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 Uncategorized

falling rock cameo in the gabby douglas story

MV5BMjA0ODM1NTMwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjU5ODUwMTE@._V1_SY317_SX214_AL_Last fall, I received an interesting request. Lifetime was making a biopic about Gabby Douglas, the gold medal gymnastics champ at the 2012 Olympics. The art department wanted to know if they could use a couple Falling Rock National Park comic strips for a scene in the movie.

In the scene, Ms. Douglas is sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper funnies. She and her mom have a little heart-to-heart. Would I allow them to use Falling Rock as one of the comics Ms. Douglas is reading?

OF COURSE, I said. I sent them two comics.


A few weeks ago, The Gabby Douglas Story became available on Netflix. Could this be THE Gabby Douglas story? I wondered. I began to watch.

Sure enough, there is the scene in the kitchen. Ms. Douglas sits at the table, reading the funnies.



It took a few minutes, but I am sure those out-of-focus comics are Falling Rock National Park. Specifically, the two top ones on the left page. Even with my CSI-style Photoshop skills it’s hard to tell, but I was able to verify by matching the black and white areas of the strips.



The Gabby Douglas Story, which I have rated FIVE STARS on Netflix, is certainly worth your time for watching. It joins Dear Mr. Watterson for Falling Rock National Park screen time. I cannot be more proud: a brilliant cartoonist and a gold medal gymnast. Falling Rock keeps good company.

Blog Uncategorized

this island earth

Drawing based on a screenshot of This Island Earth. Analog linework with digital color.

Blog comic

Bill Watterson STRIPPED

This is not a cheap ploy to increase my web traffic. Bill Watterson is not involved in anything untoward. Stripped refers to comic strips, as in newspaper funnies, as in the only part of the paper I read as a kid.
Bill Watterson Stripped
Yesterday I received an email from the makers of a film I backed on Kickstarter. Stripped is a documentary about comic strips and the anonymous elves who make them. The two filmmakers, Dave Kellett and Fred Schroeder, interviewed over 70 of those elves (“cartoonists”), Bill Watterson included. Bill must’ve liked talking to Dave and Fred, because he agreed to draw the poster art.


Should we begin calling Bill Watterson formerly reclusive? In the past few years we’ve heard more and more from him.

Let me begin by saying, I love the poster. It’s nice to see Watterson draw something that isn’t Calvin and Hobbes. There are so few examples of his art before the comic strip (many of them cataloged here), and even fewer post-Calvin. The drawing is obviously his – the style is so familiar. It is full of life, with details that make you want to linger in the theater lobby (or, in my case, the iPad screen). Is it the best poster that I’ve ever seen? Yes, I think so.

Hyperbole aside, this poster is kind of a tease. If Bill is doing these little one-off projects, does this mean there’s more to come? I hate to think after verifying that he’s still very capable of wielding a brush that he’ll re-submerge in Ohio for another twenty years. He clearly cares about comics, and I imagine he has more to say.

I’ll make this plea once more, in case Bill scours the internet late at night in search of himself: Please come back. You don’t have to do Calvin and Hobbes. Write a graphic novel about dueling stamp collectors. Write a sci-fi cookbook. Make a foldy comic! The format and characters don’t matter to me. Reading new material from a master does.

I haven’t seen Stripped yet – it will be released soon on iTunes – so you can expect a lengthy and highly digressive review on this here blog just as soon as I do.

Blog reviews

contagion: a haiku

Paltrow dies right away
Cotillard lives to the end
my kind of movie

autobiography Blog

b-movie bingo

First of all, you need to move to Portland.  It’s really the only option.  Second, you need to come with me, on the first Tuesday of every month, to B-Movie Bingo at the Hollywood Theater.

At B-Movie Bingo, you are handed a bingo card like this one:

Then you watch a cheesy movie (usually from the 1980’s).  If you bingo, you get prizes like free movie tickets, candy, and a DVD of a spinning pizza.  B-Movie Bingo is more about the journey than the destination, though.  The real joy is in the watching and the playing.

Before the movie begins, Wolf Choir (a band who now hosts this instead of playing music) shows this instructional clip, explaining the bingo card:

Watching bad movies is fun.  Playing bingo to them is truly sublime.

So, to recap:
1. Move to Portland
2. Come to B-Movie Bingo, first Tuesday of the month, at the Hollywood Theater.
I can promise you at least two cartoonists will be in attendance.

autobiography Blog reviews

will i ever rewatch The Phantom Menace?

The internet has been aflame with news related to the recent re-release of all six Star Wars movies on Blu-Ray.  A lively (and often hilarious) series of “reviews” are on Amazon right now for your entertainment.  What do we talk about when we talk about Star Wars?  Is it really the movie (or three, or six)?  Or is it the memory of watching that story for the first time?  My bet is the latter.

My brother and I grew up watching Star Wars on a faded VHS recording of a TV broadcast.  A long, long time ago indeed.  I have a faint memory of seeing Return of the Jedi in the theater.  I slept under Ewok sheets.  My favorite scene was (and still is) the landspeeder chase through the forest.  Am I the biggest Star Wars nerd in the entire world?  Not by a long shot.  But I have always enjoyed watching the movies, even after George Lucas rereleased them in theaters with all the infamous CGI tweaks.  When it comes down to it, they’re fun movies to watch.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I know, stating that on the internet is liable to get me lynched, but that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

This latest re-re-re-release begs the question: will I watch The Phantom Menace ever again?

I was not alone in being excited by the prospect of a second Star Wars trilogy.  Like any good story, you don’t want it to end.  Add to that the fact that Darth Vader would be the main character of the series, and Lucas was assured of my attendance opening night.
Oh, the anticipation.  A group of us drove from the small town in Ohio where we were supposedly attending college to the regional mall and theater.  The moment the opening fanfare played, I was hooked all over again.  After The Phantom Menace ended, we wandered out into the night, happily dazed at the spectacle of light and sound we had just experienced.

Over the course of the next weeks and months, I was in denial that maybe, maybe that movie sucked.  What happened, exactly?  And why was Darth Vader such a little annoying brat?

Denial led to anger, then acceptance.  Mostly I felt duped.  I had spent far too much time anticipating this new chapter, only to discover it was a turd.  I watched the next two prequels and, as a result of my newly-lowered expectations, enjoyed them for what they were.  I had to separate the experience of watching Star Wars as a kid from the college-aged me watching these new movies.

The integrity of the original three movies, by the way, remains intact.  Yet the Phantom Menace looms over the whole series like a vomit-specked hobo.  Does George Lucas expect us to watch all six Star Wars movies in a fantastic nerd marathon, The Phantom Menace first?  It’s the worst one!  How is anyone supposed to suffer through this complete failure of storytelling and think it will get any better?

My advice, then: It gets better, kids.  It only gets better.

Blog fiction reviews

dear mr. spielberg

We haven’t met, but I have a big favor to ask.  I’m a lifelong fan of yours, since ET came out when I was 3.  Far be it from me to impose, but this is a matter I cannot entrust with any other director.  Please make Jurassic Park 4.  Make it for me, make it for the children, make it for selfish money reasons: I don’t care.  Just make that movie.

Let’s face it, neither of us is getting any younger.  Jurassic Park is fantastic, but how long has it been?  Almost twenty years?  Way too long.  Not to be rude, but The Lost World was kind of phoning it in, and JP3 wasn’t even directed by you.  The world needs another Jurassic Park movie, and we need it from you.

Jurassic Park is far and away the best dinosaur movie ever made.  I know because I’ve seen a lot of dinosaur movies.  They range from terrible to pretty bad to campy.  People think they can slap some dinosaurs into a movie and sell tickets.  They don’t care about dinosaurs like you and I do.

You took a great story (possibly Michael Crichton‘s best work) and used the most advanced technology available to bring those dinosaurs to life.   Not only that, you crammed that movie with dinosaur in-jokes and little homages to the people who spent their lives researching dinosaurs.  Jurassic Park has layers.  It does not, however, need to be your final word on the subject.  There is plenty more to explore.

I know you’re busy so I’ll end this letter with my humble suggestions and be off.  Get Tom Hanks and Cate Blanchett, hire a screenwriter who actually cares about dinosaurs, and get your pal George Lucas to make the visual effects.  You can shoot it quickly between Academy Award movies if you want, I don’t care.  Just make it so I can go out and see it, please.


love, kid shay


monogamy: the movie

Is it possible to be happy with only one woman?  This is the totally legitimate question posed by Monogamy, a film adaptation of many a 20-year-old man’s life.

Theo (Chris Messina) is a wedding photographer who is engaged to Nat (Rashida Jones).  His side job is called Gumshoot – a pretty cool idea, actually.  He gets hired by people to take their portrait during their daily lives.  He’ll stalk them like a private detective, except the client is also the subject.

Well anyway, a fancy lady hires Theo and he becomes infatuated, then obsessed.  Meanwhile Nat, his guitar-playing fiancee, winds up in the hospital with to a staph infection.  Can their relationship survive?

Isis and I sat through this movie wondering if we were supposed to sympathize with a whiny, mopey hipster in Brooklyn who is sad because he has to marry Rashida Jones.  Seriously dude?  Does the fact that you only get to pick one woman – one foxy, talented, loving woman – really kill your buzz?

I would like to think the filmmakers made this as a joke on all the idiotic guys who can’t commit.  The tip-off is Rashida.  Maybe if the only woman Theo could get was ugly and criminally deranged, he’d have a case for keeping an eye out for someone better.  But to cast Rashida, and not make her a psychopath or a racist or something, means this guy doesn’t deserve to be happy.

More interesting and unique would have been the story from Nat’s perspective.  Women are generally depicted in movies as marriage-loving innocents.  What if she struggled with the idea of being faithful?  They’d also have to make Theo a better person, otherwise Nat’s choice would be too easy.

Although I can’t recommend Monogamy based on story, the cinematography is very pretty, and the two leads do the best they can with what they have been given.  One hopes both actors will find projects worthy of their talents.  In the meantime, look out for the Broadway production of Monogamy! The Musical.  With songs by Zombie Cole Porter and set design by Zombie Edward Gorey, Monogamy! The Musical will be a treat for anyone who has had trouble staying faithful to their spouse.


phantasm saga

Phantasm was released a year before Friday the 13th, predating the 80’s horror craze.  Unlike Friday the 13th and all its demented children,
Phantasm is not your typical slasher film.  Like Alien (also released in  1979), Phantasm took its cues from monster movies and added a modern
sci-fi twist.

The story of Phantasm belongs to two brothers whose parents died a few years ago.  The younger of the brothers, Mike, discovers weird happenings at the local cemetery – the tall man who runs the mortuary is able to lift a body-filled casket without the slightest effort.  Mike’s older brother, Jody, and Jody’s buddy Reggie (who operates an ice cream truck) don’t believe Mike at first but soon see for themselves that all is not right where the bodies are buried.

Or are the bodies buried?

Phantasm is a low-budget movie that really, truly benefits from the lack of polish.  If this had been shot on 70mm film stock with state of the art effects, we’d be forever reminded that we were watching A Movie.  Instead, Phantasm feels more like the modern faux documentary horror films Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity – two low-budget horror movies that scared the pee out of today’s audiences.

What effects there are come off pretty darn well.  The flying silver ball is scary even before we find out its purpose.  And when Mike gets a glimpse of what the Tall Man has been doing with all those bodies, the shock is genuine.  I never could have imagined the story would go where it did.

If Phantasm is like Alien, then its sequel has much in common with Aliens.  Phantasm is the low-budget, quiet, spooky introduction of the boogeyman.  Phantasm 2 (1988) is chummy, explosive, bigger.  It reduces the myth that the first movie built up so effectively.

Phantasm 2 uses a different actor for the part of Mike.  Was A. Michael Baldwin really that busy?  His IMDB credits say no.  He was fine in Phantasm, and fortunately he returns for parts 3 and 4.

There is more gore in 2, more exposition, more uses for those mysterious silver spheres.  Phantasm 2 kind of makes me wonder why a sequel was even made.  If taken as a stand-alone it makes Phantasm that much more original and scary.

I’m not totally down on Phantasm 2.  The Tall Man does not spout cheesy one-liners, there are more unexpected deaths, and the setting remains (as in part 1) in Oregon.  Also, Reggie and Mike get a sweet black HemiCuda to drive around in.  Did I mention this movie was a product of the 80’s?

This brings up a larger point about horror movies and endless sequels – I don’t think those franchises (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween) are even supposed to be frightening.  People see them for other reasons.  They begin rooting for the boogeyman instead of the hapless victims.  Does that negate the scariness of the originals?  I hope not.

In fact, I will find out.  I’m set to watch Phantasm 3 and 4 next (thank you Netflix Instant Watch!), so I’ll let you know.