Sunday, January 14, 2018

Stop Motion In China

I am a hopeless lover of stop motion. As a sprog I was spellbound by movies like King Kong in 1933, The Black Scorpion, Valley of Gwangi as well as the more relaxed and charming shorts of Wallace and Grommit. There were plenty more, each tantalizing my eyes in ways that simple puppetry and CG simply can't. I am of course an undying fan of the wonderful Ray Harryhausen and the estimable Laika films which hold their own in today's market.

In the wake of shake ups in the movie business with China, I decided to do some research and see how our Eastern compatriots regard the art form. I was very pleasantly surprised when I stumbled onto this:

Not only do the Chinese like stop motion, but they're gearing up for fun fantasy adventure movies with it! Jay Weng, who the article is about, is a man after my own heart. In the article he points out that movies in America have become much more cookie-cutter industrial. He's correct. I'm sure most of you have noticed how things have changed in movies. In the 80's movies were often much more creative and extreme, willing to push boundaries and touch on the bizarre. Look at movies like Labyrinth with the beautiful puppetry by Jim Henson. It's a strange and mind-bending movie, but also charming and full of artistry. It's a movie that doesn't care what you think.

I miss that artistry where craftsmen built actual sets, miniature models and used clever camera techniques to trick your senses. There was a talent to taking a little and making it seem like a lot. But now the budgets are bloated to ridiculous sizes and monstrous spectacles are thrown at you without restraint. There is greater power with CGI, but few directors or executives know how to wield it properly for the best effect.

Mr. Weng appears to view movie making as an artist, not a statistics-based business man. I'm genuinely interested in seeing what he produces. It's quite heartening to hear someone in modern day regard movies as an art form but not in a pretentious way. Rather he still understands storytelling and wants to entertain audiences the way that such men should.

I positively love this quote from him: "So the challenge we face is to make innovations while respecting what's in the past, and that takes lots of courage."

This was in response to being asked what challenges he faced when retelling a story that had been told many times already. Gee! Who would have thought that understanding the story and respecting it was a good idea? I'm looking at you Ghostbusters.

Movie makers here in America would do well to learn from men like this. It warms my heart to learn that there are still people out there who have a love and appreciation for stop motion and wish to continue its practice.

I wish Mr. Weng all the luck in the world and can't wait to see how his movie Li Bai-Young Adventurer turns out!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

I Need This!

And I thought electric fly swatters were cool. Standing unmoving as a statue, eyes slowly rolling in my sockets, a drop of sweat running down my temple as the dreaded fly lazily hums around, waiting for him to come within range and whap! A swift swing, an flash of light and a loud crack! Fly gone!

But this? Now this is something else. I thought it existed only in legends, but it is true! A gun meant exclusively for killing flies, gnats and mosquitoes. Firing a charge of salt with compressed air with a daring range of three feet, it will evidently slay anything smaller than a hummingbird.

Folks, I need this in my life. I really do. Even now as I imagine having this plastic beauty cradled in my arms, I imagine myself going on a safari to South America, maybe the Matto Grasso, not to hunt the dreaded tigre or the mighty anaconda, but to slay the deadly mosquitoes! Or perhaps a trip to Kenya would be in order for the titze fly. Would look mighty proud hanging on the wall! Or do I truly need to go abroad to test this thing's mettle? Why not take a trip to the mountains nearby? The rangers might not look kindly upon me hunting buck flies out of season, but are they really going to confront me when I'm toting this beaut? I think not!

Or why limit myself to simple pest control? I imagine this would be a nasty surprise for the neighbor's dog that won't keep quiet or tax collectors showing up on your door.

The more I think the more I feel like I must one! How have I gotten along in life without it so far? I suppose it's like wondering how our ancestors got along without fire or knives.

Upon looking at this I've suddenly reverted to a giddy and mischievous seven year old kid. And it feels great. And now I know what to get my dad for Father's Day! Muahahaha!

Stranger Things

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I'm always slow to pick up on new things these days. A combination of hopeless nostalgia and skepticism of anything modern sometimes leaves me blind to genuinely good things that occasionally crop up. But that's what I've got my family and friends for! To help me sift through this stuff. So if more than half of the family zoo recommends something, I give it a shot.

Boy howdy, this is the best show I've seen in awhile. I know this isn't news to some of you, but it was to me. Stranger Things is the best movie Steven Spielberg never made. The show is set in the 80's and it feels like it. Heck, the show makes quite a few references to it's influences such as Stephen King, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, John Carpenter's The Thing, Jaws, and I'm sure there are more that slipped past my radar.

However the show isn't a hopeless copycat. On the contrary, while it notes the influences, it is wholly its own thing and waves that flag proudly. It does absolutely everything correct. It's frigging weird and I love it. It's almost like a new season of the X Files except without the stupid aliens. Instead we have awesome inter-dimensional shenanigans. I confess, I'm a sucker for weird alternate dimension stuff. 

The characters are all awesome. Many shows rub me the wrong way with having characters that are annoying, unrelatable, or just plain whiny arses that I want to boot to the curb. This series is kind of unique in that not one character annoys me. And that's shocking considering that they have a gigantic cast. Seriously, they have about six main characters. How they can juggle all the plot threads, characters and story are beyond me. It's supernatural. The only characters you don't like are the ones you're meant to dislike. 

I've noticed a trend in modern times to lean towards things being dark and needlessly harsh. It really seemed to crop up after The Dark Night came out. Everyone loved it and made a ton of money. But the darkness in that movie was supported by themes and story material. The darkness in and of itself wasn't what made it good. So it's very tempting these days to make the hero ride the line of being the villain himself, have the villain more sympathetic than anyone else, and have at least one character who is needlessly callous and cruel. 

Stranger Things not only evades that pitfall completely, but fills that pit with cement and builds a bridge over it. The adult characters are flawed, certainly, but all are sympathetic and have the good points that make you root for them. The Sheriff, Jim Hopper, starts off rubbing me the wrong way, but swiftly wins me over. Although I wonder, is his name a reference to Jim Hopper in the movie Predator? The green beret that was skinned in the first act? Hmm...

I could go on for hours about the characters, but then I'd be depriving you of finding out for yourselves. Seriously, I'm only touching the tip of the iceberg. Or if you need further convincing, this show has teenage high school drama, but it actually engaged me instead of making me throw something blunt at the TV. I can count the number of times that's happened on one hand. Maybe because I never really was a teenager and I can't relate, but I almost always despise teen drama regardless of the format. But somehow Stranger Things makes it work. 

And this isn't even touching on the fantastic alternate dimension stuff, the monsters or plot. The atmosphere is thick enough to cut with a knife, the concepts are fascinating and executed flawlessly, and it wastes absolutely no time at all. Seriously, this is perhaps the tightest storytelling I've ever seen. Not one second is put to waste. I recall watching an episode and was surprised when it ended. It had gone so fast and so smoothly that I wasn't even aware that time was passing.

This show is literally as close to perfection as you can get. I blitzed through the first two seasons in a few days, and I want more. This is actually kind of on the border of shows or books that I'm afraid of. Not because they scare me, but because they are so good that I can't tear myself away from them and it begins to impact my life. I mean, do I really have to go to sleep before 1 a.m.? Can't I watch just one more episode before work? Do I really need to go cook dinner? Things like that. Or my mind becomes so fixated on analyzing the subject that I literally can't focus on what else is going on around me and affects my ability to watch out for traffic.

So far I haven't gone quite that far, but if they keep up with the good writing and ideas they just might end up sucking up more of my life. Consider that an endorsement!

Nostalgia Lane: Land of the Lost

Wow. Chances are if you're over the age of ten you have seen something in your youth that stuck with you whilst much else faded from memory. Might have been great, it might have been mundane. I've got a lot of things like that rattling around in this noggin of mine, and I just became re-acquainted with one interesting nugget of my childhood, and in fact might be recognizable to a lot of you if you were born in the nineties. Or the seventies!

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Heck yeah
A strange yet creative and fun show first aired in the seventies, remade in the 90's and then mutating into the horrifying atrocity that was the soulless movie, this was a cheesy, low-budget but oddly charming series starring small family, the Porters and the Marshalls respectively, falling through rifts in time and space to a dimension full of dinosaurs and colorful characters. It's very much like Lost in Space meets The Lost World.

If you dare to look these up, be prepared for the kind of cheesiness that would knock a Parisian unconsciousness. And yet I find it to be a precious fragment of my childhood. In spite of the crude effects and dated camera style, the show had an impressive amount of imagination and really tried to make the most of their tiny budget. It's oddly original with the humanoid dinosaurs, the Sleestaks, inter-dimensional travel, iconic dinosaur characters and a slew of other interesting facets.

I've actually found that it's fueling a lot of my writing ideas in multiple settings. I mean, come on. Supernatural crystals, inter-dimensional portals, dinosaurs, underground cities and bizarre technology? How could you NOT get ideas from it?

If you grew up in the nineties this is a real blast from the past. Even more-so if you watched it in the seventies! If you haven't watched it, give it a shot. For kids born in the 2000's, you'll probably suffer a stroke. But I'd still take it over a lot of shows today.