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Archive for the ‘author Bob Clark’ Category

By Bob Clark

Classic science-fiction has done a great job of looking forward into the future and predicting many of the major and minor concerns that we find as we move forward in time ourselves– granted, much of the time they really shouldn’t be called “predictions” as much as “suggestions”, the position of any great sci-fi work being a little like the scientist who winds up unconsciously affecting the outcome of an experiment by merely observing it in the first place. From our own minor vaunts into the baby-step realm of outer space, or growing anxieties of how we may render our world into a post-apocalyptic waste by the slow erosion of climate change or the flashbang of war (if it’s even an either/or proposition), all the way to big shifts and small miracles on any number of technological fronts, the way that sci-fi can throw off any number of pre-concieved notions and offer up imaginative speculation gives it an almost automatic thrill of curiosity that most other genres have to work a little harder for. As with so much of sci-fi, however, it’s often best for such speculation to take place in something of a void, some field of science that hasn’t been fully tested or explored. This is true in a number of ways, chief among them being the novelty of the frontier sentiment, giving the creator enough freedom to come up with what they like without pesky reality getting in the way. The more is known, the more a sci-fi story is bound to be scrutinized, and sometimes the very technology that the genre can anticipate can again poison the conversation before it’s even started in earnest– in other words, the Internet.

Restricting ourselves to cinema for the moment, how many classics of the genre would’ve been nitpicked to death right out of the gate, had instant mass-media communication been around at the time? Some masterpieces like Metropolis or Blade Runner already suffered savaging even in the time of print– it’s tempting to believe that wider audiences might’ve found each other online and rescued the films’ reputation during their initial release, but who’s to say that the atmosphere might not’ve gotten worse? How many old-school post-war flicks might’ve been given heavier doses of criticism and snark if there were websites, message boards and blogs waiting to tear them to pieces? Plenty of what are recognized today as classics of the period rest upon at least a handful of fairly major technical limitations, thematic decisions and overall storytelling hiccups that might’ve derailed them to more media-savvy viewers. We remember the beautiful surrealism and dream-logic of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars, but forget how much of the movie’s running time is bloated by stock-footage padding and the occasional moment where even the master designer’s imagination went a little too far into the ridiculous. We remember the spectacular design and effects of Forbidden Planet and the novel way it appropriates The Tempest for a new genre, but can forget how so much of the script and acting veers towards the stiff and wooden– the only really natural performance probably comes from Robby the Robot. As such, when new sci-fi finds itself under an online critical assault long before it’s even screened for the public, I find it wise to take it with a grain of salt and tie a string ’round a finger to remind myself to keep an open mind, though if one keeps tying strings like that every warning sign, you’d likely cut off circulation when dealing with a movie from M. Night Shyamalan.

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By Bob Clark

Mamoru Oshii’s career throughout the 70′s and 80′s is interesting to consider when looking at his rise to notoreity as a feature director in the 90′s and 00′s. Like many animators in Japan, he got his start behind the scenes on television series based on popular manga, and for a time had a good deal of success with Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura. At first glance, the popular harem-comedy wouldn’t appear to have much in common with the more mature stabs at politics and philosophy that permeate through the director’s later, better known works, but even in his handling of the show and subsequent features based on the manga he found ways to inject his own personal themes into the characters. The series’ second feature film Beautiful Dreamer stands as a savvy precursor both to the surreal dream-narrative adventures in the heart of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, and to the existentialist dilemmas of Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, right down to the shared imagery of a protagonist confronting their own reflection in the underside of a body of water, struggling to breath and wake up out of their suffocating dreams.

Over time, however, Takahashi didn’t approve of the deviations that Oshii took from her celebrated manga, and the director eventually left to pursue his own projects, like the pure art-house animation Angel’s Egg, while his team from Urusei Yatsura moved onto less highbrow, but in a way more creatively successful works like the soft-core hentai turned mainstream satire film Project A-ko. But he wasn’t the only one who eventually left the Takahashi series to follow a newer creative direction– screenwriter Kazunori Ito would go on to work alongside Oshii on the live-action feature The Red Spectacles, a part of the director’s Kerberos cycle of films, animation and manga, and would eventually script his first Ghost in the Shell film before moving on to join the .hack franchise. But before either of those endeavors the two of them created the Patlabor series, best known in America for the second feature film and recognized as a precursor of sorts for the same ambitious blend of groundbreaking digital hybrid action animation and serious subject matters that the Ghost in the Shell films would later represent. Yet in ways both obvious and subtle, those features were merely building up from the established themes and subjects already present in the first incarnation of the franchise, as an Original Video Animation, and perhaps the best thing that can be said about Patlabor: The Mobile Police as an OVA is that, no matter what you think or know of the series or Oshii’s career from their feature incarnations, it represents something of a surprise.

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By Bob Clark

Though it began and broke new conceptual and thematic ground on television, and wound up thriving in spin-off after spin-off years later, the Star Trek franchise only really took hold and proved itself as something viable once it channeled its creative energy onto the big screen. That’s not to say that The Motion Picture was a resounding success– despite the talent and pedigree of director Robert Wise, special-effects guru Douglass Trumbull and of course the entire returning cast of the television series, that first film venture proved itself just a little too remote for most audiences. Amounting to something of a high-concept, somewhat more linear cousin of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie has quite a lot going for it if you want a piece of hard science-fiction that could stand tall with any of the speculative episodes that came before it on television (its script began as a pilot for a return to the small-screen, which wouldn’t happen until The Next Generation). But it was a little too slow for the mainstream crowd, and even a little trying on the patience of fans, who missed the adventurous, swashbuckling style that William Shatner cut on television as Captain Kirk, and that’s what they got in droves in The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the one movie perhaps that lives up to its reputation as a sequel that doesn’t just match the original, but handily outpaces it.

Since then, it seems that nearly every succeeding Star Trek theatrical venture has tried to imbue itself with at least some of the swaggering manner of Khan, or even pattern itself after its basic structure of space warfare and revenge storylines, this in a series that began as a vision of mankind coming together from all differences to reach a better society, free of hatred or conflict of any kind. In a sense, it’s only natural that the franchise should rely upon it as a standard narrative, as it provides a very nice way to contrast the high-minded social themes and concerns inherent in Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful look into the future with more personal motives, allowing an audience to better appreciate the sometimes more distant utopian aspects. The fact that the film also married this with the killer sci-fi MacGuffin of the Genesis device, capable of bringing life to a dead planet or wiping out the existing natural order of an inhabited world, and was moreover willing to take real chances with the status-quo of the series and add legitimate life-or-death stakes to the mix helps it stand above even the better imitators in the franchise. First Contact places a worthy, if distant second, mostly thanks to Patrick Stewart’s commanding lead and the genuine menace of the Borg, as well as a nifty inversion of the Captain Ahab tropes, but it’s by no means the only Trek film that attempts to resurrect the vengeance-themed goalpost of Khan, most of which have been middling affairs. But none have been so direct in their appropriation or as epic in their failure as Star Trek Into Darkness.

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By Bob Clark

1933′s King Kong may very well ought to be noted as one of the most important and influential films of all time, and not just for the myriad of obvious ways in which it’s shaped the course of movie history by its most direct methods. As a pioneering feat of action-adventure storytelling and marrying live-action to all manner of special-effects, from matte paintings to stop-motion, it more or less invented a kind of American blockbuster that has come to dominate world box-office, for better or worse. Countless directors have counted the film and its innovations as crucial to their inspiration to become movie-makers, and have even called back directly to the movie when formulating the vocabulary of their own FX-enhanced set-pieces– it’s easy to see traces of Merian C. Cooper’s work in everything from Lucas & Spielberg to Cameron & Jackson, but likewise it’s impossible to look at a movie like The Prestige, with all those grand acts of magic performed on the curtained stage with full proscenium arch, and not think of the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Plenty of big-screen monsters have competed for Kong’s first-place spot on the stage of world attention, and a few have even matched it (Isihiro Honda’s Godzilla and other kaiju creations, even meriting a showdown with the great one himself), but for the most part any attempt to out-do or even place with the work that animator Willis O’Brien did here in bringing the Empire State’s aplha ape have been at best forgettable (if only the same could be said of Dino de Laurientiis’ or Peter Jackson’s dismal remakes). But if in all the years since there have been any movie-monsters that have had any real chance of outshining the great Khan of Kongs and O’Brien’s efforts to tame the savage beast one stop-motion frame at a time, then they can only be due to the efforts of a man who gladly claimed Kong and O’Brien as crucial inspirations to his own start as an animator, and who very well stands as the greatest gift that 1933 film has indirectly bestowed upon the culture of popcorn cinema. Without Kong, there wouldn’t have been a Ray Harryhausen, and without him, nothing would’ve been the same.

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By Bob Clark

Though it came out in the same summer as the critically lauded box-office smash of The Dark Knight, the  first Iron Man film has come to be one of the most important and influential of the past decade or so’s worth of blockbuster entertainment, the opening volley in Marvel’s steady domination of the summer season with one series of hit-fest superhero flicks after another. Even if it weren’t literally the lynchpin of an evolving brand of tentpole franchise filmmaking– setting up the dominoes for subsequent Hulk, Thor and Captain America films to topple over in the lead-up to the almost chemical inevitability of The Avengers‘ chain-reaction climax– the upbeat and colorful movie would’ve easily been one of the stand-out comic-book based movies in recent memory, if for no other reason than the fact that it was able to deliver a super-powered hero who could be taken at least nominally seriously without any aggressive layers of angst or camp. The fact that it was bouyed by Robert Downey, Jr.’s cocky, pleasure-seeking performance as Tony Stark and so effectively relaunched his career into the stratosphere after more than a decade of being a tabloid punchline and occasional art-house redemption story at best helped lend a patina of reality to all of the histrionic explosiveness on-screen. We’ll probably never see Marvel or Disney let Demon in a Bottle out and unfurl the hero’s struggle with alcoholism onto the screen, but thanks to casting any viewer old enough to appreciate that aspect of the character can pretty much fill in the blanks themselves.

And though Downey does as good a job of carrying this blockbuster franchise, and to a certain extent all of the films connected to it, the way that director Jon Favreau built the visual world and terms that Iron Man and the surrounding Marvel films on cannot be underestimated– between all of the shared designs, action set-piece mechanics and even camera angles (nobody’s come up with a better solution to show Tony in the suit than cutting to those holographic-HUD filled close-ups, and probably nobody will), he practically seems owed a co-director credit on Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Perhaps the very best thing that can be said of Iron Man 3 is that, despite all that it owes to the past films in its and sibling franchises, it feels as close as you’re going to get to somebody deviating from the Marvel house-style, at least until the studio gets X-Men and Spider-Man back into its corporate cinematic fold. As co-scripted and directed by Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang bad-boy Shane Black, there’s a genuine sense of novelty to be seen in somebody outside the fold of the typical choices for superhero-film directors– even Captain America‘s Joe Johnston and Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh seemed to fit all-too easily into the genre forms they were handed in those films, with all the gee-whiz razzle-dazzle of the former’s The Rocketeer and even the high-speech and visual spectacle seen the latter’s Shakespeare movies comfortable precursors to the mantle of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

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By Bob Clark

In this past month, the Blu Ray of Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo saw its release in Japan, continuing the burgeoning Rebuild cycle of Hideaki Anno’s magnum opus in a manner that has already won droves of accolades and hypertensive horror, based on little more than happening to exist. That’s par for the course with all things Eva, naturally, but it’s something even more underlined for fans of the series who live outside of Japan, as there’s always something of a prolonged waiting period for any given release to reach our shores, in an official capacity or otherwise. It seemed to take forever for even the shoddiest of pirate camrip footage to leak its way out onto the net, and even longer for that material to be paired with semi-coherent subtitles forged by fans attempting to translate the poor audio found on the tapes smuggled in from moviegoers willing to risk the sanctity of their cell-phones for the cause of international fandom. I’ve never been a fan of pirating material myself, even though it’s become almost a necessary evil in the anime world, as most of the best modern releases barely see the light of day over here, and are now only beginning to be given even online streaming distributions worth a damn on sites like Crunchyroll.

Still, given the poor quality of the camrips I never really considered looking at them to begin with, but now with the advent of the movie’s Blu Ray release, the situation is a little more difficult. Not only does this HD release mean an exponentially higher quality of torrents will soon be flooding the web, if not already, but it means there’s now a completely legit official way to watch the film by purchasing the disc itself, given that Japan and the United States share a Blu Ray region. Granted, you’d probably want to wait until the inevitable release of a disc from Hong Kong, both for the fact that it would include English subtitles and be a great deal cheaper (I did the same thing myself when purchasing a copy of Miyazaki’s classic Castle in the Sky when I got too fed up with the poorly scripted “dubtitles” on the current Disney discs), but even without a translation it’s terribly tempting to be able to watch the movie at long last. After all, it’s not like comprehending the dialogue is necessary to enjoying the Eva experience, or even understanding the largescale plot convulsions or intimate character hysterics– all the emotions are right up there on the screen already, etched into the faces and myriad battles. I’m feeling that temptation, but trying to keep from giving in. Because no matter how convenient it would be to purchase and watch Eva 3.0 in the comfort of my own home, that’s not where it was meant to be seen, and no matter how long it takes, I’m determined to witness it for the first time on the big screen.

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By Bob Clark

For the past thirty-odd years or so, we’ve seen a great many directors rise to feature filmmaking through the gruelling creative workshops of making commercials and music-videos, and a couple of these directors have even been good. The obvious examples that spring to mind are Ridley Scott and David Fincher, guys who cut their teeth on television and special-effects in background roles before rising to the lead position on ads for computers and luxury cars and shorts for MTV, the necessary quick editing and flashy imagery of those bite-sized units of visual information becoming vital instruments in their gradual assimilation into theatrical cinema, both of them becoming pioneering figures of world-building and digital filmmaking. As directors, they benefited greatly from the periods they rose up in– Scott coming to prominence in the 70′s and 80′s when so many of the polished production genre and period pictures he gravitated to were still fairly novel and open to interpretation (Alien and Blade Runner have both proven at least as influential to the longstanding trends in science-fiction as any big or small-screen franchise with the word “star” in its title), and Fincher coming of cinematic age in the strange confluence of independent and studio-driven hard-R sensationalism of the 90′s (it’s hard to imagine as willfully antagonistic of audience expectations as Se7en even being conceived of, let alone greenlit, in the gore-drenched, but thematically rote horror cinema of today).

We’ve seen more migrate from the short forms on the small screen since then, the ones with the highest profiles mostly coming up with middling results– in many cases it’s sad to observe that oftentimes a director’s best work might be a mere commercial (Michael Bay’s Got Milk? ad) or music-video (Madonna’s Bedtime Stories, courtesy of Mark Romaneck). And though most of these directors have climbed into the major leagues during the same era as Fincher, they’ve achieved more of their successes during subsequent periods in which studios have shown less and less courage and imagination in the projects they push through the system– it’s truly depressing when you can look at projects as creatively barren and philosophically offensive as Armageddon or Bad Boys and see them as relative high-water marks in the overall career of a filmmaker which includes The Island and three Transformers movies (and counting). A sad truth for any director looking to work in high end productions is that much of their output is not truly going to be representative of their talent or personal choices as a whole, but instead will also at least partly be reflective of the commercial landscape that they come to bear in (one of the reasons the Movie Brats were able to get away with as much as they did in the 70′s is thanks to studios being bought by corporate types who didn’t yet know how movies really got made, and therefore didn’t know to get in the way). As such, it’s necessary to look at a director like Joseph Kosinski and be mindful of his position as a filmmaker in the second decade of the 21st century, especially when looking at his sophomore effort, Oblivion.

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