DNA Podcast 039 – Bad Movies We Love

Plan_9_Alternative_poster

In this episode, Don and Rob are joined by their friend Chad to talk about the movies that they know are awful, but can’t help but have soft spots in their hearts for. This journey takes the trio from classic 50’s monster movies, to the heights of 80s cheese and the depths of Asia’s cinematic vaults. Thrill to Chad’s love of Ed Wood! Stare in shock at Don’s encyclopedic knowledge of 80’s horror! Wonder at Rob’s passion for backwoods monsters! All this, and Don’s dramatic twist surprise that Rob and Chad didn’t see coming, are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

The Kung Fu Puppetry of Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan

Pili Puppet show at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan. Picture by Harris Tsam

 

As far as I know, Taiwan is one of the few places where puppetry is not only appreciated, but where puppet shows are shown on national television. In particular, the Pili programs of gloved puppetry shows have continued to capture the imaginations of young Taiwanese with their creative and colourful puppet storytelling.

The credit for upholding the long lasting popularity of Hand Puppet Shows in Taiwan, no doubt, belongs to the Huang family. Through their creative performances and their skillful management, they continue to find new ways to evolve the Hand Puppet Shows. Ultimately, the Huang family had developed the famous PiLi Dynasty with the PiLi Puppet Theatre. Following the current trends of modern society and the technological media- television became the new performing stage of the Puppet Shows and delivered this theatrical artistry to even a much broader audience. In its effort to attract the young viewers of the new generation, PiLi Puppet Theatre continued to create new and interesting concepts in their stories, including- illusionary time and space themes and action-packed Chinese kung-fu sequences. Now, the Puppet Show’s stage and presentation techniques can now expand to a different level of possibilities.  From e-pili.com.tw

During my own time in Taiwan, I have seen first hand how popular these shows are, as there are specialty stores selling copies of the puppets and related merchandise and even a Pili-themed museums. The puppets themselves are so beautiful, I was tempted to buy one just for display.

How beautiful are they? Watch this amazing 2010 opening for one of the Pili TV series:

 

There have been several attempts to bring these shows over for English audiences as well, the first was an international release of Legend of the Sacred Stone, a somewhat rare film that has garnered a 7.3/10 rating on IMDB and a small cult following for it’s crazy-ness. You can see a sample here:

 

The other was in 2006, when Cartoon Network took one of the Pili series and dubbed it into a show called Wulin Warriors. Sadly, as is often done with foreign non-animated properties (and some animated ones as well!) the dubbers decided to have “some fun” with it, and “liven it up”. So while the visuals might still give you some of the spirit of the original, the dub itself and the creative changes seem targeted squarely at 8-10 year old boys. Someone has put all 13 episodes up on YouTube, if you can get through that many…

And that character that rambles on about pizza and makes bad jokes? In the original show, he’s a deaf mute. (I guess now we know why!) I haven’t seen the original, but I imagine it’s a heck of a lot more watchable. The only redeeming thing about this one is the beautiful puppetwork.

Anyhow, if you happen to come across one of these Pili productions or characters, now you know what they are. Unfortunately, there’s no fansubbed versions of the shows out there, and unless you speak Mandarin you won’t be able to follow the originals well. My own Mandarin isn’t up to the task, yet, but maybe someday.

More about Taiwan puppet culture in this short 5 minute documentary:

Rob

DNA PODCAST 006 – A NEW YEARS LOOK AT 2015 AND 2016

Original_logo_used_by_Dolly_Madison_bakeries,_in_the_1970's_thru_the_early_1980's

Rob and Don are joined by their friend Chad to discuss the nerdly films of 2015. What was awesome? What barely made the grade? And what didn’t the trio like from 2015? Then we forge on into 2016, and discuss why a new film version of The Little Prince excites us more than Batman v. Superman, why Yo-Kai Watch may or may not be the next Pokemon, and why Pokemon GO! may result in kids getting a little more than just fresh air! All this, and a heaping helping of Nerd Rage are waiting for you in this New Years episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs!

Listen here!

Podcast- Department of Nerdly Affairs Episode 004- Satanic Panic

Rob and Don explore the Ritual Satanic Abuse panic that gripped America during the 1970s and 1980s and how the game Dungeons and Dragons became wrapped up in it. Then, in the second half of the show, the pair dig deep into the cinematic roots that laid the groundwork for Satanism’s grip over the American psyche of the period. All this and 2000 Maniacs are waiting for you in this episode of the Department of Nerdly Affairs.

Listen here!

Rob

The Street Fighter

When I mention the name Street Fighter, most of you probably picture something connected with this…

This is pretty natural, since the Street Fighter series of video games is a serious contender for the most popular game series of all time, and is without a doubt the best of the console arcade fighting games. However, prior to 1991’s release of Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior, for almost twenty years people would have had a completely different picture in their heads. This one…

the_street_fighter_sonny_chiba-thumb-300xauto-19476_2804

1974’s The Street Fighter is perhaps one of the greatest martial arts movies ever made. The short version is that at the start of the 70’s Bruce Lee helped to create a martial arts movie boom, and the Japanese company Toei decided to get in on the action by producing a series of what could almost be called Karate Exploitation movies. Kung Fu was big, so they decided to cash in by producing Karate movies, and their flagship film, The Street Fighter, was based around a rising action star name Sonny Chiba.

The Street Fighter was released in Japan, and then worldwide to massive audience acclaim, and if you watch it then it’s not hard to tell why. The movie is shot surprisingly well with a decent budget, the script is just strong enough to keep it interesting, Chiba is charismatic as heck, and the fights are extremely well choreographed. But, on top of all that, the movie has a unique twist- Terry Tsuguri (Chiba) isn’t a heroic character at all, he’s a bastard of the first order who is more like an chaotic force of nature than a lead character. It’s a movie about lesser villains fighting worse villains, and the innocent people caught between them, and that gives the audience something different than the usual good vs. evil fare that tends to fill martial arts movies.

So, if you’re in the mood for some brutal karate action (it was the first film in American history to earn an X-Rating for violence) with a sense of style and one of the coolest theme songs of the 70’s, then check it out here on YouTube.


 

What Akira Kurosawa can teach us about writing

I recently watched an excellent short analysis of some of director Akira Kurosawa’s film-making techniques by Tony Zhou, and it got me thinking about how we prose writers could apply some of Kurosawa’s techniques to our own work.

So, before we begin, take the time to enjoy Tony’s short 8-minute video. It’s well done, and just watching it makes me want to run out and watch all of Kurosawa’s films just for their sheer artistry and beauty…

Akira Kurosawa – Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Okay, now you’re up to speed, let’s talk about how some of his key ideas can be applied to writing.

Now, my first takeaway from Kurosawa is the obvious one- nothing in a story should be wasted. Everything down to the last period should be in a story for a reason, and should be working to make that story into the best possible story you can make it. Since as a writer you have absolute control over what’s on that page, and what your reader perceives, you can control what they see much like a camera does, and like Kurosawa you should be using every tool at your disposal to bring your story to life with the greatest effect.

Let’s look at a few specifics:

The Environment

One of the first things Zhou discusses is Kurosawa’s masterful use of the environment- Kurosawa uses it to create both visual stimulation and to show the mental states of characters. While it might be trickier for we prose writers to use the environment to create direct visual stimulation, it’s definitely a good reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of weaving the environment into our writing. It’s very easy to write everything as happening during sunny days and breezy evenings, but aren’t you missing an opportunity if you do so? Think about what environmental conditions could help to push your scene or theme to the next level, and weave them into the story in a way which supports and reinforces the story in some way. Whether it’s swirling fog to represent a character’s confusion, or a distant blazing forest fire that progressively fills the character’s world with smoke and indicates looming trouble, it can only make your story stronger.

Groups

Dealing with groups of people might seem a more visual element than a prose one, but it can still be useful for writers to consider. It’s very easy to picture characters doing things alone or with only the other main characters, but having groups of other people around can help to remind the reader that characters do have a place in society. As with the image of the showgirl crying while the other actresses rush past her from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), how groups of people react to a character can very much represent a character’s inner life as well as their greater place in society.

Key Gestures

Kurosawa liked to have each actor take on a unique gesture or way of moving so that the audience would instantly recognize him or her. This isn’t a bad tip for writers in general, either. Just as you can use visual cues like clothing, accessories or appearance to bring your characters to life in the reader’s imaginations, you can use gestures and movement as well. If you give each of the central characters a motion they consciously or unconsciously perform on a regular basis, it acts as another layer of characterization and something to play with. Of course, the gesture shouldn’t be overdone or comical (unless that’s your goal), but if subtly worked in it could reflect a lot about the character and their inner life.

Movement

There are many ways to look at movement and how it could benefit writing prose. The most direct one would be to try to have your characters doing actions or activities in their scenes, which both make the scene a little more lively (avoiding a “staged” feeling) and allows for a lot of subtext where you connect the actions with the inner life of the characters or themes playing out. I can’t recall who it was, but there was a famous author who said that they always started scenes with characters in motion in some way and finished in similar form.

Of course, movement can also be played out with the “camera” of the descriptive prose itself. Looking at description as a camera and thinking through the effects that different “shots” would have like a cinematographer could definitely benefit your writing in subtle ways. For example, did you know that each of the standard camera shots (close up, medium shot, long shot, worm’s eye view, etc) actually have a psychological or emotional effect on how the viewer interprets the character and scene? There is a whole language to film that’s developed over a hundred years and that we learn as children on a subconscious level. Learning the different shots and why directors use them could benefit your writing by letting you tap into that treasure trove of audience psychology.

Regardless of what you decide to use (or not use) from Kurosawa’s approach, thinking through your approach to scenes in a visual or cinematic way can only enhance your final work. However, do remember that the power of prose over video is that it can go deep inside characters and to places that video can’t, and you should be taking advantage of not just the visual and audio, but also the other senses in your scenes as well.

Rob

P.S. Check out Tony Zhou’s other videos, they’re really something else and will give you a new appreciation of the power of film.

YouTube Martial Arts Theatre- Wheels on Meals

Legend has it that when the head of Golden Harvest productions heard that they were about to release a movie entitled Meals on Wheels, he refused to let them use the title. It wasn’t that he was afraid of someone suing him- he was afraid of losing money! You see, the previous two big Golden Harvest releases had both had English titles that started with the letter “M”, so he was sure this one was going to fail too if they used that title. Talk about superstitious!

So instead, they flipped it around to the pretty much nonsensical title of Wheels on Meals, and released what would go on to become a martial arts classic. Which in itself is a bit of a surprise, because it’s actually not really a martial arts movie at all! It’s actually a comedy with a strong martial arts element, but the fighting in it (especially the end fight) is so well done that it became known as one of the must-see martial arts films of its time anyways.

The plot is simple- a couple of Chinese (a young Jackie Chan and his buddy Yuen Biao) who run a food truck in 1980’s Barcelona, Spain find themselves involved with a beautiful and charming Spanish street thief who is being hunted by a group of mysterious men. She’s also be tracked by a bumbling private detective (played by Sammo Hung, who is also the director), and this all comes together as they try to solve the mystery of why this girl is so popular with all the wrong people.

The movie is from 1984, and is a total 80’s flashback highlighted by the visuals of Barcelona and the fashions of the times. The movie flows a bit awkward at times (normal for 80’s Hong Kong films), and the comedy is hit or miss, but it’s so light and generally fun that you can forgive it for its flaws. I definitely recommend giving it a watch, and this particular copy has good sound (a decent dub too) and good picture quality as well, so sit back and enjoy!

 

Godzilla 2014

My first Godzilla movie was Godzilla vs. Megalon. I was seven, and caught it while turning the dial one way on the 13” TV we had. There, on that small screen, was the biggest, coolest monster that I’d ever seen, and even seeing him in those modest circumstances didn’t blunt the power of the King of the Monsters.

I was in love.

And it would be a lifelong love affair, one that would see me glued to the TV every Saturday afternoon when Superhost or Channel 43’s Weekend Movie would run one of a dozen Godzilla films or anything else that had a giant monster in it. Godzilla was as important a part of my childhood as Star Trek, Star Wars, or Spiderman, and to call him one of my idols wouldn’t be an exaggeration. I even created a crude stick-figure comic about a guy who could transform into Godzilla and battle evil monsters to save the world. (Little did I know guys turning into monstrous superheroes was a Japanese standard even then, and I never got to see Ultraman until I was in my twenties.)

So yeah, I was (and am) a Godzilla fan.

As you might expect, I was super excited to finally see a proper American Godzilla film that didn’t star a giant iguana, and was waiting with baited breath for its release in hopes that this would be the giant monster film I’d always wanted to see. After last year’s Pacific Rim, I was especially hopeful based on how well that film had handled Kaiju (even if they sucked at marketing it) and when I saw the Godzilla trailers, any skepticism turned into outright enthusiasm. This was going to be THE Godzilla film (besides the 1953 original), I was sure of it, and wasted no time in rushing to the theatre today to check it out.

So, did it live up to my expectations?

Yes, and no.

I’d argue Godzilla is really two films, and the half which actually stars the King of the Monsters is indeed amazing and a worthy tribute to the name. The problem is, it’s paired with another completely lackluster human story that is right up there with watching paint dry and the clock tick during the last five minutes of class.

(mild spoilers from this point on)

So, here’s the thing. When you write a story, you have this little thing called a Plot Arc. It’s a writing term for the journey your character goes on, and the changes the lead character(s) experience in their lives as they go through that journey. Watching them go on that journey and undergo that change is what makes a story fulfilling and interesting to a viewer. This story can be mental, physical, emotional or spiritual, but it’s essential to making a compelling story that the audience wants to watch.

The problem with the human story in Godzilla is that the Plot Arc of the human characters isn’t an Arc, or a hill, it’s a straight desert road leading from A to B with few gentle curves, much less a hill or even a corner. The human characters are literally just there to stand around and watch events happen, and the only character who is actually trying to go on a personal journey dies about twenty minutes in. I mean they literally kill the only guy with a goal or plot or anything to prove twenty or so minutes into a 123 minute film. After that, the only ones on a journey are the monsters, not the humans.

In theory, the lead character Lt. Ford Brody (yeah, they named the lead after Harrison Ford and Sherriff Brody from JAWS), has a shit tonne of goals and things to deal with. He loses his father (who everyone thought was nuts), he’s trying to get back to his family, he’s trying to rescue his wife, and he has every reason to want that fricken MUTO dead! He’s got so much to prove and do that he could fill a couple films worth of story.

And they do nothing with it. Not a thing.

  • Father dead? (Oh well.)
  • Everyone thought Dad was nut? (Doesn’t matter.)
  • Family? (I guess I’ll get back.)
  • Rescue wife? (He sorta tries to find her, but puts his army stuff first.)
  • Kill the MUTO? (He doesn’t seem to care much either way; he’s pretty much the antithesis of Ahab, actually.)

So instead of a driven lead who’s just trying to get through the worst days of his life, we get a guy who’s so calm he makes the Dalai Lama look like Jim Carey. Seriously, this guy literally just walks through the film, and shows very little emotion or concern. He does what he needs to do in the situations where he needs to do stuff, and then continues on little a little toy robot.

They couldn’t make a more boring lead if they tried, and the actor they have playing him doesn’t add anything to the story. Hell, he makes me long for Shia LaBoef’s character from the Transformer films, and I hated that character, but he at least WANTED something.

Almost (but not quite) every scene in that film with Ford Brody, or his wife, or his kid, was a waste of the audience’s time. He’s like a piece of the plot that just wanders through the film to give us a viewpoint, and he’s so wooden I’m shocked his wife didn’t get splinters during the romantic scenes. Oh, and speaking of his wife, she has no arc or wants either (except to see her husband), nor do any of the other characters. Even Dr. Serizawa isn’t trying to prove anything- he knows about Godzilla, and the MUTOS, and is pretty much there for just narration.

Nobody in this film wants anything, except to stop the monsters, but they stop themselves, and would have done so just fine without the humans lifting a finger. So why exactly are the people there at all?

Here’s the thing. If you removed Ford Brody from 90% of the scenes he’s in, this film wouldn’t change, and might very well improve due to getting to the point faster.That alone tells you how well written the film is.

And this, is why I say there are two films here.

There is an amazing spectacle of a giant monster film with fantastic visuals and exciting action, and there is a leaden weight of a human story about a guy travelling from A to B who just happens to be everywhere where important stuff is going on- just ‘cause he’s the middle of the plot.

I loved the Godzilla half of the film, they did an amazing job of giving Godzilla Delux (as the Japanese are calling him due to his sudden weight gain) real presence, and wish there was more of it. It’s the tacked-on ultra-boring Ford Brody GI Joe story that left me cold. (Hell, he’s even carrying around a GI Joe figure, in case we missed the reference! Subtle, guys!)

3/5 Stars (and only because the Godzilla stuff is so awesome)

If you want to see some fantastic giant monster films, and haven’t see them, go check out the Shusuke Kaneko’s Gamera Trilogy from the 1990’s. This film borrowed a lot of its approach to monster stuff from those films, but forgot to import the humanity that made them so endearing. Too bad. Big G will always be my favorite monster, but Gamera sadly has the better films.

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/91%2BEGsgWkzL._SL1500_.jpg

Shooting Indie Style!

ShootingIndieStyleCover
I put together this guide for my students to help them with their film projects in my media class, and now I’m making it available to anyone who wants to get more out of their mobile phone’s video camera. This is a collection of tips and techniques that covers all parts of the film-making process, from planning, to production, and even editing. Of course, it’s not just for mobile phone filmmakers, this book will help any beginner who’s looking to up their game, so if you’re thinking of making a film, check it out!

Available now on Kindle and Smashwords (ePub) for 99 cents!

Rob

The 10 Commandments of No -Budget Filmmaking with Anurag Kashyap

Anurag Kashyap is a Bollywood filmmaker with over 39 credits to his name, and is reputed to be a master of producing high-quality work on the cheap. (He has won 7 film awards, and had 19 nominations, so it’s fair to say he knows what he’s talking about.) He did this short series of talks on no-budget filmmaking for MTV India, and if you’re someone who wants to get into filmmaking and has no money, these are a must watch!

This is the first of the nine clips (they’re missing #10 for whatever reason, which sucks), a playlist with all of them can be found here.

Enjoy!
Rob