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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Who Watched the Watchmen? I did.
Topic: Cinema
After many years of a mixture of anticipation and dread on my part, a film version of Watchmen has finally been released and I have seen it. What did I think? As the character Rorschach might say, "hrrm".

In general, I liked it. I didn't love it. I haven't quite sorted out if I liked it because it's, by and large, the Watchmen story I know, or if it's the film itself. I suspect it might take a second viewing to sort that out.

On the plus side, Watchmen, like Blade Runner and a few other films succeeds in creating an alternate reality that's absolutely dripping with detail. This is a world where costumed adventurers appeared for real in the 1940s, and what follows is a different history. This is brilliantly conveyed in the film's title sequence, which starts by showing the first of these adventurers and their popular impact (the first super heroine appears as nose art on a B-29 in WW II), and continues into cold war times where some of these first heroes suffer nasty fates (killed, gone insane), and a new generation follows, only to be overshadowed when the appearance of the first being with real superpowers changes everything. JFK's assassin is by one of the "heroes", 60s peace marches end like Kent State, America wins the war in Vietnam and gains a 51st state, and Nixon repeals the 22nd amendment. By the time of the film's main story, it's 1986, Nixon's serving 5th term, the Soviets have been pushed into a corner, and the Doomsday Clock stands at six minutes to armageddon. Many's the film that's wielded Dylan's  "The Times They Are A-Changin", but Watchmen means it in spades.

The performances are generally good, with the standouts being Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the vile Comedian, who yet manages to have moments of sympathy, and Jackie Earle Haley as the uncompromising sociopath Rorschach, who gets the best line in the film. Billy Crudup has the unenviable task of playing a being bored with and increasingly disconnected with humanity, a task made even more thankless since he is replaced in every frame by a glowing blue CGI creation, yet he still manages to come through with the most understated performance in the film.

I have to give the filmmakers credit for being uncompromising in their portrayal of the superhuman character of Dr. Manhattan: he of the power to manipulate matter at the atomic level, he who acts as the U.S.'s main means of defense, he who can see events so tiny and so fast as to scarcely have happened, and he who as a result has no human sense of decorum and walks around in full frontal bluedity. This simple lack of modesty, portrayed utterly nonsexually, makes him instantly alien, and the fact that the filmmakers dared do this in a mainstream film is surprising. I half expected them to pull the Austin Powers gag of having his Little Manhattan hidden behind various objects, but nope. There it is.

Where the film doesn't work so well is in its pacing and in  emotional connection. The first hour of the 2:42 film is a bit leaden. There's a lot of exposition, and it's generally handled well, but the director cuts away too fast from things that need a longer look, and spends too much time obsessing over things that don't matter. Did you see that guy with the "The end is nigh" sign? No? He's someone we'll meet later, but you never get that from the film. Did you see the Comedian being assassinated? How could you miss it...it went on and on, when all we really needed was that iconic shot of him being thrown out the window. You can read an audience in a movie, and in the first hour of this film it was mostly silent. Few laughs, few gasps, few audible reactions at all; that in a packed IMAX screening. That's a problem. Even when the actors are nailing their scenes emotionally, the editing cuts away from them too fast. There are moments when you need to linger, and the film just doesn't let it happen when it needs to.

The second half of the film works better. With the bulk of the exposition out of the way the plot gets moving and it becomes more engaging. But there's something not right about the rhythm and the flow.

And there are things I quibble with. For one thing, key plot points get skated past or get insufficient weight, with the result that some events of the story would seem unmotivated if you blinked. A key point of the story is that the heroes are just costumed adventurers without super powers, except for one, and the presence of that all-powerful entity has changed the world in ways major and minor. But the film doesn't make this difference explicit, and the over-the-top action sequences featuring the mortal heroes makes some of them seem superhuman when they're not, which confuses the issue. Furthermore, these costumed adventurers were outlawed in the past, and yet the reason for that is skipped past so much so that it begs the question of why.

I know I'm in the minority, but I'm no big fan of violence, and this film pushes it over the top too many times, sometimes at the expense of the characters.  The cavalier cruelty of the Comedian and the self righteous brutality of the uncompromising Rorschach are valid as story points, but when the action reaches bone-crunching extremes with relatively benign characters like Nite Owl and Silk Specter it renders them less sympathetic: excess for the sake of excess.

So, in the end, I'm left where I was when I saw the original edit of Blade Runner in 1982. I liked Watchmen, but partly in spite of itself. It's visually stunning, the plot is clever, and the performances good, but something about it rings a little hollow.

Which leads me to this parallel.

I didn't really get to like Blade Runner until I saw The Director's Cut (and then the subsequent Final Cut). I suspect my opinion of Watchmen will change, for better or for worse, when I see the inevitable Director's Cut of it: inevitable because I know that Director Zack Snyder's cut is supposedly over three hours, and the film as released is 2:42. And when I watched the film on the theater screen I couldn't help but suspect that some of my complaints about pacing and rhythm are directly related to trying to cram the story down to fit into that 2:42, leaving an additional 8th of it on the cutting room floor. Will this extra material fill in some gaps, add some needed pauses, and give some characters some additional insight, or will it be more action and fury?  Only DVD and Blu-Ray will answer that question.

Finally, the thing I've avoided talking about thus far is how the film compares to the comic book/graphic novel that spawned it. When watching the film I tried to take it for what it was, and to divorce myself from what the comic did. Difficult, since I knew all the subtext, even when it was poorly implied in the film, but I did try.

So, how does it compare to the comic? If there's one thing you can't damn the film for its fidelity to the source material. The director did something even I thought was nigh unlikely: he managed to cram most of the story into one film that isn't as long as any single Lord of the Rings movie, and managed to make it relatively coherent. Many of the scenes are right out of the comic with few changes or abridgements. That fidelity is both a blessing and a curse. The film jumps forward and backward in time for flashbacks from many POVs, just like in the comic, but it doesn't always work here. The narrative interrupts itself. Some speeches are just right for the comic page, but too long for a film.

The one big change was the mechanism of the story's climax, which, while different in detail, allows the plot to resolve in the same way as before. In fact, in many ways it's an improvement on the comic, buttoning off something set up in the first act at the climax in a way that the source material didn't. Bravo for that.

So, as to fidelity, Watchmen is, without a doubt, the most accurate translation from page to screen I've ever seen. It remains to be seen if that decision was for the best.

Posted by molyneaux at 2:29 AM PDT
Updated: Friday, 20 March 2009 1:57 PM PDT
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Thursday, 5 March 2009
Road Tripping via Facebook
Topic: Vacation

Just back from a 12 day road-trip. I posted my status to Facebook pretty much at each major stop. Here are the headlines from Facebook, with additional notes in (parentheticals):

Maurice is about to get lunch and then hit the highway. "On the Road Again"! 12:50pm Feb. 20.

Maurice is most of the way to L.A. I-5's a bore. Podcasts preserving sanity..sorta. 7:36pm Feb. 20.

Maurice is hangin' at Matt Carlstrom's in L.A Ain't ya jealous? 10:17pm Feb. 20.

Maurice just watched part of a bad Turkish film from the 70s...or is that redundant? 2:40am Feb. 22.

(Which is what happens at 1 in the morning when you're having drinks with someone who speaks Turkish!)

Maurice is looking at a gray sky in Palm Springs. Where is Monsieur Soleil?! 11:51am  Feb. 22.

(I stayed two nights with my friend Patrick. His condo is part of what used to be a motel where the Rat Pack hung out.)

  Palm Springs...hence the palm. Feb. 22.

Maurice is bound for Adventure...or Arizona...or something that begins with A. 1:06pm Feb. 23.

Maurice is about to go night night in Tempe after good food, a couple of sips of tequila, and good company. 11:36pm Feb. 23.

(I was stayin with my old friend Jerry and his other half, Jon, and their two very excitable and very tiny doggies.)

Maurice just came back from touring Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin west home in AZ. Ain't ya jealous? 4:26pm Feb. 25.
 
Maurice is bound for the Grand Canyon today. 9:31am Feb. 26.

Maurice : a) thinks Jerry & Jon are Th_ aw3s0m3; b) waved at Prescott for Dave; c) is having lunch in Flagstaff before pushing on to the Grand Canyon. 2:31pm Feb 25.

(Arrived at the Grand Canyon just in time to watch the sunset from the South rim, then went out into the night to look at the stars in the blackest sky I think I've ever seen) 

Maurice just watched the sunrise from the rim of the Grand Canyon. Epic! But his toes are still cold. 6:55am Feb 26.

(The pic is from a few hours after sunrise when I hiked around a bit of the south rim, after a shower and breakfast.)

Maurice left the majesty of the Grand Canyon many hours of driving behind, and tonight has a view of the Stratosphere from his hotel window. What a step down! 6:19pm Feb 27.

(My route to Vegas was via Davis Dam, Bullhead City, and Searchlight, places I'd not been since the early 70s. Sadly, you can't drive over the dam any more.)


The view from my hotel window. Is Vegas flipping me off? Feb 27.

(Since the Stratosphere was so close, I strolled over and paid the $13 to take in the view from the top.)

Maurice has left sin city for The Middle of Nowhere. Google map 89415 if you want to know where The Middle of Nowhere is located. 5:19pm  March 1.

(Here I stayed at the El Cap Lodge, saw my sister a few times, and our mutual friend Georgana took us on a tour of the Old Courthouse, which has been closed for as long as I can remember. At one point something like 2000 pigeons were living in the place.  Ick!)

Maurice had ribs for dinner. Mmmm yummy. For some reason now he wants decaf. Is this what rural life is like? He's forgotten. 1:12am March 1.'

(This was at the home of my friend Vince and his family.)

My late mama's headstone, gone a year and a half but not forgotten. Hawthorne, NV. March 2.

Maurice is bound for nieces. 2:09pm March 2.

(In Fallon, NV, where I visited with them and my great niece, and they brought along their boyfriends and other friends...I'm left wondering if they're inadvertantly starting a commune.)

Maurice is at Sherri & Art's in Carson City. Tuesday: Reno...not Janet. 12:36am March 3.

Maurice thinks he's going to need to buy a set of tire chains to get back home. 2:21pm March 3.

(I drove to Reno and met up with former Hawthorne residents Liz and the Allen family. Evelyn and Dean Allen offered to let me stay at their place to avoid driving back to Carson City in the snow...and I was left wondering if the passes would get so much snow it would be difficult to get home!)

Maurice just found out that a friend of his from long ago passed away a while back, but he hadn't heard til now. :(. 10:53pm March 4.
(I learned this from my friend Cody...we toasted the deceased when we went out for a drink after he got off work.)

Maurice is on the downhill side of Donner pass and only hours from home! Thanks Evelyn & Dean! 3:20pm March 4.

Maurice made it back to SF just in time to park his car and run out into Market St. and join a march to City Hall. Wow, it's a big crowd! 7:13pm March 4.

Here's the route:


 

 


Posted by molyneaux at 11:11 AM PST
Updated: Friday, 6 March 2009 12:01 PM PST
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Sunday, 28 December 2008
Flashback to the 48 Hour Film Project
Topic: Makin' Movies

I had two entries written about last July's 48 Hour Film Project in San Francisco that I never got around to posting.  Below are links to them:

Click for: Day 3 of the 48 HFP: Sunday

Click for: The Public Screening 


Posted by molyneaux at 2:33 AM PST
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Saturday, 1 November 2008
(He) Who Framed Roger Rabbitt
Topic: Cinema

When  I speak to my sister on the phone, the moment I mention something I'm thinking about doing she jokes, "I don't want to hear about it!", impressing again and again all the options I have here in the Bay Area compared to where she lives.

Well, she's right about that. Last night I opened one of the emails I receive regularly from the Cartoon Art Museum. Usually I glance at what's coming up in the exhibits and that's it. This time I opened the email and did a Tex Avery-esque jaw drop when I saw that Richard Williams was doing a presentation. I think my eyes then performed a cartoon "take" when I saw that this was to be hold Sunday Nov. 2nd at the Balboa Theater. The Balboa is only a few blocks away, in my neighborhood. I could walk to see Richard Williams!

As the title of this entry gives away, Richard Williams was the animation director on the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (no ? symbol), and while that's what he is best known for, his is an impressive body of work: winner of three Oscars, maker ofover 2,500 commercials, as well as arguably the two best title sequences for Pink Panther movies (The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again), and title sequences for the original Casino Royale, What's New Pussycat, and titles for and animated interstitials for The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The presentation included Q&A and a half dozen examples from Mr. Williams massive 16 DVD "master class" on animation: The Animator's Survival Kit — Animated. Mr. Williams is a charming and gracious man, and comes across as just a genuinely nice human being.

After the presentation, he sat in the lobby and autographed books and DVDs and took time to talk to and answer anyone's questions. Before comign to show I'd decided I didn't want anything from the man, not even an autograph. But I wanted to give something back, so I waited until most of the people had finished with him, then I walked up, dropped down to eye level next to his table, and said, "Mr. Williams, I've been following your work since before Roger Rabbit came out, and I remember dying for that film to come out. I've read probably 50 interviews with you and have many in my archive, and I just wanted to say how much I appreciate you work." He looked sweetly embarrassed, and his wife asked me my name; I replied, I shook his hand, and I left. To say more would be to gush, but I just wanted to express that to him and not gush.

Click these links to see Williams' work (do it, it's great stuff):

 


Posted by molyneaux at 11:01 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 19 May 2009 10:22 PM PDT
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Friday, 10 October 2008
"The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made"
Topic: Books

I just finished reading David Hughes' updated edition of "The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made", which documents the historis of film projects that either never got made, or eventually got made in very different form than what they started as (the umpteen attempts to make "Dune", for example).

Upon finishing this book I found myself surprised by how glad I was that many of these projects didn't get made. While it's difficult to judge the potential merits of a script on the cursory summaries herein, many of the projects described—in the words of their own creators—come across as terrible and wrong and often rote repeats of expected norms (action beats every ten minutes, etc.).

If anything, the book is most illuminating in regards to how the system works with regards to how projects are pitched, developed, revised, put into turnaround—wash, rinse, spin, repeat—and how changes in studio management can turn a "go" into a "no" right before the production is to start, and how directors take on a project not because they want to make the script in question, but because they want to make a mainstream movie or a big paycheck or just to work with certain people, and immediately demand that a greenlighted script get rewritten to their tastes.

The book's got a handful of factual errors as well, which isn't surprising given the number of subjects and contradictory sources. Finally, a couple of the chapters felt really thin, where the author had an interesting film project to talk about, but clearly didn't have enough information tofill out a chapter. This is most noticeable in the chapter about Star Trek films that never were, as most of the chapterdescribes how the films that were made got made, and gives short shrift to the more interesting topics of those that didn't: notably Philip Kaufman's 1977 "Planet of the Titans" (which got as far as pre-production) and Harve Bennett's "Starfleet Academy".

Overall an interesting read, but one that makes you wonder why anyone wants to deal with the Hollywood system.


Posted by molyneaux at 3:33 PM PDT
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Friday, 3 October 2008
Reviewing "Sordid Lives"
Topic: Cinema

At the Frameline LGBT film festival last June I was introduced to the world of Sordid Lives, a TV series that was then shortly to appear on the Logo cable network, based upon the film and play for the same name. I'd never seen the film, not to my recollection even heard of it, but the audience that came to see the first two episodes, screned at the festival, seemed to know it and love it.

I've watched the series through the first nine of its 12 episodes, and I find it sometimes cute but unremarkable.

Sick at home with a bad cold, I've spent most of my non-sleeping time in recent days curled up the sofa. After watching the entirety of Heroes Season 1, I decided to watch Sordid Lives, the movie. I found it a tough watch. Had I stumbled into it without having seen the series and knowing the characters, I'd have gone back to watching extras on the Heroes DVDs.

The plot of Sordid Lives goes like this. In rural Texas the Ingram clan matriarch Peggy Ingram is dead, having hit her head on the bathroom porcelain in a seedy motel after tripping over the wooden legs of her married lover G.W. Nethercott (Beau Bridges). It's just before the funeral and her family is in a tizzy. Her sister Sissie is trying to quit smoking while trying to be a good neighbor to estranged the wife of G.W.: Noelta (Delta Burke). She simultaneously forced into playing peacemaker between Peggy's daughters, the wild LaVonda and the prissy Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia). Meanwhile, the two men of the clan, Brother Boy (Leslie Jordan) and Ty won't be making it to the funeral for reasons that are both related and unrelated. Both men are gay, and Ty hates pretending to be what he's not whenever he goes home to Texas, whereas Brother Boy's been locked up in an asylum for 23 years and spends his days in drag acting like country singer Tammy Wynette. As the story unfolds, it's about family shame and acceptance. Shenanigans abound as Brother Boy's female doctor tries to "de-homosexualize" him, and Noleta and LaVonda get revenge by humiliating the men that screwed with their lives.

Unfortunately, Sordid Lives is like many films that have attained "cult" status in that it's an awkward, ungainly production whose devotees embrace it for the very elements that mainstream audiences might consider flaws, or just choose to ignore those flaws because they like the one-liners.

The story is simple and straightforward, and the characters are potentially interesting, but they mostly seem two-dimensional. Beau Bridges is utterly wasted as a drunk buffoon who's never really funny or given much to do. Bonnie Bedelia fares better as the prissy Latrelle because she chooses to play the part straight instead of broad. Even when she's being ridiculous, she's far more real than most of the cast, who, while energetic, are often not likable and frequently cartoonish. I suspect this is more about the script and the direction than the actors.

The gay subplot of the film is handled with a surprisingly heavy hand, and while Leslie Jordan's Brother Boy is played with a certain level of dignity, the part as written is more stereotypical and broad than you'd think. Brother Boy lives vicariously as Loretta Lynn, but it's never clear if he's adopted his country music queen persona as a mechanism for distancing himself from the horrible world he inhabits, if he has gone slightly nuts from his years locked up, or both. The story takes a cheap way out by having him confronted by a psychologist who's clearly the biggest nut in the booby hatch. The character of Ty, who narrates backstory from his therapist's office, is bland, and for every story he tells that feels real and touches a nerve, there's something else that feels worn and retreaded. Ty never seems to be connected to the world he describes.

There's fun and funny stuff here, but the morals are heavy handed, and the story tries too hard to be outrageous, often resulting in forced comedy.

That this film is adapted from a play is readily apparent and all too obvious. I've not seen the play, but its fingerprint are all over the film: the staging and the dialogue and the fact that the whole story plays out in essentially four locations (house, mental hospital, bar and church) all point out this origin in really obvious ways. Effectively there are only four scenes, and while intercut, it's still obviously four scenes. Those scenes would have been better off subdivided into smaller scenes and played in different locations.

Worst of all the technical execution is terrible. Apparently being one of the first indies shot on high def video, the film has a weird flat quality that isn't helped by amateurish lighting schemes where actors actually step into key lights of their fellow performers, casting them in shadows. The camera work itself is shaky and the setup and angles are often clumsy. The deleted scenes on the DVD demonstrate how bad this work can be, as some of the deleted material is so poorly photographed that one suspects it was dropped for its lack of visual quality as opposed to its narrative effectiveness. 

Heck, evenwhen the film apes a classic moment from Thelma & Louise it botches it. The women snap a Polaroid of themselves, which gets represented by a freeze-frame of the shot of them holding the Polaroid and not from the the POV of the prop camera. I realize this is low budget, but not that low.

In a way, the TV series spawned from it is better than the film itself, because it's written in bite-size scenes suited to television and film.

Cute idea, poorly executed.


Posted by molyneaux at 7:25 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 30 December 2008 1:17 PM PST
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Thursday, 25 September 2008
"Complicated Women"
Topic: Books

As a fan of silent film I've more than a passing knowledge of the pre-code era and the portrayal of women before and after, so I was looking forward to reading Mick LaSalle's "Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood" from the moment I saw it on sale at a vendor's table at The San Francisco Silent Film Festival".

In short, prior to July 1, 1934 there was no real regulation on the content of films produced and distributed in the United States. As the roaring 20s progressed, films got more and more daring with their subject matter, reflecting an age when traditional roles and ideas were being challenged and many times upended. As films got more daring, some audiences and critics grew more determined to stop it, and many states and counties took to censoring (editing) films to eliminate the things they thought immoral, offensive, or just plain not right. A threatened Catholic Boycott made Hollywood roll over and give into the idea of a sort of self-imposed and enforced Production Code that would keep moral critics at bay and prevent their films from being carved up or banned in some markets.

The trouble was, this strangled the content of many films, forcing men and women into stiff "traditional" roles, with women getting the shortest end of the stick. Right up til June 1934 women in films were getting bolder and more complex roles, with films questioning the state of marriage, women having as much freedom as men, and boldly contradicting the stereotype that equated virtue with virginity.

As the book rightly point out, compare the female stars from 1931 to early 1934 to those 5, 10, or 20 years later, and you see how this idea of making film "decent" reduced women's roles and diminished the portrayal of women themselves. Norma Shearer says things in "The Divorcee" that would be considered modern in the late 20th century, or even today, and yet ideas and statements such as those were wiped off motion picture screens for a quarter of a century.

LaSalle makes a number of cogent points in the book, notably how the women in film since the 20s seem very modern but for fashion and technology, and that those from before feel like a different world. His many examples make a good case on how the Code limited the roles and portrayals of women and made them from the biggest box office draws into later box office poisons after the Depression.

The writing is good. I literally laughed at loud in a few places, notably the witty way the author describes the Garbo vehicle "Conquest": "...sniff around it for ten minutes and it's like taxidermy. It has the shape and form of life, but don't be fooled by the upright posture. It's dead."

As a book on film, though, it's the kind of book that really requires you to know some of the films of the eras discussed, for while LaSalle is good at describing the differences, it's not the same thing as having seen examples. In fact, before reading this book, I'd suggest anyone not familiar with the subject should bone-up on some of the films discussed, especially the pre-code Norma Shearer films (fortunately, an appendix tells where/if each of the films discussed is available...many of which are shown on TCM...so get those DVRs programmed).

Speaking of Shearer, LaSalle's love for her and her work is palpable, but he goes a little overboard in using her as an example, especially where there are other women who could serve equally well as examples in certian cases.

That said, the book did seem to focus too much on the sexual freedom these women portrayed and not enough on the other aspects that made them "complicated". That, to me, made the book feel a little less "complicated" than the title might suggest.

 


Posted by molyneaux at 7:02 PM PDT
Updated: Friday, 10 October 2008 4:28 PM PDT
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Saturday, 6 September 2008
A Little Pick-Me-Up
Mood:  happy
Topic: Makin' Movies

It's seven weeks to the day from when team Fogbelt 2880 hit Golden Gate Park to shoot "How the Bunny Got the Bear".

During that long shooting day circumstances forced me to drop several short scenes and shots that, while fun and funny, weren't necessary to get the main story points across. However, I always regretted losing some of that material, because it was fun stuff, and its absence changed the story balance slightly because the son bunny Gus's original introduction was lost, and it makes him a smaller part of the story overall.

Well, today's my chance to try to make up for that, as some key members of Fogbelt 2880 reassemble to do pickup shots that will allow the film to be completed more as it was originally intended.

I tried REALLY hard to be prepared in a way that was not possible for the 48 Hour Film Project. I had written a custom script of just the material we’re going to shoot. I had storyboarded some of the shots I wanted. I'd made a fairly comprehensive shot list. I'd captured frames from the original footage and printed out sheets of these for continuity purposes. I had sent checklists to the crew of what everyone should bring (the costumes, for instance, were all over the place... ears here, tails there, shirts elsewhere), and asked Tim if his camera has a composite video out I could plug a small LCD monitor into. I'd even printed maps to show where all the potential locations were and how to get from my place to them.

Furthermore, I had spent three hours yesterday biking around the west half of Golden Gate Park scouting locations that we could use. I had my digital camera with me to shoot reference photos and a map of the Park on which I could mark said locations. 

  1. I was looking for a place the parent rabbits could bolt into the bushes. I found some perfect shrubs near a playground.
  2. More important, I needed something that could serve as the "door" to the home of the rabbits. I noted four possible places where trees or paths made what could pass as a sort of figurative entrance. This was the main location we needed, because two scenes take place there. I found several possible spots for this, two near our original location, and one a short drive away. I knew where I really wanted to shoot it, but when I'd driven by it a few days earlier, there was grounds work going on around it.
  3. I figured we'd return to our original location for Gus's introduction and to shoot a new set of lines of the parents to set up a new "PTA" joke.
  4. Finally, we'd need a place to shoot the PTA joke itself. I knew we could shoot that almost anywhere, but, if time permitted, I found a beautiful spot next to the lodge building by the park's fly fishing ponds.

The crew was to assemble at my place by 7:30, but I start getting phone calls before 7.  One Becky calls to say Jim was getting the clothes together that he and John had worn, but he can't remember who had worn which pants, so I have to review the film in hi-def to study their behinds and say who had worn pants with back pockets with flaps and who hadn't.  Then "Beckster" Becky (in team vernacular) calls to say she only had one of the bunny tails, not both as she'd thought, etc.

Our crew for the day are actors P.A., Jim, and John, and behind the camera the two Beckys, cameraman Tim, sound guy Will, and Erik "Mother Nature" Braa, and myself. Roles are fluid because it's a small crew and we'll all have to pinch hit, but mostly the actors act, Will listens, Beckster booms, Becky slates, Tim shoots, I direct, and Erik does anything else we need.

Everyone but Erik is at my house on time, and P.A. shows up already made up, as he has a limited availability and needs to be done by 11 a.m. We saddle up and head for the first location.

As above, I'd located seveal possible "door" locations the day before, but as I was heading home, I'd decided to bike by my first choice for the location...and the grounds keeping equipment was gone! I told the crew this is where we'd try to start. We all head to this location, and will move to an alternate only if it's unworkable. That location is Lloyd Lake and the Portals of the Past. The Portals is what was once the portico of the mansion of A.N. Towne, and was all that remained standing of the home after the 1906 earthquake. It was moved to Lloyd Lake as a symbol of the perseverance of San Francisco. (Click here to see the house that once bore this entrance, and here to see the portico standing in the aftermath of the earthquake with ruined City hall in the distance.)

We find parking and decide to go for it. We hurriedly get our gear unpacked and head around the small lake to the Portals. I love the idea of this as a location, for, as the "interior" of the Finkelstein (rabbit) family home is outdoors, the Portals are perfect as they are essentially a gateway to nothing.

There are obstacles I knew of going in: there's a concert going on in Speedway Meadow--smack between our two main locations--and there's the weather. The summer fog petered out last week, and it's been clear skies. At Lloyd Lake the sun's shining and there's already lots of cars parking along the road. I hope we can get in and out before it becomes unusable. The bright light could be a problem, but since this scene is "outside" the house I figure we can live with it being somewhat brighter than the later "inside" scenes... and, heck, if that doesn't work I'll be spending a lot of time in post adjusting the video.

While Jim and John get made up we start shooting P.A. as Gus in the scene where he answers the door to find an off-camera visitor and reacts in surprise. I coached P.A. on what I wanted him to do, telling him come out from the pillars in a skip-hop fashion and to do a little nose twitching that would match what his parents did in the original shoot. We first do the take from a wide angle where you can see the entire structure and that it isn't connected to anything, and after that, we move closer and change the angle slightly to focus on him. I’d written one line for this, but tell P.A. to just play with it and he delivers something different almost every take. Fun fun!  By this point Erik has found his way to us, shorn of beard he looks less dazzling than Mother Nature... or something...

Two technical problems provide my only real vexations for the day. First, Tim was wrong about his camera... there is a composite signal out, but he doesn't have the right connector, so again I can't use a monitor, despite the fact I have one with me! Second, Will points out that the sound we're getting is likely not going to be entirely useable because there's a nearby sprinkler which he can hear clearly over the headphones, and there's noise from the concert setup across the way. I reply we'll just have to plan to loop the dialog later in Matt's studio, as we don't have the luxury of coming back another time, and what we record here is what the actor's will listen to and match when looping.

With P.A.'s scene done we shift to the parents arriving home. Jim and John's asses are the subject of much discussion as we try to get their tails to match the previous shoot. As with P.A., we first shoot wide as they tiredly skip-hop to their mark and run their dialog, then tip-toe into the portico when they hear off camera noises. After getting it wide, we go closer for a medium two-shot and do it a bunch more times. With all that done we're almost ready to move out. I send Will and Beckster and Erik and P.A. to start loading up the cars, while Becky, Tim and I hurry over to a point across the water from the Portals, from which we shoot a wide establishing shot of the location with Jim and John arriving, reflected in the water. Pretty!

My goal was to be fiished by noon, and I need to get P.A. done even sooner, so we need to get a move on. We drive over to Metson Lake where we'll shoot P.A.'s only other scene. The trouble is, the concert stuff is starting and the noise is a problem. We're definitely going to have to loop.

I'd originally planned to shoot at the same log where Gus and Gloria are discovered by the parents, but that's now impossible because the parks people moved said log over 20 feet, and its previous spot is in directly sunlight, which wouldn't match what we'd shot previously. I pick a different log that's in some shade and someone smartly points out that Gus could be in a different "room" in the "house" in this scene; they're right...no one's going to notice. This was the most important scene I had to get, because it's P.A.'s "entrance", and where his character gets established (in the film, it'll appear just before the scene of P.A. we shot at the Portals). I had carefully storyboarded this, so I knew exactly what I wanted. I coach P.A. on his action. I want him to lean on the log like a teenager with his schoolbook propped up on a sofa back. He's to hold his book in front of him, so at first we just see the bunny ears above the book covers, then lower the book to for his reveal, and deliver his dialog. He then needs to toss the book aside, then react of a "doorbell" and exit in frustration.

About the book: I'd spent the equivalent of one entire day getting the prop ready for this shot. Originally I'd planned to have a book titled "How to Multiply" that looked just like the one Bugs Bunny is reading in the cartoon “Easter Yeggs,” but then I'd hit on the idea of making the book a parody of one of those "For Dummies" books. I spent many hours laying out and then printing and assembling a book titled "Multiplication for Bunnies" in the "Dummies" style. The cover was printed on shiny card stock and looks just like a printed book, with in jokes and twists on "Dummies" slogans all over it that you'll never be able to read on screen, but which the crew found hilarious. Also, I'd designed two custom pages for the book interior, featuring two improbable bunny style "additive multiplication" problems.

To make sure the book was functional as a prop and would not cause us any shooting delays, I'd constructed it in such a way that it was relatively foolproof. I'd taken a trade paperback and used heavy duty adhesive to adhere the new cover over the actual cover (and had two backup covers printed in case one got damaged). I spray glued the custom pages into the book near the middle. Then, to make sure the book always opened to the same spot, I'd poured white glue onto the bottom of the book near the spine, then prssed in into the page edges and wiped it off the surface. I then put a plastic bag between the two custom pages to keep them from getting stuck together, then closed the book and put weight on it while the glue dried. The result is that the pages still flip (sorta), but if you drop the book on the ground on its spine it always opens to the custom pages. Sometimes I be smart!

We got the shots of P.A. relatively quickly. The camera starts tight on the book cover, then zooms out just enough to see the ears and the top of the log, P.A. lowers it and does his shtick. Since we had to do multiple takes, and as such it's not a good idea to let the book get damaged, I asked Jim to try to catch the book each time P.A. threw it off camera. Jim said "you've got the wrong guy", but, despite his worries, he caught it one every take.

Finally, we hurried to another log to shoot a reverse over P.A.'s shoulder so we can see the improbable math problems that are vexing him.  With those done, we wrap P.A. and send him on his way. Thanks P.A.!

Next, Tim and I find a spot to shoot an insert of the book landing after Gus tosses it. We shoot a number of these, me dropping the book on the ground, always landing open to the correct pages. These shots are my safety, because with it and the over the shoulder, I have two options for showing the Math problems, and I can use whichever works best in the film rather than being stuck with only one option.

The sun's climbing and it's getting hotter, and shade of any sort is becoming a scarce commodity. As it is, we have all the important stuff needed to finish the film's opening correctly, but there's still the new gag I want to get in.

This gag was not in the original script, but was inspired by a line John improvised in the sound booth, where he said, "What are you thinking?! What will my PTA think?" I loved that line, and it gave me an idea for a sight gag. The trouble was, when I reviewed the footage we'd shot previously there was no good spot where I could just shoehorn the line in. But I knew roughly where in the scene I wanted it, so I decided to do a retake of one small part of the family discussion.

It went like this...

GLORIA: We're going to be married.
HARVEY: Over my tanned pelt! Look what you've done!
(as Jessi does her "I'm a comin' Jesus" moment)
GUS: What's the big deal?
But I want it to be this...
GLORIA: We're going to be married.
HARVEY: Over my tanned pelt! Look what you've done!
(Jessi does her "I'm a comin' Jesus" moment)
JESSI: (to Gus) What are you thinking? (to Harvey) What will my PTA think?

Again, the sun's making it difficult as the place where we'd originally shot this material is in direct sun and won't match no way no how. So, we move the actors to a spot in the shade about 50 feet away, in front of the pussy willows that were at the very edge of the frame in some of the existing footage. I had Tim shoot from farther to their left than we had previously, hoping that this new angle will hide the fact that we aren't in exactly the same spot. But, to ensure the action matches and increase the chances it'll cut together neatly, I'd printed screen captures of Jim and John during that sequence, and when we get them set up, we review the scene as it exists now on my laptop, so the actors can see exactly how they'd been sitting and what the action was. With Erik sitting-in as a Gloria stand-in and delivering her line, we shoot it. Jim and John are hilarious as always. I hope it works!

There were two other bits I'd hoped to shoot with Jim and John, but they would have required moving to a third location because nothing was workable where we were, but I feel that stuff, while fun, isn't really necessary, and decide to let it go. Jim and John are wrapped!

This leaves only one thing left to shoot: The PTA gag.

This one's just a sight gag that occurred to me on hearing John's PTA ad lib. I imagined a cut to a PTA meeting where the little forest animals react to the news that Gus is marrying a bear. I imagined blank, shocked stares of these characters, holding teacups, and one of them drops the cup. Then we cut back to the action.

To accomplish it, I basically cannibalized the crew except for Tim. Both Beckys, Will, Erik and I are made up and don animal ears (I'd bought some ears for different animals, so we had three other animals and two rabbits). I brought a set of four dainty little flower-patterned espresso cups my mama had given me, and my fellow PTA members hold those as I hold THE book, as if we are discussing coursework. We sit in a tight semicircle.

But is Jim in or out of character?

John directs, deciding that we should all start out laughing at something, then turn as if we're hearing someone tell us some news, and then react in horror to the news, at which point teacups fall. Our cues are: "Laugh. Spot. Shock. Drop!" After a few takes it's obvious that something isn't working because we all have to look at a spot directly below the camera, but going from the laugh to finding this spot with your eyes isn't instant, and I have a particularly hard time because I am seated somewhat in profile and have to turn my head. Jim takes to shaking a small water bottle, and the movement allows you to look at the spot on cue.  We do several takes with everyone dropping their cups, and then just Will dropping his.

Then, with many teacup drops completed, we wrapped the shoot.  Hooray!

As it turns out, I realize we missed one shot on my list, but it's so unimportant that I decide it's not worth bothering with.

I'd promised to but lunch for everyone, but Jim and Becky head home, and Tim gets lost and never makes it. The rest of us went to Tommy's for food and celebratory drinks. Erik quickly wiped off his makeup, but the rest of us went as we were... ears and all. We got many bunny looks, but that's another story...

  

The Fogbelt Fables PTA meets with Mother Nature's lesser known younger Brother Nature to discuss the shocking news of the day.


Posted by molyneaux at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Monday, 8 September 2008 1:13 AM PDT
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Friday, 1 August 2008
Freak Show
Topic: Just Cause...

Home after the Namco Big Top party...

 


Posted by molyneaux at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Sunday, 31 August 2008 1:17 AM PDT
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Sunday, 27 July 2008
Who Watches the Watchmen?
Topic: Cinema

Click this or the image below to view the trailer for Watchmen...go full screen if your computer can do it! 

Dr. Manhattan x3 in the trailer for 2009's Watchmen film

I read Watchmen back in the late 80s, and it simultaneously vivisected and redefined superhero comics all at once. If you don't know the story, the trailer probably doesn't make much sense. but suffice to say it was the first sophisticated take on costumed adventurers, and remains probably the most adult such vision yet. Furthermore, it used the comics medium to dissect itself. What would a world be like if superheroes actually existed?  If superheroes were real, what's in the comic books? Would kids of said adventurers be pushed into like careers by their parents? Would a man whose identity is tied up in a heroic alter ego be able to function without it? Can a population tolerate a state where costumed vigilantes operate outside the law? Would the police stand for it? What happens to a masked vigilante who routinely faces the most horrible crimes, and can such a person maintain their sanity in the aftermath of such experiences? Would a man with godlike superhuman abilities be able to relate to human beings, and would he care what happened to them? And when the world is on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, and the major deterrant is the aforementioned superhuman being who doesn't seem to care any more, what can be done to stop humanity from destroying itself?

Watchmen is a milestone: the only graphic novel to win a Hugo, and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine's 2005 list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present." That's a lot to live up to.

This will either be the most amazing superhero film yet...or one if its biggest disasters. I suspect there won't be much in between.


Posted by molyneaux at 9:54 PM PDT
Updated: Sunday, 27 July 2008 10:45 PM PDT
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