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Sunday, May 19

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4 of 5 stars
Directed by Neil Gaiman.
Starring John O'Mahony, Carlyn Backhouse, Marcus Brigstocke, Jonathan Ross and John Bolton.

When I heard Neil Gaiman was going to be directing his own adaptation of Death: The High Cost of Living soon (perhaps), I wasn't as thrilled as some of the other comic book readers I know. I'm a fan of his comics work like Sandman and Mr. Punch, and I've enjoyed both American Gods and Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett), but it's rare that a book writer makes the leap to the screen with any strong visual sensitivity. (Moolaadé's Ousmane Sembene is one exception to this rule.) Movies, like comics, are a visual medium. And it's the artist in comics, not the writer, who is most akin to the director of a film production -- which is why my reaction to frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean making the leap to directing feature film with the upcoming MirrorMask (also written by Gaiman) was far more enthusiastic. Of course, McKean had also directed a number of short films before it, though none of them are available on video yet, to my knowledge.

On the other hand, the upcoming Hellblazer adaptation (called Constantine) starring Keanu Reeves as the moody occultist, John Constantine, who is supposed to be blonde and British, looks like it will have some decent visuals. But it also looks like the film will be yet another instance of Hollywood buying the rights to a comic, changing absolutely everything and then releasing something that bears so little of a resemblance to the original concept that it's any wonder why they bothered to pay the licensing fees for such an obscure property. The fact that they changed the central character will alienate many of the relatively few people who cared that a Hellblazer film was being made, and nobody else has even heard of the character. At least the Death movie -- if it gets made -- will be more or less faithful to the character and her story, with its creator behind the camera.

A few months after I heard about the Death film, I heard that Neil Gaiman had taken a practice run at directing movies with a short film about occasional comics artist and fantasy painter John Bolton called, appropriately enough, A Short Film About John Bolton. I pre-ordered it immediately, nevermind that a documentary didn't really strike me as the ideal practice run for a film that, despite its low-key plot, is a fantasy, and that its subject was an artist whose work I generally do not find terribly interesting. Bolton has done some fine work, including one of the four chapters of Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic, but mostly his art just looks dead to me. I suppose this could be seen as appropriate for an artist with a penchant for painting "naked lady vampires," as Neil Gaiman calls them in one of the disc's extras. Bolton is undeniably very talented from a technical perspective, but it's not my cup of tea. At any rate, you can judge for yourself.

When the DVD arrived in the mail last week, I immediately popped it in without reading the back of the box, and started watching what I thought was going to be a straight, non-fiction short film. It wasn't very long before I started noticing the timing of the people on screen was, perhaps, just a bit too artificial to be a real documentary. The big giveaway was Carolyn Backhouse's gallery owner, whose response to the interviewer (Marcus Brigstocke) asking whether or not she owned any of Mr. Bolton's work was too perfect. Quickly enough, a grin settled onto my face, and I appreciated the rhythms of the story and its obvious, but certainly clever, conceit, which I won't give away except to describe the film as the bastard child of The Blair Witch Project and The Office, but with Neil Gaiman's indelible, dry wit stamped all over it.

So how does Gaiman fare as a director? Well, from a visual standpoint, that question remains to be answered. Like many mock documentaries, this is a "follow people around with a handheld" affair -- no breathtaking visuals to speak of at all -- but Gaiman has successfully translated the spot-on pacing and timing of his written word into the language of film. Those who have seen Gaiman read his work live (such as at the Chicago Humanities Festival last November) know that Gaiman is a wonderfully engaging storyteller, rivalling many of the best comedians I've seen, even though Gaiman is always trapped behind a podium for his readings. For those who haven't seen Gaiman read, this DVD has some bonus features you might even enjoy more than the half-hour film.

In addition to the main feature and "A Short Film About a Short Film About John Bolton," a ten-minute making-of featurette that's almost as funny as the main feature, there is an audio recording of "Drawn in Darkness," the short story written as the afterword to a collection of Bolton's work, which served as the springboard for the short film. More appealing, though, is a film of an October 2000 benefit performance for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund , which was previously available only on videotape from the Fund.

Although the film showcasing the performance has amateurish production values, the performance is a must-see for fans of Gaiman's more widely known work. It includes the author reading his sweetly amusing short story, "Chivalry," about an old woman who finds the Holy Grail in a pawn shop; an odd, crowd-pleasing poem about Martha Soukup; the hilarious pseudo-essay "Being an Experiment upon Strictly Scientific Lines Assisted By Unwins LTD, Wine Merchants (Uckfield)"; and another pair of short stories: "The Price" and "Locks," written for his daughter, about the importance of telling stories.

A Short Film About John Bolton is available from Amazon, but you should spend a few extra bucks and buy it directly from Docurama instead because they carry a lot of great documentaries that no other labels would. Or, if you promise to send the $5 difference to the American Red Cross, I'll let you buy it from Amazon.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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