: A Kid in King Arthur's Court! And boy, is this one bad. She was coming off of Heavenly Creatures, which I think might still be my favorite movie of hers (not just for the lesbianism, either! It's a powerful and sympathetic role which she absolutely nails). Later in this same year, 1995, she'd appear in Sense and Sensibility, which would really put her on Hollywood's radar. 

In-between, however, she made this silly Disney kiddie trifle. Her role isn't as big as I had hoped - she's one half of the story's beta couple and doesn't have many scenes with star Thomas Ian Nicholas - but holy cow, she gets to lip-lock with James Bond! (And she's surprisingly good with a crossbow...) 

Winslet gives it her best, but the script does her absolutely no favors. I think she would've still broken through as a star if she hadn't moved from this to Sense - Creatures was simply too good for her to have been overlooked - but it might've taken a bit longer. As it is, she's made few real missteps in choosing roles, and she's one of the few A-listers left who has avoided making big-budget sci-fi/comic book extravaganzas (so far).

Anyway, she's got her Oscar now. It doesn't appear to have changed the quality of the roles she's taken. Hopefully that won't change.

Previously in LAMB Acting School:
Natalie Portman
Gary Oldman
Willem Dafoe
Meryl Streep

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The NeverEnding Story

The NeverEnding Story
last seen online via YouTube

I was a fairly avid reader as a child. I still have some of the books I read, too - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte's Web, as well as some lesser known children's books. I'm told by my mother that I learned to read at a quick clip. I suspect that must be true because I know that I learned to write quickly. I don't remember if I had a preference for fantasy or not; I read real-world stories as much as I did anything else. Judy Blume's "Fudge" stories were a particular favorite, as I recall.

When I was in sixth grade, my Language Arts teacher, Ms. Brooks, whom I've written about here before, gave me a particular book. Now, I'm not sure whether or not I was the only one in my class whom she gave a copy to - I know I wasn't that special - and I don't recall whether or not I ever asked her. Still, I remember feeling honored, and privileged, that she would choose me to begin with. Ms. Brooks inspired a great deal of loyalty in us. She was that rare one in a thousand teachers who went above and beyond for her students, and we were aware of this.

Anyway, the book was called The Castle of the Pearl. I think I still have it buried in one of my closets somewhere. It was unlike any book I'd seen before or since - it was an interactive fantasy "story" that doubled as a kind of personal diary. It's difficult to explain; basically it casts the reader as the main character, wandering through a castle of many chambers, and through a series of introspective questions, invites the reader to document and examine their own personal hopes and dreams, loves and fears.

Now, I should reiterate that this book was given to me in sixth grade. I couldn't have been older than ten or eleven years old. I suppose I liked to think of myself as being more mature than I was, but you know how it is when you're a kid - everything means so much more than it actually does. Puppy-love crushes seem like True Love, your parents are either the best or the worst people ever, depending on how much they put up with your crap, and the friends you make you figure you'll keep forever.

And now here I was being given this book by one of the adults I trusted most outside of my immediate family, in which I'm asked all these questions about my life, which I've lived so little of. It was an honor... but it felt very strange as well. Still, I gave it a go. Like I said, if I do still have this book, it's buried in a closet somewhere, so I don't remember how much of it I completed or what I wrote, but I know I wrote quite a bit in it - mostly about friends I haven't seen or even thought about in years, thoughts about my family which have no doubt evolved over time, and wishes that I'm sure don't completely reflect the person I've become or the life I've led since. Still, what remains prominent in my mind is the trust Ms. Brooks had in me, the faith she had that I was indeed mature enough to be given such a unique book.

I thought of that as I watched The NeverEnding Story last night. I first saw it as a kid, of course; around the same time Ms. Brooks gave me Castle, in fact (though I don't recall how much overlap time there was, if any). As an adult, I can more clearly see the structure of the story, and how Bastian's thoughts and dreams shape the story as he's reading it. As a kid, I didn't completely grok that, though I do remember how freaked out I was towards the end, when the Fantasia characters directly acknowledge his presence (and by extension, the audience's), right when their world is about to go kablooey. One did not see characters in a live-action movie break the fourth wall very much as a kid.

This is one of those movies that I fear Hollywood may try to remake sometime in the future. (Bad enough they made a sequel.) I'll admit, it would be cool to see characters like Falkor and the Rock-Biter rendered in CGI, if for no other reason than that their mouth movements would match their spoken words (the limits of animatronics). Still, it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't have the same feeling of realness to it, a concept I've examined here before. Look at that image of Gmork and tell me that doesn't scare, or at least unsettle, the hell out of you. (Falkor's actually kinda scary looking too...!) So here's hoping they leave this one alone.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is performance-capture filmmaking animation?

...The performance-capture process, in which a performer's movements and facial expressions are recorded and then translated by computer into the movements and expression of an onscreen character, has been used to great effect in the "Lord of the Rings" films, in "Avatar," and more recently in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." It has also given rise to a whole genre of films that skirt a middle ground between live-action and animation, from Robert Zemeckis's "The Polar Express" and "A Christmas Carol" to the Oscar-winning "Happy Feet."

The Short Films and Feature Animation Branch [of AMPAS] has been grappling for years with the question of whether films based in motion capture are truly animated. In 2010 the branch added specific language covering motion capture to its rules for qualifying for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. The rules point out that motion capture "by itself is not an animation technique" and stipulate that "a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time," requiring that "movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique." Three films that could potentially qualify this year are affected by this rule...

We've talked about performance-capture filmmaking here before, but now that the Oscar season is in full swing, the question is being brought up once more as to whether certain films that rely heavily on P-cap can truly be considered animation, and therefore qualify for the Best Animated Feature category. It's a very thorny issue, because whatever side AMPAS ultimately falls on will undoubtedly have far-reaching repercussions: for instance, will P-cap performances finally be considered acting in the traditional sense and be judged as such?

I asked several friends (via Facebook) who are either animators by trade or well-versed in the history of animation whether or not they thought P-cap qualifies as animation. As you might imagine, the answers could not be boiled down to a simple yes or no.

The comparison to rotoscoping - animators tracing over live-action film - was brought up. Rotoscoping can also be used as a reference, as Walt Disney did when making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Also, when it has been used directly, like in Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings, the actors used as models generally have not been as well-recognized as someone like Andy Serkis has for his P-cap work. One notable exception is Max Fleischer's brother Dave, the model for the character Koko the Clown.

The consensus idea that my animation friends gravitated toward was that P-cap is filmmaking that requires an animator's eye and skill to succeed. The Polar Express and Tron: Legacy were cited as examples of sticking rigidly close to the original human model, and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Happy Feet as examples of deviating from the model, and the latter was agreed to be better. In this sense, they said, P-cap is a filmmaking tool and not a replacement for animation.

In terms of the Oscar animation race, the article quoted above makes mention of the possibility that three P-cap films - Mars Needs Moms, Happy Feet Two and Tintin - could make the difference in how many animated films will be eligible, and the big question raised is whether the Academy will risk displeasing someone as powerful as Steven Spielberg by ruling against him.

I tend to agree with my friends in that P-cap is a filmmaking tool. In terms of the Oscar animation race, it's hard to see the Academy telling Spielberg no, Tintin is not animation. I believe as more industry folks learn about the process, it'll eventually become more accepted, but that'll take time - and it still may not completely erase the idea that a P-cap performance, such as Serkis' in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is not the same as a traditional live-action one.


Monday, October 17, 2011

They Live

They Live
last seen online via YouTube

LAMBs in the Director's Chair is an ongoing event in which LAMB bloggers discuss the work and career of a given director. The current subject is John Carpenter. The complete list of posts for this event will go up October 31 at the LAMB site.

Wrestling! It's goofy, completely over-the-top, and staged to a ridiculous degree - but gosh darn it, in the end, it's all in the name of good clean fun, ain't it? Well, most of the time, anyway. As a kid, I was completely hooked on it thanks to a friend in grade school whose wrestling idols included dudes like Superfly Jimmy Snuka and Superstar Billy Graham.

This, of course, was back in the heyday of the World Wrestling Federation. Everybody remembers Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Macho Man Randy Savage (still can't believe he's dead, man...). If you were a fan in those days, you may also remember Nikolai Volkoff, the Iron Sheik, the Hart Foundation, the British Bulldogs, the Killer Bees, George "The Animal" Steele, the Junkyard Dog, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Ted "The Million Dollar Man" Dibiase, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, and future Minnesota governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura, among many others. My favorite was a guy named Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, who won the Intercontinental Championship (I think he beat Macho Man to win it, if I remember correctly).

I grew out of wrestling as I got older, but every so often I take a peek at the WWF's successor, the WWE, to see what's going on. I've seen a few Wrestlemanias in the past few years, for instance, and from the looks of things, wrestling has upped the spectacle element by a factor of about 500, although I'm sure that comes with an even higher cost in terms of physical pain. The career of Mick "Mankind" Foley is an excellent example of the toll pro wrestling takes on a human body - and of course, the Darren Aronofsky film The Wrestler spared no expense in showing all the bumps and bruises up close.

Hollywood seemed like a natural match for wrestling. For every Andre the Giant role in The Princess Bride, however, there were at least half a dozen crappy movies destined for the dollar-bin. The Rock Dwayne Johnson seems to be getting by these days, but it's not like his roles have been all that memorable either (as far as I'm concerned, he still has a long way to go to make up for that episode of Star Trek: Voyager).

Which brings us to Rowdy Roddy Piper. He was one of those guys you loved to hate, though I tend to remember him less for his wrestling and more for his mouth. It seemed like he was always getting on the microphone, talking smack about somebody. Perhaps that was simply his "role." Who would've imagined, then, that his Hollywood breakthrough would be as a good guy in a wryly subversive sci-fi action movie from one of the genre's most successful filmmakers?

John Carpenter's They Live speaks to the themes of class warfare and media manipulation in its tale of a secret alien infiltration of humanity, themes that sadly still ring true today, as the Occupy Wall Street protesters will no doubt agree. Piper acquits himself quite well. When he's not kicking ass and chewing bubble gum, he's got a modicum of sensitivity that peeks through here and there. It doesn't make him Harrison Ford, but it makes him watchable in a movie like this. If the script didn't feel the need to succumb to action-movie one-liners so often, the film would be even better.

Carpenter, of course, is best known as the director of Halloween, regarded by many as the ur-slasher flick and the basis for everything from Jason to Freddy to Ghostface to Jigsaw. He often likes to combine genres - They Live could just as easily be considered a horror movie - and he can go from serious to silly within the same movie. For all its pulp hero campiness, there are scenes in They Live that are also grim and somber. The 70s and 80s are perhaps Carpenter's best years creatively. Surprisingly, he hasn't ventured into television much in recent years, other than his contributions to the Masters of Horror series.

In addition to They Live, I've seen Halloween, Escape From New York, Escape From LA (which I got dragged to; I was out-voted), The Thing and Starman. My favorite movie of his would have to be The Thing.


Previously in LAMBs in the Director's Chair:
Francis Ford Coppola
Terry Gilliam
Spike Lee
Frank Oz

Friday, October 14, 2011

Freeze Frame: The WSW roundtable take 3

So we're back once again to talk about what's going on in the film world. Once again we're joined by three of the LAMB's finest: Univarn from A Life in Equinox, Andrew from Encore's World of Film and TV, and Clara from Just Chick Flicks.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Ides of March

The Ides of March
seen @ Cobble Hill Cinemas, Brooklyn NY

I'll never forget the time I saw Barack Obama give a speech. This was when I lived in Columbus, which was during the height of his presidential campaign. This was one of several visits he made to Ohio during my time there. In addition to the state being a pivotal election battleground, it had a Democrat governor, and Columbus had a black Democrat mayor (he's still there; the governor isn't). The speech was held in a plaza on the western side of a bridge leading to the downtown area. The city skyline framed Obama as he spoke to a huge crowd in mid-October. By this point I had already cast my vote for him; I had never voted early in a presidential election before, but when I discovered I could do so, I figured why not.

I remember thinking how important it was to stay focused on the content of his message and to not get swept up in the fervor of the enthusiastic crowd. I've been to political rallies before, but this was different. There was a palpable sense that the audience not just wanted, but needed this man to be the one to fix the many problems created by George W. Bush. It was not unlike being at a sporting event or a concert, but it also felt more urgent.

On the night of the election, Ohio was declared to be for Obama relatively early in the race. Obama had already built an early lead, but if I recall correctly, the belief still existed that John McCain could come back. I remember thinking that he may have clinched the victory by taking the "swing state," a state that could've easily gone either way, and as it turned out, he did. And we all remember the overwhelming sense of joy and euphoria from most of the nation that accompanied Obama's victory for weeks afterward. Seems so far away now, doesn't it?

There are a whole lot of betrayals, compromises, lies and secrets over the course of the movie The Ides of March, which follows the campaign of an Obama-like Democratic presidential candidate through the primaries stage in Ohio. I was a bit disappointed that it's mostly set in Cincinnati. The only mention of Columbus is by a minor character late in the film, who proclaims that that's where she's from. (Still, between this, Take Shelter and Super 8, it's been a pretty good year for Ohio-based films!) It's gotten some criticism over the belief that it doesn't say anything new, and maybe it doesn't, but I still found it engrossing, and obviously it made me think of my first-hand experience with following a presidential race from the Buckeye State. 

Someone says in the film that Democrats aren't willing to do the things Republicans do in order to get ahead, a notion that has been expressed elsewhere. Without getting into a big laundry list of the faults of both parties, let me just say that maybe if there was less bitterness and vitriol on both sides and more reasoned, rational and level-headed discussion, there might be less need for dirty tricks and sabotage and betrayal in politics. Crazy thought, I know.

The Cobble Hill is a small neighborhood theater near downtown Brooklyn, the sister theater of the Kew Gardens, which I've talked about plenty of times. Ides is actually the second George Clooney film I've seen there; the first being Up in the Air. I also saw Avatar there. I went there to take advantage of the Tuesday discount, but for some reason, it wasn't in effect for Ides. I rushed to the box office just as the film was starting and handed the box office clerk my money, only to see a sign at the window specifically saying that the usual Tuesday and Thursday discount would not apply for the first two weeks of Ides' screening. I've encountered similar restrictions for SONY/Columbia films before, at the Sunnyside theater, and I'm wondering how rampant this practice is? Anybody else ever encounter this? I'd really like to know.

I like the Cobble Hill fine, but the seats are a little too small for me. No stadium seating here, but the seats feel a bit tight and there's not enough legroom (keep in mind that I'm a bit larger than the average moviegoer). Fortunately, the seats have high backs, unlike the Sunnyside, so I still had a modicum of comfort.