Michael Westmore: Anatomy of an Industry

The Department of Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara welcomed the legendary make-up artist Michael Westmore, who revolutionized the make-up industry for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994) and won an Academy Award for the movie Mask (1985). Westmore sits down for a conversation with UCSB professor Cheri Steinkellner, and talks about his work bringing aliens to life and other tales from his career.
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A review of The Aviator (2004)

If you have read the review I had published for Shutter Island, there is a particular section in the article where I cover the topic of cameo appearance. It can be tremendously distracting for me if I recognize too many familiar faces appearing in bit roles.

Are you ever the same way about watching a movie with an excessive amount of familiar faces appearing within it? There are certain instances when the minor appearance is acceptable and I will shrug it off without much thought or further consideration. Any given comedy film is the single most acceptable excuse for an excessive use of the cameo performance, because the desired intention would be to provoke a laugh.

However, a dramatic film is not necessarily the case unless the cameo appearance by a recognizable face is coherent to the story itself. An acceptable example of a dramatic cameo appearance that I am willing to overlook would be the appearance of Hunter S. Thompson in the film adaptation of his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The scene in which he makes an appearance is an introspective flashback when the main character, who is a fictionalized version of Thompson, visualizes his own self at an old age. Who better to portray Thompson at an older age than Thompson himself? It is relevant to the story and perfectly acceptable.

I would imagine that I am complaining too much about the topic, but it is a roundabout way to point out the irritating distraction I had experienced while watching The Aviator (2004). Too many recognizable faces and names were appearing as minor characters in the film. Were these actors making an appearance because they were given an opportunity to work with Martin Scorsese, the director of the film?

Alternatively, was it just another opportunity to earn an extra day worth of a paycheck? The answer to these questions may never present itself to me directly, but it is an annoying curiosity regardless. Although it is nothing more than a personal pet peeve to play the game of “Name That Face” while watching a film from a highly revered name of film, directing it has not been a complete deterrence from any personal enjoyment. The Aviator is well done and completely entertaining as it currently stands. I doubt there would be anything worthwhile that I would be able to change about the film in which could serve as an improvement.

There is one particular element of the production design, which immediately caught my attention while watching the film. Did anyone else observe the development of the color saturation and hue as the movie progressed through the timeline of the story? During the presentation of the earlier years in the story, the color saturation was a bit off from the usual color palette that we are accustomed to seeing. How often do we see purplish-blue peas?

I am referring to the dinner scene in the nightclub with Howard Hughes, Katherine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, and Johnny Meyer. Here is the video clip in order to observe the color tones that are utilized within the film. Right from the start of the segment, you may notice the purplish blue highlights adding a special glow around the musical performers. The particular hue is similar to the color of the peas that are placed upon the dinner table about a minute and twenty-four seconds into the clip.

Sure, it would be dishonest if I were to deny that I was rest assured about this information by watching the behind-the-scenes features that have been placed on the DVD. However, when I was watching the film in the movie theater I knew there was something going on with the color palette of the film since we never see purplish-blue peas in recently produced films unless it was intentionally produced that way.

The artistic decision to define a particular color palette within the film was designed to resemble the color limitations of the color film developing processes that were available to Hollywood filmmakers during the era in which each scene is set. The movie is more than just a selected color palette, but I did find the technique rather intriguing. Scorsese’s limited use of the color spectrum was a creative choice perfectly fitting for the movie as defined by its relevance to the story contained within it.

The surprising element in the film that caught me a bit off guard was the performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. The last time I remember watching one of his films with an incredibly strong performance was The Basketball Diaries. I would not want to limit his entire career down to just these two movies. He brought so much to the story in several different films with his acting performances. He is a talented actor, which is a fact that cannot be argued against very well.

I am considering that the strongest suits in the production value of the film would be DiCaprio’s performance, Scorsese’s directing, the cinematography, and editing of the movie. It all holds together very well, which allows the story to unfold rather smoothly.

A Review of Shutter Island (2010)

There is a certain appeal about a movie with a story filled with dark thematic elements and a production design that pushes the dark end of a visual scheme. The look and feel of all the elements that are present in a film noir movie is what draws me into watching it with interest. These movies are filmed in such a way that the dark shadows become a character of their own. The dark areas of the screen tend to add a bit of personal depth to the actual characters who reside within the story of the movie. The people have something to hide from the other characters, but they are not upfront about with holding any information.

It would be an intentional device to intertwine the visual style of film noir with that of the personal dark secrets held by the characters within the story. However, the particular method of film noir storytelling is clearly set apart from the visual cousin of the horror film, which also utilizes dark shadows and murderous characters to its advantage. The directive of storytelling between the two styles is as different as night and day. Film noir movies tend to break down the human condition into an allegory, parable, or investigative piece about human behavior.

If a horror film attempts to explain the human condition and behavioral actions of a serial killer, then it would add up to nothing more than a delusion of grandeur. The tools of cinematic production are the same, but the directive of storytelling is different. I am drawn to the directive of the film noir, which holds the dark elements of production design and a story that provokes the audience to contemplate various aspects of human behavior. To describe as plainly as possible, I enjoy a movie that pushes me to use my brain once in awhile instead of purely resting upon the mind-numbing and often boring appeal of scaring the crap out of me for two hours.

The golden era of film noir has been highly treasured during the 1940s, but there is still a strong presence of the genre appearing in contemporary films, including Martin Scorsese’s thriller Shutter Island (2010). The screenplay has been adapted from the bestselling book written by Dennis Lehane who has gained popularity in Hollywood with the cinematic adaptations of his books including Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River.

Perusing through the inventory of cinematic elements appearing in Shutter Island there are several pieces that are classic icons of the traditional film noir story. There is a detective, a criminal villain, questionable ethics from an authoritative figure, and the highly recognizable use of high contrast cinematography. The elements of storytelling through means of behavioral study, which I have already described, are fervently apparent in this film.

The prominent setting for the vast majority of the film is placed within the premises of an institution for the criminally insane. With an enclosed location such as a prison would be a twofold venture that presents the opportunity to serve up an army of criminals who all could be the villain of the story, but they are also monitored by an authoritarian system, who holds an indication of questionable ethics of professionalism. Marking the prison as a holding pen for mentally unstable people is nothing short of an easy target for the observation of human behavior, since every character will bring out their internal animal instincts for survival without any relevance of consideration for morals and ethics to slow them down.

Although the film, and the book as well, makes an honest effort at presenting the story with a twist ending, it was not so cleverly disguised in the final cut of the film. Various elements that would suggest the expectations held by the audience are false pretenses to be destroyed in the third act of the film were sneaking into the story as early as the beginning of the second act.

The lead character, Teddy Daniels, is a United States Marshal hailing from Boston who is assigned to a case that sends him to a remote insane asylum located on an island off the coastline of Massachusetts. He is joined by a fellow Marshal hailing from Seattle, Washington. An early warning sign has flagged Mr. Daniels’ inability to remember simple details about his new found partner such as the city and state from which he lives and works. Regardless if he is able to remember or not the minor details about his partner the audience is not expecting to be concerned over such triviality.

There is one minor detail about the film, which was distracting me. Although it is nothing more than a tiny speck within the grand scheme of the production, I noticed that it was preventing me from being completely immersed in the story.

When there is a large collection of cameo appearances within a film, especially by a group of recognizable faces, I begin to play a game of “Where’s Waldo” by pointing out as many recognizable cameo appearances as possible. This would serve more as a distraction to me than it would be as a positive contribution for the film to draw in a group of high quality talent to produce a valuable production. Many of the cameos are portrayed by character actors, which means I was spending a bit of time wondering which movies I have seen them in before, but unable to completely remember their names.

One particular heavyweight of a distraction in the movie was Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine who portrays the prison warden. His screen time is relatively brief, but he packs quite a memorable impression on the audience with his raspy voice that prattles on the topic of criminally violent behavior. If you have ever watched The Silence of the Lambs (1991) in conjunction with this film you would immediately see the interesting connection between his roles for each film.

Although it is commonly perceived at face value to be a horror film, it is clear to me that Shutter Island would be more intriguing to be watched as film noir more than any other style of cinematic storytelling. I walked away from the movie with a positive experience that I actually enjoyed watching it.

After speaking with an acquaintance I marked the observation that the film is clearly not for everyone’s personal enjoyment. Although it is directed by renowned film director Martin Scorsese, there are some stories that are produced by talented people who are unable to please everyone. After all, it would be worthwhile for me to admit here that I feel like one of the very few people who shrugged off The Departed (2006) as a dull film overburdened by excessive violence.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

To say that it is a film for children would be stating the obvious, but surprisingly the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) was something that I walked away from with a smile on my face. The movie that was produced for kids to enjoy turned out to be a funny movie for the adult crowd as well.

There is an ongoing discussion in several film circles whether the use of 3D projection technology is a mere business gimmick to sell more box office tickets. In my opinion, it is a business tactic, and it has been working successfully. It worked well fifty to sixty years ago, and it works beautifully today. The movie business accountants are smiling abundantly, if it is possible to imagine an accountant even smiling at all. Not very long ago, I remember seeing the trailer for this film and thought it would be interesting to watch, even if it is another 3D gimmick film to rake in the money for the movie studios.

The trailer poignantly displayed the humor within the film and that is what has drawn me in to see the film. Although I was sitting by myself without the benefit of hiding behind the excuse of having a child with me, I discovered myself to be enjoying the story, laughing at several of the jokes, and being impressed by the cool 3D animation effects. It must be said that 3D technology sure has evolved quite a bit since the glamor of its infancy years during the 1950s!

Therefore, it is to be said that the film production department over at Sony Pictures has jumped aboard the train that has been filled with 3D animation goodies and 3D projection effects. They did not want to be left out of the profit race at the box office. The result of the company’s efforts is an animated film about two young people who are a hybrid of the nerd and geek kind.

Flint Lockwood is the typical curious child who would take apart and put back together any mechanical device so that he could figure out how it works. Then after figuring out the mechanics of an invention, he would proceed to create a grandiose invention so extraordinary that it would almost be pointless to use in one’s everyday life. For example, Flint’s ultimate creation is a machine that converts water into soluble food for consumption. In essence, it sounds like something NASA has created for astronauts to use as a means to create food rations on a short supply while floating around in space. When the pair joins in a friendship there is a mystical change in the weather that only the combined geeky talents of the two of them are able to handle.

Flint’s alter (geek) ego is Sam Sparks, who interns for Weather News Channel at the time when the pair first meet. When she was growing up as a child Samantha was a weather nerd. She loved to calculate weather formations, and even requested the “Doppler Radar 3000” (or whatever it was named in the movie) as a birthday present from her parents.

Her super geek power of weather prediction is quite convenient for Flint when his super food producer robot goes on the blitz and starts converting rain clouds into a mass production line of food that pours down in super sized portions. Sam must use her skills to interpret the old school Doppler radar machine to predict when the next wave front of bad weather is going to hit the small community.

The film is a family friendly story that comes with the morale that it acceptable to be yourself even if you are a invention creating nerd or a weather predicting geek. If you just so happen to be one of those types of intellectuals who have a strong passion for engineering or meteorological and atmospheric conditions then there may be a great chance that you could save the world from meteor sized hamburgers and hot dogs!

I must admit that I found the film exciting and enjoyable, in spite of the gimmick use of 3D projection technology, and thought it very entertaining to watch how even the cartoon films seem to have a little fun with the “end of the world” disaster films.

50 Shades of Copyright Infringement

What is “fan fiction” exactly? According to the website, Urban Dictionary, it is: “A fandom tool, which allows fans of books, television shows, anime and the like to write about their favorite characters. Fan Fiction (shortened mostly to Fan Fics) is represented on many websites, the most dominant being Fanfiction.net and MediaMiner.org. In Fan Fiction, the writer can either create a story from where the series/episode/book left off (Cannon); create a new world for the same characters (Alternative Reality); or mix characters together from different fandoms (Crossover). Fan Fictions cover all genre, from romance, horror, comedy, to what is known as Hentai (Japanese word, for stories of a sexually mature nature). The fan fiction world is full of a mixture of unreadable, badly written, good and excellent fiction; much like the music industry and its varying degrees of music quality. Some Fan Fiction authors employ betas, to edit their work for them.

“It takes a big studio to make The Avengers, but it doesn’t necessarily take a big studio to write a piece of Avengers fan fiction,” says Georgetown University law professor and fan fiction advocate Rebecca Tushnet. “Big content companies largely recognize that fan activities are really good for them because they engage people.”

The growing popularity of fan fiction, a genre in which fans create their own stories featuring characters or settings from their favorite works of popular culture, raises thorny copyright issues. “Given how broad copyright is now, it’s now possible to say fan fiction is an infringing derivative work,” Tushnet explains. “In order to deal with that… we now talk about fair use, which allows people to make fair, limited uses of works without permission from the copyright owner.”

As a member of the Organization for Transformative Works, Tushnet works to defend fan fiction creators caught in the legal debate between protected intellectual property and fair use.

Nick Gillespie (Reason.TV) sat down with Tushnet to discuss copyright law, fan fiction, and why media companies should embrace fan-created works.