Sunday, April 22, 2012

So, in 2007, my buddy Marty Langford calls me to see if a friend of his could shoot some footage for a movie he was making in our office since a newspaper was one of the key settings in the film.

I asked my boss who said , "Yes," especially after he learn the star of the film was Corbin Bernsen, the busy and popular star of television shows and a number of films.

I was very happy that, even though I wasn't on film as an extra, my office was cast as belonging to Corbin's character, a reporter in the Kolchak mold. I was even happier that the daughter of the late Darren McGavin was working on the film and sat down to speak with me about her father. She liked the fact I had a copy of the famous "leg lamp" on my desk.

Film-making isn't terribly glamourous. I've been on two sets and indeed there is a tremendous amount of time devoted to setting up a shot that lasts on screen for seconds. Still, as a film guy, both visits have been fun and very informative.

So now, years letter, I had the chance of seeing a completed cut of the film at the Bing Arts Center here in town. Now called "Hellbeast: The Ascension," the film is actually of combination of footage shot by producer and director Bob Stock did known as "Angel's Blade" with the footage he shot with Bernsen.

It was the first American screening of the film, as Stock has made only foreign sales of it.

Let me first present the material I wrote at the time of the shoot and then I'll offer a little review.

Corbin Bernsen sits in my editor's chair as William Gove, the director of photography and Bob Stock (back to camera) lines up a shot in my office.

EAST LONGMEADOW It's mid-way through Wednesday afternoon and actor Corbin Bernsen is walking up and down an aisle through the cubicles at Reminder Publications' office saying the same line over and over.

Bernsen strides down the aisle, looks into the camera in the cubicle and delivers the simple line, "Thank you very much, Sarah" about nine different times. Each one is a different reading of the line.

It's slightly surreal to have a well known actor a long stint on "L.A. Law," films such as "Major League" and currently a co-star on the USA Network show "Psych" filming in your office, much less hanging out and munching on donuts.

Bernsen is the star of the new film "Angel's Blade 2: The Ascension," written, directed and produced by Robert Stock of Granby. A day of shooting needed to be at a newspaper office since Bernsen's character is an investigative reporter caught up in a story of the paranormal.

Stock's crew took over the East Longmeadow offices for a day, much to the delight of the staff of Reminder Publications. Autographed photos of Bernsen decorate many cubicles.

Stock is a computer animator and games designer who produced, wrote and directed "Angel's Blade," a horror film set in both the present day and the 19th century over a year ago. He did a test screening of the film in a Long Island theater and is revising and augmenting some of the film's special effects.

Stock is co-producing the second film with Angel Light Pictures and, unlike the first film, has a name actor in a pivotal role. Bernsen's role is a loving homage to "Carl Kolchak," the character created by the late Darren McGavin in the highly popular "Nightstalker" movies and television series from the 1970s.

An interesting coincidence is that McGavin's daughter, Graemm, is the film's line producer. She also has a small role in the film.

This writer was heartened that his messy, artifact-strewn office was deemed "funky" by the crew and became the home for Bernsen's character.

Tony Timpone, the editor of "Fangoria Magazine" the bible for horror film fans was also here for the role of Bernsen's boss at the newspaper. It was a smart casting move, as that will insure Stock receives coverage for his film in the national magazine.

The film has a four-week shooting schedule and only had Bernsen for three days, so all of his scenes had to be shot as efficiently as possible.

Those who think filmmaking must be glamorous might be surprised at the Spartan world of the independent production. A crew of less than ten people set up the cameras and sound. Digital films gives greater flexibility with lighting and no lights were set up for the scenes.

Fueled by donuts and coffee in the morning, the crew's lunch break was to eat sandwiches from Romito's Deli while standing up. The production rented a RV for a dressing room.

The simplest of scenes requires multiple takes to make sure the sound, image and the performance are all optimal.

For a performer who has been in a variety of productions, Bernsen seemed right at home shooting a low-budget horror film in Western Massachusetts.

"I'm very much into the indie world," he said during a break.

Despite his status, Bernsen never pulls rank or complains. Crew members talk among themselves about how he is bringing so much value to the production.

If he likes a script and he can do the role, he'll consider it, he explained. Bernsen said he was pleased he could do this film as he was on the east coast dropping his son off at the University of Connecticut.

Bernsen likened his job to that of a carpenter. "Sometimes you work on castles and sometimes on outhouses," he said.

And, he added, sometimes it's a crumby castle and a great outhouse.

"If you're an actor, you act," he said.

What he likes about independent films is they have "more soul."

"They're all heart, all passion," he added.

Because he came to prominence on a hit television show, "L.A. Law," Bernsen admitted to having a problem years ago with his career not reaching a higher level. He said that as his career grew, he loved it.

He has formed his own company and is producing his own independent films. One is completed and is available on DVD, "Carpool Guy," while two others, "Donna on Demand" and "Dead Air," are in various stages of production.

Bernsen directed "Carpool Guy," which is a comedy starring ten soap opera actors in roles very different than those they play on television.

He said he loves directing and producing, but "it's a lot of work."

Although he said that beginning a directing career in his fifties requires a lot of energy, his experience in the industry has given him knowledge that younger persons might not have.

He said with a smile that directing has given him the same kind of thrill he received when he first discovered sex just the kind of remark his Arnie Becker character might make.

About a year later, Marty told me that Stock was bringing Bernsen back out for one day's worth of pick-up shots. I hung out for a while at Stock's home and studio in Granby and watched Stock direct a series of close-up and reactions shots to special effects that would be added later. Bernsen proved once more to a good-natured professional.

Drivers along West Street in Granby on Oct. 13 had no idea that behind a stockade fence film director and producer Bob Stock was shooting some additional footage for his movie "Angel's Blade 2" with its star Corbin Bernsen. Stock had completed principal photography last summer, but needed some more scenes with Bernsen for the final narrative.

For a low-budget – under $200,000 – film, "Hellbeast: The Ascension" actually has a number of features that makes it a cut above the indie horror pack.

Not the least of those features is an attractive and competent cast headed by Bernsen, who did as much with the role as he could.

The CGI special effects ranged from being acceptable to a little clunky and technical features such as editing, set dressing and locations were quite good.

And like any low-budget horror film, the movie features some gore and one scene of nudity.

The problem with the film was the script, which Stock said had been re-written several times during the stages of production. Multiple scenes had been shot and cut, along with characters, he said at the screening.

The result is a narrative that goes from one plot point to another with varying degrees of smoothness and logic. There are gaps in the film's story that one is asked to accept and the end of the film made very little sense. A filmmaker can only do so much in editing and adding narrative devices, though, if the the story on paper really hasn't been established.

The film opens with Bernsen having a drink a bar, when approached by a woman clearly trying to pick him up. He recounts the events of the previous week in which he had discovered that an 19th century explorer had opened up a Mayan entry point into another world through which two evil demigods had made the trip to our world. They had to take the lives of four people through suicide and then take another four before they could establish themselves as the rulers of this world.

Apparently though a young bearded man wearing a "Jesus Saves" t-shirt had also come through the portal to fight these beings.

Bernsen's reporter character finds himself in the middle of these events when he investigates the four suicides.

I think what Stock certainly proved is there is plenty of local production talent here in Western Massachusetts as well as a wealth of interesting locations – two of my favorite Springfield institutions, Smith's Billiards and Theodore's, are prominently featured. With the right script, a low-budget film can get some additional luster when shot in an off,off Hollywood location such as here.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, April 01, 2012

With Sgt. Mike

Perhaps the reason I saved a bunch of "With Sgt. Mike" cartoons, is the my father served in Vietnam. A career Air Force officer, it was his final tour of duty as the commander of a unit at Bien Hoa maintaining helicopters.

Today I'm glad that in 1968 and 1969 I clipped the cartoons from, I believe, the Holyoke Transcript.

I believe, although I certainly could be wrong, that "With Sgt. Mike" was the last nationally syndicated comic strip that was created to comment on a specific war and on the condition of American troops in that war.

Service comedy is a signifiant genre in American popular culture. Think of movies such as "Buck Privates," comic strips such as "Beetle Bailey" and television shows such as Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko," "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." The bureaucracy of the military, the questioning of authority and the peace-time missions that spawned behaviors out of boredom have all been basis for comedy.

Shows or movies that adds the real issues of war into the comic stew are tricker propositions. A show such as "M.A.S.H." certainly proved that it could be done.

"With Sgt. Mike" had far less polish than a "Beetle Bailey," but far more soul. The cartoonist, Michael T. Hodgson, was a Marine who served in Vietnam. This is all I know about him. His work was definitely in the tradition of "Willie and Joe" and "Sad Sack."

The tone of his work is pretty black, but he pulls it off because he is writing from experience. He successfully conveyed the ambiguity of the troop's feeling: they wanted to complete the mission, even if they question it.

What fascinates me today is how much of his humor is applicable to what American troops are experiencing now in the longest conflict in the nation's history.

Who was or, hopefully is, Mike Hodgson? I've not been able to dig up much information. The cartoons were collected in one volume published in 1970 and copies can be found on eBay.

Any information would be appreciated.

as fascinated