Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Film School of Life - Chapter 2

My childhood hero:  Harrison Ford
It's been a busy few weeks since I posted the last chapter of my book, The Film School of Life,  but I've finally written down the second chapter.  As I was starting on this second chapter, I realized that the last five or six paragraphs of the first chapter should actually be in the second chapter, so I edited the original Chapter 1 and have added that part to Chapter 2 at the beginning.  I am going to try and not do this kind of thing too much in writing this book, but this book is a bit of a work in progress, so I may edit and proof things from time-to-time.  With that said, Chapter 2 picks up right where Chapter 1 left off, dealing with my childhood dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I hope you enjoy this latest chapter in this experiment.


Chapter 2
“What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?”

Having been born in 1990, I was not alive when the original Star Wars trilogy hit theaters, nor when the first three Indiana Jones movies were released, however I quickly discovered Harrison Ford through home video.

You never forget the first time you remember a movie star's name, or at least I haven't. I was three when my Mom's best friend, Ms. Rachel, bought us what was purely called the Star Wars trilogy at the time (because there was no inclination of the prequels then). We watched all three of the movies, and I wish I could honestly say the movies themselves blew my mind, but that wasn't the case. Sure, I loved Star Wars, I got as many of the toys as I could, and I would often pretend I was Han Solo or Luke Skywalker when playing, but the most indelible impression those three movies made on me was that Harrison Ford was the coolest thing since sliced bread.

From watching these movies, I remembered Harrison Ford's name. Maybe I asked my Mom who he was, or I actually read it in the credits, I don't know and I don't care, because I was hooked, I wanted to see every Harrison Ford movie.

Soon after, we got all three Indiana Jones movies that had been made at that time, and I was even more fascinated by Mr. Ford. However, unlike Star Wars, with Indiana Jones, I had discovered a character who would go on to be bigger than the actor playing him. While I was still mad about Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones was the first time a movie character really leapt off the screen for me and became my go to person of choice to play make believe as.

Using my older brother's bag for his Sega Gamegear as Indy's satchel, and my Granddad's old brown fedora, I ran around the house as Indiana Jones. I would climb the stairs, imagining they were a cliff with pillows as falling rocks. I would swing from the top bunk of our bunk bed to the bottom bunk, like Indy would going down to the lower level of an ancient temple. I would even crawl across the couch, pretending that there was a ceiling caving in right above me and I had to wriggle my way through before I was crushed.

For a three-to-five year old kid, this was serious stuff. Sure, did I get away with seeing a good many movies that I shouldn't have seen at that age because I secretly watched them with my older brothers (Batman Returns and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I'm looking at you)? You bet, but if it weren't for those secret movie sessions, would I have said at my Kindergarden graduation that I wanted to be Harrison Ford?

You know, in my five-year-old mind's logic, when I was asked before graduation what I wanted to be when I grew up, well I thought the answer was simple, I wanted to be Harrison Ford. Okay, so I now know how stupid it is to want to be another person, because that is impossible, but at five it seemed reasonable. He was my two favorite movie characters of all-time. If one person could be both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, then isn't he a person worth wanting to be? At least, that's what I thought anyways.

So then came the time for me to get my actual diploma. Decked out in my white cap and gown, with my front tooth chipped and blackened from an incident falling face first in the church gym, I went down the aisle as my name was called and climbed the steps to the stage, receiving my diploma. As I took hold of that tiny rolled up piece of paper, they announced that I wanted to be Harrison Ford when I grew up, exactly what I had told them earlier. Safe to say, I felt completely unstoppable. While I look back on this moment now and kind of just hang my head, wondering how I could have been that gullible, I think it also goes to just show how much movies influenced my earliest years.

Over the next few years, my ambitions changed, but I still loved Harrison Ford, and I still loved movies, I just no longer wanted to be Harrison Ford.

As far as most of the usual occupations that children want to be when they get older, I never really had a desire for the norm. I never wanted to be a doctor, an astronaut, or a fireman. Those sort of jobs seemed boring to me.

You've got to understand, I was the kid in elementary school who spent my days writing stories and drawing whatever I imagined instead of actually doing my school work. Even when we got out of the classroom and onto the playground, rather than playing sports or whatnot, I spent almost all of my time on the swingset pretending I was piloting an X-wing starfighter into battle.

On top of that, from about first to fifth grade, I was often a compulsive liar, making up stories about myself and my family in order to make others believe that I had this crazy, awesome life. I can vividly recall making up stories about my family spending vacations in Japan at the height of the Pokemon craze, or even touting that my Dad worked on the crew of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, creating the special effect when Darth Maul was chopped in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sure, I look back upon my propensity to lie at those times with regret now, but I also have come to appreciate the imagination that I had to concoct such wild and random stories. Without imagination, I really don't know where I would be.

For as long as I can remember, I have just had a desire to create things. I have been fortunate enough so far to be able to see things vividly in my mind's eye that do not exist. While this has led to its fair share of disappointment over the years -- realizing that things can never be as I imagined them in my mind -- it also gives me something to aspire toward.

The things I used to draw and write in school were highly imaginative for a kid of my age. They were riffs on all of the things I loved, mainly Star Wars. I wrote and drew stories about space cowboys and penned epic fantasy sagas that ripped off a lot of my favorite video games during those years. Perhaps one of my personal favorite stories I ever wrote was simply titled, “The Avenger.” It was the tale of a teenaged secret agent who fought evil in a sky blue windbreaker, with matching pants. While there wasn't a lot to these stories or their characters, they were some of the very first story ideas I ever remember coming up with. As a matter of fact, in a bid to be more like my older brother, Jonathan, who made a cherished home movie classic called Catzilla, I often busted out the home video camera to make home movies myself.

I made a sequel to Catzilla, and even used the same cat to star in a movie I made with my babysitter, called Kung Fu Kitty. In that, I played Kung Fu Boy, a boy who could talk with a magical cat that knew kung fu and fought crime. I even did opening credits for Kung Fu Kitty by writing them out onto a sheet of paper and scrolling past them while singing a song that had only three words, “Kung Fu Kitty,” in a style reminiscent of Danny Elfman's theme for Batman. I know, original. Right?

Another movie I made, or attempted to make, was a film version of, “The Avenger.” I cast myself as the titular hero, and my next door neighbor as the evil villain with a cybernetic claw for an arm (bought at Toy's-R-Us, of course). For the film, I changed the costume for the hero from a windbreaker to a black sweatsuit, probably because that's what I actually owned as opposed to the other costume. Of course, before I go too much further into the tale of this adaptation, I must point out that I never wrote a script and that I only ever shot one scene for the film because we were called for dinner before I could shoot anymore.

Like a lot of kids, writing a script seemed too time consuming. I knew where I wanted the story to go, so what was the point? The story was going to start with the Avenger infiltrating his archnemesis's lair, discovering that he had a super laser death ray built in a space station orbiting the Earth that he was going to use to destroy the world. Why destroy the world? Because that's what I thought all bad guys wanted to do at the time. Suffice to say, the film would wind up on the space station, where the Avenger and his nemesis duked it out as the clock was ticking down, me and my neighbor even rehearsed a bit of this climactic fight scene on the trampoline in the backyard, but it never went on camera.

You see, I had no desires to be a moviemaker yet, I was just making a movie because it was a spur of the moment impulse that an eight or nine-year-old child has from time to time. My older brother, that was my personal hero at the time, had made home movies with his friends, so I thought I should do the same. The fact is, I half-baked the whole idea. I had this crazy idea that we didn't need sets or even extras, my Dad would be able to add all of that in with CGI, which was just starting to really be a common staple in major Hollywood movies back then.

On the evening when we shot the only scene that was ever shot, my brother and sister operated the camera as I ran through our backyard, fighting invisible bad guys that were not there (the ones that would be added digitally later). I charged from our dog's pen in the very far corner of the yard, all the way to the fort, storming up the steps and kicking a non-existent bad guy down the slide before sliding down the slide myself. I called cut, and I thought it was brilliant. Why would a suburban backyard with a child's play fort be the hideout for an evil mastermind? You've got me, but the movie didn't go any further than that, because my Mom called us and said that dinner was ready, and my next door neighbor had to go back home, so that was that. The impulse to make this movie dissipated by the next day when something else popped up to preoccupy my time. As I said, I did not want to make movies at that time, I just saw it as something I should do. If I am being entirely truthful, the very first thing I remember actually wanting to be when I grew up was a cartoonist.

Around second grade, I had become fascinated with those books that you could buy at school book fairs that collected the works of say a year's worth of newspaper comic strips into one book. I remember getting Garfield at Large at a school book fair, and I was hooked. I mean, I already loved Garfield from his brief stint on Saturday morning television, but I think what really appealed to me about this collection of comic strips, was that they were fun, funny, and they seemed like something I could do.

You see, my very favorite thing to do when I was little was to draw. More so than writing stories or even playing make believe or watching movies, drawing was sort of my first real love, and so for years I told everyone that I wanted to be a comic strip cartoonist when I grew up. This desire was only bolstered by the school career day when one of my classmate's grandfather, who was a comic strip cartoonist, came and talked to the class. I just thought it was the coolest job in the world, so like everything I said that I wanted to do, my Aunt Jane went out and bought me a lot of the stuff for it. I got tons of sketchbooks, how-to-draw cartoons manuals, and art supplies.

Eventually my artistic ambitions went from comic strips to comic books and manga. For the rest of elementary school, and most of middle school, my ambition was simple, I wanted to write and draw stories. It just wasn't possible for me to simply write without seeing the story visually. When I wrote and drew stories, I saw how everything was supposed to look. The setting, the costumes, the characters, the colors of everything, and the angle upon which we were watching the events unfold, I just could see it in my mind's eye. I was certainly on the right track to achieving my dream, there was only one catch, I couldn't draw.

No matter how much I drew and wanted to be a good artist, I just simply didn't have the gift. My best work was amateurish at best, and I think deep down I knew that. Even when I was challenged to a draw off in fifth grade between a popular kid and myself, where fellow popular kids chose the winner, I knew I wasn't going to win (sure, the deck was stacked against me, but he was also just a better artist than me). However, I kept trucking on thinking that if I just continued to draw, that I would be the next great comic book artist.

My middle schools years was when I really first discovered comic books. I was buying collections of old comic books at Books-a-Million, buying old comics off ebay, and purchasing the new issues on newstands. I had become obsessed with Stan Lee and wanted to be the next great, just like him (it doesn't hurt that the first Spider-Man movie hit theaters around this time to bolster my interests). During this time, I tried to create my own catalogue of characters, just like Stan Lee did at Marvel in the Sixties. Suffice to say, all of my creations were basically knock offs of Stan Lee's best characters, but hey, some of them were actually passable for a twelve-year-old kid.

I remember creating the Blue Scarab, a Batman rip-off who had no super powers, protected the grimy, eternally dark city known as Sobian City, and used a utility belt and his blue cape and cowl (shaped like a scarab beetle's head) to fight crime. Then there was the Jumper, a superhero who's only sole power was that he could jump really high, and kick, that was it. Of course, my favorite hero I had created during this period was the Phantom.

The Phantom was essentially Spider-Man, just with ghost abilities. He was a high school geek who was involved in an accidental chemical spill on the streets of New York City, granting him the ability to turn invisible, walk through walls, and be super strong and acrobatic. He was the hero I cared the most for, and was the one I did the most work on. I even made half of a full issue once, I was so jazzed about him, but I think the thing I loved the most about the Phantom was that I could see all of his villains so clearly.

There was his archnemesis, Rocket, a man in a Boba Fett-styled suit with jetpack and gauntlets that fired rockets. Then there was the Juggler, a disgraced baseball pitcher who masqueraded as a circus juggler committing crimes. However, my two personal favorites were Mirage and the Absorber. Mirage was a man who could create false images in the minds of his enemies, while the Absorber had the ability to absorb any element, such as water, fire, and rock, to strengthen his own body. With all of these villains and a crackerjack hero, I thought I had come up with my Spider-Man, alas it wasn't meant to be.

Toward the end of my eighth grade year, I was home watching TV one night, and on came a preview for a new cartoon that was about to premiere on Nickelodeon called Danny Phantom. I was completely gobsmacked. The premise was so similar to the one of my own comic book Phantom, that I was heartbroken and furious at the same time. In the mind of a thirteen-year-old kid, I felt as if my idea had been stolen, which in fact I learned quickly thereafter that it was more that the Phantom I had created wasn't really that original of an idea to begin with. After this whole fiasco, and the continual realization that I just wasn't as good of an artist as so many other people in my school, my dreams of being a comic book writer/artist just dissipated. I didn't want to just be the writer and not draw my own stories, so I was in limbo, with no real dream to pursue.

During this time, I toyed with a great many ideas of what I wanted to do instead of writing and drawing comic books. I thought of being a video game creator or being an actor, since I had just really gotten into theatre at school. While I loved both of those things, neither of them were truly me, and that was when a school assignment changed my life.

It was my Freshman year of high school and I was tasked by my history teacher to do an oral report on a modern historical figure. We went to the library to look through the biography section to find our subjects. I personally had no clue who I wanted to do my report on. Most everybody was either doing athletes or politicians, but neither of those kinds of people interested me. That is when I saw it, the biography of George Lucas on the bookshelf.

Throughout the fourteen years of my life up to that point, there was only one constant, it was that I loved movies, and more particularly, loved Star Wars. See, I was the one in my family who obsessively tracked movies online and knew the release dates of all the major blockbusters. If you wanted to know when a movie was coming out, I was the one to ask.

So here I was in the school library, checking out the bio of George Lucas. I had found my modern historical figure and had gotten him approved by my history teacher, so now all I had to do was read the book and give the report.

Over the next few days, I started reading the book whenever I get some downtime in classes (cause who is going to read at home). As I got further and further into the story of George Lucas, the more I realized that me and George had a lot in common. We were both small for our age, we were both introverts with very few friends who favored TV and movies above playing outside, and we both wore glasses. I saw so much of myself in his story, and I just sort of got lost in his biography. When I started to get to the part where he went to film school and learned to make movies, and read about the process of how he made all of these classic movies like the original Star Wars, I was fascinated.

Now, while the process of video and moviemaking was not new to me – with my Dad having been a videographer and producer for my entire life – this was the first time I took an active interest in it. All of a sudden, it was like someone flipped a switch inside my brain. I wanted to make movies. I already knew how to run and operate a camera, having professionally operated a camera for my Dad since I was twelve, and I already had a myriad of stories in my mind and how I visually wanted them to look, so it was a no-brainer. I was going to be a moviemaker.

When I nervously gave my oral report, I got an A, and more importantly, I had finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Now, while I wasn't without the usual teenage act of changing my mind from time-to-time, wanting to be a playwright or be a musical theatre actor yet again, I always came back to movies. The movies were very much my first obsession, and I just never could let them go.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Movie Review: "Get on Up"

The James Brown biopic, Get on Up, is an okay movie that paints enough of a picture to give those, who don't know James Brown, an idea of the man, but not enough to really satisfy or make this movie feel like it had to be made.  The movie is constantly jumping back-and-forth in time, going from old James Brown, to little kid James Brown, to Sixties' James Brown, and then to teenage James Brown, back to kid James Brown again.  It's a confusing plot device that I guess they used to try and tell the emotional story rather than a straightforward linear story, but it often detracts more than it adds.  While a lot of the musical numbers are very lively, and there are some humorous scenes here and there, the movie itself feels disjointed and confused on what it really wants to be, rather than feeling like a window into the life of James Brown.  The thing that saves this movie, for the most part, is the performance by Chadwick Boseman as James Brown.  He gives it his all and should get an Oscar nom for his work.

I give Get on Up a D!

Movie Review: "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"

The heroes in a half shell finally return to the bigscreen, and while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably the weakest of all the TMNT movies made thus far, there is a great deal to enjoy about director Jonathan Liebesman's movie.

This Turtles movie is basically another retelling of their origin story, with a greater focus than ever before on the human characters, like news reporter April O'Neill, rather than the titular turtles themselves.  Megan Fox is fine as April, though her acting chops aren't quite sharp enough to always sell the CGI turtles that she is supposed to be acting with.  While I personally would have liked to see the Ninja Turtles themselves actually get more to do in the plot, their personalities were spot on, save for the too mean Splinter.  I just wish less of the focus had been on the not so interesting human characters (sorry, but that's how it's always been with this franchise).  Even with the villains, Shredder has less to do than the white guy villain played by William Fichtner, who is the real mastermind of the evil plot.  With that all said, I kind of liked the revisionist angle that this movie took on the traditional Ninja Turtles origin story, having April's past being intrinsically linked with that of the turtles.  Add on to that the heightened comic book style that this movie oozes (no pun intended) and you have the ingredients for a movie that will delight the targeted audience.

If you have a kid, in particular a young boy, they'll love this movie.  While there is a little more innuendo and cussing in this movie than there was in any previous Ninja Turtles movie, most of it is subtle enough to where it will go over most kids' heads.  I mean, when you hear reviews from the kids leaving the audience in front of you, like, "Best Movie Ever!!!"  You know that the movie works for who it's intended for.  As an adult fan of the series, I know I am not the target audience, so that's why I'm a lot more forgiving of a lot of the shortcomings of this particular movie, because while it isn't the TMNT's finest hour, there is a lot of fun to be had here.

This is the kind of movie that if you check your mind at the door, anyone will probably have a good time with it.  The action sequences are top notch and imaginative, with the car chase down a snowy mountain being one of the most silly, yet fun sequences of action I've seen in a while.  Plus, while so many complained about the giant size of the new Ninja Turtles and their super strength, they do look really cool when onscreen beating up the bad guys.  I for one would not mind a sequel to this particular movie to see if, with the origin story out of the way, the filmmakers can root their feet more firmly into this world and give it another go, because this is the first Ninja Turtles movie series where I could imagine seeing some of the weirder TMNT villains popping up.  If you ask me, bring on the Kraang and explain the secret of the alien ooze that created the Turtles, similar to the current Nickelodeon TV show.

I give Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a C+!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Movie Review: "Guardians of the Galaxy"

With Marvel Studios latest movie, they have gone to the bench to highlight some of the lesser known corners of their comic book universe.  In many ways, you could almost say that Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel Studios throwing down the gauntlet, proving that when it comes to their movies at least, their distinguished competition is completely in the dust.  Guardians of the Galaxy is not so much a superhero movie, but is more a space opera/sci-fi western in the vein of Star Wars, or more accurately, Firefly.  

The story follows Earth born Peter Quill, who was abducted by aliens as a child, and has spent his life since, traversing alien worlds as the outlaw Star-Lord.  Following an opening sequence a little reminiscent of a sci-fi Raiders of the Lost Ark, Quill discovers a mysterious orb that just about everyone in the galaxy seems to be after, but why?  The answer to that question leads Quill to team up with a ragtag group of quirky misfit outlaws, including a gun-toting raccoon, named Rocket, and a talking tree man, who all work together to save the galaxy from the villainous warlord, Ronan the Accuser.

If the above description does not tickle your interests, then don't go to see this movie, but if it does, then you'll enjoy just about everything that this movie has to offer.  Without traipsing into too much spoiler-filled territory, this is a fun movie from start to finish.  You will be laughing almost non-stop.  This is quite possibly the funniest Marvel movie to date, and perhaps the funniest movie of the year, period.  Rocket Raccoon is almost certain to become one of the new favorite Marvel heroes, because let's face it, when you have a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, who also happens to have short man syndrome, magic happens.

There is just a lot that is charming about Guardians of the Galaxy.  There is a nice dose of action, a ton of laughs, and a little dash of emotion there to tie everything together.  Of course, the main thing people always want to know is if this is the best Marvel movie ever?  I don't know if I would go that far, partly because this movie doesn't have the added benefit that The Avengers had, having had five movies prior to set up all of the characters, rather than having to set them up and then bring them together in the course of two hours, but when Guardians works, it soars.  Plus, I have a feeling that when we finally reach The Avengers 3, this particular chapter in the Marvel saga will be one of the most crucial in understanding what's at stake in that particular adventure for Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

I give Guardians of the Galaxy an A-!