Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

Symphony for the Comet (a short film)

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Hale Bopp comet, 1997, photo by John TewellI’ve had this idea for a student film in my head for 10 years and always wanted to make it. But today I have admitted to myself that I will never actually film this. Instead, I release the words from my head.


Just past dusk. A suburban church spire is silhouetted against the hazy sky. Directly above the spire, as if being pointed to, the comet Hale Bopp is clearly visible, a Nike-like swoosh.

SUPER: [The comet Hale Bopp was known as the “Great comet of 1997.”]

A car drives up to the church parking lot, and before the car has even fully stopped, the rear door opens. RICKY, a young junior high student, 12, with his tie loose and his shirt tail hanging out, rushes out, lugging a French horn case, and disappears through a side door into the back of the church.

SUPER: [In prehistoric times, comets were believed to be harbingers of doom.]

A few moments later, RICKY’S FATHER and RICKY’S MOTHER emerge from the car, close the doors without locking them, and casually make their way into the church, holding hands.


The church is warmly lit by hundreds of candles. Comfortable pews line the church floor, easily enough seating for 300 people. On stage, behind a conductor, there’s an orchestra comprised of two dozen junior high students: two oboists, a bassoonist, two French horn players (including RICKY), and various violinists, violists, cellists, and a double bassist about half as tall as his instrument. Two dozen pairs of parents are seated in random locations, some close to the stage, some further back.

When the last pair of parents has sat down, the conductor and junior high orchestra teacher, MR. TYCHO, looks at his watch and then nervously stands up. Behind him, through the stained glass window, the comet is barely visible.


Um, thank you, everyone. On behalf of the Cliffdale Junior High School Orchestra, I’d like to, er, thank everyone for attending, and, um, for all of your support. Well, the orchestra has worked really very hard on tonight’s program, so, um, this is… this is Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony.” Class!

He taps twice and the orchestra picks up their instruments. A nod and gesture, and the first turbulent notes of the allegro assai erupt from the violins. The first few seconds seem fine, but quickly the performance starts to fall apart. MR. TYCHO seems oblivious, stoic throughout. RICKY is the first to play an off note, but soon both the pace and the key of the entire ensemble deteriorate. Close-ups of the different parents show extremely visible reactions to each wrong note: A blink from one father. A frown from a mother. A series of nervous tics on a second father, in reaction to a sequence of wrong notes.

The orchestra continues on, undeterred, really doing their best. MR. TYCHO, with determined baton movements, tries to recover and get his class regrouped.

Interspersed with the performance, shots of the comet glowing brightly overhead, ominous, out of place.

Cutting ahead to the slow movement of the adagio, Haydn’s intended dissonance almost seems to be delivered by the orchestra. But one of the students drops his cello, a loud clatter from his folding chair as he scrambles to pick it up. A cut to someone who must be his father, hiding his face, he can’t bear it. He’s trembling.

The fast tempo of the last movement is next, the determination of the young orchestra obvious, sweat forming on MR. TYCHO’s brow. RICKY with his cheeks puffed up, snot running down his nose. While some parents sit passive (a close-up of one shows he’s wearing earplugs), most parents are in visible pain, reacting with spasms and jerks to each new wrong note or mistimed entrance. RICKY’S FATHER shakes his head while RICKY’S MOTHER grabs his hand. RICKY looks to them anxiously.

With a slow fade-out, finally, the last tortured note: A mournful dead cat’s howl of screeching pain.

Then: Silence.

MR. TYCHO stands stock still in front. Silence continues in the church. A survey of each parent: Shock, disbelief, pain, eyes closed, hands over ears, no motion, no words.

And then the expression of the students in the orchestra: Hopeful, expectant, exhausted, their young faces peering anxiously up from their instruments and searching around the room, looking for a reaction, any reaction. RICKY looks to his parents.

RICKY’S FATHER stands up and begins applauding. Within seconds, every parent joins him, cheering, jubilant, massive applause. It’s now a wave of standing ovations, the applause now thunderous. This is a genuine moment (no ironic slow clapping). Shouts of “brava” and other cheers. The reaction of the students is also genuine — they’re standing, bowing, giving off exhausted smiles throughout.


The comet. Silent. Motionless. When it finally leaves our night sky, it will not be seen again until the year 4534.


“Blücher” is NOT the German word for glue (my whole world is a lie)

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

The 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies. Starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman (with an uncredited cameo by Gene Hackman), the spoof of the original 1931 Universal Studio’s Frankenstein is both hilarious and well-made, standing up to repeated viewings.

[A photo Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher peering through a doorway]Sunday evening I happened to be discussing the film with some friends, including someone who spoke German. I mentioned how much I liked the joke about the horses whinnying off-stage whenever they heard the name of Cloris Leachman’s character, Frau Blücher, being uttered, because it was German for glue.

“But the German word for glue is not ‘blücher,'” my friend Mattias said.

“Oh. Well, what is the German word for glue?” I asked.

“You could say ‘der Klebstoff’ or ‘der Leim,'” he replied.

“Well, what does ‘blücher’ mean?”

“It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” (Apparently it’s a common name, too, like ‘Jones.’ EDIT: Per the comments, no, it’s not common.)

Well, I had heard that the reason the horses whinny throughout Young Frankenstein is because they were afraid of being turned into glue for a long time, from at least two different people, starting at least 20 years ago.

A quick search confirmed the debunking: Snopes, About, even IMDB. Wikipedia expanded that Cloris Leachman herself had heard it from Mel Brooks. In an interview with Brooks, he claims that someone gave him the wrong translation: “Before we started shooting, someone told me ‘blücher’ means glue, so that’s why I had the horses whinny. I’m not sure if that’s true.” However, in the audio commentary, Brooks simply says that the horses whinny because she’s an ominous character.

There are millions of people who speak German throughout the world. It’s tremendously easy to look up German words for things thanks to tools such as Google translate. But here I was a couple of nights ago, repeating an urban legend. We generally tend to believe things that we’re told, even when verification is simple. The moral: Don’t believe everything you hear. Verify things yourself.

For over 20 years I believed the word “blücher” meant glue. Now it means disillusionment.

Second Annual “Predict the Summer Box Office Champ” Contest

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Last year, I ran a contest to predict which summer movie would perform the best. With summer fast approaching, now it’s contest time again!

[collage image of movie posters for Summer of 2010]

The Prize: A pair of AMC movie tickets.

How To Enter: Leave a comment here or on FriendFeed with your prediction for these four questions.

  1. Which of the below 33 films will have the biggest U.S. box office opening weekend as determined by The Numbers?
  2. Which of the below 33 films will have the biggest worldwide box office take as of Labor Day, as determined by The Numbers? (Note that movies released later in the summer will be at a disadvantage.)
  3. Which of the below 33 films will have the highest Rotten Tomatoes score?
  4. Tiebreaker: How much money will the correct answer to question 1 take in on its opening weekend in the U.S.?

Deadline to Enter: Monday, May 3, midnight Pacific.

The List of Movies

Here’s the list you can pick from, ordered by date of release:

  1. Iron Man 2 (Robert Downey Jr., dir Jon Favreau) — May 7
  2. Babies — May 7
  3. Robin Hood (Russell Crowe, dir Ridley Scott) — May 14
  4. Shrek Forever After (Mike Meyers) — May 21
  5. MacGruber (Will Forte, Val Kilmer) — May 21
  6. Sex and the City 2 (Sarah Jessica Parker) — May 27
  7. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Jake Gyllenhaal) — May 28
  8. Killers (Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl) — June 4
  9. Marmaduke (Owen Wilson) — June 4
  10. Splice (Adrien Brody) — June 4
  11. The A-Team (Liam Neeson) — June 11
  12. The Karate Kid (Jackie Chan) — June 11
  13. Toy Story 3 (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen) — June 18
  14. Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin, Megan Fox, John Malkovich) — June 18
  15. Grown Ups (Adam Sandler) — June 25
  16. Knight and Day (Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz) — June 25
  17. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Kristen Stewart) — July 2
  18. The Last Airbender (dir M. Night Shymalan) — July 2
  19. Despicable Me (Steve Carell) — July 9
  20. Predators (Predator sequel: Adrien Brody, Laurence Fishburne) — July 9
  21. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Disney: Nicolas Cage) — July 16
  22. Inception (Leonardo DiCaprio, dir Christopher Nolan) — July 16
  23. Salt (Angelina Jolie) — July 23
  24. The Adjustment Bureau (Matt Damon) — July 30
  25. The Other Guys (Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg) — August 6
  26. Eat Pray Love (Julia Roberts) — August 13
  27. The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li) — August 13
  28. Takers (Matt Dillon) — August 20
  29. Nanny McPhee Returns (Emma Thompson) — August 20
  30. The Switch (Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman) — August 20
  31. Piranha 3-D (Elisabeth Shue, Richard Dreyfuss) — August 27
  32. The American (George Clooney) — September 1
  33. Machete (Danny Trejo, Robert De Niro, dir Robert Rodriguez) — September 3

It’s a much more crowded field this year than last year, packed with the predictable assortment of sequels and remakes. Some curiosities: Two SF films with Adrien Brody within a few weeks of each other? A-Team vs. Karate Kid on the same weekend? Such a crowded field means there are probably going to be a lot more money-losers this year.

Just as before, I’m leaving off a lot of films that are coming out this summer. And some of those not on the list will probably do better than some of the 33 I’ve listed above. But to keep things simple, let’s just consider these 33.

Gory Details: I will pull all data from the appropriate web sites on Labor Day, 2010. Each entrant will score one point for each correct answer to the first three questions, with a maximum of three points possible. Highest point total wins. In the event of a tie for highest point total, I will use the answer to question 4 as a tiebreaker. Closest to correct wins.

Thanks for entering!

How the West was Wan

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

A scene from DaybreakerI saw Daybreakers last night, a movie that cleverly explores an alternate 2019 America in which vampires have taken over the world. (Why should zombies always be the ones to eliminate humanity? Why do vampires constantly have to hide in the shadows and keep their numbers limited? The concept of a world populated almost entirely by vampires was also explored in Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula” series of books.)

While Daybreakers comes off feeling a little low-budget and B-movie in parts, and there are a few plot holes that don’t withstand scrutiny, it’s thoughtful, stylish, gory, engaging, and well-acted (possibly excepting Willem DaFoe, whose character, named Elvis, vamps [hah!] his southern accent a bit too too much).

Star Ethan Hawke’s character has the first name of “Edward.” The movie was made originally in 2007, long before the current Twilight craze, so it wasn’t an intentional reference. But it’s very unfortunate and distracting, even when some characters refer to him as Ed.

I woke up this morning with a $50 million dollar idea that I’m giving away here, because I couldn’t live with myself if I did this. Here’s what you do:

  1. Hook up with a nutritionist and come up with a vitamin cocktail formulated specifically to make up for chronic Vitamin D deficiency.
  2. Frappé it, add sugar water and a whole ton of caffeine, and add your (fictional) secret ingredient, “tauro-hemine,” which you say is synthesized from cow blood.
  3. Bite your tongue and a bullet and license Twilight. See if you can get away with only 20% of the gross.
  4. Slap Edward’s brooding mug on an ankh-shaped can.
  5. Call it “Twilight Red Thirst” and set up your distribution channel for every goth club and vintage clothing store in the land.
  6. Sure you’re splitting your gross with Stephanie Meyer, but after a couple of promotional campaigns and with a catchy slogan, soon you’ll be laughing all the way to the blood bank.

The Letter V

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

Sorry, every other letter in the alphabet, you’re fired. The letter V has completely dominated popular culture.

Vvvv vvv vv, V vvvvv, vvv vvvv vvvvvv vv’vv vvvv vv vvv vv “v.”

[Collage of images involving the letter V from popular culture, including V, True Blood, V for Vendetta, others]
(Click to enlarge)

In the collage, roughly from left to right:

  1. Supermodel Anne V (Sports Illustrated photo), wearing a v-neck bathing suit, from her 5-year SI run.
  2. Actress Morena Baccarin as Anna in the new “V” series on ABC.
  3. The energy drink V.
  4. XKCD illustrating Valentine’s Day (V Day). (Notice that the bottom half of a heart forms a V.)
  5. The band Live’s album V.
  6. V logos for Virgin brands as well as the TV series “V” look similar.
  7. The annual music festival in the UK.
  8. The victory gesture with 2 fingers; Churchill (his arm, at least) and Nixon are demonstrating here. Nixon is really demonstrating three Vs.
  9. The graphic novel V for Vendetta, written by Alan Moore, drawn by David Lloyd, which later became a movie.
  10. In the HBO series “True Blood,” adapted from the Charlaine Harris novels, vampires are known as “Vs,” and their blood is a drug known as “V” (reminiscent of “X” for ecstasy).
  11. Visitors, visitors, everywhere. In addition to the current “V” series (where the Visitors are called “Vs”), there was the original two-part 1983 miniseries, a three-part 1984 miniseries, a short-lived 1984 TV series, and various novels and comics.
  12. Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V.
  13. The V subway train, familiar in orange to residents of New York.
  14. The Gibson Flying V, made famous by Lonnie Mack and Jimi Hendrix.
  15. V Day (or V-J Day), and the world’s most famous photograph of a kiss in Times Square.

And there are probably a dozen more I could have included if I had thought of them.

Summer box office champ contest results and winner

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

Back on April 22, I posted a contest to predict the Summer box office champ.

Just as a reminder, I picked one movie from each of the 18 weeks of the Summer movie season (between Memorial Day and Labor Day). Entrants had to guess the movie from that list with the highest opening weekend U.S. box office, the highest worldwide box office as of Labor Day, and the highest Rotten Tomatoes score.

(Box office data comes from The Numbers and was pulled as of the evening of September 10th.)

Here are the results for each of the 18 films:

Movie U.S. Opening Worldwide Box RT Score
Wolverine $85,058,003 $365,075,654 36%
Star Trek $79,204,289 $383,178,099 95%
Angels & Demons $46,204,168 $484,375,846 36%
Terminator 4 $42,558,390 $371,628,539 32%
Up $68,108,790 $459,766,563 97%
Land of the Lost $18,837,350 $64,614,532 26%
Pelham 1 2 3 $23,373,102 $113,952,312 52%
Year 1 $19,610,304 $57,637,279 16%
Transformers 2 $108,966,307 $830,507,142 19%
Ice Age 3 $41,690,382 $851,794,898 44%
Brüno $30,619,130 $130,788,243 68%
Harry Potter 6 $77,835,727 $917,436,218 83%
G-Force $31,706,934 $192,069,113 25%
Funny People $22,657,780 $57,788,554 68%
G.I. Joe $54,713,046 $281,744,646 37%
Final Destination 4 $27,408,309 $83,857,858 27%
Inglourious Basterds $38,054,676 $181,748,496 88%
Halloween 2 $16,349,565 $27,979,893 20%

And the same results plotted as a graph:

18 Summer movies plotted to show U.S. box office for opening weekend (blue line), worldwide box office (green bars) and Rotten Tomatoes score (red triangles); data from The Numbers (as of 9-10) and Rotten Tomatoes. Click to enlarge.

18 Summer movies plotted to show U.S. box office for opening weekend (blue line), worldwide box office (green bars) and Rotten Tomatoes score (red triangles); data from The Numbers (as of 9-10) and Rotten Tomatoes. Click to enlarge.

So, for the three questions, the correct answers were:

  1. U.S. Opening Weekend Box Office: Transformers 2 with $108,966,307.

    Second place was Wolverine, but it wasn’t even close; Wolverine took only $85 million in its first weekend.

  2. Worldwide Box Office: Harry Potter 6 with $917,436,218.

    Surprising to think a film that some consider to be a kids’ movie can take in close to $1 billion. Even more surprising is the second place finisher: Ice Age 3, which edged out Transformers 2. (Separately, I was not expecting Star Trek to be so far behind, ranking sixth out of 18 for worldwide take.)

  3. Rotten Tomatoes score: Up with 97%.

    Star Trek was close with 95%, and third was Inglourious Basterds at 88%.

A few points of interest:

  • Final Destination 4 was initially slated to open August 14, but moved to August 28, same week as Halloween 2. (It trounced Halloween 2, although both did pretty well for horror movies in Summer.)
  • I didn’t give District 9 nearly enough credit. With an unknown director and actors, and scant plot details available at the time I made the contest, I didn’t pick it as one of the 18. If I had known about Final Destination 4 changing weeks, I probably would have selected District 9 anyway, but as it was I made a bad call. District 9 out-performed about half the films on the list, but wasn’t close to the top, so it didn’t ultimately matter.
  • The worst performers of the 18 movies were Halloween 2 (taking both the lowest opening weekend and also lowest worldwide box office, although it has had less time than the other movies for that latter metric) and Year One, for worst Rotten Tomatoes score (16%). The three that performed the worst on the three metrics when combined were Land of the Lost, Year One, and Halloween 2.
  • Including District 9, there were eleven other Summer films not on my list of 18 that did well. They all are in The Numbers’ list of the 50 films that have grossed the most in the U.S. so far in 2009 — and all of these 11 out-performed Halloween 2. (None of these films beat out the winners listed above.) These films are (in order of worldwide gross):
    1. The Hangover — June 5 ($440,227,055)
    2. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — May 22 ($410,687,642)
    3. The Proposal — June 19 ($285,837,964)
    4. Public Enemies — July 3 ($192,103,415)
    5. District 9 — August 14 ($126,517,464)
    6. The Ugly Truth — July 24 ($116,065,314)
    7. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past — May 1 ($96,736,445)
    8. Julie & Julia — August 7 ($83,260,082)
    9. Drag Me To Hell — May 29 ($79,525,024)
    10. My Sister’s Keeper — June 26 ($69,147,713)
    11. The Time Traveler’s Wife — August 14 ($63,728,728)
  • There’s a good correlation between U.S. opening weekend box office and worldwide box office: r = 0.79.
  • There’s very little correlation between Rotten Tomatoes score and either U.S. opening weekend box office (r = 0.15) or worldwide box office (r = 0.11). Some movies with bad reviews, such as Transformers 2, did very well, while some movies with good reviews, such as Inglourious Basterds, did relatively little business.
  • Looking at production budget data from The Numbers, the three most expensive films to make were Harry Potter 6 ($250mm), Transformers 2 ($210mm), and Terminator 4 ($200mm). The three cheapest to make were Year One ($60mm), Brüno ($42.5mm), and Halloween 2 ($15mm).
  • Only three films lost money: Land of the Lost (lost $35.4mm), Funny People (lost $12.2mm), and Year One (lost $2.4mm).
  • In terms of percentage of investment return, Ice Age 3 pulled in an impressive 846% return, Harry Potter 6 returned 267% of the production budget, and Angels & Demons returned 223%.

So, who won the contest and can claim the free movie tickets as a prize?

Twelve people entered the contest.

For the first question, only Dave Zatz guessed the correct answer of Transformers 2, with some sterling analysis in his comment where he correctly pointed out that the first movie did enormous business worldwide despite being horrible.

For the second question, nine of the twelve entrants correctly identified Harry Potter 6; the franchise has always done well worldwide.

For the third question, four commenters (Dave Z., Lani S., Ken G., and Jim G.) correctly predicted that Up would have the highest Rotten Tomatoes score.

So, overall, no one got all three correct. Two entrants got 0 correct answers. (Roger’s guess of Land of the Lost for all three questions may have been less than serious.) Most people got at least one correct answer thanks to question 2. Four people ended up having two correct answers. Dave Z. got question 1 and 3 right. Getting question 2 and 3 right were Lani S., Ken G., and Jim G.)

In the comments, I identified that the bonus question — who would win in a fight? — would be used as a tie breaker.

(If I had used the metric of who was closest on the one they got wrong, Lani S. would have won. But I went with creativity of bonus answer.)

Dave Z. and Lani S. both failed to answer the bonus question, so get zero points for creativity. Jim G. answered Wolverine, but didn’t back up his answer with any creative analysis. I award him one point for creativity. Ken G. answered that the Transformers would destroy all the others, and gave a tiny bit more analysis, but his answer was still very skimpy. It was more than Jim’s, though, so I award Ken three points out of ten for creativity. (Personally I think magic is a huge advantage, so I think Harry Potter would be the sole survivor. I’m open to hearing counter-analysis.)

So, with the highest score for creativity, winning the two free movie tickets is Ken G. Congrats, Ken!

This was fun, so I hope to do this again next year, and perhaps a few more folks will enter. My thanks to everyone who entered! (more…)

3D Horror Movies

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Prevalence of Things that are Gratuitous in 3D Horror Movies

Star Wars, Middle Earth, Star Trek, Batman: Fan Films come of age

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Twenty-five years ago, when I was in high school, there was no desktop publishing. Before the age of laser printers, the best home printers were dot matrix, and the best home computers running the best word-processing software could only barely handle “What You See Is What You Get.” If you wanted something printed professionally, you took it to a typesetter working with equipment large enough to fill a small room. Fast forward a mere five years, and laser printers combined with better software produced the desktop publishing revolution, which meant that any mom’n’pop store owner could create professional signage in minutes, and even the “Lost Cat” sign on a nearby lamppost uses professionally-kerned fonts surrounding a high-resolution image of the wayward kitty.

Over the last few years, something similar happened to film-making. Digital imaging, lower prices for HD cameras, and readily-available high-quality editing software means that dedicated fans can produce a product that passes for much more than a home movie, rivaling productions that cost professionals a million dollars or more to produce.

The secondary market then also expands, and you get things like Indy Mogul, a video blog dedicated to uncovering the secrets of independent film-making (with a particular emphasis on practical effects).

Film-making of any ambition is never simple. Locations, sets and set decoration, props, script, music, sound effects, actors — and acting!, costumes, make-up, hair, special effects, practical effects, and editing are required — and that’s a lot to coordinate, plus a lot to pay for. (Online productions also have to contend with file formats, web hosting, a web site, and even piracy.) But what was previously only available to a Hollywood studio is much more attainable for ordinary people — in particular, fans. Time and enthusiasm must substitute for big budgets.

Fans will make films about things that interest them, and for a lot of us who work with computers, we’re interested in Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, and Middle Earth.

Placing a fan film in a known universe is a double-edged sword. On the positive, it means there’s a ready-made audience, and you don’t have to spend as much time in your film on back-story or setting the scene. On the negative, the chance of making any money on these productions is extremely limited, since the intellectual property is not owned by the fan film-makers. And some productions risk possible cease and desist orders while invoking the wrath of the original writers and directors and actors and producers — the very people the film-makers probably admire and want to impress.

Here, then, are four ambitious productions that I hope will exceed your expectations if you’re not already familiar with what’s possible from fan film-making.

Star Wars: Ryan vs. Dorkman

[image of light saber on ground from Ryan vs. Dorkman 2]It was 1997 when Troops first appeared, a short film that mashed up A New Hope‘s desert planet of Tatooine with the TV show “Cops.” The success of Troops ultimately ended up in Lucasfilm themselves partnering with Atom films to create an annual award for the best Star Wars fan films. Into that environment, Ryan Wieber and Michael “Dorkman” Scott created two Ryan vs. Dorkman films focusing on light saber battles.

Skimping on plot (or any kind of backstory which might explain why a Jedi or Sith would go by the name “Dorkman”) to focus instead on the battle choreography, the ten-minute RvD2 from 2007 is an amazing product.

The music alone sets apart this film from cheap home movies. Adding in the creative fighting and the sterling special effects, it’s easy to see why this film has garnered nearly five million views on YouTube.

Batman: Ashes to Ashes

[Ashes to Ashes banner]Ashes to Ashes is an 18-minute French film (with English subtitles) made from 2006 to 2008 and released this year. Crossing the look, grit, violence and sexuality of Frank Miller’s Sin City with the staple characters from DC’s Batman, the film takes a bold approach by changing the viewpoint perspective away from what the viewer of a Batman movie might expect.

The filmmakers manage to mix in Batman, The Penguin, Harley Quinn and The Joker despite the short running time. The overall trick of recreating the look of Sin City succeeds amazingly well.

One warning: Several of the scenes are disturbing.

Star Trek: Starship Farragut

[Starship Farragut banner]Starship Farragut is clearly a labor of love, with superb production values for props, music, and special effects. Two episodes, each split into an introduction and five acts, and each totaling about 40 minutes, were produced in 2007, earning the crew several awards for best fan film. The attention to detail in recreating the look and feel of the original series of Star Trek is evident in every scene.

As a culture, we’re extremely critical of acting, and the actors in the Farragut episodes are clearly not professionals. Some of the delivery underscores the barriers that amateurs have to face when competing against professional productions. (Interestingly, the RvD films avoid this problem simply by giving the actors no lines whatsoever, while Ashes to Ashes makes an end-run around the issue by keeping each scene brief and the lines short and loud.) The stars of Farragut are clearly earnest and engaged, however. Bolstered by the costumes and sets, they carry themselves well to make an overall presentation that’s enormously fun. The space battle scenes in particular rival what was done by the Paramount productions.

(One slight barrier is that it’s not as simple to watch the episodes as it could be, because you have to navigate from the main site to the download section to a mirror site to a download page on the mirror, and then choose each act one at a time. That’s likely because as a free download they have to gather what they can for hosting arrangements.)

Middle Earth: The Hunt for Gollum

[The Hunt for Gollum banner]

The Hunt for Gollum is a 34-minute production (40 minutes with credits), released in May of this year, set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth — a prequel meant to bridge the gap between what happens in the forthcoming The Hobbit movie and the first of the Lord of the Rings films.

The Tolkien estate is notoriously protective, so there have not been nearly as many Middle Earth fan films as you’d see for Star Wars or Star Trek. (EDIT 6/5: Here’s a list of six other Lord of the Rings fan films, from Clive Young, per his comment.)

The FAQ from The Hunt for Gollum claims, “We have reached an understanding with Tolkein [sic] Enterprises to allow the film to be released non-commercially online, but the project is completely unofficial and unaffiliated.”

NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story on this production back on April 30, focusing on the legal issues. But that story misses what sets this film apart: Its surpassing quality. The acting here, especially Adrian Webster as Aragorn, is top-notch. Even better are the costumes, effects, fightcraft, music, and atmosphere.

I’m surprised there hasn’t been more coverage about this film (especially on social media). If you enjoyed the Peter Jackson films at all, I’d say you’re absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this production as well. You’ll immediately recognize what they’re doing, and stills from the real thing fit comfortably side by side with the stills from The Hunt for Gollum.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the whole affair is perhaps too slavish an imitation of Peter Jackson’s vision. That, and some brief outtakes in the final credits seem a bit jarring when presented with the gravity and beauty of the end credits score. But these are tiny quibbles. I cannot recommend this film more highly.

Fan films have made tremendous strides in just the last few years. Imagine, then, what a few more years of advances in computers and effects will bring.

Hayao Miyazaki: The price of being the world’s greatest animator

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

I have no problem in saying that Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest creator of animated movies. My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke are his best-known works, but there are many more. Currently my son is obsessed with all things Totoro, and that’s not far different from his father.

Miyazaki’s son, Goro, is the same age as me, 42.

In 2006, Goro directed Tales from Earthsea (and I’ll write more about that film later this week). While making that movie (which is not yet available in the U.S.), Goro wrote a series of blog articles that have been translated at a fan site called Goro is very plainspoken about his father in his 39th blog post:

Hayao Miyazaki, to me, is “Zero Marks as a Father, Full Marks as a Director”.

My father was almost never at home.
That’s why for me, when I was a child, my mother had to fill the place of my father.

My father came home every day in the middle of the night, after I had already gone to sleep. He was always very conscientious in this regard – apparently, no matter how late it was, he always made sure that he came home.
But almost every Saturday and Sunday he was still at work regardless. That’s why, from my earliest awareness to the present day, I hardly ever had the chance to talk to him.

More details appear in Goro’s next two blog posts. In post #41, Goro states that he studied the work of his father closely because that was the only way he could know and understand him.

When Goro was chosen to direct Tales From Earthsea based on the storyboards he created, there was a public argument between Hayao and Goro over whether or not Goro was ready to direct. Goro later states in the blogs that he and his father then avoided each other completely.

[photo of Goro and Hayao Miyazaki together at the debut of Tales From Earthsea; photo from ghibliworld, not credited]

Apparently that rift was mended after the film was released, and the picture above shows sitting Hayao and Goro together. Hayao wrote Goro a note to say that the film was made honestly, and that that was good.

It’s easy to fill in the blanks and imagine Hayao as an obsessed workaholic, often absent from home. Many of Hayao’s works deal with children and their relationship with their parents. My Neighbor Totoro, for instance, was completed in 1988, when Goro would have been in college. I don’t know Hayao at all, but it seems to me that the price he paid for releasing such wonderful films was a very steep price indeed.

Contest: Predict the summer box office champ

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

This summer features a surprisingly large number of well-known franchise films competing for your entertainment dollar, despite the great recession. If I were a major studio, I might hold off on some of these, but I suppose they’re gambling that summer movie escapism is recession-proof.

The upcoming potential blockbuster releases are listed below. For each week of summer, I picked the most buzz-worthy film.

  1. X-Men Origins: Wolverine — May 1
  2. Star Trek (dir J.J. Abrams) — May 8
  3. Angels & Demons (The Da Vinci Code 2) — May 15
  4. Terminator: Salvation — May 22
  5. Up (Pixar) — May 29
  6. Land of the Lost (Will Ferrell) — June 5
  7. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (Denzel Washington) — June 12
  8. Year One (Jack Black, dir Harold Ramis) — June 19
  9. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — June 26
  10. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs — July 3
  11. Brüno (Sacha Baron Cohen) — July 10
  12. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — July 17
  13. G-Force (Disney guinea pig flick) — July 24
  14. Funny People (Seth Rogen, dir Judd Apatow) — July 31
  15. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — August 7
  16. Final Destination 4: Death Trip 3D — August 14
  17. Inglorious Basterds (dir Quentin Tarantino) — August 21
  18. H2: Halloween 2 (dir Rob Zombie) — August 28

(Certainly I’m leaving off a lot of films that are coming out this summer. And some, such as the new Woody Allen film Whatever Works, June 19, will probably do better than some of the 18 I’ve listed. But to keep things simple, let’s just consider these 18.)

Now, your tasks:

  1. Predict which of the above 18 films will have the biggest box office opening weekend in the U.S. as determined by The Numbers.
  2. Predict which of the above 18 films will have the biggest worldwide box office take as of Labor Day, as determined by The Numbers.
  3. Predict which of the above 18 films will have the highest Rotten Tomatoes score.

Bonus question: In a fight between the protagonists of the above 18 films, who would win?

To enter, just leave a comment here or in FriendFeed.

Update 4/25: Prize is two movie ticket passes to the AMC chain. Deadline to enter is April 30th.

Thoughts on the Watchmen movie

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Twenty-two years ago, in the last half of 1986, I was an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, and probably spent more time thinking about comic books than I did thinking about my computer science classes.

A guy named Frank Miller was working on Batman Year One and Elektra Assassin. A guy named John Byrne had just restarted Superman at #1. The most popular comic book was X-Men, then written by Chris Claremont. And a guy named Alan Moore started a twelve-part series called The Watchmen, with art by Dave Gibbons.

We had the Internet back then, but this was before the Web and Twitter and Facebook. When we wanted to talk about something, there were discussion groups called Usenet, and the newsgroup for discussing comic books was called net.comics at the time.

Well, when The Watchmen started, we talked about little else. Thousands of posts, with speculations and discussions and arguments. Waiting up to a month for each new issue to arrive was torture, and we filled the gap with micro-analysis of every panel. (I see the same kind of scrutiny applied to Lost today.)

A few half-complete archives of that old newsgroup still exist (like this one), and it’s strange to read my earnest twenty-two year old arguments after issue 5 came out where I tried to refute speculation about who the evil mastermind was behind the murder mystery. I was dead wrong.

At the time, a popular topic was who should play each character in the movie. Fan discussions of movie casting are always unrealistic, pitting box office draws against each other, and piling up dozens of famous actors in even the most minor roles. But even back then we thought it would be a great movie. Never mind that Alan Moore hated movies and didn’t want his series to be filmed. Never mind that it was impossible to capture the twists and turns of those twelve issues in a reasonable movie length. Never mind that the central difference between the world of The Watchmen versus our world — the existence of the omnipotent blue naked guy called Dr. Manhattan — could never be convincingly portrayed on-screen.

Back in 1997, I remember a friend of mine, Dan, an editor at Sybex books, gave me a copy of the early Sam Hamm script, which I thought was largely a travesty. After hearing about the endless reboots and changes in director, I was convinced no one would ever make this film.

Well, I saw it this evening. Zack Snyder did many things right. The casting choices for Nite Owl, Rorschach, Silk Spectre and Ozymandias are superb. I think Richard Roeper has a rule of thumb that says in an ensemble cast of unknowns, the one actor with a recognizable name is probably the weakest link — and that’s the case here. Billy Crudup is a good actor, but even he can’t make Dr. Manhattan believable, and his soft delivery is the biggest distraction in the film.

I didn’t think I’d ever see a Watchmen movie. I didn’t expect even half of critics to get it. The comic remains one of my favorite things ever written, a dense and thoughtful work. So how can any movie deliver on the expectations? How can any movie succeed in translating this work from page to screen? No movie can. Nothing can do it justice.

The tiny details, like the muzak version of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” during a key scene, the dense set dressing of historical objects such as newspapers and photos, the recap montage at the beginning set to Dylan, the changed but still fitting ending — all of these things show that the creators wanted to create a faithful movie version of the comic.

I have to say that I enjoyed myself a great deal, and the parts that work in this movie are far more memorable than the elements that don’t work.

Twenty-two years ago I thought more, wrote more, read more about this comic than practically any other work of fiction of any kind, before or since. Ultimately I have to say I loved this movie, for coming so close. Close enough.

If it had been up to me, I’d have released it in parts, so that modern audiences would have to squirm and wait for the story to be finished, just like we did twenty-two years ago.

Many more than three dimensions: Coraline

Friday, February 20th, 2009

The first movie I’ve seen in the theater in 2009 is Coraline.

A vivid expansion of the 2002 Neil Gaiman book, genius drips off of every hand-crafted frame. If you liked A Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride, the creepy stop-motion musicality of those films is propelled further by the 3-D, which is not used just for gratuitous look!-in-your-face!-a-trident! thrills here, but is instead used to enchant and vivify the pocket world of the film.

Dakota Fanning manages to make you forget it’s her talking. I knew it was John Hodgman playing the father going in but never recognized him once. Saunders and French are memorable, if brief, in appearance (but should have been given richer lines, I think).

The visual vocabulary is enthralling. I’m captivated by this film. The haunting choir soundtrack is a perfect match as well.

If I have a quibble, it’s the abbreviated nature and plaintive voices of the ghost children. Everything else is perfect. See this movie. I honestly can’t imagine many adults who wouldn’t like it. (But it’s not for young children.)

M. Night Shyamalan career trajectory update

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Updating my earlier post, it seems The Happening scored a horrific 20% on the Rotten Tomato meter, continuing the downward trend.

It’s too early to tell total box office, but it does look like it’ll do better business than Lady in the Water, and when I substitute opening weekend gross for total box office, you can see that The Happening is playing against trend. It’s doubtful, however, with ratings like these, that’ll it exceed the total box office for Signs or The Village.

[Graph showing Rotten Tomato score and box office for first weekend for movies directed by M. Night Shyamalan]
(Click on the graph to see a larger version.)

TiVo announces partnership with CinemaNow for Disney and other movie downloads

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Hey folks, amongst all the hubbub for our Q1 results released today, we also announced a partnership with CinemaNow to deliver Disney movie rentals to your box via our Video Download service. (MegaZone has some additional coverage on this as well.)

We’ve been working hard with the CinemaNow folks to get this ready for you. Keep an eye on your Download TV, Movies, & Web Video menu (under TiVo Central -> Find Programs & Downloads); this new service will arrive later this year.

Between CinemaNow and Amazon Unbox, every major movie studio will be available on your TiVo-branded DVR.

Personally, my favorite classic Disney movie has to be The Jungle Book. I’ve been reading the book version to Sammy for a few weeks. At some point pretty soon, he’ll be old enough to watch the movie — now I know how I’ll get it to him.

Variegated miscellany

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

Today I attended Jack and Andy’s fifth birthday party at Hoover park, and watched Bob get pelted by water balloons and shaving-cream-filled sponges by ten ecstatic kids. (How I escaped that fate, given I’m a co-godparent? Dunno! But I am oh so grateful.) Aunt Beth made two cakes, one a race car, and the other a chocolate volcano with lava made from melted orange lifesavers. Amazingly beautiful cakes.

* * *

While I was feting twins, Kimi took Sammy and Sophie to the Hiller Airplane Museum, which never gets old for Sammy.

Me: Sammy, what did you see at the airplane museum today?
Sammy: Airplanes.
Me: What kind of airplanes?
Sammy: Old airplanes. With wings!

* * *

Yesterday was Sophie’s eight month birthday. She babbles incessantly now, has the tiniest of teeth buds coming in, gives a smile to everyone, likes to wave somewhat erratically at people, and can roll over, but seems to show no interest in crawling. We’ve started the ferberizing to break her of her 3 a.m. feedings, and so far so good; she slept through the night for the last two nights.

* * *

Yesterday was also photo day at Sammy and Sophie’s school, and in addition, teachers’ lunch out for Sophie’s class. This semi-annual event asks the parents to donate their time and a little money for the teachers to get an escape, while parents come in during the lunch hour to watch the kids. There are eight kids in Sophie’s class, ranging from four months to almost a year old. For the noon to 1 shift where I helped out, we had five parents. When we first started our shift, the teachers had left us well-fed, happy, clean-diapered kids. Within about, oh, ten minutes, half of the kids were bawling, and most had dirty diapers. We parents just looked at each other and laughed. What a profoundly difficult job. The two teachers handle four infants each, with aplomb. We parents were having difficulty with less than two each. Things soon settled down though, and the hour ended up flying by.

* * *

While the photographers set up outside the school and we lined the kids up to have their individual and class photos taken, smoke and haze filled the sky from the nearby Santa Cruz mountains fire. Yesterday morning over 3,400 acres had burned, dozens of homes were destroyed, and the fire was less than 1% contained. Even though we were fifty miles away, kids rubbed their eyes and coughed; and the strange air reminded me of a smell from my childhood, in London: walking down the street in winter evenings, with seemingly every house having a fireplace with a blazing wood fire, smoke pouring out of chimneys, getting on your clothes.

Chim chimminee, chim chiminee, chim chim cheroo.

I was very glad to see the unexpected and unseasonable light rain today, giving the firefighters the break they needed to control the mountain blaze. The dull weather was not so much fun for five-year-olds attending a birthday party, but everything in life is a trade-off.

* * *

Earlier in the week, I caught Speed Racer and then snuck in to a showing of Prince Caspian. It took me about thirty minutes to catch on to Speed Racer’s vibe, but once I did, I loved it. I think this is a vastly underrated movie. The critical smackdown is somewhat intense; I guess most of the critics never watched the original cartoon, because I think the movie catches the goofy tone of the movie pretty much perfectly. And the visuals do not disappoint, exceeding even the hype.

Prince Caspian, on the other hand, is a dreadful bore, missing all spark of charm and whimsy of the first Narnia movie, laying the religious theme on over-thick, and really missing the point of the book (which I read probably twenty times before I was 12).

Speed Racer is over two hours but feels like 60 minutes. Prince Caspian is over two hours but feels like three or four.

* * *

Rob and I have been playing a new card game, Race for the Galaxy (which Steve and Larry introduced me to when they visited a couple of months ago). We play whenever we get a chance. I love this game. It’s a bit fiddly to learn, and the fact that you’re not directly interacting with your opponents takes a few plays before you understand how you can actually have a huge effect on your opponents’ play — but it’s such a short and intense game, I find myself even dreaming about it. Get this game!

* * *

Kimi gave me the new Flight of the Conchords CD for my birthday (among a lot of other CDs, thanks sweetie!). Although I loved the first season of the HBO show, I had thought some of the songs were hit or miss. But I was able to really listen to the lyrics (thanks to the iPhone making it easier for me to carry around music), and now I love all the songs. Buy this CD. Please mister, you won’t regret it.

* * *

There’s a friends-and-family deal at TiVo right now for a TiVo HD. If you’re a friend or family and want a new HD DVR, drop me an e-mail.

* * *

While I do aim to generate content, rather than pass along content from elsewhere, here’s a link. I have to say I applaud these two for their convictions and avocation.
* * *

Kimi: “Your blog is so random. No one likes all the content. No one!”

Guilty — variegated miscellany is what this is. I do tend to be all over the place. Everything’s connected, somehow. Just think though — there are half of the categories listed on the right not even touched by this post. But comments are what I like best, so let me know what you’d like to see more of, and less of.

Career trajectory of M. Night Shyamalan

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

This guy’s career needs a twist. Can The Happening beat the trend?

[Chart showing box office numbers and Rotten Tomatoes critical review ratings for five films directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Chart shows a strong downward trend.  Sources:,]
(Click on the graph to see a larger version.)


Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Caught Cloverfield last night, after the kiddies went to bed (and after a super great date night where Kimi and I had a wonderful dinner out at Castro Point).

Look, this is a really well-made version of The Blair Witch Project reborn as a giant monster movie, and if you get motion sickness at all, the camera work here is going induce severe nausea.

It’s basically real-time (playing back the tape of a home movie), and so that means there’s no explanation and less resolution than you might hope for. There’s really less of everything that you might hope for. That said, I thought it was well-acted and exhilarating, unconventional, and even unpredictable (all things I’m really looking for), with first-rate production and special effects — and I’d rather it left me wanting more instead of feeling it had overstayed its welcome.

My main complaint is I’m not ready for 9/11 imagery to be reused in a monster movie. Early on, you get the clouds of smoke billowing down New York streets as panicked Manhattanistas take cover. I know this is 2008, over six years from 9/11, but trivializing the terror of that day by co-opting those emotions for a $10 carnival ride of a movie seems reprehensible to me. The movie would not have worked as well set in L.A., but I think Boston or San Francisco or Chicago or London or Paris would have served much better.

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

Friday, December 28th, 2007

Despite being one of the worst-reviewed movies in recent history, I still wanted to see Requiem, which picks up immediately after the previous Aliens vs. Predator flick left off. So I caught it last night after the kids were in bed. (Thanks Kimi!)

Kimi thought I was nuts to want to see this instead of something, well, decent… But I’ve actually wanted to see this movie since 1991, ever since the teaser trailers for Alien 3. Those brief audio-only trailers made it sound like the Aliens had landed on Earth and were attacking us at home. Turns out, those trailers were a lie and Alien 3 ended up being my least favorite movie of the series by far. (They should have gone with the “Saturday Night Live” sketch’s idea and called it Alienses.)

Sure, the first Aliens vs. Predator (2004) was set on Earth, but it was confined inside some magic temple, so it wasn’t what I was expecting or wanted.

And while Requiem isn’t the most tightly-plotted or superbly-acted movie you’ll ever see, I think it’s far more entertaining than any of the others in the series since Aliens, and it really does deliver on the scenario that scared me 16 years ago. This movie does not pull any punches: animals, children, and lead characters are all in jeopardy.

Don’t misunderstand me, though: Aliens is about 500 times better than Requiem. Steven Pasquale (Garrity from “Rescue Me”) and Reiko Aylesworth (Michelle from “24”) are the closest thing to stars they got, and they ain’t really movie stars. Making Reiko’s character Kelly so obviously based on Ripley (protecting her daughter, driving the tank) seems like a misfire to me, but both leads do a decent job. (Whoever they have as the sheriff was terrible and badly miscast, though.)

There are certainly plot holes in this that defy any ability to suspend disbelief. But if you want to see Aliens attacking a town on Earth with Predators mixed in, and a nice twist (telegraphed by the ending of the previous movie), the action scenes work, the movie is decently crafted with good special effects and a tight pace, and it’s not nearly as bad as the critics say.

For the record, here are my ratings of the films in the series, using the -4 (truly horrible) to 0 (meh) to +4 (wow!) scale:

Alien (1979): +3 (but doesn’t age well; was terrifying when I first saw it, but now seems too slowly paced)
Aliens (1986): +4 (still nearly perfect from beginning to end)
Predator (1987): +1 (decent despite or maybe because of Arnold)
Predator 2 (1990): -2 (really bad)
Alien 3 (1992): -3 (horribly bad, and undermines the previous movie to boot)
Alien Resurrection (1997): -1 (I like the style of it, although there are some really big problems)
Aliens vs. Predator (2004): 0 (mindless, cheesy, some good action sequences, badly acted, many plot problems)
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007): +1

By the way, Defective Yeti nailed the whole “versus” genre a while back.

Beowulf in Threeeeeeeeeeeee Deeeeeeeeeeee

Monday, November 26th, 2007

So Sunday night (after Kimi got her hair cut and hung out in the city that day), I saw the late showing of Beowulf in 3D.

This movie is a gimmick wrapped inside a gimmick wrapped inside an enigma. But it does succeed in being entertaining.

First of all, it’s computer animated. And the human expressions are, quite frankly, not very good. Robin Wright Penn’s character, Wealthow, is particularly wooden. While brief scenes are photo realistic enough to trick the eye, I was never able to suspend disbelief for long because of the uncanny valley effect. These animated characters aren’t cartoonish enough to be lovable or sympathetic, and they aren’t human enough to pass as realistic. The effect is ultimately as if you’re watching a movie starring stop-motion mannequins.

The second gimmick is the three-dimensional effect. I don’t wear glasses normally, so it’s distracting to have to wear the 3-D glasses. And every opportunity that exists for a spear to be thrust in your face or an axe to be hurled toward you is taken. It’s not immersive; it’s distracting.

The enigma is the cold story of a relationship built on a foundation of lies. It’s a bit more resonant than the actual Beowulf epic; in fact, this movie shares little with the original old English story other than its setting, character names, and the vague idea that a hero named Beowulf at one point fights a monster named Grendel. The story is a bit off-putting, preventing you from really forming any kind of attachment to the wooden mannequins parading around in front of you, waving swords, disrobing, and leaping from parapet to crag.

Brief scenes that work are amazing, and these are mostly the action sequences. Certain ones near the end involving an event and creature quite different from what happens in the Beowulf epic I remember from Freshman English are stirring and make this a movie worth checking out, as long as you’re forewarned ahead of time of the gimmicks.

Ever watch “His Girl Friday” (1940) or “The Mark of Zorro” (1920)?

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

If not, you’re missing out. These two classic movies are, in my opinion, required watching for cultural literacy.

If you’ve missed out, now you can watch them — and lots of other classic movies, starring Sinatra, Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin and other greats — FREE via Amazon Unbox. Act fast — the free pricing is good only until November 18.

Details on my TiVoCommunity forum post.