Blog reviews

how much of the monster do we want to see?

It’s safe to say the reason you watch the movie Godzilla is to see Godzilla. Same goes for King Kong, the monsters in Ray Harryhausen’s movies, Alien, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Citizen Kane, and Pacific Rim. When a movie promises a cool monster (often right there in the title), there really is no other reason to see that movie.

But how much of the monster do we want to see? Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg told us we didn’t want to see the shark in the first reel. That’s between 11 and 22 minutes, based on my quick search. His logic was sound: to build suspense you need time. He also found ways of showing the effects of the shark without actually showing the shark itself. By the time you saw Jaws, you knew exactly what it was capable of. The physicality of the monster was imbued with the terror of what you already knew about it.
What we now know about the making of Jaws is that Spielberg had other reasons to limit the screen time of the shark. The mechanical shark they had built didn’t work very well. They had to figure out how to make this ridiculous contraption look both real and scary. The less they used the shark, the less chance it would come off looking like what it was: a waterlogged robot.

Of course, Spielberg had no problem letting us see the monster in three more movies. Does that negate his famous decree? I’d have to ask someone who has seen Jaws 2-4.

Historically, the reason we haven’t seen much of a movie monster has been for technical reasons. Special effects were time consuming and not always reliable to produce satisfactory results. Harryhausen spent years of his life moving small figures a frame at a time so they could appear alive onscreen. Very few people had that kind of skill and patience. There are maybe hundreds of movies featuring a dude in a goofy rubber suit “terrorizing” actors. I wonder if those movies ever fooled anyone. I suspect they were seen, even at the time, as a nice diversion, but were never actually scary.

This all changed with Jurassic Park. Suddenly, computer graphics allowed a much greater range of non-humanoid monsters. Directors didn’t have to limit screen time simply because of logistics. The new digital animation could look as real as anything else in the frame, and it didn’t have to be there on the day of filming. Teams of artists and programmers had as much time as the budget allowed to get the monster looking right.

Now the question of how much we want to see a movie monster is dependent on a cocktail of elements: human characters, plot, and special effects. Are all your human characters simply waiting around to get eaten? Is your plot centered on a few set-pieces of the monster destroying XXXX? Nobody will want to see your monster, no matter how well rendered it is.

Who cares about these guys?
Who cares about these guys?

It used to be that monsters weren’t shown because of technical limitations. Fortunately, that isn’t the case anymore. But that doesn’t let filmmakers off the hook. They need to find ways to make the monster compelling and the movie suspenseful, regardless of the monster’s screen time.

Personally, I’d like to see the monster enough to get to know it, but not so long I become comfortable with its presence.

Blog comic reviews

Bill Watterson at Angouleme

Good news came Sunday morning with this tweet from The Comics Reporter:
comicsreportertweetI had to wait a little while for an article to confirm, and when it did come, it came in French.

Then, later, in English.

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, huge inspiration to this here blogger, first cartoonist to win the Tour de France, received the prestigious Grand Prix at one of the biggest comics festivals in the world.

It seems as less of a surprise than it would have been a few years ago. Lately it seems ol Bill’s work is getting more of the attention it deserves. In 2005 we got The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a hardbound three volume set that collects the run of the strip in its entirety. Better still, it included a preface by the author. Clocking in at about 20 pages, it was the most autobiography I’d ever seen from Watterson.

In 2009, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes popped up as a sort of meta-article on the elusive cartoonist. Although Nevin Martell interviewed just about everyone associated with Watterson, he was unable to speak with the man himself. On the record, at least.

Last year came Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary on the lasting legacy of Calvin and Hobbes. This was not another biography of the man but a love letter to his work. I am proud to have been included in such a nice tribute to my favorite work of art.

With all these publications, Bill Watterson has been thrust once again into the spotlight. Let us hope he is not too angry at us for loving him so much. I doubt he is too bothered by it, as he has voluntarily taken part in two projects of late: one, a book called The Art of Richard Thompson, will feature an interview between Watterson and Thompson. In March, an exhibit of both Thompson and Watterson’s art will go up at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University.

Amid all this renewed interest, it makes sense that the judges at Angouleme to award Watterson their highest honor.

Everyone wants to know: will Bill Watterson attend Angouleme next year? According to his editor Lee Salem (a superstar of the comics scene himself), “I’ll try to talk him into it.” I don’t know about you, but if I was in Ohio in late January a trip to France would sound pretty darn good.

Blog reviews

worst king

Stephen King has long harbored a deep and unflinching hatred for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Is The Shining the worst King adaptation? We here at Falling Rock National Blog think not.

For a long time, I believed King’s own adaptation of The Shining, a rambling, cheesy TV movie starring that guy from Wings and Rebecca De Mornay, was the bottom of the King barrel. After discovering the three-hour TV movie The Langoliers was on streaming, however, I found out firsthand what a truly terrible King adaptation looked like.

Briefly, The Langoliers is about an airplane that gets sucked back in time and the unfortunate few passengers who fall back in time along with it. Instead of being able to watch the Gettysburg Address firsthand or ask Moses out for a beer, the past is a barren place quickly dissolving. When the passengers land the plane in the Bangor, Maine airport, they figure all this out through deduction and a blind girl who has some pale comparison of the shining. One of the passengers (Balki from Perfect Strangers, in the movie) goes crazy and kills the blind girl and the black guy before the Langoliers get him. What are the Langoliers?

langoliers3langoliers plane takeofflangoliers4Evil Pac-Men who devour the world as it slips into the past. The Langoliers are the plot device that get the passengers back on the plane. The Langoliers are the stupid story Balki’s dad told him when he was a kid and being bad. “The Langoliers will get you,” Balki’s dad told him when Balki wasn’t good enough at school or whatever. “Watch out for the Langoliers.” Then Balki grew up to be a corrupt businessman and then the plane he was on fell back in time and he gets eaten by the Langoliers. Are you terrified yet? Or confused? It doesn’t really matter. The whole story is dumb.

langoliers toomey laurel
Tension in the empty plane.

langoliers brian engleWritten during King’s famed “verbal diarrhea” period from the mid-80’s to the early 00’s, The Langoliers must have been an exercise in patience for any King fan when it was released in 1990. Due to overwhelming demand (?), it was made into a TV movie in 1995. I cannot imagine sitting through this with ads. It must’ve been 5 or 6 hours. Long pointless scenes of people looking out the plane window, arguing with each other about what might be happening, looking distraught, punctuated by ads for trucks and sofas and fax machines. Now that I type that out, I realize The Langoliers must have been trying to make the viewer acutely aware of precious time slipping away. It was about time, but it was also made to kill time. How very meta.

langoliers danny
What are characters looking at? We never find out.

langoliers bob jenkinslangoliers nick hopewelllangoliers dinahYou can’t blame the makers of The Langoliers for the awful special effects. It was clearly a low-budget affair. What you can blame them for is the creatively bankrupt cinematography and direction. When 95% of your movie is close-ups and the rest is an empty plane and airport, you’ve made some poor artistic choices. I’m sure Terrence Malick could have done something interesting with this script, but even an unseasoned director should have attempted more than what I saw, if only to relieve the tedium.

langoliers group plane

langoliers plane air
The past is a boring, desolate place. A perfect setting for an action-packed thriller.

I do not believe The Shining is the worst King adaptation. It is not even second- or third-worst. The Langoliers, on the other hand, is so unbelievably bad I wonder if Stephen King blocked it from his memory so that he can continue writing without crippling self-doubt. If anything, it is proof that successful writers need editors just as much, if not more, than unknown or new writers. Sitting in silence for three hours would have been more rewarding than watching this existentially blank movie.

langoliers happy ending
No one has ever been this happy in an airport.
Blog reviews

Star Trek Into Suckness

Star Trek was not meant to be a movie franchise. It worked best in hourlong episodes, where the biggest action setpiece could be a tense exchange or a puzzle being solved. Whether it was Kirk and Spock or Picard and the gang, Star Trek was about solving problems thoughtfully and reasonably. It was about looking at a moral or ethical issue from all points of view and finding a compromise. The drama that surrounded those debates made for compelling TV – some of the best TV ever made, in this blogger’s opinion.

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is still the most successful translation of Trek onto the big screen. (I’m talking creatively. I’m sure the new JJ Abrams movies have made much more money.) It deals with aging (Kirk’s birthday reminds him of his mortality), friendship (Kirk, Spock and McCoy were arguably never better together than they were in this film), and courage (Spock sacrificing himself for the crew). It does have action: Kirk’s battle with Khan is legendary, and Khan knows exactly how to make Kirk suffer. Tense drama, action, and one of the most iconic scenes in all of Trek. Wrath of Khan is the Trek high-water mark.

Star Trek Into Darkness fails on all levels. JJ Abrams has taken a thinking-person’s science fiction story and wrenched it into the realm of Just Another Action Movie Franchise. There is next to no time devoted to the characters; we’re rushed from one action scene to another with barely a breath in between. Instead of Kirk and Spock discussing the ramifications of their decisions, they are forced again and again to take the easy way out: shoot first, ask questions never. It is Bizarro Star Trek, where guns (ahem, phasers) are the heroes.

When one of the three writers who toiled at the screenplay apologized for a scene in which a woman appears briefly in her undies, he didn’t go far enough. That scene didn’t make Into Darkness terrible. The entire concept and execution of the movie did.

Star Trek in the 1960’s was a very liberal show. It presented a vision of the future in which all races and nationalities worked together on an intergalactic science expedition. That’s right: the whole show was about scientists in space.

When they did run into trouble, it was usually a matter of simply not understanding an alien’s point of view. When a rock monster keeps devouring people in a mining colony, Spock is able to communicate with it. He learns that the “monster” is merely trying to live its life by eating the nutritious rocks that make up the planet. The mining colony has unknowingly encroached on the alien’s habitat. A peaceful resolution is achieved.

Now, aliens are either warlike (we briefly meet a Klingon before an inter-species firefight breaks out) or used for humor. Kirk shares his bed with two women who are endowed with long beautiful tails. Spock’s ears are constantly being pointed out as pointy, and therefore funny. Differences are funny or scary. Not good.

Beyond taking a show renowned for its progressive politics and turning it George W Bush conservative, the makers of Into Darkness have done the unforgivable: taken the best bad guy in the Trek universe and turned him into just another terrorist.

In Wrath of Khan, it was Kirk’s decision to abandon the genetically-engineered superpeople on an uninhabited wasteland planet. When Khan is mistakenly picked back up, he has plenty of reason to go after Kirk. Khan’s wrath nearly causes the destruction of everything Kirk holds dear, from his newly-discovered son to his best friend to his entire ship and crew.

Ricardo Montalban is perfect for the role. A big man, a smart man, a man who has long planned his revenge and clearly savors putting his maniacal plan into motion. Khan is superior to Kirk in every way. One look at Montalban and you see that, instantly.

Ricardo Montalban

Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine actor, and Khan is a legendary character. Hiring Cumberbatch to play Khan was a waste of both actor and character. You’re hiring a skinny pale Englishman to play a genetically-engineered superman? Why? Do you want the audience to be amazed at how you’ve cleverly flipped our expectations? Or do you want the audience trying to figure out why genetically engineered supermen look like Mr. Darcy after a long bout with pneumonia?

benedict cumberbatch
I mean, come on. If you’re going to pick a Brit, at least pick Alan Rickman.

By far, the biggest crime Into Darkness commits is recycling the end of Wrath of Khan but keeping none of its emotional weight. Kirk makes the sacrifice this time, but it really isn’t a sacrifice at all because he is alive again within 15 minutes. Thanks, JJ Abrams and Team of Three Writers. You’ve pillaged the best of Star Trek and given us the 30-year-old leftovers.

Oh yeah, and somehow Abrams convinced Leonard Nimoy to make a cameo, just so the audience could hear Old Spock tell Young Spock “Khan is bad.” This movie is revelatory in its perversions.

Now Abrams will head off to make his Star Wars movie, full of lens flare and big explosions and evil aliens. I just hope someone who actually cares about what Star Trek means takes the reigns from now on. That may be a longshot. But if Star Trek has taught me anything, it has been to remain hopeful and to keep an open mind.

Blog reviews

tempest cover do-over

Let me level with you. Bob Dylan doesn’t have good album covers. The music inside is beyond excellent. Any dude who can follow up Bringing It All Back Home with Highway 61 with Blonde on Blonde, or Blood on the Tracks with Desire, or Time Out of Mind with Love and Theft with Modern Times, is a dude who I will follow no matter what. That doesn’t mean he has a visual sense. I’ve heard Bob is a painter. I don’t want to see his paintings. If he is in charge of picking his album covers, I do not agree with his visual sensibilities.

At best, Bob’s albums feature a photograph of him with Joan Baez. At worst, you’ve got a lot to choose from. Planet Waves features a drunk sumi ink freestyle. Slow Train Coming looks like a Catholic high school art assignment. Modern Times is a nice stock photo. I’m still trying to figure out what Together Through Life is supposed to be about. But the worst, and I mean the absolute worst, album cover in Bob Dylan’s recording career has got to be his latest. What makes this even more of a tragedy is the fact that Tempest is a fantastic album. It will make greatest-album lists for years to come, and every time it does, we’ll have to endure this awful mess. What is going on here?

There is no coherence, no through line. Did two graphic artists work on this simultaneously, never once coming into contact with the other? I count three different fonts. No color coordination. The CD case itself is a plastic monstrosity straight out of 1987. Did Columbia Records forget they’ve been re-releasing Bob’s older albums in nice cardboard packaging? There is absolutely no excuse for Columbia or Bob to allow this travesty to be released as is. This is the kind of graphic design usually reserved for forgotten albums found exclusively in record store clearance bins, not one of the best albums from one of the greatest musicians to roam the earth.

With this in mind, I took a little time to redesign the Tempest album cover. Here is my version:

The front cover image is a screen shot from the Duquesne Whistle music video. I was thinking about the Blood on the Tracks cover when I designed this – I wanted a simple, iconic image of Bob as he was when the album was made. The hat, the coat, and the city street. I really like Futura, so I used that font for both front and back covers. The back cover image of Bob is the same. I like that picture of Bob. The ghostly image of a girl was something else I wanted to keep, although I needed to find a different girl since I had to replace the text. I tried to keep the same mysterious vibe they were going for in the original. I used two shades of brown for front and back covers.

While this is not perfect, I wanted to show how easy it would have been to produce a package worthy of holding the songs Bob and his band spent so many hours recording. An album should be something you want to look at while the music plays. I believe the Tempest package was slapped together without any thought.

Bob, if you ever read this post, be mindful the next time you release an album. You deserve the best packaging for the music you produce.

autobiography Blog reviews

Falling Rock in National Geographic

At SPX I was interviewed by a man who wouldn’t have looked out of place here in Portland. As it turned out, he works for this magazine called National Geographic. I told him I’d heard of it. He wrote a post about Falling Rock and a handful of other nature-themed comics, and you can read it right here:

The World of Eco-Comics: A Hapless Manatee, Self-Aware Dogs, and a Chain-Smoking Pig

Blog reviews

olympia beer, the paul newman effect

I will do anything to narrow the chasm that separates the kind of man Paul Newman was and the kind of man I am.I jumped at the chance to drink the same beer Paul Newman was drinking in the movie Sometimes a Great Notion (based on a novel by one of Oregon’s trippiest natives, Ken Kesey).
Olympia Beer was a Pacific Northwest staple for many years.  Originally brewed in Tumwater, Washington, a town in the same county as Olympia and located near the mouth of the Deschutes River.  Olympia was the beer of choice around these parts before Portland became the microbrewing capitol it is today.

Just look at how much Paul Newman enjoys his bottle of Olympia.  The bottles are brought out:
He takes a swig:
And can’t help but grin:
I wanted to have that much fun.  The next time I was at my local organic grocer, I spied a six pack of the beer featured in the 30 year-old film and snapped it up.  It took every ounce of self-restraint I had to keep myself from cracking one open on my drive home.  But I stayed safe, opting to speed home, screech to a halt outside my house, ignore the bags of groceries sweltering in the trunk, grab the six pack and sprint inside, landing with a thud on the couch.  When I popped the tab on my very first Olympia beer, my expectations were sky-high.

How did it rate?  Well, I found myself let down by the taste of what could charitably be described as Near Beer.  After a few sips, though, I began to wonder if what I was being disappointed by was, in fact, my own Portland-dwelling beer snobbery.  I finished the thin, metallic brew.  Was it me?  Am I so used to beer with bizarre spices, aged in bourbon casks, that I cannot enjoy a simple American brew?

After inspecting the label, I was vindicated.  Olympia Beer is no longer Olympia Beer.  It is PBR.  Check the website:
Like so many small old breweries, Olympia was bought then bought again until it was only a label owned by one of the three major beer companies.  My disappointment was not so much for a beer I didn’t especially like, but for the fact that I’ll never get to be Paul Newman by drinking the same beer he drank.  At least I still have his salad dressing.

Blog reviews

tomb of the zombies review

A very nice review of Tomb of the Zombies right here.

autobiography Blog reviews

this is water, by ian wilson

A while back I casually mentioned my friend Ian Wilson was releasing his first full-length album, This is Water.  I like making big announcements with an understated, New Englander nonchalance; I think it’s funny.  Time passed and Ian worked like an unpaid intern, tweaking a beat here and a backing vocal there.  Well, dear readers, Mr. Wilson has officially released his first magnum opus!
Ian asked me to return for album art duty and I wasted no time accepting the offer.  Listening to the demos, I was determined to draw something as grand as this was going to sound.  Ian added to the expectations when he dared me to dream in technicolor.  As you can see, I went with a muted, two-tone blue.  When you listen to the album, you’ll hear why.
The album has six panels, of which I drew six.  Here are the finished drawings before text was added.  I inked them using two (maybe three?) brushes of different sizes on Bristol board. Color was added using Photoshop.
And here is what the inside panels look like once text, including a quote from Mr. David Foster Wallace, was added.
There you have it, spoilers galore. Ian believes, like myself, that there is something inherently special in physical works of art, be they albums or books.  There are some things best enjoyed when not displayed on a screen.  Pop This is Water into your player (or, okay, put the CD on your ipod) and look at the album art while you listen.  It’s a fulfilling experience.

Purchase This is Water on CD Baby!


autobiography Blog comic book comic con reviews

Scenic Byways review

Told you I met some cool people at MoCCA.  The fine folks over at TL-dr wrote up a wonderful review of Scenic Byways today.  Have a look!