movies


So, tonight was Rocky Horror night. My friend Harry saw it in Austin and wanted to do it again. We went to the midnight show organized, with a complete shadow cast, by these fine folks.

Who let him in?

Who let him in?

I’m not a Rocky Horror virgin; I went back in college with my pal Chris Vargas (if you’re out there, Chris, hiya!), not long after doing RHPS had become A Thing. I was curious how much the movie has held up, and the answer is: surprisingly well. Though the audience involvement thing is a pre-MST3K MSTing of the movie, it’s never done as parody; it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s a thoroughly weird movie, an affectionate nod to the Hammer Horror films, and everybody involved gives it their all. Plus the tunes are irresistible.

If you tried to take the plot seriously you’d have to probably condemn, you know, the cannibalism among other things, but why would you take it seriously? The theme of the movie is what sticks with you– “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure… don’t dream it, be it.” Brad and Janet go through a hell of a night, but one feels that they’ve been un-squared, shaken up in a necessary way.

At least, I think that’s how it goes, since I’ve never watched it without the audience participation, which turns the movie into a celebration of the cheerfully transgressive. It’s fun to see the costumes and fishnets, the parallel live performance (our Criminologist was dressed in a full Svengali costume for Halloween), and it’s just giddy fun to watch everyone waving glowsticks or tossing toilet paper.

Curiously, they frisk you as you enter the theater, so you don’t bring in breakable objects or guns. The Midnight Madness site also includes a list of rules for cast members, whose length and specificity suggest that there must be some very interesting stories behind those rules.

Before the show we had an interesting chat about Chairman Mao. But that’s a story for another time.

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Saw The Congress tonight, a film by Ari Folman, loosely based on one of my favorite books, The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem.

It’s an amazing book; the film starts slowly (and at first seems to have nothing to do with the book)– I was dubious during the first hour– but then it goes insane. In a good, Lemian way.

the-congress

The first part of the movie is set in the near future. A middle-aged actress, Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, is approached with what she’s told will be her last film opportunity ever. The studio wants to scan her once, to turn her into a digital character… after that, they have no further need of her, and in fact she’ll be forbidden to act. It’s not spelled out what she’ll get in return, but apparently she’s desperate for cash to take care of her son (who’s going deaf and blind), so she signs the contract.

All this is presented slowly and didactically, and even when the sf elements come in– the actual scanning– it’s not satisfying. They basically want her to emote for a few hours while being photographed… weirdly, there are flashing lights making it seem like they’re taking still pictures. It’s well acted, and yet makes little sense: how could even a couple hours of performance suffice for generating decades of movies?  In the scene she goes from laughter to tears… but what about every other emotion?  Fear, disgust, anger, orgasm? It’d frankly have made more sense if they said they were scanning her brainwaves or something.

Then, we skip forward 20 years, and Wright attends a “Futurist Congress” associated with her studio, which requires taking an ampoule of some drug, which alters her and our perception.  The presentation switches to an animated movie, with a style blending ’20s pipecleaner and ’60s psychedelic animation.  The film suddenly becomes visually inventive, half playful, half nightmarish, and the plot starts to get weird as well.

This half of the film is also, surprisingly, a recognizable adaptation of Lem’s novel, with the substitution of Wright for Lem’s astronaut hero Ijon Tichy. The studio, tired of mere digitization, has switched to powerful customized hallucinogens that reshape reality.  But then things go wrong– there is some kind of rebellion– Wright is rescued by the man who was responsible for animating her, and fell in love with her.  But he can only take her to the underground sewer which the hotel managers have escaped to, with inflatable chairs and their secretaries. And with the chemicals in the air intensifiying, it’s increasingly unclear whether she’s experiencing rescues or drug-induced nightmares.

She’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up in an even stranger future– a world entirely composed of fantasy. Everyone seems happy, but she can’t adjust, and misses her son.  She seizes the chance to take one more drug, which erases all the effects of the hallucinogens… revealing a shabby brown world, back to live action. Should she stay there, or head back to the comforting fantasy world?

I appreciate high weirdness in art, but it’s all too easy to let it get out of control. Fortunately Forman keeps the story coherent– it’s not just a head trip. He grafts the whole story of Wright, her career, and her family onto Lem’s furious satire. It’s an attempt to give the story a heart, which admittedly the novel lacks.  Tichy reacts to things like we would, serving as bemused spectator and then expressing horror and outrage as he learns how the world really is– but we don’t exactly care about him.  Wright on the other hand is little but emotion; she doesn’t seem to think about anything that’s presented to her.

The book is a tour de force, a whirlwind of grotesqueries and wordplay and ideas taken to wild but logical extremes.  But perhaps it was a little too cool-headed to make a good movie.  So read the book and watch the movie… just be patient for the first 45 minutes or so.

Sometimes I’m slow to pick up on things… Youtube has been around for ages, and for ages I’ve read about Winsor McCay’s animations and wanted to see them, but I didn’t put these two facts together till now.

As one of the earliest of animators, he’s most famous for Gertie the Dinosaur, available here.  But to my mind, his 1912 How a Mosquito Operates is funnier and holds up better.

The repetitions are a bit weird, but a) probably were enhanced by music, and b) helped pad out the piece, a perennial animator’s preoccupation, magnified in these days before the invention of the cel.

McCay was an amazing and lightning-fast draftsman, which allowed him to personally produce the thousands of drawings needed.  What’s more remarkable is his ability to produce lifelike movement.  Today you can look up in a book how to animate, or use computer tools to preview your animation, but McCay was inventing his techniques.

And even more remarkable is the humor and humanity that he puts into his characters.  I used to watch compilations of computer animations in the ’80s; the technical mastery was impressive, but almost no one attempted stories or characters.  McCay’s mosquito, though horrifyingly large, is in his own way dapper and endearing.  His persistence and greed give the short a story, and once he’s gorged on blood McCay shows off both technical prowess (the skeeter really looks heavy) and humor (he has such a hard time flying an inch off the humanscape).  Not a few contemporary animators could learn from this sequence how movement can be funny.

(For McCay’s comics work, see Bob’s review here.)

So Li’l Guardian Pyro is up for a Saxxy award. I just watched all of the nominees, and it’s the best. But some others are very good, IMHO:

  • Chinatown Getaway is set in Koth King and feels just like a Hong Kong action film.  Makes me wish TF2 included parkour and expanded melee.
  • Frozen in Love is very clever.  Someone turned their lack of animating skills into a plus.  Plus why can’t we have female models already?  There’s already an insane amount of pictorial variation in the game.
  • A Fragile Dream is affecting.  Post-Apocalyptia is a little bit easy for generating pathos, but this is well done and very well animated.

This is kind of awesome and kind of not: Darkest Days, an original, hour-long zombie horror film done entirely in Source Filmmaker. The creator is Danny Field.

Field creates his own environments but uses the characters from Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, plus a bunch from Half-Life 2. It’s also largely his own zombie apocalypse: no safe rooms, no healh packs, no infinite ammo, and no specials… on the other hand, the regular zombies are pretty buffed.

Where's your melee weapon, girl?

Where’s your melee weapon, girl?

His most unusual decision, however, was to make it a musical.  A heavy metal musical.  So the characters periodically burst into song.  Sometimes the zombies sing along.

This is… OK, this would probably make for a great riffing movie.  Still, it works as well as any musical, and you gotta admit that metal makes an appropriate soundtrack for a zombie film. certainly more so than, say, lounge.  If you can accept a zombie apocalypse at all, you can accept a musical about one.

So, I was pretty much with him for about the first half hour.  Two brothers, who are given different names but are Ellis and Nick from L4D2,  head out scavenging for supplies and find a largeish knot of survivors.  They mostly survive one horde onslaught, and then have to face a decision: head for the docks to hope for a ship rescue, or back to the city to hole up?

And then…. well, I could swallow the metal interludes, but what really grated on me is that none of the characters seem to have played Left 4 Dead.  Seriously, these people are total noobs.  Their characteristic move is to stand in the middle of an open space blasting away at the zombies as they arrive.  They don’t even bother to look behind them, and the zombies ultimately move in and get them.  They have no idea of cover, of defensibility, or of teamwork.

(Spoilers, like zombies, start to crop up here, and within a few paragraphs will overwhelm the review like a horde of undead.  If you intend to watch the movie– and if you like L4D and/or zombie horror, you should at least give it a try– do so and then you can come back.)

In the first battle mentioned above, the group is locked up in an abandoned gas station.  Nick and Ellis have to knock to get in.  Some scouts come in and report that a horde is coming.  So they leave the building and fight outside.  Wut?  This might be OK if there was some plot-CYA about how the building isn’t as safe as it looks.  I’m reminded of Cowboy Wally, facing an attack, who finally remembers “It’s a fort!  Lock the door!”

And then we’re shown what happens to the people who head back to the city.  They manage to arrive, no problem, and then they’re all surrounded and eaten.  Within the course of one song.  Field had been building some narrative tension to this point, but here he pretty much gives it a shotgun to the gut.

And then… this turns out to be not very subtle foreshadowing.  Everybody dies at the end.  I guess this is common in horror, but that doesn’t mean it’s a clever choice. I may be wrong here, but I think “everybody dies” works better either in a short form (where it’s less of a downer) or a very long one (where your attachments to the characters give the deaths greater meaning).

Finally, there’s problems due to the choice of medium.  Again, all kudos to Field for actually achieving his project, which took an insane amount of work.  For the first quarter hour you’ll be marveling at what he can accomplish in Source Filmmaker. But the uncanny valley has its revenge.  Characters and camera shots stop moving abruptly.  Sometimes Field gets some beautiful animation moves… other times the drama is ruined by a too-simple, robotic motion.  The frequent gore gets cartoonish at times– Coach’s end, for instance, is comically over the top.  It’s also a little jarring to see the Valve characters used for a different story.   I understand not wanting to build his own characters, but it leads to some cognitive dissonance as you think “Bill wouldn’t do that.  Oh wait, I guess that’s not Bill.”

(I gotta say though… the Ellis model was a good choice; that’s one hell of a facial model.  You don’t notice it much in the game, but you get to appreciate it as he belts out heavy metal songs.)

But let’s not end on a downer!  I found this by chance, browsing Source Filmmaker films I’d missed, and it grabbed my attention pretty well.  Check it out to see what people are doing with STM these days.

The early 1940s Superman cartoons from Dave Fleischer are kind of legendary among animation fans, and now they’re all online.  Here’s the first one:

It’s really well animated, especially the action sequences such as the mad scientist’s lair getting destroyed.  This is why I find modern action cartoons unwatchable– the cheap animation ruins them, makes them seem cheap and static.

Lois was apparently based on journalist Nellie Bly, but where Nellie was able to literally circumnavigate the globe by herself, Lois can’t so much as get a sentence out before the mad scientist abducts her.  But she has a ringside seat for Superman’s escapades, so I guess it’s a modus operandi that worked for her.

The electric death ray seems to give Superman a pretty good fight; it’s amusing that he resorts to  punching it into submission.  (It seems like it would have been a little more efficient to take the few seconds it would have required to fly alongside it to its source rather than rely on blocking it.)

Also amusing: Clark Kent muses “This is a job for Superman” right there in the office, just before disappearing into a closet to change.  Also, doesn’t it bother his editor that he’s assigned a story along with Lois, and apparently does nothing on it?  (Or maybe he writes all those “Identity of Superman still unknown” side articles that accompany the main story?)

A hat tip to Legion at the ZBB, who pointed out this lovely French animation feature, Le Roi et l’Oiseau, by Paul Grimault, working with Jacques Prévert.  The video has English captions for those who neglected to learn French.

I love full animation, and there’s a lot of good stuff going on here. It’s the sort of animation John K. would approve of: the storytelling is visual, not based on the written word and a bunch of celebrity cameos.  The movement is fluid, the characters are well designed (the king is a great creation– funny and yet completely villainous), and there are some very clever bits: the paintings coming to life; the machines used by the king (I especially liked his elevator, his trapdoors, and the fish-hovercraft used by the police).

There’s an interesting story behind the film as well.  Grimault went over budget and was removed from the project; it was hastily finished and released in 1952, under the title La bergère et le ramoneur (The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep).  Grimault was never satisfied with this, and in 1967 he managed to buy the rights to the film.  He then found financing and remade the film as he wanted it– keeping about 2/3 of the original film, but adding 45 minutes of new animation.  He also replaced the original music with a new score by Wojciech Kilar, and had all the voices redone.

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