film

The Gothic Kaiju: Daimajin

DaimajinNestled in a mountainside an idol awaited supplicants. Hewn from stone and isolated from the village below, the idol’s only constant companion was the sound of a towering waterfall crashing below. Prayers from acolytes were few and arose only when he moved the earth. This is the world of 1966’s Daimajin. Premiering at a time when Godzilla was the king of the Japanese box office, Daimajin was period drama punctuated by 40 foot-tall rampaging god. In the process of telling its kaiju climaxing tale, Daimajin however serves as perhaps the only example of gothic film making in the kaiju tradition.

The film’s gothic style comes through its use of lighting, music, and shot composition. Daimajin’s gothic aesthetic accentuates and builds the tension and mood in the absence of the rampaging god, known as Arakatsuma. Rumblings in the earth, attributed to the disgruntled god, draw villagers and scorn from the otherwise benevolent leader. Framed through his reassurance of his panicked children, the leader explains their god will protect them from the old god shaking the earth. Villagers, however, do not share this opinion as they rush to perform rituals to appease the occulted god.

Reenacting fabled battles of good against evil in costumes of wood and straw, the villagers pray and gesticulate under firelight and the supervision of a black toothed priestess. This scene echoes the rituals and rites performed in folk horror films in the British tradition. Daimajin does not frame these rituals as strange or farcical, but as deeply important to the spiritual and physical survival of a fading Japan. One example of the change happening to the village is the presence of soldiers bearing muskets. Where only gods could hurl bolts and strike men down, now men could do the same. While subtle and often overlooked, the matchlock muskets of the soldiers is contrasted to the weathered, faceless idol nestled into the mountainside. Dressed in archaic armor, the idol is symbolic of old Japan. Its armor, dating back 800 years of a style long since vanished, in an age of muskets is a visual reminder to the view of the ancient ways contiguous to the bedrock of Japan. The armored god repels the volley of musket fire, further signifying the resilience and invulnerability of old Japan and its gods.

 

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The gothic filmmaking of Daimajin, directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda, rumbles to life with the use of smoke and vivid lighting designed to evoke the otherworldly or supernatural. The film starts with a pan through  fog shrouded forest and even a howling wolf. Mist engulfs the village, syphoning away any color. A coup overthrows the village old leadership to be replaced with a sadistic, if caricaturish, despot who vows to kill the protector god. When the despot sends a cadre up to destroy the mountain idol, the stone avatar for the god, Yasuda relies on crumbling miniatures and moving sets swirling with smoke and accentuated by flashes of green and white light. A chasm swallows soldiers in a final burst of strange green light, only to draw tight as the maw of the earth. Yasuda’s further use of smoke pierced by a knife-like column of white light creates a visual cue that registers with filmgoers of the western religious tradition as well. Preceding the attempt to kill the mountain god by driving an iron spike through the idol’s forehead, the despot kills the village priestess. Each sword strike weakens her further, but not before she utters a curse upon him. Here Yasuda dramatically and overtly changes the lighting in theater style, dropping background light to pitch dark and isolating the minions, despot and dying priestess in a faded indirect light. This keeps the viewer physically in the space, but psychologically ripped away into a shadow world that shows the supernatural is merely a cursed breath away.

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Yasuda’s use of tones of grey in the color film, as well as smart camera work continue to create unsettling feelings in the viewer well before the arrival of the demon god. Sense of dread and uncanny pervade the first two-thirds of the film to eventually give way to an angry god astride an unfaithful world. Released from his mountain keep, the kami lays waste to the village crushing and hurling vassals and soldiers alike. In one startling moment, as the despot attempts to flee the rampaging god, he looks out of a home to see a man being crushed into and through a wall by the massive green patina hand of Arakatsuma. Pulling free the iron stake still lodged in his head Arakatsuma impales the tyrant to a crucifix-like piece of wreckage.

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Aesthetically, Daimajin lives in the world of gothic cinema found in the 60s heyday of the Hammer films and not normally associated with Japanese kaiju films of the period. Some may complain about the story pace or lack of destruction by the green hued armored humanoid. I contend the pace is particularly well suited and even mature for a “monster movie” often dismissed by western viewers. The creeping horror well known in gothic cinema in Europe is equally present in Daimajin and deserves a place in the pantheon of classic gothic film making.

The Numinous and Fiery Redemption of David Ayer’s El Diablo

diabloActor Jay Hernandez told Entertainment Weekly he’d recently contemplated leaving acting. His work in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad however should show Hollywood the actor needs more roles. The actor’s talent, explored in the character El Diablo, was overshadowed by the portrayals of gum-snapping criminal Harley Quinn and verbose machismo of Deadshot. When the emotional weight needed to be hoisted and shown to the world, Hernandez more than ably demonstrated the dark redemption of the sublime.

Without spoiling the character’s precise motivations, Diablo articulates his burden of pyrokinesis to his squad mates in a pivotal barroom scene. Since his introduction early in the film, the tattooed former gang-banger possesses a heaviness to heart. Refusing to wield his flame throwing powers for anyone or any cause, for a portion of the film he remains a silent spectator. Ayer and Hernandez seem to have synced perfectly in order to bring this character to life. Diablo’s language is philosophical and spiritual, but not uplifting or sin cleansing. The character is burdened by an evil gift, bestowed to him by the devil, that is inescapable and an emotional flare up away.

Perhaps the best articulation of Diablo’s eventual embrace of his power comes from Rudolf Otto’s numinous and mysterium tremendum et fascinans.The numinous is Otto’s interaction with a deity that is closely identified with mystery, fear, and awe. Through this fearful interaction with a god or even a strange physical manifestation can a character like Diablo experience the dread that eventually manifests itself as an almost ecstasy. Diablo, in a particularly Hollywood way, rises to the occasion by embracing the power welling inside him. He transcends his physical form into a being of mythic fire. This act by Diablo comes when he understands his sins and gift are connected, are one and inextricable. How can a figure not seeking redemption ultimately find it? In Ayer’s Diablo, the fire inside is rekindled by grief and anger. Fire equals sin. Fire equals the terrible gift. Fire however could produce redemption.

Diablo finds redemption even when he does not ask for it or seek it. His grief is a chain that anchors him to the world of the fire within. By using the power that led him into despair Diablo melts the Earthly chain that binds him to the physical world of grief, desire, and pain. Embracing the power of the numinous Ayer’s Diablo becomes a savior without asking for forgiveness.

 

Star Wars Movies Need to be Period Pieces

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The costumes! The weapons! The Hair!

To me when I think of Star Wars I think special effects, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and sideburns. What? Let me explain.

I finally got around to re-watching The Force Awakens last week. I found it fairly entertaining the first time, but during the second viewing I was a little bored. I am not sure why and it is not a wholesale indictment of the film, my disliking it. There was something off. Perhaps it was the vague whiff of rehash of a New Hope. Or maybe I couldn’t ignore the echoing howls from fans demanding a romance between characters. No offense folks, but I paid to see a Space Opera not a Soap Opera.

However I realized between the first and second watching of The Force Awakens there is a certain amount of aesthetic authenticity missing in this nascent cinema go-around. Yes, The Force Awakens looked sort of like Star Wars IV, V, VI in costumes, but the blasters were a weird mix of cheap plastic feather-light Nerf props and weird 21st century video-game plasma melee weapons. The new Stormtroopers looked like an advance generation of the classic design, so that worked. Same for the new X-Wings and pilot jumpsuits. Then what was off, aesthetically? Everything. Yes, I know The Force Awakens takes place some 30 years after Jedi and only Rogue One and the other spin-offs take place in the same time frame as the “original” trio. Let me explain.

First off, this is not an indictment of lens flare or director choice color pallets; nor a complaint about casting or even the basic plot. My beef is the original Star Wars movies- New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi- weren’t movies conjured from a galaxy far, far away. No, they were creations of aesthetics of the 1970s and very early 1980s. This is vitally important to understanding why for some of us, the new films seem a little off and we can’t put our finger on why. Go back and watch the Star Wars prequels. For all their issues, they are films that look kind of like Star Wars but not really. They crib from the design sheet of the original trilogy but lack the production/costume/makeup/hair continuity to them. Stylistically it would make sense to have pushed the aesthetic to the dawn of the space age, say the early 1960s. Instead they look like late 1990s movies.

But back to aesthetics, let me show you.

Via starwarsscreencaps.com

The above image of Luke and Aunt Beru is vintage 1970s. Hair especially. Clothes, like Beru’s wide collar farmer print shirt and denim smock, are products of costume designs of the 1970s. Now, remember, its about aesthetics.

                                                     Via NotShallow.org

Above is a classic denim ad from a department store catalog. Bits and pieces of these everyday clothes could have easily been thrown on working class extras at Mos Eisley or blue milk farmers.

via Starwarsscreencaps.com

Here, in the infamous scene where we see Vader encounter skeptical techno-crats, the style of the Star Wars universe is directly influenced by the aesthetic of the 1970s. Gloss black table, probably plastic, and the single piece chairs are the sleek yet dated decor of four decades ago. They work because they are objects out of time. Also, notice the hair again. By example, here is a 1970s coffee table.

       Via Panomo.com

Very Star Wars like, no?

via Starwarsscreencaps.com

Finally, the Cantina. This is 1970s barroom at its most glorious. Plastic race-track top, padded bumpers and a kit-bashed appearance that made a New Hope so different. It was design in a messy way. It was the original shabby-chic. One part production design, one part budgetary constraints.

So, my point is this…if you want to make a aesthetically authentic, therefore subconsciously pleasing Star Wars film without having to slavishly meet the needs of fandom, production and costume design the movie as if you were making a film in the 1970s or even early 1980s, about a story set in a distant time. Think coarse polyester and rotary phones, think American Hustle or Studio 54; and expunge touchscreens or cellphones from your creativity memory. Future Star Wars movies need to aesthetically echo the time the universe was originally created, not just mirror a design philosophy in perpetuity. A copy of a copy gets dull with each pass.

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens- An Asymmetric View

I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy. Saw A New Hope in theaters at age six. Loved it then. Love it now. The implied backstory, cryptic references to long ago wars and blitzkrieg Empire, heroes with strange names and a menagerie of magnificent creatures all made Star Wars perfect for kids, adolescents or teens; as well as sci-fi devotee adults. I grew older, my science fiction palate diversified and expanded, but I always had a soft spot for those first three Episodes and their associated action figures and toy ships.

I saw the prequels with some excitement, but not ecstasy. I was never charmed by them, often put off by wooden dialogue, stiff acting, and mind-numbing CGI. To me, they exist, but as ill-conceived experiments rather than fully formed exercises in film making. I was also a little ‘old’ and busy with professional life to embrace The Clone Wars animated series, the Star Wars touchstone for the 25-and-under crowd. All of this leads me to The Force Awakens.

Filled with anticipatory glee and goosebumps, I awaited the pre-Christmas release with bated breath. I saw it. I liked it. Didn’t love it. I felt the magic was gone. Understandable, it can’t recapture the alchemy of big screen science fiction’s effect on a 6-year-old’s brain. Surely, though, a skilled film making team could induce chills and thrills reminiscent of those heady days of 1977? Maybe lighting cues, camera filters, score triggers, or the nuanced details of in-camera traditional FX could tease out the warm comfort of days gone by? Think of a favorite Christmas song and how it immerses you in the smells, coziness, and bliss of an amalgamated holiday gone by. You are not attempting recreation a specific moment in time, but rather a pleasant echo or whiff of scents which create a WHOLE picture of a broad timeline.

It is there where my issue with what Star Wars, especially The Force Awakens, has become and where it falls short. Instead of crafting a symphony of sights and sounds that create a new story with colors and sensations of the old pallet, TFA instead attempts to repeat rather coldly a nostalgia. This is never a good thing. Nostalgia can cripple creativity. Instead of working through the toolbox you go back to the same components time and time again in a subconscious, or planned, attempt at recreating a moment gone by. When modern viewers watched TFA they wanted, nay, demanded answers and immediate backstories to every conceivable question about the film. A cool ancillary character is clamored over and consumed, cries for more require immediate satiation online. Main character shortcomings or directorial/production weaknesses are explained away or ignored. This is storytelling by 1,000 pin pricks. Each bleeding a little more life away from the story.

When a Stormtrooper engages Finn in hand to hand combat within hours and days complete backstories are cobbled together by official sources. This starkly differs from almost EVERYTHING that made A New Hope special. Clone Wars? No explanation. Hints and suggestions, backhanded comments about extinct religions and outdated weapons are views from the outside in. The examples of unexplained, but interwoven, backstories fill every corner of the original trilogy. Some are slowly expounded upon. Others hover in the background. These are often passed over by fans and critics, who understand the universe with hindsight. Why then can’t we approach the coming movies in the franchise with the same template. Does it have to exist in Wookieepedia before or immediately after? Can’t off-handed remarks or hints be left to breath a moment or two? Yes we know the Force inside and out. But why must we have in one movie answers to everything that happened in the previous 30 years? The better demand is not for answers to old questions, but wonder about what did the Force become or turn into? No, instead we pound the keyboards and want to know about why Luke was barely in the film, despite being the focal point of the opening scroll. Perhaps Captain Phasma will become this generation’s Boba Fett, fleshed out in movies to come? But the marketing build up resulted in ballistic expectations for the chrome clad trooper. Instead of a stoic bad-ass, we got a wooden, three scene character who succumbs to the simplest tactical bait. Perhaps the most simplistic and angry demand is the one levied on director JJ Abrams on his handling of R2-D2. The fact that R2 is relegated to a dusty corner and awakens at the post-climax is considered a massive plot hole. Why MUST we know or understand why the loyal droid is in stasis? Why can’t we wonder, speculate and dream about his state? Instead fans consider it an indictment of the director’s storytelling ability and a plot hole. I liked this handling, felt sorry for R2 and left wanting more. That is what episodic storytelling does best. Unless every nuance or shiny object is explained, apparently we are to view it as a failure.

We have 30 years of history to tell in these new Star Wars movies and we have a generation more of new discoveries to make. We cannot live in the past in an attempt to recreate nostalgia as at its heart nostalgia is subjective, a personal observation made in a single moment in time and space. A painters pallet is dollops of colors, each selectively daubed to suggest a scene. The whole is new, but echoes the old. Pursuit of the old to clone it anew only creates muddled mutations that never stand the test of time. And remember, nostalgia is defined as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”

Institutional Knowledge Lost: Rick Baker Retires

bakerwerewolfRick Baker is a legend, a key face on the Mount Rushmore of make-up and special FX practioners. Men like Baker, Savini, Bottin, Harryhausen, Edlund and Winston were rock stars to me as a kid. I knew their work by heart, each bringing a new discipline or creative take to the cinema. Recently, Baker announced his retirement from make-up effects work. It is sad news for the movie industry, but not entirely unexpected.

If you are a regular reader, you know I am not a huge fan of digital special effects. I can count on one hand CGI films that I actually like- Jurassic Park I because CGI was innovative- as an example. Now digital effects are cheap, washed out, deny basic laws of physics and end up blurring the line between animation/video game/live action for the worse.

Baker leaves at the twilight of practical FX, even as directors like Miller, Nolan and Blomkamp attempt to keep it alive. Undercut by digital effects, the art of the practical, hands on artistry of Baker and cohorts is being shuffled into the warehouse of movie history.

That is a damn shame.

Yes, even I admit many make-up effects of the “good old days” were not always convincing, but they were always remarkable, striking and look like effort went into creating them. The minute servos, motors, hand milled articulated miniature, tiny air bladders, unique mixtures of resins or rubbers, and the fine work of stop-motion, all had a workman quality to them. They were achievable, with lots of practice, but were never so easy that they should be taken for granted.

When talents like make-up artists and practical effects artists work now, they are almost novelties or boutique projects crowdfunded or paid for out of their own pockets. I would watch a personal short film made by any FX great if it adheres to the old ways of film making. All effects types and disciplines have their place, but to lose a generation of artists to cost cutting or puerile ideas of what “looks good” is a travesty. Watch American Werewolf in London for the ultimate transformation scene. Admire the photographic tricks of the campy, but technical superior, Mighty Joe Young. These were the old ways. Not always the best, but always earnest and beautiful.

Now we live in a digital age where eyes of television and movie viewers, raised on a generation of video games and simple CGI, are used to the physics defying perfectly polished. Atmospheric distortion, motion blur and articulation that adhere to physiology are almost entirely lost in this new special effects world.

Baker and his colleagues operated in the strictly physical world. If it didn’t fit on or around an actor, then they did it miniature or in stop-motion. Arduous and time consuming was the work of Baker. It was artistic and beautiful in craftsmanship.

The film making craft has gotten a little less hands-on and a lot less smart with Baker’s departure from the industry.

Assault on Original Sci-Fi: Have Fans Become Agents of the Machine?

Something has happened to original celluloid science/speculative fiction in recent years. Creators of new ideas, those stories generated through inspiration or ideas scribbled in notebooks as a child, are assailed and mercilessly pilloried for seemingly minor entertainment transgressions.

Somewhere along the line some vocal fans- yes every film is designed for public consumption as part of the entertainment industry- have gone from spectators to participants in the shaping and marketing of science fiction films. Money is to be made by giving the fans what they want, true. But what about original works that make it the silver screen? Advocates for original, not adapted stories, are few and far between. It seems a fashion to deliberately mock and attack creators of original science fiction ideas on film.

If you await the next big-named science fiction/superhero franchise, there is no quarrel. We find comfort in the familiar and escapist. But the quarrel lay with those who hoist these new movies above all others and denigrate ideas that aren’t spawned, in particular, from sequential art exemplified with the recent release of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What seems to happen as of late are directors berated by “sci-fi” fans for their efforts. I posit that fans seeking voice online are in fact fans of the comfort/familiar form of science fiction, particularly from comic-books And in a way, many have become agents of the studio marketing machine. By enlisting in this marketing effort would-be pundits become thought-leaders and influencers of the wider viewing public, especially online and within their social media circles. Just as we love comfort, we also as a species love to follow the leader. In war-time you can always tell a leader on the battlefield by the person waving their hands and shouting the most. That is the marketing role adopted, seemingly unwittingly, by many devotees of high visibility, comic-book type science fiction. I enjoyed the inaugural Iron Man effort, thought Captain America: Winter Soldier had a plot and turns worth investing it. And Guardians of the Galaxy was a riot of space opera fun.

In the past decade we’ve seen a plethora of superhero science fiction franchises dominating the box office. The Avengers I and II, Spider Man, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, X-Men and Iron Man have been tent poles, well-known titles that have become the standard bearer of movie science fiction. Appealing to a broader crowd than tights and superpowers crowd have been YA book spin-offs Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent. Each of these projects relies on such rigid source material that any deviation is unthinkable, resulting in at times bland, consumed with CG that renders the film a two hour video game, or such ham-fisted films that defy the most generous label of good films. When a film does deviate, like Man of Steel, the vox populi erupts with such righteous indignation that attempting to defend the project makes you a scurrilous Neanderthal who knows nothing about morality in science fiction film making.

Related, tangentially, is actor/writer Simon Pegg’s comments on the dumbing down of the industry and film-goers here and here.

But back to the issue of originality.

When was the last truly original science fiction film that transcended the genre viewer and become a lasting cultural phenomenon? In James Cameron’s Avatar we had a massive financial success, but as pointed out in Forbes, the film left no footprint on the wider popular culture. Last year’s Interstellar from Christopher Nolan, was an achievement in blending in-camera traditional visual effects, digital creations and a thought bending plot. Yet for all the money it made, the critics were numerous and many came from the hallowed halls of science fiction websites. The last ground-up science fiction franchise to peak culturally was the Matrix trilogy. Funnily enough, the Wachowski’s most recent effort, Jupiter Ascending, was joyfully picked apart and derided for its story telling, style and even its creatures. Uh, like grown men running around in skin tight primary colored uniforms is a shade of reserved normality? And cheese filled dialogue and banter worthy of a adolescent’s joke book is the height of mature story telling.

The one film that seemed to rebel from the stigma of original sci-fi pillorying was the magnificent Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet if you look at box office totals Fury Road still could not find the pole position in its first week.  Losing to a musical sequel, Pitch Perfect 2, despite being in over 200 more theaters Fury Road pulled in $20 million less for the weekend.

There should be comfort science fiction- popcorn movies. But there needs to be room for original ideas, something created through a life-time’s worth of sensory experiences. Not every original work will be flawless, but neither are the glut of superhero science fiction films overtaking the cinemas. Search out, hard, for complaints about plot holes and leaps in basic film making with the genre and you’ll find them. We face an adventure and science fiction film landscape where Hollywood studios and genre fans have become intertwined. Hollywood is all about making money, its their goal, and they follow the trends. Right now its all about  the superhero and for that reason we all lose.

Asymmetric Review: Mad Max- Fury Road

madmaxfrA kinetic masterpiece is the only way to simply describe this newest installment of the long missed post-apocalyptic adventure tale. Max Rokatansky, once played by Mel Gibson and now Tom Hardy, is still a resident of the wasteland. His V-8 Interceptor remains, as does his Main Patrol Force leather jacket, leg brace and even his double-barreled shotgun. Yet there is something new, stark and somehow gentle about the Road Warrior. Perhaps that is Hardy’s style, a bit soft yet more feral than Gibson’s square jawed rogue. Both haunted, Max in Fury Road is a creature bent on survival, on his own and at all costs, until his path crosses into the world of Immortan Joe, his harem of ‘breeders’ and a war rig driver, Imperitor Furiosa (played magnificently by Charlize Theron.)

Where the Road Warrior centered on a tanker load of gas and Thunderdome revolved around kids lost in a wasteland, Fury Road is the story of fearless women escaping a brutal and licentious overlord who holds together his fiefdom with gifts of water and brute force. When his prized brides flee with Furiosa, spirited aboard a ‘Mothers Milk’ tanker, Joe’s war-boy vehicular warriors give chase. This is where Max gets thrown into the fray.

From the start, George Miller’s Fury Road is a load harsh world. His color palette of amber and sun-baked red , rather than a drab grey of most dystopic cinema. His masterful use of a world already established- nuclear war, lawlessness and cult status of the automobile- weave seamlessly into the modern vernacular. I grew up on Gibson’s Max, including watching the ‘American’ English dub of the Australian original and the mechanical aesthetic Miller established 30 years ago flows perfectly into the celluloid of 2015. It feels as if 20 plus years have gone by and the cancerous and belligerent survivors have spawned an organized, but degenerate society.

Importantly, Fury Road has the viewer invested in two types of fear. One for the characters and the high speed peril they find themselves in from the first frame. The second fear is for the life and limb of the stunt performers and drivers that fill the screen with gear grinding, metal bending and vehicular eruptions unseen, well since Thunderdome. The crunch of each collision and tumbling body immediately prompt gasps. The human eye, connected to our highly evolved brain, understands the true pain and thrill of flesh-and-blood stunt performers hurtling around a film. We simply cannot get the same visceral emotion from pixels rendered in a climate controlled office in California. Fury Road is kinetic cinema that is required to keep film alive.

The movie goer is invested in the future of the women in Fury Road especially, and the few decent men trodding the desert landscape. The strength of the women- Cheedo, Dag, Toast, Capable and Angharad- to seek freedom at all costs is astonishing. Each actress brings their own interpretation of victim in flight, without becoming set dressing. They are innocent shut-ins, who crave freedom and release personal demons upon their enemies. They are press-ganged mothers who refuse to let their children be the next, possibly final, generation of men to destroy the Earth. Many consider Avengers director Joss Whedon a model of feminism in filmmaking, but I venture the women in Fury Road, their abused souls and determination to survive, make them astonishing characters worthy of note, exemplified by the involvement of Vagina Monologues creator and activist Eve Ensler in Fury Road.
Theron, always a tall and dominating figure of beauty, turns Furiosa into a character whose sex is secondary to an astounding drive and furiosity. Besides the obvious physical attributes, Theron’s Furiosa embodies humanity in precarious balance- hope or violence. She is magnificent.

Men are not portrayed too flatteringly in Fury Road. Joe is a pot-bellied muscled near -albino, his minions are cancer-ridden and delusional about Valhalla while huffing chrome spray paint in the moment of violent ecstasy. The bosses of the two other towns in Fury Road, Gas Town and Bullet Farm, are vile and violent misogynists. Human lives are less valuable than bullets, gasoline and nitrous oxide.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a loud, violent film, awash in more character building than the last dozen Hollywood blockbusters. Watch Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, and then marvel at the modern incarnation of live-action filmmaking as it should be.

King Camp Gillette: Utopian Avenger

razorsThis morning the Gillette World Headquarters in Boston was converted into the East Coast R&D center of Stark Industries. Unveiling new razors called the Repulsor 1, UltraStrike, Thunder, XL Gamma (each corresponding to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk) Gillette has placed itself onto the razor’s edge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Another cross-promotion of movie franchise into the consumer world is nothing new. Yet, in a strange way, the fantastic was the dream of the man that gave Gillette it’s name.

King_Camp_GilletteIn the late 19th century Wisconsin-born King Camp Gillette (left) was deeply invested in the world of personal shaving razors. With mens grooming dominated by traditional forged and sharpened straight razor, Gillette was struck by an idea- what about a simple, disposable razor and blade? After several years Gillette’s disposable razor hit the market and was an immediate success. Gillette’s first year, 1903, saw sales of five dozen razors and few hundred blades. A year later Gillette’s mass-manufactured 90,000 razors and nearly 12.5 million blades.Gillette_razor_patent

Success was his and Gillette’s imagination wasn’t confined to the world of grooming. Not unlike the fictional Howard Stark and his “Stark Expo” a place where the future could be experienced through modern technology (circa 1943,) Gillette saw a world rife with potential for harmony, social, economic and cultural advancement.

In the years before finding success as the razor brand, Gillette was an author with visions of utopia. Written by Gillette in 1894, The Human Drift and 1910’s World Corporation were both works bursting with optimism about humanity. Before the fictional Metropolis of the DC Comics universe, Gillette envisioned a mega-city in western New York that was planned down to the finest detail.gillet06

From the shape and height of the buildings, to the glazed tiles of each apartment, to the sewage and electric lighting, Gillette envisioned a world spreading from Niagara Falls in the west to Rochester, NY in the east. Sixty million Americans would live in Metropolis on the Niagara in the world considered a form of 19th century Utopian socialism. Organized by engineers and removing competitive destruction, humanity would flourish in this mega-city.

For three good views of King Camp’s Gillette’s Utopian visions check out posts at The University of HoustonCornell University and UCal Berkley.

You Got Computer Animation in my Live Action!

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Shooting indoors, instead of out, modern movies rely heavily on visual effects to build not only characters but also surroundings. In The Avengers actor Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk (right) was entirely rendered based on ‘motion capture’ of his body. An important note, the lack of realistic flexibility in Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man means he too wears motion capture to fill in arms and lower torso.

In a 2002 interview with the late Roger Ebert, Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki noted with  amusement the amount of computer animation appearing in film. It was the Spiderman movie franchise that apparently caught Miyazaki’s attention for its level of animation in a film that is otherwise billed as live-action. Miyazaki told Ebert, “In a way now, live action is becoming part of that whole soup called animation,” where his traditional form of animation holds its own niche.

As you’ve seen by reading this blog, you notice that I am more a traditionalist when it comes to visual effects- miniatures or practical- with the sparing use of smart or visually striking computer effects. The best recent example of this blend of traditional, physical effects and digital work was in 2014’s Interstellar. While imperfect, the Christoper Nolan film attempted to reach lofty heights in visually striking ways. I remained engaged in part because the VFX matrix was nuanced and diverse.

Computer/digital generated effects found in a vast majority of modern films is a tricky balance and often overused. Without delving into issues with the Uncanny Valley, ultimately computer generated images have become so interwoven into live-action films that a preponderance of frames are entirely digitally rendered.

So I must ask the question- how much of a movie is required to have physical actors in order to be live-action? 70%? 60%? 51%? When does a modern action “live-action” film go from being live into animation?

In 2012’s The Avengers, director Joss Whedon assembled a superhero battle royal that relied heavily, if not almost entirely, on CGI. For a good look at the immense number of computer generated effects, check out this article from FxGuide. In The Avengers there are “approximately” 2,200 effects shots in the film, with many characters entirely computer rendered throughout the entire length of the movie.

Combine this with the heavy movement towards high-definition all digital film-making and you have the recipe for live-action shots in an otherwise animated movie.

In a Screen Rant article it was estimated that this year’s Avenger film will have 3,000 VFX shots. By contrast James Cameron’s Avatar, a movie that spanned 162 minutes and panned by some for its CG over dependence, there were 2,500 VFX shots. Contrast that number of VFX shots with the landmark and continually beloved Star Wars, which had just 360 special effects shots most of which were miniatures and travelling mattes.

With each passing year actors are rapidly siphoned out of live-action movies. Their likenesses scanned and digitized to be placed on computer generated character that move so blindingly fast and without a sense of connection to the physics of the real world that our “live-action” films of the 21st century feel more like computer animation.

I adore traditional 2D animation. I respect modern digital animation that combines the smooth precision, with washes and tones more like traditional hand drawn animation. What I don’t like is a “live-action” film that feels more like a 2 hour cut-scene from a video game.

In Defense of Neill Blomkamp

chappiedogIn case you didn’t know it, Neill Blomkamp has a movie coming out this weekend. It’s called CHAPPIE, a Blomkamp original idea of a robot policeman who becomes sentient. Just before the movie was released (a movie which I will be seeing this weekend) Blomkamp revealed he was doing his long dreamed ALIEN project. That’s when things went pear shaped in the eyes of science-fiction movie fans. One of the surely sacred franchises, ALIEN has it staunch defenders and Blomkamp’s personal obsession becoming professional was greeted with glee by me, but reservations from many online columnists and commentators. Suddenly this out-of-left-field science fiction director went from promised child to reviled botch up. At the speed of light it seemed Blomkamp became arm-chair aficionados favorite speed bag.

This assail of Blomkamp comes as his CHAPPIE, which has barely hit the theaters, is already being torn asunder by cinemaphiles. Part of a larger issue (which I will be addressing in a post next week) is this almost maliciously ebullient attack on creators of original science fiction films.

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Blomkamp stormed onto the science fiction film scene with 2009’s  DISTRICT 9. A tale of alien life arriving in South Africa set in a modern alien Apartheid state, this blend of action with credible, moral storytelling caught people’s eye. Yet, just as quickly the throngs enamored with the South African director became his harshest and sustained critics when he released ELYSIUM. A bigger movie, cemented by the casting of Matt Damon, ELYSIUM was far from a ‘blockbuster” and criticized by professional and armchair pundits alike. Even Blomkamp, in recent days, has admitted short comings with ELYSIUM and to that I say…admit your mistakes- it is the only way we get better as storytellers- but never back down! To many online critics and raptors, Blomkamp’s admission of mistakes in ELYSIUM give them a foot in the door to kick the director hence forth. (And the article headline is about as agenda setting as a headline can get.)

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I am happy to hear Blomkamp admit there were flaws in ELYSIUM. Perhaps the film should have taken a more satirical tact? Agreed. Maybe his desire for a raw sci-fi actioner belonged in a different project? Perhaps his yearning for an action film replete with fantastic conceptual design percolated in his multi-disciplined mind and flowed into the core of have/have nots that was ELYSIUM. Maybe exoskeletons, hyper-velocity weapons and amazing production design belong in his desired ALIEN? All that being said, ELYSIUM was original, fast paced, and more thoughtful than a majority of tent-poles in cinemas today.

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Neill Blomkamp is the prime example of modern filmmaker shaped by global entertainment. These variety of influences, from films to comic-books, show an adept and bright minded approach to crafting fantastic visual stories. In the below clip, we hear from Blomkamp his list of influences.

The breadth of movies and artists shows his acute and honest survey of his skill-sets. Blomkamp knows his strength lay in visuals, design and story concepts. Blomkamp’s pluses outweigh his minuses, in my opinion. I think that his effort to do original science fiction, stories that are odd, compelling or simply intelligent action, are worthy of praise.

Watch that interview and hear what an honest, yet creative filmmaker sees in the world around him. Below I’ve attached the series of short-films Blomkamp has done. The DNA is obvious- Masamune Shirow, James Cameron, Katsuhiro Otomo, Geof Darrow and Ridley Scott, to name a few. With Manga and Anime blended with the brightest of late 1970s-through-early 1990s science fiction films, Blomkamp remains a talent worthy of defense. His short films act as “sea trial” for ideas, where Blomkamp kept the core concept clean, while allowing him to explore the world within limits. These short films, from TETRA VAAL to ALIVE IN JOBURG, serve as the artist’s “thumbnail sketch” giving him the layouts and show the potential.

Today, IGN UK Podcast with Blomkamp gives us a different view of the director’s creativity. I draw your attention to the 3 minute mark of the interview where he talks about modern “design” in film being done by talented artists, yet don’t have a practical real-world relationship with “tool and die” or tangible model making. Blomkamp’s idea of digital kitbashing keys on an important film making point in the digital age- the further you are disconnected from reality and the basic physics of sight/sound/movement- the further we are removed reality of the most fantastic film. That directorial revelation alone is a refreshing change in a film world where directors routinely parade two plus hour films, loaded with tens of thousands of CGI shots, most with dubious physics, across out cineplex screens.

His choice in design, aesthetics, shot composition and characters make Blomkamp an unusual modern creator.

I’ll take any Neill Blomkamp film- any day- over a bloated, self congratulatory sci-fi superhero project.

TETRA VAAL

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ALIVE IN JOBURG

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