Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Erin Moran and Irwin Keyes

One of the best parts of Comic-Con is getting a chance to chat with the stars who show up to sign autographs. It was a treat to shake hands with Irwin Keyes, a friendly giant who told me how much fun it was to make Rob Zombie's "House of 1000 Corpses," even though there were two weeks of sandstorms. He also told me that after Roger Ebert praised his performance as one of the highlights of "Intolerable Cruelty" without mentioning his name, Keyes went to his book-signing to ask him to give the names of character actors when he was impressed with their performances. And Ebert said he would. My favorite part was when his friend took our picture, and Keyes asked me, "Regular or choking?" I chose choking, of course!

Erin Moran of Happy Days was warm and friendly, and I loved seeing her interact with the fans. She made each one feel welcome and appreciated. It rocked me a bit to hear that her most recent pilot is for Retirement Living TV. It's a talk show called "Wise Words," with retirees giving advice to callers. I hope it gets picked up. She said she also tried out for "Hell's Kitchen."

The Ray/Ray interview: Harryhausen and Bradbury at Comic-Con

When Ray Harryhausen was a young boy, his parents took him to a movie called King Kong and he decided to devote his life to creating the same kinds of effects that made him believe there was a giant ape on the Empire State Building. "For me it stimulated a dramatic imagination of a gothic nature." He taught himself the same stop-motion animation techniques that were used in King Kong and the dinosaur movie, The Lost World. In films like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea he took movie special effects to an entirely new level of fantastic realism.

Mr. Harryhausen was at Comic-Con to promote a new 50th anniversary release of 20 Million Miles To Earth with lots of DVD extras. On Friday night, he provided live commentary for the film, noting at least three times that the Venusian reptile monster (called Ymir by the film-makers but not identified that way onscreen) never attacked anyone until he was attacked first. It was clear that he had more affection for the creature than he did for the story's human characters. Understandable -- the reptile was a better actor. On Saturday, he sat down with a small group of reporters to talk about his career.

I began by asking Mr. Harryhausen if he thought that what he was doing was acting as well as animating.

Of course! You're working with actors so you can't let them upstage you. I learned from King Kong you have to get sympathy for the villain. Hard to do with a Tyrannasaurus Rex! You can get sympathy for a humanoid form, but it is harder to get sympathy for an animal. So we adapted the original design for Ymir to make him more like a human, his torso anyway. He originally had one eye, like a cyclops. We had to wiggle the tail a lot to distract the audience. I always did a lot of research but was not bound by it, just inspired by it. The Ymir was from Norse mythology originally, but we changed our mind.

I brought in the story; I was very modest in those days. It took me 50 years to learn that modesty is a dirty word in Hollywood. Originally, we had the rocket ship land in Chicago, but I wanted a trip to Rome, so we moved the landing to Italy so I could go there and scout locations. We added our ruins to theirs.

He did not feel that his artistic vision was compromised by colorizing the new release.
We would have shot them in color if we had the budget. We had to do them on the cheap and not let them look cheap.

He does not admire what he calls the "hyper-realism" of today's CGI special effects or DVDs that reveal too much about how the effects were created.
When you try to make fantasy too realistic you defeat the fantasy. It is a shame that DVDs tell everyone how everything was done. It spoils the fantasy.

Fantasy was a word he came back to several times.
I did not do horror; I did fantasy. Fantasy is "what if" -- it's stretching your imagination. We don't want to be associated with horror. I don't like them to be called monster films.

He liked to run things himself and seemed pleased he was getting credit not just for the special effects but for the movies.
I liked to work alone because I didn't like anyone telling me what to do. This was not director's picture in the European sense of the word. In our films, the director's job is to get the best out of the actors. And these were not films built around the actors. We had three different Sinbads. We shot the live action first, planned very carefully. Everything is probably the first take.

He said his two biggest challenges were the multiple characters in Jason and the Argonauts and the Medusa in Clash of the Titans.
The most challenging creature was Medusa with twelve snakes in her hair. I did not want to animate a cosmic goddess, so we gave her a snake's body. We did not want to go with the classical concept of a pretty woman with a pretty face and snakes in her hair; we wanted to make her furious. We borrowed the bow and arrow from Diana. We borrowed the seven heads from Hercules; you always had to remember which head was going in which direction. With the multiple figures in "Jason," We couldn't do rotting corpses coming out of the ground at night in "Jason;" we had to do clean-cut skeletons in the daylight. The things you see today would frighten the devil.

Even in the days before CGI, there were issues of changing technology.
We had the advantages and disadvantages of changing technology in building our creatures. Originally, we used foam rubber, which shrinks 10-15 percent so the clay models were a little fat and you can see that some of the stand-ins were a little stouter. It depends on how long you cook it, how long it holds up. It is fine material, but it will rot. We have a big display of the models in Germany at the Sony Museum.

His childhood influences continued to inspire him. He mentioned King Kong and She several times.
You'll see shades of She in First Men in the Moon.

It sometimes took years of planning before any footage was shot.
My complicated pre-production drawings had two purposes. To help with planning and to let the actors know pretty well what it will look like. Actors have imagination -- an actress might have to make love to a teapot. I have to be very careful to draw things I know I can do because we used them to raise the money.

Toward the end of the interview, we were joined by Mr. Harryhausen's lifelong friend, sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, nattily attired in suspenders and a tie featuring grinning jack o'lanterns.
We met through our mutual love of dinosaurs. King Kong inspired us both. "The Lost World" -- nothing like it had been done. My first influence was Lon Chaney. I have total recall from birth on, and I can remember when I was very young seeing "Hunchback of Notre Dame." Then "Phantom of the Opera." These things teach you about love, falling in love, stories for a lifetime. Then there was Buck Rogers when I was nine. I got the job of reading the comic strips on the radio. My pay was tickets to the movies -- "King Kong," "Murders in the Wax Museum." I was rich! Because we are surrounded by reality, which is stupid, we fall in love with Beauty and the Beast, Jack the Giant Killer. When I was five years old, I fell in love with fairy tales. Love what you do and do what you love and forget about the money. I wanted to become a magician, and I did, didn't I?

Mr. Harryhausen had one final comment:
And don't let anyone talk you out of it.

More pics from Comic-Con

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Comic-Con -- preview of coming attractions

I'll be posting the Harryhausen interview and other notes and pictures shortly, but for now, some quick thoughts on Comic-Con 2007.

Last night was the Masquerade, one of the highlights of Comic-Con every year. People line up for hours to get tickets and then line up for hours again to get a seat. And the contestants spend all year on their costumes and skits, some very intricate. Many of them feature the exact same joke -- an iconic comic/videogame/movie character dancing to a pop song. And yet, and you'll have to trust me on this, it is funny every single time. One of last night's most elaborate featured the students of Gryffindor and Slytherin singing the songs from "Grease." There was a Josie and the Pussycat Dolls mash-up that even managed to get in references to "Cats" and a back-up from famous felines Felix, Tigger, and Cheshire. Three different contestants came as the ice queen from Narnia. There was an excellent Beetlejuice in the incarnation with the spinning carousel hat and long arms with hammer hands. Pinky and the Brain were an audience favorite, many of whom happily sang along. And the sand people and Jawas of "Star Wars" are a perennial hit.

In other highlights, I:

1. Attended an academics' panel discussion of the Jewish themes in superhero comics, especially (I am not kidding) Captain America and Thor (who knew?) -- one book cited is called "Up, Up, and Oy Vay",
2. Spent two hours in a press session on behalf of the 25th anniversary five-disk definitive director's cut (as opposed to the previous director's cut) of "Blade Runner, featuring four of its stars (see photo), its production designer, effects guy, and the legendary Syd Mead (who did the vehicles and other designs), Philip K. Dick's daughter Isa, and director Ridley Scott,
3. Talked with Erin "Joanie" Moran of "Happy Days" (take a deep breath, everyone -- her latest project is a pilot for THE RETIREMENT CHANNEL (think Nickelodeon for the AARP crowd),
4. Was (nicely) choked by Irwin Keyes of "House of 1000 Corpses" and "Intolerable Cruelty" (see photo above),
5. Took a lot of pictures of people in cool costumes,
6. Listened to "The Film Crew" (formerly the "Mystery Science Theater" guys) comment hilariously on Killers From Space and Wild Women of Wongo
7. Heard the wonderful Alison Bechdel talk about her brilliant graphic memoir of the suicide of her closeted mortician/high school English teacher/obsessive home-rennovating father, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,
8. Watched a restored and colorized version of 20 Million Miles To Earth (50th Anniversary Edition) (aka "The Beast From Space") with in-person commentary from special effects master Ray Harryhausen and the actor who played the obnoxious little boy "Pepe" in the film,
9. Had our pictures taken being embraced by armored bear Iorek Byrnison of The Golden Compass (I also had mine taken as a corpse in a corpse-stuffed mattress for a movie called "Amusement"), and
8. Had a blast through it all.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday, July 20, 2007

Roving Mars on DVD

One of my all-time favorite interviews was the people behind the glorious IMAX film, "Roving Mars." I'm delighted it's now out on DVD. This gives some idea of how meticulously the film brings the audience inside the mission.

Quotes of the week: Chuck & Larry

Most critics didn't much like "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry," and many pointed out its essential hypocrisy, as I noted earlier.

In Time Out New York, Melissa Anderson wrote:

Chuck and Larry wants it both ways, indulging in ass obsession and the lamest queer stereotypes since Franklin Pangborn was in short pants, then hoisting the rainbow flag at half-mast in a panicky cry for tolerance.

At the Washington Post, Desson Thomson says:
Essentially, "Chuck & Larry" is an oafish chance for audiences to laugh at gay-bashing jokes and then feel morally redeemed for doing so -- courtesy of an obligatory wrap-up scene that reminds us that homosexuals are humans, too.

But at the Village Voice, Nathan Lee (who, like Anderson, is gay), argues that this film is a major step forward because of its intended audience -- while "Brokeback Mountain" presented its call for tolerance within a genre of stately, dignified, romantic tragedy, likely to appeal to those already halfway there, this movie, Lee says, subverts assumptions even more audaciously by putting them in front of those less likely to be willing to consider questioning them.
Somewhere in the cafeteria at GLAAD headquarters, girlfriend is about to choke on her quiche, but here goes: Tremendously savvy in its stupid way, "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" is as eloquent as "Brokeback Mountain," and even more radical...Where the clowning queers of "Birdcage" invite us to laugh at their antics, the faux-mos in Chuck and Larry disarm prejudice by unabashedly reveling in its idiotic assumptions. "I used to wrestle in high school," is the gayest thing Chuck can think of, "and, uh, I liked it." The movie isn't effective despite the egregious gay stereotypes; it couldn't work without them. Through the medium of an Adam Sandler comedy, with all the requisite vulgarity, we're given access to what it feels like to be ostracized, to live under false pretenses, to suffer a sham marriage. It does with crass what Brokeback did with class, slipping dangerous sentiments into the safest of genres.

Harryhausen at Comic-Con

I am thrilled that I will get a chance to interview legendary special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen at Comic-Con -- stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Spoiler Alert: "Chuck & Larry" and "Hairspray"

Two movies opening this week purport to be all about inclusiveness and tolerance. Both are lighthearted comic fantasies but both manage to undercut their happily ever after endings with choices that are insensitive or even bigoted.

"Hairspray" is as irresistible as its irrepressibly sunny heroine, and it deserves credit for addressing a serious issue (segregation in 1962 Baltimore). And it has some strong black characters and a sweet interracial romance. But did the great leader of the fight for integration have to be the white heroine?

More troubling is "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry," with Adam Sandler and Kevin James as heterosexual fire fighters who register as gay domestic partners to retain one's pension benefits. Despite a Shylock-esque call for tolerance and understanding, the movie perpetuates so many gay stereotypes and includes so much underlying homophobia that not just the movie's story but its comic sensibilities are undermined. A statement from FIREFLAG/EMS, an organization of LGBT members of the NYPD, shows far broader tolerance and generosity than the movie's main characters:

"Chuck and Larry" is, of course, a comedy and some of the humor may be considered offensive to some, but the growth of the principal characters during the course of the film is the ultimate measure of how to judge the intent and heart of the filmmakers.

Paul Dergarabedian Must Be Stopped -- Vulture -- Entertainment & Culture Blog -- New York Magazine

New York Magazine has started the Dergarabedian Watch. Every week, Paul Dergarabedian provides a "comment" on the weekend box office.

Paul Dergarabedian has the easiest job in the world. His job is to take box-office numbers and say something lame about them. That's why today we're launching our Summer 2007 Paul Dergarabedian Watch.

Every time a news organization uses this zero-content quote machine in place of actual box-office analysis, we'll point it out. Every time Paul says something particularly stupid, we'll call attention to it. We're doing this in hopes of forcing entertainment writers to find a new way to fill their boilerplate Hollywood stories...You can help! Send your Paul D. sightings to vulture@nymag.com. Together, we can make a difference.

Spoiler Alert: Transformers and Bratz

Work with me on this -- I think that "Transformers" and "Bratz" are pretty much the same movie. Or rather, they're the gender-specific sides of the same movie. On the side of the snips and snails and puppy-dog tails, we have "Transformers." Over on the sugar and spice and everything nice side, we have "Bratz." But they have more in common than both being essentially dramatic infomercials to sell dolls, I mean action figure robots and dolls and having Jon Voight as an ineffectual authority figure. They are both about the power of transformation (girl terminology: makeover), that ultimate metaphor for adolescence and growing up. And they are both about high school kids triumphing over big, powerful monsters who want to control everything. The Transformers have Megatron. The Bratz have a Mean Girl named Meredith.

Comic-Con 2007

I am thrilled to be going back to Comic-Con next week with my husband and will be blogging about our adventures.

For a refresher, check out last year's postings and pictures.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Spoiler Alert: Restaurant Dreams

SPOILER ALERT: "Ratatouille" and "No Reservations"

Two summer movies about characters with a passion for cooking have identical (happy and delicious) endings.


Yesterday I had a blast with the stars of "Bratz," the adorable new movie inspired by the popular dolls: BFFs Chloe (Skyler Shaye), Sasha (Logan Browning), Jade (Janel Parrish) and Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos). Details when the movie is released in early August.

Monday, July 09, 2007


I grew up in the golden age of puppetry, or at least the golden age of puppetry that has been preserved on film and video.

My parents took me to watch "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie" live when it was broadcast in Chicago and puppeteer Burr Tillstrom was a close family friend. Later, I got to meet Shari Lewis and Jim Henson. So I was thrilled to find out that the wonderful Emmy-winning PBS documentary "Stories of the American Puppet," covering those brilliant puppeteers and Edgar Bergan, Paul Winchell, and many others, will be available on DVD in September. DVD extras include full performances expanding on the excerpts in the show.

For those who can't wait, the earlier documentary from Mark Mazzarella is available on VHS.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Slate's action movie catchphrase contest

In the distinguished tradition of the Bulwer-Lytton first line of a bad novel competition, Slate's action-movie one-liner contest has produced some hilariously authentic-sounding catch phrases that almost make me want to see the movies they might be part of.

[S]everal readers incorporated new media into their catchphrases. From Demolicious: "Consider this negative eBay feedback." Michael Martin provides a variation on the theme with "Myspace friend add … denied!"

Calaphin captures the latent jingoism of the genre with "Welcome to America, douche bag." And Chris Larson taps into a related action trope—the comeuppance of the pretentious European bad guy—with "You shouldn't have said shed-yul, asshole."

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Spoiler alert -- t-shirt edition

The ultimate spoiler -- a t-shirt from Oliver Moss that gives away everything.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Mirror/Stage » Film criticism in "the blog era"

Hurray! Andy Horbal of "No More Marriages" is back online with a new blog, Mirror-Stage. He kicks it off with a superb essay, Mirror/Stage » Film criticism in "the blog era", staking out his territory and defining his genre:

These are new times, and they call for a new criticism; I believe that we are entering the age of the “termite critic.” It is no longer necessary, desirable, or even possible for film critics to be “movie experts,” to be King of the Mountain, Arbiter of Good Taste. Instead, the critics of tomorrow will devote themselves to some small part of the Cinema and nibble away at it until sated, at which point they will move onto another....Perhaps most importantly, termite critics actually live and write from within the Cinema itself. voyage-in-italy-1.JPGThey don’t merely tell, they show; film is a visual art, and theirs is a visual criticism. They are critics and cinephiles, but they are also artists, filmmakers. Their criticism is always an act of creation, never destruction.

This, then, is termite criticism, the future of film criticism. It is an active criticism, written (drawn! shot!) by active critics who do not passively wait for today’s Hollywood film release, for this month’s celebrity birthday, or for this year’s uninspired AFI list to tell them what to write about. Termite critics dig, fight, and research; they cajole, exhort, and implore. They are responsive, never more than an e-mail away; they are organizers (of screenings), they are directors, photographers, writers.

Welcome, Andy. We look forward to your digging, fighting, researching, and responding.

Hey, the Folks at the Tribune Walk Out on Movies -- You Can, Too! - Cinematical

Kim Voyner of Cinematical follows up on confessions in the Chicago Tribune of movies people have walked out on in this piece, and provides a list of movies Voynar wishes she had missed. I may look at my watch a lot, but I never think about walking out of movies. Voynar's skewering of the films she wishes she had missed was so much fun to read (even though we disagree on some of the titles) that I, for one, am glad she stayed to the (very) bitter end.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

PG-13 Transformers movie marketed to children

I suppose it should not be a suprise, coming from a television series that was created to sell toys back in 1984, but the new "Transformers" movie and its various tie-ins and toys are being marketed to children much younger than the PG-13 rating suggests for the viewing audience.

Citing the widespread and irresponsible marketing of the PG-13 Transformers movie to preschoolers, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to expand their investigation of the marketing of violent entertainment to children to include PG-13 movies. The film, which opens on July 4, 2007, was rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language” by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). A review by CCFC found more than one hundred Transformers’ toys for children under six; Transformer promotions by Kraft and Burger King clearly aimed at young children; and advertisements for the movie on children’s television programming rated appropriate for kids as young as two.

CCFC has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, available here.

Film Techniques of Alfred Hitchcock - suspense, camera angles, style, editing, basics

Many years ago, the book Truffaut/Hitchcock made me look at movies and at the idea of the way we look at and write about movies -- in a completely different way. That book and other sources are the basis for the Film Techniques of Alfred Hitchcock, a thoughtful and provocative discussion of how Hitchcock made his films unforgettable.