Sunday, December 31, 2006

Famous Guns of Filmland No.1

"Mac" lets rip with an M134 mini-gun in PREDATOR

Americans do have their obsessions, but then don’t we all? Sports and movies are right up there, but so are guns. And why the hell not? They’re lots of fun and in the movies, as with real life, people do pay attention when you point a gun. When a movie Director frames his shot of an athletic looking hunk pointing a powerful weapon, and then has the character brave what seem to us impossible odds … well, then you have movie magic! It is a fact that the availability of a new type of exotic firearm can excite the interest of a Producer every bit as much as a perfect new face or a sexy body. Gun designers and brokers clued into that addiction for cinematic firepower decades ago. There have been dozens of movies in which a kick-ass gun is actually a leading character. If you don’t have the Collector’s Edition of JACKIE BROWN, which includes Quentin’s bonus movie “Chicks With Guns”, brother you’re missing out ! Every so often I will choose a “personality gun” from one of the great action movies, and profile it here.

This color still is from an unforgettable scene in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s PREDATOR (1987). Now many of your friends will tell you that Jesse Ventura tore up the screen with a mini-gun in that picture, but it was actually “Mac” played by actor Bill Duke, who ripped up the jungle. Jesse usually posed with one of the two mockup guns, while lucky Bill got to light up “Ole Painless”, a genuine General Electric M134 mini-gun manufactured in the 1960s. The beast was purchased by Stembridge Gun Rentals in 1984 and earned starring roles in several of Arnie’s pictures. Stembridge maintained a vast arsenal because the studios require multiples of key guns be kept on the set. They cannot allow a costly crew to sit around waiting for the techs to repair a gun needed for a scene. This weapon, Serial N313, has been cast in many big films in addition to Predator, including Terminator 11, The Last Action Hero, Iron Eagle 111, The Matrix, and Broken Arrow.

It’s ‘real’ all right, but still a tricked out movie prop. M134s were designed for fixed mounting and are operated by a powerful electric motor which uses mucho juice, so a movie armourer installed a “slower” motor, rated at 1700 rpm. This would produce less torque. At full throttle of an issue M134 the actor wouldn’t be able to hold the weapon steady. The configuration you see in the photo includes a battery carried in the backpack and a prop set of blank firing rotating barrels. Muzzle blast was supplemented with a burning gas source. The weapon was further modified with a vertical pistol grip and an M60 fore stock. While incredibly interesting to look at, the Predator mini-gun would be tactically useless. For example, the length of linked ammunition which seemed to fill the backpack, would only sustain a burst of 3-4 seconds.

This M134 was offered for sale in 1999 for US$125,000. when Stembridge decided to close the gun rental side of their business. California was leading the nation in restrictive gun legislation, and the paperwork and security costs required to move such irreplaceable props around to movie locations became daunting. The display Ad noted “This gun has blank firing barrels restricted to make a nice flash. Included in the package are the electrics, a spare motor, several boxes of parts, a set of new barrels that are live, and some movie prop mounting equipment.” This tiger is now in a museum, but the mockup guns used in Predator are still in rental.

Stembridge Gun Rentals was older than many existing Hollywood studios. The company was formed in 1920 by James Stembridge and Cecil B. DeMille, to supply guns and blank ammunition to the movie industry. For decades its offices and warehouse were on the Paramount Lot. Then in 1999 the decision was made to auction off its inventory of thousands of valuable firearms, many of which were personality pieces used by the biggest Stars. Stembridge had kept records so detailed that in many cases guns could be traced to an actor, scene by scene. They are still "in the business", based in Glendale, California. Up here in Canada we can only look at photographs of such exotic technology and sigh. Tamer memorabilia from Stembridge’s glory days in Hollywood does turn up on EBay, such as empty cartons which once contained blank rounds. Hey, it's something!

Oh yes. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Leos in Kandahar - the YouTube Phenomenon

Photo: Recovery of Canadian Sperwer Tactical Recon UAV in Afghanistan

Arguably one of the biggest stories concerning personal video in 2006 was YouTube. The growth in popularity of uploading homemade video to the Internet has been nothing short of explosive. It is the obvious creative outlet for film students and neophyte Directors who have a sound stage in the basement. YouTube is a concept that was only waiting for a convergence of technologies to really take off, not least of which is a muscular and affordable local ISP. We are there.

A huge Canadian news story this year was the strengthening of our military contribution to the war in Afghanistan, including the deployment of most of our Leopard tanks. The Leos were airlifted from Canada by chartered Ukrainian heavy-lift aircraft. We also purchased Nyala APCs from South Africa and delivered those directly to the war zone, where they have already saved Canadian soldiers from roadside car bombings. The YouTube site is filling up with amateur and professional video clips uploaded by devotees in "A-stan". One popular video clip, Leos at Kandahar, has already been viewed on YouTube over 24,000 times, which is an astonishing figure. Other clips available for download have such self explanatory titles as Tribute to Canadian Soldiers KIA in Afghanistan, and Canadian Ambushed and CF Dawn Raid on a Taliban Compound. Our troops may be motivated by esprit de corps, but clearly many Canadians are motivated by patriotism in their hunger for video of our deployed personnel and weaponry. Much helpful video sleuthing is being done by the thousands of members of another online community called MilitaryPhoto.Net. Its members inhabit most of the time zones, spotting and alerting each other within minutes of a good new video appearing on the net.

Of course the lighter side of war video is also a staple of YouTube. This genre includes many creative parodies of famous war movies. A few of those I have enjoyed include the cutesy Saving Private Lion and the extremely irreverent Apocalypse Now Recut - Fart of Darkness. I also found a buddy picture produced by a group of Swedish soldiers in a tank unit, who contributed a film called 9040 Bertil Down. It's their winter warfare parody (in Swedish) of Black Hawk Down. Unquestionably my favorite download of the year was and still remains, Alive In Joburg, Neill Blomkamp's hilarious spoof of Independence Day and the minefield of South African politics. Blomkamp is said to live here in Vancouver but his film, a sort of apprentice piece designed to showcase his CG talents, was distributed by Spy Films of Toronto. I actually get a higher quality download from the Google Video site, where it has enjoyed over 136,000 viewings, but several copies are available on the YouTube video jukebox. I seem to watch this film at least once a month because it's just such a hoot. Both movies deal with "alien" invasion. Nuff said!

V For VENDETTA - the two disc DVD

December 29, 2006

D.C. Comics tries to redact** our Popular Culture

It's much too late to review this film, but I was gifted the TwoDisc DVD set at Christmas, and my viewing impressions are still strong. I came away from V with the same distaste I get when I know someone is lying to my face, and thinks he is getting away with it. Though I am willing to give the movie a pass, Alan Moore - the writing side of the original British comic book team, disowned the film. He said in interview, "It's been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country." I see now why he was so upset. Moore is an honest creator, always giving credit where due. In discussing V's origins, the writer repeatedly acknowledged the heavy literary influence of the master political satirists Orwell, Huxley and others. He also understands that an audience hungers for metaphor and relishes the chance to catch the supporting allusions, just as much as we enjoy the creative genius of a new story idea. The Guy Fawkes premise was brilliantly conceived, although the original "guy", an angry Catholic conspirator, was motivated by revenge for religious persecution and not trying to trigger a political revolution. Alan Moore created V as a nihilistic terrorist, but the movie version of his superhero has V trying to foster resistance against an "illegitimate" government, the shrill cry of all Democratic Party activists in the America, including those in Hollywood, U.S.A.

V For Vendetta, the 26 episode comic book story, was conceived at the time Margaret Thatcher was elected to govern a country sliding into economic ruin and social chaos. Those electorally defeated in England writhed in fury, and denounced all reformist measures as heavy handed. They bitterly mourned the Nanny State which, as time revealed, was merely on vacation. (But it was Soviet propagandists who dubbed Maggie the "Iron Lady"). Alan Moore extrapolated a future in which a purely Fascist government is elected to power and then proceeds to crush all opposition with measures comparable to those George Orwell employed in his novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. The words Fascism or Big Brother are never uttered in this film, although both are constantly on display as plot devices and sterile imagery. It becomes painfully obvious that this film is "product" and the producers would not countenance reference to ANYTHING which they did not have copyrighted ownership, or at least a lucrative contract for product placement. Thus the movie rapidly begins to succumb to the ravaging effects that the "Branding" model of business imposes on film production.

The film does of course have qualities to enjoy and admire. The Hugo Weaving performance is very sound and because the mask forces the audience to listen , really listen, the actor was given intelligent dialogue to deliver. The rapid-fire alliterative sequence was great fun. I particularly liked the fact that we the audience are asked to challenge the media's packaging of daily events and political ideas. "Do you think people will buy this? Therein lies the rub, because the producers of this Two-Disc DVD are even more deceitful than the government controlled media V savages in the movie. Is it irony or just gall?

A case in point is England Prevails: V For Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics, a documentary which appears on the second disc. Joel Silver, with thirty years as a Producer and with almost a hundred films under his belt including the MATRIX trilogy, sets the tone. This was his statement about reading the original V source material. "It was the first time I was aware of the phrase Graphic Novel. I had never really heard that before." Ohhh Reeeallyyy?

This short film is a deceitful serving of tripe and it does NOT discuss any "new wave", creative or ideological. It does though demolish the carefully scripted P.R. campaign built around the production of the feature film. England Prevails does not reveal anything about the comics industry in England during the tenure of neo-Conservatism government so despised by Alan Moore. The film merely serves to showcase the role of D.C. Comics in bringing the Alan Moore/David Lloyd comic series to a larger American audience, and of publishing the missing "third act". It serves no other purpose. Only D.C. Comics magazine covers, spanning the Silver Age to the present, are exhibited. A few original B&W pages from England are shown, but not the British magazine they were published in. No other publishers, creators or comics characters are discussed. In true Orwellian style, Paul Levitz, the current D.C. Comics Publisher, dismisses the 1980s upstart publishers as "fragile" and describes how his company rescued British creative talent. In fact the message is abundantly clear - "D.C. Comics Prevails" and will long abide. Messrs Silver and Levitz forget that a literate movie audience is constantly searching for cultural references in the story. We do smell a crafty rat when the big screen is scrubbed by corporate cleansers, and we would never grant the media giants license to redact our popular culture.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sook-Yin Lee and SHORTBUS

Vol. 1, No. 1

This is actress Sook-Yin Lee approaching orgasm. It is a sweet and joyous image which won my undivided attention tonight. (I hope it does something for you too.) The photo was at the top of a movie review column in a Vancouver webzine called THE TYEE. I had already decided to start a Blog, but I was dithering on an inaugural topic.. Perhaps it was Sook-Yin’s open-mouthed expression of wonder and anticipation that held my attention. To be truthful I was also struck by her strong resemblance to someone I have enjoyed in bed. Many thoughts combined to enhance my pleasure with this arresting image. I did a quick Google search and learned that in the new film SHORTBUS, she plays a therapist who has long been denied an orgasm, auto or mutual. I hadn’t heard of the movie until now, but I learned from Box Office Mojo that SHORTBUS is actually doing well for itself. Bravo!I
I am a tad demanding in my movie preferences, and I rarely go to the Cineplex anymore. But I am now addicted to collecting DVDs, and I study film. I guess most people research carefully before making weekly selections. At least I do. With respect to leading ladies, young bimbos are always a turn-off, but Sook-Yin Lee is no young bimbo. My instant impression was that the lady is a “40-something’” and definitely older than the young fellows she performs onscreen with. MILFs are currently a strong fetish among North Americans of all races, and I was definitely intrigued. In my limited experience, Asian women usually tense their jaw approaching climax, rather than dropping it, and I am seldom persuaded by staged expressions of open-mouthed bliss. The expression of surprise is a staple of too many porno shoots, and it rarely convinces. Somehow I think this shot of Sook-Yin’s orgasm is the genuine article. At least I hope so for Madame Lee’s sake. “You can’t please everyone, so yah gotta please yourself.”

Recently I read an older Michael Posner book, CANADIAN DREAMS: The Making and Marketing of Independent Films (1993) which provided much food for thought. It is an engrossing, well researched and even-handed study. (Posner by the way, is currently working for the Globe and Mail in Toronto.) With his book still in mind I was tonight methodically searching for something worthwhile, and if possible Canadian, to purchase from That was when I spotted the review of SHORTBUS (2006), an independent film which managed to ignite a brushfire of media coverage earlier this year. Though set in New York, I believe it has Canadian funding and of course Sook-Yin in a starring role. The movie is promoted as a comedy, but it is also porn. The gist of what I read motivated me to further research the actress, and convinced me to buy the DVD when it is released in March 2007. The post-Christmas doldrums having descended, I must admit I was craving a brisk resuscitating whiff of Eau de Cinema. After just a few moments ogling this photograph, a delicious moment captured by a Panaflex camera, I was persuaded to Google her.

The Wikipedia page was bland, but the fact that she was raised in nearby North Vancouver, further whetted my appetite. The search disclosed that she was a high-school dropout, that she had endured a pedestrian childhood addicted to television, and that the all-girl Lee brood had watched their parents turn on each other. (I can certainly relate to that sort of childhood horror. I hope she was not beaten too much!) Perhaps Mom and Dad were themselves beaten down by life? Mother was a checkout girl at the local Safeway, but Dad’s profession she conceals. They divorced, but Sook-Yin had already hit the streets at the tender age of 15 years. Was she just another Vancouver street kid, with all the consequences that grim label implies? Oh, my! How did she survive?

Sook-Yin has discussed her first experiments with drugs and her first attempts to achieve orgasm. She is said to be bi-sexual, but so what? Perhaps she was a kindred spirit to the younger Evelyn Lau, essayist, poet and author of the 1989 bestselling autobiography RUNAWAY. Lau’s gritty memoir chronicles her teenage years as a bottom echelon Vancouver prostitute. She chose to sell her ass to the downtown lawyers and stock brokers rather than go back to a stifling home, but managed, through sheer strength of character, to save her soul by concentrating on writing and selling evocative poetry.

Sook-Yin’s first exposure to film making was a bit-part in a feminist film almost twenty years ago. It is all a bit vague but we know this lead to a break in 1990 when the National Film Board financed an 11 minute film in which she retold a quirky youth experience as a sidewalk shill for a Mr. Noodle Cafe. She dressed up as a 10 foot tall egg noodle. An NFB website refers to “her childhood in a white middle class suburb in the 1960s”, which was the Lynn Valley in North Van. She has claimed her parents fled wartime Hong Kong, which if true, makes her older than her pretty face indicates. (My guess is her age is mid-40s.) In a 2004 interview she recalled that her family life “exploded” when she was 14, a truly awful experience for any child. The fact that they were Roman Catholic Chinese, would have added twist and spice to the scenario. The teen chose to flee, “excommunicated” she says, crossing the Burrard Inlet to seek a new life among Vancouver’s symbiotic communities - the fringe band and fringe cinema crowd. Sook-Yin has never bemoaned the fact that she dropped out of high school. (She is far from unique in this. Our province still has a shameful high school drop-out rate.)

In truth Ms. Lee did very well for herself. Far better than most women who survived similar childhood misfortune. She soon found a spot as lead singer in the local band Bob’s Your Uncle, and parlayed her contacts into a career in radio. I have never heard her program but an audio clip archived on the Internet documents her very Canadian accent, with more than just a hint of Vancouver streets. When the CBC, her recent employer, gave Ms. Lee some heavy flak for accepting this role in SHORTBUS, her bread was well and truly buttered. Sook-Yin became a bit of a cause celebre, and the rest (may) become cinematic history. She now lives in Toronto’s trendy Kensington Market neighborhood and is said to be searching for investment capital to fund a feature film of her own. The proposal requires a $2 million budget. Good luck to her! Just in case, she is keeping her day job as On-Air radio talent in Toronto.

I did say that I rarely go out to screenings. I am though one of that new breed of obsessive film buff whom the studios are counting on for sustained profits. We may perhaps let the theatres owners go broke. Our preference is to enjoy our movie experience via customized home theatres, beavering away at building libraries of our favorite genres. From time to time I will share my film obsessions, concentrating on what motivates me in my quest to buy or sometimes boycott new stories on DVD. Everybody seems to be blogging these days, and who am I to distain the trend? A comment archived on IMDb claims this film is reminiscent of WAKING LIFE and CLERKS. That is a rather jarring juxtaposition, and I am sure I will not share that impression come March 2007.

And Oh Yes!, I did locate a recent interview in an American web-magazine called ECONOCULTURE in which Sook-Yin describes her long anticipated experience of masturbating for the camera. The helpful cinematographer had set up a special rig for the shoot, allowing director John Cameron Mitchell to hover nearby and (Ahem!) guide the actress through her performance. "John was in the bathroom directing me. I had some battery operated assistance but was feeling self-conscious, so eventually I had to ask John to leave the room too. I needed to do this in private. Having an orgasm in that context with a camera over my head was very different than having one alone in my bedroom at home. I was aware of the presence of the camera above me, so it was a different color. I realized I was alone, but I was aware of another presence.“

I am sure that immediately after having the opportunity to observe Sook-Yin Lee’s performance I will also enjoy updating this initial profile with a more detailed examination of the story and the cast of characters. By then I will have turned up fresh biographical information on this interesting Canadian actress. For those who simply cannot wait, a website called offers six of her best SHORTBUS sex scenes, which download without prompting. (Acting note - she tends to roll her eyes upward to indicate sexual bliss.) The sex gets very gymnastic at one point. There are also a few lovely screen captures of a distracted looking Sook-Yin abusing her battery operated buddy, on a website called Celebrity Movie Archive. (Just press BROWSE, choose the “L” page.) The videos are for entertainment, but if illegal movie downloads are your bag, then do enjoy. In the meantime here is a screen capture to keep us all bothered. [Explicit graphics restricted to original article here: ]

In the design of the German poster for the film, inter-racial sex is emphasized, as it was in the promotion at Cannes.