Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

OK, gotta call bullshit on this one. From a review in today’s local paper on the movie “A Letter to Momo” (which sounds pretty awesome). “American children’s films have never been very good at handling grief. Our stories tend to focus on external obstacles, worldly challenges to be met and overcome. For grief, for the melancholy and sadness we all must learn to face, we need to turn to Japanese anime …”

Uh, hello? “Up?” “Finding Nemo?” “The Lion King?” Freakin “BAMBI?”

My friend Tracy speculated that this might be the movie reviewer:

But no, it’s a guy. I’m a little puzzled how he got a job reviewing movies, in light of the fact that this is apparently the first one he’s seen. But I look forward to his future reviews. Which will probably contain observations like these:

– “In a delightfully innovative approach, two radically mismatched police detectives — a loose cannon and a by-the-book straight arrow — team up to solve the case.”

– “Surprisingly, the two members of the opposite sex who initially dislike each other form a romantic bond.”

Well, it pains me to do this. But I’m going to renounce what I said in an earlier post, titled: “Affairs With Robots — Does That Even Work Anymore?” Read the post here.

In that post, I came to the conclusion that the answer is “not really.” But last night, I finally got to see the Spike Jonez film “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Technically, the female love interest wasn’t a robot, but a computer operating system. But we’re still talking about an electronic simulation of an actual, flesh-and-blood woman. And the answer as to whether it works is an emphatic “yes.”

I was inspired to write the earlier post after watching a performance of “Comic Potential,” which is a comic love story set in the near future about a guy who meets and falls in love with a beautiful female robot. “Comic Potential” was cute and entertaining, but pretty lightweight. It also took a fairly trite approach to what’s already a hoary science fiction cliché. (None of this is a dig at the community theater company that performed it, by the way. They did a great job.) The female robot is essentially an idealized male fantasy. A beautiful  naif whose only flaw is her fragile innocence and her need to be taught the ways of human love. (Though that last one ain’t exactly a failing, ifyaknowwhatImean … wink wink, nudge nudge.)

A few conflicts come along. A few people try to tell the hero that he can’t love her because she’s only a machine. (Boo! Hiss!) But in the end, true love prevails.

My contention in the earlier post is that the modern digital age has killed that romantic scenario by making it borderline feasible. Men really do become romantically obsessed with electronic simulations of women, as evidenced by all the erotic Lara Croft fan fiction in existence. And the result is more sad than romantic and inspiring.

Yet “Her” works so well precisely because the film acknowledges that reality. I won’t give you a full replay of the plot. Very briefly, Phoenix gets an advanced new operating system — voiced by an unseen Johansson — with a simulated personality so complex that it’s indistinguishable from an actual human. The two fall in love.

That’s a very simple explanation that doesn’t do this psychologically complex movie justice. It has some extremely funny moments, but doesn’t go for any of the easy, cheap laughs that the premise could generate. Instead, it functions mainly as a bittersweet exploration of how the digital age has simultaneously eased and deepened our loneliness.

I’m not generally big on romantic stories. Nothing wrong with them. Just not my thing. But I have to say that this movie was wonderfully, joyfully, achingly romantic. Its ability to achieve that effect when one of the romantic partners was just a voice emanating from a computer and a hand-held digital device is testimony to both Phoenix’s and Johansson’s talents.  Don’t want to give away any spoilers here. By the end, the film has explored some mind-bending ideas about the nature of consciousness without ever losing its tight and personal focus on the two main characters.

So bottom line: I looked at an old science fiction trope and concluded that it needs to be retired. Spike Jonze looked at it, realized it’s more relevant than ever, and made a brilliant work of art from it.

Guess that’s why he’s one of the greatest and most visionary directors of his generation, and I’m … me.

The original “Rosemary’s Baby” from 1968 is one of my all-time favorite supernatural thrillers. It’s a testimony to the principle of “less is more,” seen all-too-rarely in popular entertainment these days. Roman Polanski (yeah he’s a scumbag, but the guy knows how to direct) doesn’t need to use a lot of CGI monsters to generate chills. Just a slow-boiling, claustrophobic tension undercut with elements of sly humor that only accentuate the unease.

I’d hoped the four-hour miniseries update that ran last month would come out on DVD, so I could see if it was true to the original. But now? Well … I’ll let you read the interpretation by somebody who’s eminently qualified to judge the quality of supernatural thrillers. E.F. Watkins is one of the more notable and talented writers of supernatural thrillers out there these days. She generously agreed to let me run her review of the series. And once you’re done reading it, be sure to check out “Hex, Death and Rock & Roll,” her latest paranormal mystery, which was a recent finalist in the mystery category for the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Take it away, Ms. Watkins:

Recently, NBC presented a four-hour miniseries based on Rosemary’s Baby, the 1967 Ira Levin novel and 1968 Roman Polanski film. The TV version kept the basic plot but made many “updates.” In general, this was a good idea, since it avoided direct comparisons with the original classic. By the end, though, my complaint was not that they modernized the tale but that they didn’t update it enough.

The original Rosemary’s Baby was a “smaller” story with which almost anyone could identify. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young New York couple, luck into a great apartment in an upscale but spooky old Central Park building. Soon, they find their lives invaded by quirky old neighbors, the Castevets, who seem overly interested in the Woodhouses’ personal business, including Guy’s stagnant acting career. After a macabre sexual dream, Rosemary discovers she’s pregnant. Guy takes credit and “acts” delighted, but afterward becomes standoffish. As her pregnancy progresses, Rosemary feels worse and worse, but Guy, the Castevets and the obstetrician they picked for her all belittle her complaints. Some people who either block Guy’s career ambitions or try to help Rosemary get answers are eliminated through accidents or sudden illness. Eventually, her research on the building’s dark history leads her to believe the neighbors and their friends are “witches” (more accurately, Satanists) and she thinks they want her baby for a sacrifice. Rosemary makes several attempts to escape and get outside help, but in vain. In her apartment, struggling against her husband and the cult leaders, she goes into labor. Guy later tells her the baby was born dead, but one day she hears it crying from the Castevets’ apartment. Armed with a large kitchen knife, she investigates and finds her baby … not on a sacrificial altar, but in a black-draped bassinet in the living room. Strangers of many nationalities are gathered around, chatting happily. They coax Rosemary to put down the knife and see her healthy baby boy. It takes her a second to notice something inhuman about the infant’s eyes, and they tell her Satan was the father. She is horrified, but finally her mothering instinct wins out. In the last scene, she rocks the bassinet, cooing to the baby, and the Satanists around her hail the birth of their Dark Master into the world.

Levin said he was inspired by the 1966 cover of Time magazine, which asked in big block letters, “Is God Dead?” If he was, Levin wondered, might Satan get a chance to step into the void? The original book and movie also served as a clever satire on the hustling atmosphere of Manhattan, where an actor might literally sell his soul—and his wife—to the Devil for stardom. Not to mention, that great apartment on Central Park West!

The 2014 miniseries takes place in a different world. The young Woodhouses moved to Paris where Guy, an aspiring novelist, has a shot at a teaching position. They are living in cramped, temporary quarters when they meet up with the Castevets, this time a rich, attractive, sophisticated, middle-aged couple (“Minnie” is now “Margaux”). When a mysterious fire damages the Woodhouses’ apartment, the Castevets—who happen to own the Chimera, a mammoth apartment building lavishly carved with stone dragons—offer them free housing until they can get back on their feet. They also invite them to a glamorous Parisian party where Guy makes connections helpful to his career.

This approach lacks the cleverness of making the Satanists a doddering old couple across the hall, because we almost expect rich and powerful people to be in league with the Devil. And Parisians—! Don’t they already have a reputation for decadence? Still, it works on the level of The Devil’s Advocate, as Guy and Rosemary become seduced by their charming, generous new friends and The Good Life. As the familiar plot unfolds, the sex scenes are steamier, and the deaths of those who might scuttle the Castevets’ plans are gorier, than in the original. The acting and atmosphere are decent; though Guy is blander this time around, Zoe Saldana gives Rosemary strength and sass and realistically conveys the wild roller coaster ride of her emotions.

At the end, though, I felt the TV version fell apart in terms of both its internal logic and its final impact. In the original book and movie, one young woman in the apartment building in the past had committed suicide—apparently because the Castevets tried to recruit her for their scheme and she became desperate to escape. You had the feeling they’d just begun this attempt to create an Antichrist in the flesh (possibly because God was now dead?). In the miniseries, a police captain finds that a string of young women have been murdered over the decades by the Castevets. Have they really been trying for all that time to find a suitable mother for Satan Jr.—and failing, in spite of all of their powers?

In the original, it seems as if Minnie and Roman are just picking young, fertile women who live nearby. But this time around, the Parisian couple appear to seek out Rosemary, an American visitor, and toward the end they tell her, “You were chosen.” Why? There aren’t enough fertile, young French women with ambitious husbands? If there’s something special about Rosemary, it’s never explained, and it should be.

But I think the biggest flaw in the remake is that the consequences of this baby’s birth don’t seem ominous enough. Back in 1968, life for most Americans was pretty comfy. Just the idea that God might be dead, and Satan might rise to power instead, was enough to shock audiences. But in 2014, unfortunately, it takes more than a few fatal hexes and a baby with black, fathomless eyes to frighten us. If the Castevets and their friends really are the most successful Devil-worshippers ever, with many power brokers among their circle of friends, what is their ultimate agenda? Satan Jr. should have at least as much apocalyptic horror up his sleeve as the kid in The Omen!

Without at least some inkling of that threat, though, an updated Rosemary’s Baby falls flat. In these days of global climate change, worldwide financial disasters and international terrorism, mankind seems all too capable of destroying itself without any outside help from the Devil.

 

Remember Teel James Glenn, neo-pulp author and stunt coordinator? If not, read his interview here. He’s awesome.

After the meeting where he spoke, we had a really good discussion at lunch about movie fight scenes. I was pretty psyched to find out that a professional stunt coordinator shared a lot of my opinions about them.

First of all, we both really dislike the way fight scenes are directed in most modern movies. They tend to be filled with rapid cuts — frequently cutting away from the combatants to their surroundings — so you can’t even tell what the hell is going on.

I’d always assumed the reason for that is because directors are trying to conceal the fact that the actors aren’t really fighting, and stunt doubles are doing all the work. But Teel said it’s more because most modern directors don’t understand the psychology of fighting. They do those jump cuts because that’s the way they film conversations. One guy “speaks” with his fist, the other answers, etc. Teel said directors have also told him that they make the cameras jump around to simulate the “disorientation” and “confusion” of being in a fight.

I’ve done some martial arts training that involved full-contact sparring, as has Teel. And we agreed that when you’re really engaged in a fight, you’re not the least bit distracted. If a guy standing directly in front of you is intent on hitting you, there’s very little else of interest to you at that moment. Yeah, you should be aware of your surroundings, but you’re certainly not swinging your gaze around randomly at other objects in the room.

It turns out Teel is also a big fan of my all-time-favorite movie fight scene, which is James Bond vs. Grant in “From Russia With Love” (1963).

Here’s a clip.

I didn’t know this until Teel made me aware of it, but the guy who staged that fight scene was a former paratrooper named Bob Simmons. That makes sense.

One of the things I like about this scene is that the two opponents aren’t simply trading punches on the jaw, which happens in a lot of movies from the 1960s. Nor are they wasting time with a bunch of balletic high kicks, which you’d see in action movies from later eras.

Nope. They’re fighting like a couple of guys who are intent on killing each other, and don’t give a royal fuck how graceful or gallant they look in the process.

Like the parts where Bond takes Grant’s jacket off his shoulders to trap his arms, then knees him in the sternum? And stomps on his spine? And slams the door in his face? That’s some dirty shit! And that headlock Bond gets Grant in at about the 2:40 mark is banned in Judo and jiu jitsu competitions, because it’s what you’d do if you wanted to break a guy’s neck.

Sure, there are plenty of cuts in the scene. But they serve to convey what’s going on in the fight, not obscure it. Another thing I like about it? No background music. Two guys are trying to kill each other with their bare hands, for cryin’ out loud! If you can’t make that exciting without putting a bunch of techno crap in the background, it’s time to go back to film school.

So THAT’S how you do a fight scene. Modern directors, watch and learn.

In my recent post on the movie “Night of the Templar,” I mentioned Creature Double Feature on Channel 48 out of Philadelphia. I since found the original intro and outro from it on Youtube. This made my week. Took me back to those Saturday afternoons in the 1970s camped in front of the TV, watching the cavalcade of old black-and-white movies, or the more recent (and frequently more gory) drive-in and grindhouse fare. Sometimes they’d show one of the classic Universal monster movies. More often, they’d be grade-B films. And there was certainly nothing wrong with that. Although I still remember tuning into what I thought would be “Bride of Frankenstein,” and instead watching Ed Woods’ “Bride of the Monster.” I was a bit too young for irony, so I didn’t yet appreciate Ed Wood’s work on the level I would in later decades. That may have been the first time in my life I uttered the words: “What the FUCK?”

Anyway, check out the Youtube clip. It’s decidedly low-budget and campy, but eerily effective all the same. Much like most of the movies Creature Double Feature showcased.

 

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I used to love watching the Saturday morning horror movies on the UHF stations out of Philadelphia. “Creature Double Feature” on Channel 48 was my favorite.

They were the types of movies made outside the Hollywood studio system, by scrappy film-makers of the Roger Corman variety. What I really liked about them was the fact that they didn’t speak the vocabulary of the standard Hollywood film. These were filmmakers who made up their own rules. Start in on one of these movies, and you never quite knew where you were going to end up.

So the maker of this movie, “Night of the Templar,” contacted me and asked if I’d mention it on my blog. I watched the trailer on Youtube, and … sold! No, I haven’t seen it yet, but I plan to. That trailer’s got the delightfully off-the-wall vibe that used to keep me planted in front of the TV set on many a Saturday afternoon. And hey, it’s got David Carradine. Have I mentioned “sold?”

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s the info:

“Here tells a Tale of Passion, Loyalty, Deceit, Betrayal … and Revenge!”
 
After allowing them ten lifetimes of excess, the beloved, fallen medieval Templar Knight, Lord Morris McGuirk Gregoire of Reading, returns to modern day to exact a blood thirst vengeance on those who betrayed him long ago.
Night of the Templar, *independently* written, produced and directed by Paul Sampson, is a unique and savory blend of murder, mystery, horror, drama, dark humor, intrigue, action and suspense all woven together in a tale that will keep you both engaged and guessing until the very end. No other indie film of its kind exists. And with the right mix of eye candy for both men and women, Night of the Templar is the perfect “date night” flick.
 
A star-packed cast including Paul Sampson, Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead fame, Udo Kier, Billy Drago, and the final performance of legendary great David Carradine, this movie can’t help but be destined for ‘Cult Classic’ status! 
 
Watch The First 2 Minutes –http://www.walmart.com/vudu/watch2min.do?vid=399609&itemId=22826249Watch The Movie Trailer At The Official NIGHT OF THE TEMPLAR Website – http://www.nightofthetemplar.com/
 
Social Media:
 
www.paulsampsonfilms.wix.com/paulsampsonfilms (still partly under construction)

This past Saturday, I attended my first meeting of Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers in a while. As I’ve mentioned (whined about?) in some recent posts, I’ve been really busy lately and a lot of things got put on the back burner.

The meeting is in North Jersey and it’s a nearly two-hour drive for me. But it’s worth it. The group is made up of a very talented, professional and dedicated group of writers, and I always take away something valuable.

At this meeting, the guest speaker was Teel James Glenn. The guy’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia of things I consider to be cool. He writes books that are intentional throwbacks to the classic pulp era of the 1930s, of which I’m also a fan. Some elements of The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report were intended as a homage to classic pulps, including the tough-guy detective hero and the gang of masked villains.

Teel is also a martial artist, professional stuntman, and fight coordinator for movies. He’s got a particular specialty in sword fighting. I picked up his now out-of-print (but not for much longer, as a reissue is on the way) Them’s Fightin’ Words!: A Writer’s Guide To Writing Fight Scenes. I know we’re not too far into 2014 yet, but that still pretty much made my year. Hell, he’s even into sleight-of-hand.

Check out his Website, The Urban Swashbuckler. (Come on! How freakin cool is THAT?)

Anyway, he said something about writing that really had a big impact on me, and helped me get past something I was struggling with in the novel I’m currently working on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles, writing manuals, and critical think pieces about popular culture that stress the importance of two elements in fiction: A flawed hero and a compelling villain. (more…)

VeronicaThe trailer for the “Veronica Mars” movie is out. And it looks … well, I don’t know how it looks. I’m not going to watch the trailer for fear of seeing a single spoiler. And it’s not like I need to be sold on seeing the movie. Hell, I’d pay a large sum of money just to see a five-minute resolution of the season three cliffhanger, which is where the show wrapped up in 2007.

Soon after I discovered “Veronica Mars” a few years ago — perhaps “had been converted to” is a more accurate term than “discovered” — I was raving about it at a party. A rather sardonic friend of mine asked: “What are you, a 15-year-old girl?”

That’s the kind of misinterpretation the show engendered. For the record, I’m a 47-year-old man, and I’m a big fan of hard-boiled crime fiction. (By the way, check out Alex Segura’s “Silent City” if you’re also a fan. For that matter, check out my novel, “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report.”) As I don’t really follow TV, I was vaguely aware of the show when it was on from the years 2004 to 2007, felt no desire to check it out, and didn’t give it a second thought.

Ironically, I think the ideal viewer of the show is somebody like me, who has an idea that it’s some kind of lightweight teen mystery/soap opera hybrid. Somebody with no natural inclination to watch it, who ends up seeing it anyway through some chain of circumstances. That’s precisely the type of person most in a position to be surprised at first, and then blown away by how clever, darkly funny, edgy, complex and just flat-out freakin good it is. (more…)

So why was Ray Harryhausen, the special effects pioneer who died today at the age of 92, such a revered figure? I could write about that for hours. But let’s keep it simple. In 1963, he created a skeleton army for “Jason and the Argonauts” and it looked like this. (FYI: The guy who posted this apparently added his own soundtrack. Whatever.)

In 1999, with far more advanced technology and a shit-ton more money at their disposal, the special effects team for “The Haunting” created a CGI ghost. And it looked like this:

Any questions?

hi-hats Since you’re doing me the courtesy of reading this blog, I might as well be straight with you. I’ve done some things in my past that I’m not too proud of. In short, I have a criminal history.

Remember the 1979 Walter Hill film “The Warriors?” The one about all the street gangs? Yeah. Well, in my misspent youth, I was a member of the Hi Hats. The street gang that dressed up like mimes. If you watch this trailer, you can catch us at the 34-second mark.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. Whenever anybody finds out about this element of my past, they ask the same questions. “Mimes? You were trying to come up with a concept for your street gang and you went with freakin MIMES? Was, like, every other conceivable possibility in the entire world already taken or something?” (more…)