Singer Rufus Wainwright has launched an online campaign to fund the recording of his opera. The Canadian star composed Prima Donna himself and premiered the show in Manchester, England in 2009. Wainwright now wants to record the music for a CD and digital release ahead of plans for a concert tour, so he is asking members of the public to donate their own cash to fund the studio project. He has set up a page on Pledgemusic.com urging fans to give generously. In a message posted on the page, he writes, "It is vitally important to me that Prima Donna be properly recorded and released so that I can tour a concert version of it in the coming year, and I have decided to do this with the help of both PledgeMusic and the incredible BBC Symphony Orchestra which in turn requires your generous support. Quality studio opera recordings are extremely expensive and too time consuming to pull off these days, and it seems that a once vibrant recording industry is no longer what it was and new methods are needed to get the music out." Wainwright is offering fans special rewards in return for their donations. For $99 (£62) they will be given the chance to sing on stage with the star at one of his shows, while $1,500 (£938) buys a producer's credit and access to the recording sessions wrap party, and for $50,000 (£31,250), Wainwright will play a private concert for the lucky donor.
To many people, gore is a four-letter word. Well, technically it’s a four-letter word no matter who you are. But to some, the sight of ghastly explicit violence is enough to deter from a movie altogether — although it shouldn't. Tolerance for shocking imagery is obviously going to vary by the individual, but the danger here is in the labeling of all gore effects with the negative connotations of exploitation or schlock.
The fact of the matter is, that there is a brilliant artistry behind practical gore effects. Often, the artists responsible are working within such limited means as to make the fruits of their labor all the more impressive in their grisly ingenuity. As we gear up for the Evil Dead remake, the goriest studio release in recent memory, it's high time we zeroed in on some of the gooiest, grossest, and indeed most beautiful gore effects in movies:
Regarding Henrietta — Evil Dead 2
It seems fitting to start this list with a look back at Evil Dead franchise past. The first film was an absolute experiment, a student film in many ways. Evil Dead 2 had roughly 10 times the budget of its predecessor, yet it was still a low-budget horror outing requiring innovative practical effects work. Direct Sam Raimi shot the film inside a high school gymnasium, for crying out loud.
Luckily, the burgeoning team of Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger (who would later form KNB Effects of, most recently, The Walking Dead and Oz The Great and Powerful) was up to the task. In this scene, the long-dead wife of the original occupant of that fateful cabin in the woods returns with a vengeance, her possessed corpse never having been properly dismembered. Latex body suits, wire rigs, plenty of fake blood, and even stop-motion animation similar to that of Ray Harryhausen are all employed to bring this manic monster battle to life.
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Bad Moon Rising — An American Werewolf in London
The favoritism shown here to practical effects isn’t meant as a slight against digital artists, nor is it a curmudgeonly refusal to acknowledge the changing times. The fact of the matter is that practical effects wizards ply their trade without the limitless assistance of computer programs.
Case in point, the iconic transformation scene in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. Over six days, working 18 hours each day, Rick Baker crafted one of the most dazzling and brutal man-to-werewolf transitions ever captured on film. The soothing music nicely offsets the viscerally upsetting symphony of makeup, prosthetics, and animatronics. Baker won an Oscar for his efforts; he was the inaugural recipient of the Best Makeup Award. Say what you will about horror movies, but they had to invent an Oscar category to adequately commend Baker’s artistry.
The Ultimate Headache — Scanners
Many of David Cronenberg’s films have been collected under the banner of “body horror.” They often involve some sort of extreme trauma to or horrific transmutation of the physical form of the characters involved. In Scanners, a group of individuals develops powerful psychic abilities, some of whom use their powers for violence.
During the opening of the film, which has become horror canon, one unfortunate scanner finds out just how vicious his more nefarious brethren can be. There are instances in which, were you to slow down a scene involving a practical effect, the seams become unfortunately visible. However, the exploding head created by effects legend Dick Smith, who also worked on The Godfather and The Exorcist, is just as remarkable when viewed frame by frame, the jubilant burst of fabricated viscera every bit as spectacularly lifelike.
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Any THING and Every THING — The Thing
Rob Bottin may not be a name readily on the lips of every film fan, but anyone with an appreciation for magnificent gore effects should genuflect when they hear it. In John Carpenter’s The Thing, Bottin created not one, but an entire cavalcade of gorgeously macabre iterations of the film’s antagonistic shape-shifting creature from another world. The breadth of his work in The Thing is so astonishing that it made choosing just one scene from the movie to highlight very difficult, between the results of the blood test, the slimy craftsmanship of the alien autopsy, and, of course, the man-eating chest cavity. Few films can match the bounty and sustained quality of effects of this gruesome classic.
He Told Them Not To Look — Raiders of the Lost Ark
So horror’s just not your bag, and you can’t be convinced to watch any of the aforementioned classic titles. Surely you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, the landmark first entry in the Indiana Jones franchise. During the film’s climax, the foolish Nazis disregard Indy’s advice and open the Ark of the Covenant. The result is an astounding light show that concludes with the melting faces of the commanding officers. Talk about working with what you’ve got, these deaths were apparently created using a vacuum, a heat gun with time-lapsed photography, and a garden-variety shotgun. It is one of the more disturbing images in any PG film and, beautiful as they are, it was the presence of these effects that nearly saddled Raiders of the Lost Ark with an R-rating.
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[Photo Credit: Renaissance Pictures]
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Brian De Palma is a name revered by many a cinephile. His films have drawn their inspiration from the greatest minds in film and subsequently served as the inspiration for generations of filmmakers flourishing in his wake. Even for those who aren’t as obsessive with their love of movies, when forced to recite the first few great directors that spring to mind, De Palma’s name will inevitably find its way onto the list.
In spite of his importance to American cinema, and as much as it pains me to make this confession, I have been woefully ignorant of De Palma’s catalogue for most of my life. The titles I had seen were limited to Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible. Those are three great movies—or perhaps two great movies and one decent movie—but they don’t exactly encapsulate his style and talents. With the aide of Criterion, I set about to correct this oversight. What I discovered in Blow Out is a film that has already burrowed its way into my heart and earned a place among my favorites.
Blow Out is the story of Jack Terry, a soundman plying his trade for a bargain basement film studio specializing in schlocky horror. When the studio’s latest project is found to be lacking one useable wind effect, Jack is sent out to do a little night recording at a local park. Before he can complete his task, a car careens over the side of a bridge and into a creek. Jack manages to save the female passenger but regrettably not the driver, who turns out to be a United States Senator. Quickly, Jack is instructed to clear his memory of the events, as the woman in the car was not the Senator’s wife. Jack grudgingly agrees…until he listens to the tape. Jack becomes convinced that the car crash was no accident, but rather a sinister assassination. Will he convince anyone else of this conspiracy? Will he even live to tell anyone?
Before popping in the Criterion Blu-ray—an optimal viewing method for one’s first encounter with Blow Out—I did some quick research on De Palma’s recognizable tropes. This proved to be entirely unnecessary as the man beautifully conveys his artistic penchants within the first half hour. De Palma’s films often feature split-screen cinematography that allows him to tell the same section of a story from two perspectives at once. These lead to some wholly captivating shots that drop us into the psyche of the characters in a way few filmmakers can. We don’t just watch as Jack tries to deduce the solution to a particular riddle, we see his brain process every conceivable detail in a cerebral symphony.
De Palma’s oft-revisited concept of voyeurism is alive and well in Blow Out. Apparently (and here we discover the fruits of even a minimal amount of research), De Palma’s parents separated when he was very young, after his mother accused his father of having an affair. Unable to reconcile this information with his ideal of his father, he actually followed the man around with recording equipment trying to catch him in the act. Jack Terry, with his incorruptible microphone, is the personification of this childhood anxiety. There is also a specific story device about a sleazy detective who uses a female confederate to catch men in the throes of illicit passion in order to blackmail them. This small insight into De Palma the man adds immensely to the impact of Blow Out, a film in which he is clearly exorcising some major demons.
Blow Out features two performances that are arguably unmatched in the whole of the careers of those actors. John Travolta is charming, as is his wont, but also darker and more psychologically tormented than in any of his other films. During the end scene—one of the greatest gut punches in cinema—Travolta’s simultaneous callousness and suffering is painful to watch. Providing the foil to Travolta’s Jack Terry is John Lithgow as the mysterious operative seeking to keep the truth about the crash hidden from the world. His icy, calculated violence is so genuine as to terrify me, convincing me to refrain from revisiting episodes of 3rd Rock From the Sun. He is manipulative to a T and methodically effective as a killer. I particularly enjoy his work in the subway station.
Blow Out is ostensibly a remake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in which a photographer believes he’s captured a murder on film. However, Blow Out does a far better job of exploring the central conceit and weaving the lives of the characters around the plot, as opposed to letting their eccentricities subvert it. De Palma was inspired by, among others, Alfred Hitchcock, and this admiration shows in his similar "wrong man" story structure as well as his morbid playfulness with macabre material. This inspiration is felt to an even more extreme degree in Dressed to Kill, a film I watched immediately after Blow Out, creating a combo that I think amounts to the perfect De Palma double feature. Quentin Tarantino has made no bones about borrowing from De Palma; the split screen of Elle donning her nurse’s uniform in Kill Bill Vol. 2 as well as his usage of Blow Out’s central music cue in Death Proof are prime examples. So again, De Palma is a filmmaker as beholden to his heroes as his followers are to him.
Once again, Criterion goes out of its way to provide the best possible release of this American classic. It almost goes without saying that the film transfer is gorgeous and damn near flawless throughout. But it’s the sound restoration that is both highly impressive and specifically critical. Blow Out uses the art of sound as an instrument of intrigue and suspense. It is therefore vital to a high-def transfer to treat the sound design with great reverence. Criterion’s Blu-ray masterfully reproduces every auditory nuance so that each sound registers like a unique, solitary voice that tells its own story.
This may not be a “lesser-known” film and therefore its qualification for this column may seem dubious. However, I hope to encourage any and all who were as criminally in-the-dark as I was to seek out Blow Out, which hits shelves April 26 on Blu-ray, and give over to the sound and fury.
Understand this: Francis Ford Coppola had no interest in making The Godfather Part II. He didn’t think he could outdo the first one, and he wasn’t keen on setting himself up for failure. More importantly, he believed the story had been told. Paramount pushed him and he finally agreed, with some conditions for the studio: He get paid $1 million, finance The Conversation, not allow a single executive involved in the previous movie to be involved, and his old friend Robert Evans couldn’t even set foot on the set.
Coppola saw that if he managed to outdo the first Godfather movie in artistic, financial and critical success, he’d be able to do anything he wanted in Hollywood. He could even create the dream that had been burning in him for years: a little studio of people making personal films, a studio he wanted to call Zoetrope. The start of his artistic gambit was to set up The Godfather as Part II of a story – to develop the narrative and thematic of the first movie, and to play them as counterpoint. It is just that counterpoint and development that make The Godfather Part II a masterpiece.
It’s become cliché to call The Godfather Part II, along with Empire Strikes Back, one of the few sequels that is superior to its predecessor. But that’s an illusion cast by the power without the heavy lifting of the first movie. The Godfather takes care of everything: Michael’s backstory, the world of organized crime, familiarizing us with the colors and cadences and storytelling techniques of the world of the Corleones. That’s why Coppola fought so hard with the studio to call the movie The Godfather Part II; it is a genuine sequel.
And yet it remains that Coppola had very little interest in more stories about Michael Corleone. He’d had in his head an idea for a smaller, more personal movie about a father and a son, showing their development at the same age, in different times, in parallel. Additionally, he wanted to tell a story about a man who ends up being the father to his older brother. Coppola mapped out a way to mash up all these stories, over a deepened reflection of the structure of the first story. What do I mean by that?
Both movies begin with a large cultural gathering that sets up the way the head of the family runs things. Both movies depict Michael heading off to a small island, where he believes for a moment he might be free of the past, only to get his heart broken. Both movies end with a series of murders orchestrated by Michael. The Godfather Part II actually doubles all of this, because in addition to playing against Michael’s actions in the first film, the story about Vito Corleone holds a similar structure, but everything’s reversed. Everything that’s a failure for Michael is a success for Vito, and vice versa: begins with a funeral, moves on to a man consolidating his power and building a family, and holds within it a trip to Sicily where Vito avenges his family, setting himself free of the past.
The Godfather Part II tells two narratives that play perfectly against one another and against the previous film. The overall structure of the films is much more like a symphony, using theme and variation as a driving force rather than the usual goal and obstacle. It’s hard to imagine now, but upon its release a lot of critics found The Godfather Part II to be an abstract mess that favored imagery over character and operatic moments over narrative cohesion.
It didn’t matter. Over time, critical judgment has determined The Godfather Part I and II to be, collectively, one of the greatest artistic achievements in the history of film. As he predicted, the critical, financial, and artistic success put Francis Ford Coppola in a position to do whatever he wanted. And what did he do?
He put up his own money to make a movie about Vietnam, a topic nobody was willing to touch. Coppola took his money, a full production crew, his cast and his family to the jungle where, little by little, he went insane.