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Movie Review: PARANORMAN

I wonder what it is about a certain kind of stop motion that seems to lend itself to somewhat morbid subject matter. Tim Burton’s influence, of course, skews the stats with NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE CORPSE BRIDE, and the upcoming FRANKENWEENIE, and Laika’s previous outing CORALINE was directed by NIGHTMARE’s Henry Selick.

Their latest, PARANORMAN, continues along that vein, with the tale of a young boy who can speak to the dead, and the hardship he endures at the hands of the living for the crime of being different. But when the restless dead rise physically from their graves, he’s the only one with the power to save his town.

It’s a risky prospect, trying to make what amounts to a family-friendly horror film. Fail to thread the needle and you could easily wind up with a movie too disturbing for kids but too tepid for anyone else. While PARANORMAN errs on the side of kid-friendly, it’s also got plenty of clever humor for the older audience to appreciate. Blissfully, the film eschews any SIXTH SENSE winks about Norman’s seeing dead people, but genre fans will recognize Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD in one zombie’s particular gait, and John Carpenter’s legacy in the way the score reduces to a pounding heartbeat of a single note in moments of creeping terror.

The characters are strongly drawn, occasionally toeing the line of cliche — but then again this is meant to be in part an homage to (and subversion of) the cheesy, cliche-laden no-budget horror flicks of which Norman himself is a fan. Within the framework, Norman is a strong, complex character who carries the film on his narrow shoulders. He’s not big, strong, or overburdened with confidence, but he keeps on going because he’s the only one who can — a hero in the truest sense. The supporting characters are equally enjoyable and memorable, although I could have done with his older sister being a little less awful. (I’m sure that was the point, and it made her character change stronger, but man, she is awful.) My favorite character was Neil — although the meathead Mitch lands a joke that took me completely off guard.

I don’t want to say much more about it, because to describe much more of it would be to spoil the fun. It’s a solid movie, with surprising emotional depth and a good moral to the story, and I love stop motion films and would like to see them continue being made, so everyone go see this one so they will be encouraged to do so.

Skeptical Sunday: I know you are, but what am I?

So have you heard about this thing called the New Atheism? There’s actually very little that’s “new” about it — ever since Man first invented animist gods in the species’ primal days, there’s been someone who didn’t believe it. The novelty is in the fact that the “new” atheists actually tell people that they are atheists, actually challenge believers when they make a claim about their religion.

A lot of religious folks don’t like this. Despite the centuries of overt declarations of belief, despite the fact that believers still proudly declare their faith in the public arena, despite the tendency of many on the Religious Right to challenge the validity of the claims of, say, Muslims, somehow the fact that some people are responding with a loud “I don’t believe you” is inconceivable and dangerous.

Vocal atheists are called “militant,” which I find rather rich from Christians, as the history of their faith is replete with actual military campaigns to stamp out opposing viewpoints. So Christians can have the Crusades and the Inquisition under their belt, can start wars in the Middle East by fomenting fear over Islamic terrorism, but it’s Richard Dawkins who is “militant.” Why? Because he wrote a book saying he doesn’t believe them.

I’ve heard people talk about “atheist extremists” in the context of some bus signs and billboards with such innocuous, affirmative phrases as “You Can Be Good Without God.” Extremist. As though a bus sign, legally purchased, were quite as bad as strapping a bomb to your chest and setting it off in a Sunday School classroom. But somehow those billboard-buying “atheist extremists” are more alarming than suicide-bombing Muslim extremists. Muslims, at least, believe in God.

How they long for the days when you could get thrown into jail or executed for declaring non-belief. How they wish they could wield their power to oppress dissent into silence. But remember: the atheists are militant. The atheists are persecuting.

One can only make even a sort of sense out of this in the light of psychological projection. These believers speak their minds out of a desire to silence and subjugate any person who dares to disagree. Thus they imagine that anyone else speaking their minds must have the same goal.  Read more…

The Shallow End of the Screen Pool

Following up a bit on my thoughts about writer’s block from yesterday, an interesting notion occurred to me as I was writing it.

There’s this phenomenon in psychology called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This video goes into detail as to how it was observed and greater detail about it, but in essence the Dunning-Kruger effect is when one lacks competence in a given area, to the extent that he even lacks the level of competence that would be necessary to recognize his own lack of competence.

Too incompetent to know you’re incompetent, in other words.

This is not, it should be noted, the same as “too stupid to know you’re stupid.” Stupidity and incompetence are not the same. I fancy myself a fairly non-stupid fellow, but I would be a hopeless incompetent were I to attempt, say, glass-blowing. But the important point is that I know I would be incompetent, I have enough of an understanding of glass-blowing to know that it is out of my realm of understanding in any meaningful sense. I know what I don’t know.

But we’ve all seen the Dunning-Kruger effect in action. The video editor who talks about how great he is and barely knows how to work an NLE…the “handyman” acquaintaince who thinks he can fix your dryer better than the Maytag man, despite having never done so before…M. Night Shyamalan…they lack the competence not only to do the job, but also to understand even at the basic level that they’re doing anything wrong, let alone what it is.

Example I ran into many times myself — in the heyday of the Panasonic DVX100, I can’t tell you how many DV Rebels grabbed that bad boy, went out, shot with it, and cut it all together, and didn’t have the first clue what 3:2 pulldown was or why they got weird artifacting when they watched it anywhere but their TV screens.

I’m not going to get into it here, because it’s besides the point — suffice it to say that I would have to explain to technical details about how televisions display their images, how it differs from film, and how these technical details can be leveraged to convert a 24-frame-per-second film to a 30-frame-per-second video. I would have to explain this before it was possible to actually understand what 3:2 pulldown is, how it’s used, and what to do with it. That is, in its way, a small version of lacking the competence to comprehend a lack of competence.

That’s only part of the story, though. As opposed to simply being ignorant of information, the Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a paradoxical overconfidence as a result of said ignorance. Because you don’t know that there’s something you don’t know, you assume you know everything there is to know. Unaware you’re unaware.

As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

It’s perhaps serendipitous that Darwin made such a statement. Recently, I’ve been re-reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which has got me seeing everything through the lens of evolutionary pressures. In a system involving reproduction, strategies that work will flourish, and those that don’t will diminish and die off.

Seriously, I’m going somewhere with this.

I think writer’s block is a mélange of laziness and fear, specifically fear of failure. If you never write anything down, you can’t write the wrong thing. That perfect idea in your head will never be sullied by your shortcomings as a wordsmith.

But, as screenwriter Terry Rossio is credited with saying, “My lousy way of getting it done is better than your great way of not doing it.”

Now, I happen to think Mr. Rossio himself to be quite a bit better than lousy (some of his credited work notwithstanding), but he makes a good point here.

I may not, in principle, be able to run faster than you; but if you don’t run at all, I’ll win every race against you. And I may write a shitty script, but it’s better than the script you didn’t write by the mere fact of its existence.

A dubious cameo

I was watching a recent video about YouTube’s resident smugly ignorant, incorrigibly dishonest little whinge, VenomFangX. Dubbed the “Posterchild for Creationist Stupidity,” or PCS, by YouTube user Thunderf00t (whose series “Why do people laugh at creationists?” focuses on pointing out the sheer idiocy of claims made by PCS, as well as bigger fish in the creationist swamp such as Ken Ham and Kent Hovind), PCS has started running a clever money-making ploy while simultaneously pretending to care about sick children. 

Apparently, calling PCS on his bullshit has gotten user dprjones suspended from YouTube — because the dogmatist solution to disagreement is to silence it. But the freethought community of YouTube looks out for their own, and the video is now mirrored across multiple accounts. 

I don’t watch PCS’ channel, as I’m allergic to stupid; and when I’ve tried, I don’t read the comments because PCS institutes draconian moderation so that only those who agree most vehemently with him can post; no criticism at all (see previous paragraph).

Another user, VenomFongX, used to mirror PCS’ videos and leave the comments open to everyone — but that account, too, has been suspended (see two previous paragraphs). 

PCS has been debunked and/or smacked-down multiple times by multiple users. His own attempts to silence other channels led to the filing of a fraudulent DMCA claim against Thunderf00t which opened him up to federal charges of perjury and civil action, and only when PCS agreed to read a written statement apologizing to the internet were the charges dropped. 

I’d say I’m in the wrong business, but you know, I too hope to someday make money by telling people fantasy stories. The difference, of course, is that I acknowledge that they are fantasy, and don’t make empty threats toward those who don’t believe them.

Get a life

I’ve been meaning to write for a while about my opinions on film school

Neither Ryan nor I went to film school. Ryan began working as a professional effects artist straight out of high school, and though I went to a four-year university I did not major in film.

Here’s the thing — and this is just my opinion so take it as you will. The things that you dismiss as having “nothing to do” with your chosen career, could turn out to have a great deal to do with it. Anyone can learn how to frame a shot, how to direct an actor and how to use Final Cut Pro. You could learn these things from books you can pick up at Barnes & Noble, or even just trial and error on your own.

It’s easy to glean the technical knowledge you need to make a movie. What you can’t get from film school, or films, is something to say WITH that technical skill.

We could dismiss politics and sociology as having “nothing to do with” filmmaking, but if it weren’t for a study (and in this case, some firsthand experience) of apartheid, we wouldn’t have DISTRICT 9.

We could dismiss literature as being “irrelevant to filmmaking,” but without it we wouldn’t have LORD OF THE RINGS.

I could go on, but you get where I’m going with this. ANYTHING can be made to have “something to do with” filmmaking as long as it’s something that energizes your imagination.

I’m not saying you should focus on something you don’t like. I got my degree in English, and so in four years of study I never had a single math or science course. But I regret that a little bit now, particularly the science, as there are things in this universe that you and I literally could not have imagined. That’s the stuff of real inspiration.

Even while I was there, even with a focus on English and a career trajectory toward film, I took classes in linguistics. Today I read political and historical nonfiction as well as more entertainment-based fiction. I study religion and mythology, as well as martial arts. I keep up to date with technological breakthroughs as much as possible. I do still read books about films and filmmaking but I try very, very hard to stagger them among works with other focus.

The best advice I can give is to go to college, but not to film school. Find another subject that interests you — it’s not a betrayal of your passion for film to have other interests, even other passions. Your filmmaking talent will not pack its bags and leave out of jealousy. What will happen, instead, is that that interest will lead to other side interests and so on, until you’ve amassed a particular combination of skills and knowledge and opinions that form your personal perspective, and that will give your movies the unique voice that will make people want to watch them.

If nothing else, going to college is an invaluable source of life experiences that will inform the stories you tell and the way you tell them. Make some new friends from backgrounds different than yours and with opinions you don’t agree with. Do some stupid (but not illegal!) things while people will still excuse them because you’re young. Live off the screen so you’ll have something to put on it.

If all you know is movies, you will never have anything new to say. You’ll just be repeating what’s already been said. And then what’s the point?

At the Mountains of Masturbation

This post started as a comment on a Facebook post applauding Guillermo del Toro for sticking to his guns, demanding a hard “R” rating for his long-in-gestation adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and walking away when the studio pushed for a PG-13. I had an unreasonable amount of things to say for a Facebook comment, so here we are.

Read more…

Movie Review: PHOENIX FORGOTTEN

I saw PHOENIX FORGOTTEN today at Beach Cities Arclight. It was about three teen people abduced by a UFO after seeing it over Phoenix, Arizona on March 13, 1997. It was called the “Phoenix Lights” and apparently really happened, although the three people who disappeared seem to just be a myth.

The screening is only one hour and twenty seven minutes, so it was pretty short, and not a lot of VFX in it, but still some. A good chunk of the movie was taken in 1997 by people searching for the Lights. The movie is much shorter because of this.

It also explains why there was not a lot of VFX in the movie, as most of it happens without the camera looking. When updated to the 2017 footage, the still aren’t a lot of VFX in the new stuff as nothing happens effects-wise in the modern age.

I only saw this movie because I assumed my mom wanted to come, but she didn’t. It was just me and Vanessa watching it. But we were there and saw everything happen (or not), and saw the movie from beginning to end.

Only near the end did we start to see the UFO’s kidnapping the kids, and that only after coming across another camera that they had with them when they got abducted.

The parents of Josh Bishop got a divorse after Josh disappeared,Ashley and Mark’s parents still seem to be together, but only we see the final tape of the abduction.

I saw and enjoyed it, and think it is worth checking out if you are interested in this movie at all.