The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXI – A Star Wars Story

Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.

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Bamboozled (2000) is a satirical look at race as it is portrayed on American television. Directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) and starring Damon Wayans, this pairing may make it difficult to find the tone of the movie. There are serious themes worthy of unpacking here, but the tone feels off. Sometimes it’s silly and almost clever and then the sledgehammer comes down along with heavy emotions. Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) pitches a blackface minstrel variety show to the network as a joke, but they love the idea and run with it. The most effective moments, in my opinion, feature the actors in the show going through the conflicting process of donning the dehumanizing makeup. Despite a clever premise and what feels like great potential for scathing satire and serious conversation, the movie is a bit of a dud.
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That’s Not Funny (2014) is a documentary about comedy and taboo topics directed by Mike Celestino. It talks about what offends and why and why it may not even matter. It’s a dry examination that works mainly because it’s so straightforward. For people already entrenched in the comedy world, it doesn’t offer much new insight, but for the casual comic observer maybe there’s more value in it.
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Train to Busan (2016) is a Korean zombie movie directed by Sang-Ho Yeon. It’s more of a sleek action movie than a bleak horror thriller. It hits a lot of familiar zombie movie markers, but setting it on the KTX (a train I have taken many times) from Seoul to Busan gave it a dose of novelty. It’s not a great zombie flick, but it has some fun moments and for people who don’t like their horror too moody, scary, or bloody Train to Busan might be a decent alternative. Dong-seok Ma (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) is easily the best part.
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Sausage Party (2016) is the story of food discovering the horrible truth about their destiny. Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon and written by Seth Rogen and company, this unrelentingly crass smorgasbord of Pixar and piety skewering satire boasts more creativity than it probably needed. There’s a lot of juvenile jokes, but also a satisfying adventure arc as well as a cute social commentary (spoiler alert: religions are just evolved permutations of old stories to find reason and hope in a horrifying universe and living in a world where Rick and Morty exist makes the satire here seem amateurish and trite). A bit obnoxious, but still funny and the animation is quite good. The Stephen Hawking character in the third act elevated the whole shebang for me.
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Off Limits (1988) is a buddy cop movie directed by Christopher Crowe. What sets this police investigation action thriller apart is that it’s set in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines star as McGriff and Albaby, two loose cannon military cops trying to uncover who’s murdering all the prostitutes with mixed race kids. It’s a bit of a trashy premise and an underwhelming revelation in the finale, but the middle bits have enough suspense, tough-guy talk, and memorable standoffs that it feels good revisiting this mostly forgotten buddy flick. Co-starring Fred Ward, Amanda Pays, Keith David, Scott Glenn, and David Alan Grier.
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True Lies (1994) is a classic action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron (Aliens). Although I had seen it on TV as a kid a few times, this was the first time I actually sat down to watch the whole thing. Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis in one of her most fun roles), a bored wife who thinks he’s a computer salesman. After learning the truth of her husband’s identity and a truly provocative striptease, the couple both become mixed up in a terrorist plot (headed by Art Malik). While I personally prefer the more sincere Schwarzenegger action movies (Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, Commando) than the winking parodies, this is honestly a lot more fun than Last Action Hero. The action set pieces are fun (horse in the elevator?) the film never takes itself terribly seriously. Tom Arnold is obnoxious, but the presence of Tia Carrere makes up for that maybe.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is a science fantasy adventure that takes place like 30 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and ends a few minutes before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) begins. But if you’re not a giant Star Wars nerd then I guess you could you say this is a wartime espionage adventure set in outer space.
OK. Because this is Star Wars and, like many of you, the original trilogy was a very important part of my formative years, I feel I should be slightly more in depth. I realize my tastes are fairly predictable. I love the original trilogy (Empire Strikes Back still being one of my favorite space movies), intensely dislike the prequels, and upon re-watching The Force Awakens sober, I’m not a fan (it looks great, but some of the awkward humor and acting choices along with the cloying nostalgia and the disquieting sense of the messy, convoluted script being composed by a committee checking off boxes sucks a lot of the fun out for me). That said, I basically enjoyed Rogue One. There’s stuff I hated too. Who knows what I’ll think if I see it again.
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Things I liked:
1. The cinematography and abundance of real props, sets, locations, etc. all serve to make the world feel real and lived in and steeped in a detailed and immense intergalactic history. The costumes and most of the puppets also look great (the squid guys are looking sillier and sillier though). This movie genuinely feels like an expansion of a familiar fictional universe.
2. It is different enough in tone and execution to make up for my qualms with Force Awakens being too similar. Even if not all of those choices work.
3. I liked the robot and the two Chinese guys. K-S20 (Alan Tudyk) gets the best lines and Chirrut Îmwe  (martial arts master, Donnie Yen, basically playing space Zatoichi) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) have a nice friendship (just about the only interesting relationship in the movie) and are kinda cool. Wish they had had more to do.
The story is reminiscent of WWII commando adventures. This ain’t exactly The Devil’s Brigade or Guns of Navarone, but it seems to come from that tradition. It’s just got great space battles too…which maybe makes up for a lot of the characters being rather tepid by comparison. Which brings me to my next segment.
Things I didn’t like:
1. The two main characters, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), look good but are rather flat in the personality department. This really killed the intended impact of the finale for me. The central figures should not be an emotional vacuum in a movie like this. The rest of the characters are sadly forgettable.
2. Some of the fan service nods to the other films are handled well, but there’s still a lot of awkward inclusions.
3. Possible spoiler: there are a couple characters from the original 1977 movie that make appearances, but due to old age or death they are performed by CG versions of the actors (or touched up original footage in the case of a few pilots). In each instance it is strikingly disorienting. The CG humans are finely rendered (we’ve come a long way since The Scorpion King), but their inclusion is dumfoundingly distracting and unnecessary. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory, and it feels super weird. It does, however, make me want to watch The Congress again.
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Darth Vader’s in it too and they make him scary again. It’s a big improvement over the whiny, pathetic prequel Anakins and his descendant, Kylo Ren. I just couldn’t remove the image from my head of an 85 year old James Earl Jones reading lines into a microphone in a gray, squishy room. But I’m weird and this is just how my brain works.
All things considered, Rogue One, while not stellar, is a ballsy Star Wars movie in a lot of ways. I like some of the freshness that Gareth Edwards was allowed to bring to it and admire some of the risks Disney took (not all). There’s a lot that just doesn’t work in this movie and it’s pretty emotionally dead, but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably enjoy it even with its imperfections. There’s a reason people hold this series to a high personal standard. Like them. Hate them. At this point, they are intrinsically designed to be over-analyzed and talked about forever. It’s annoying, but who doesn’t like to indulge just a little bit?
Also stars Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Genevieve O’Reilly, and Jimmy Smits.
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Swiss Army Man (2016) is a bromantic comedy about a hopeless misfit (Paul Dano) and a farting corpse with a penis that points north (Daniel Radcliffe). It was written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Although savagely surreal and whimsical, the movie creates a weirdly touching relationship between the two characters. The curiosity and innocence of the corpse causes Hank (Dano) to relive a lot of experiences and emotions and see much of his own life from a new perspective. As a surreal adventure comedy it works and as a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the nature of identity, it also somehow works. Check this one out.
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Arrival (2016) is a minimalist science fiction drama directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Amy Adams stars as the American linguist who figures out how to communicate with the enigmatic alien squid monsters. If you want a movie about boring old diplomacy then this is it. The central theme of the story is that communication takes time but it is time that must be given if the quest for understanding is a pure one. It also examines how language structures understanding of the physical world (and potentially our understanding of time itself). Gorgeously shot and thoughtfully acted. A highly recommended film. Also stars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
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A History of Violence (2005) is a modern noir directed by David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers). Viggo Mortensen (Return of the King) stars as a small town guy who becomes a local hero after he stops some bad dudes. This act, however, unleashes nothing but trouble for him and his family as aspects of his past are questioned and unearthed and more mob guys show up and begin harassing his family. Like all Cronenberg films, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The lead performances are quite good (Maria Bello is a standout as Mortensen’s wife). It’s a small, tightly told story with suspense and a few turns that genuinely surprised me. Also stars Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Stephen McHattie.
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True Romance (1993) is a crime drama about a comic store geek (Christian Slater) who marries a call girl (Patricia Arquette) and steals her pimp’s (Gary Oldman) cocaine. Written by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), this star packed thriller crackles with exciting dialogue, unpredictable encounters, and stylish directorial flourishes. It’s violent, funny, flashy, unapologetic, and damn good fun. I feel dumb for having not seen this one before. Don’t make my mistake! Co-starring Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, David Rapaport, and Samuel L. Jackson.
So what did you see recently?
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Brad Pitt in True Romance (1993)

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Star Whores and Other Space Oddities

1I love Star Wars (circa. 1977-1983). For all the grief we give George Lucas for the “Special Edition,” the prequels, TV spinoffs, etc, one cannot downplay how much influence the Star Wars films have had on culture and the art of filmmaking. Not only has Star Wars influenced subsequent science fiction flicks, it has also been copied quite a bit.

There are a few different approaches one can take when it comes to science fiction.

  1. You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
  2. You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
  3. You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
  4. You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
  5. You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
  6. You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
  7. Or (recognizing some of the childishness of space aliens, robots, and super-deluxe-hyper-warp-lightspeed) you can go all-out campy, flashy, trashy like Barbarella (1968).
  8. There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
You've probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

You’ve probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

After the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 there was a huge sci-fi craze. It seemed almost any movie could be made a better or more profitable movie with the institution of a well-placed spaceship. Movies like The Black Hole (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ice Pirates (1984), and Arena (1988) were cranked out by the bushel. Well, some of my personal favorite worst and also lesser known sci-fi movies made in the wake of the space craze are on my mind today so, naturally, I felt compelled to write about them.


First up is Saturn 3 (1980).

This film is actually a bit more of an Alien rip off. There are essentially only three characters and they are played by (check this out!) Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. Before I go any further I must tell you that this film is bad. Really bad. Almost not even so-bad-it’s-kinda-fun-bad. And another thing; I can’t help but feel like the title is even a little oddly derivative of Capricorn 1 (1977).

"I am Spartacus!"

“I am Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life) is Adam, an older guy who’s been stuck up on a surprisingly spacious and roomy space-base floating around Saturn. We also see him naked and, I gotta be honest, 20 years since Spartacus and the man is still in shape. Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run) is Alex, Adam’s blonde, leggy bed-buddy and his only companion. Together Adam and Eve Alex (I get it!) live quietly in space for no apparent reason (it’s something to do with the government or science or something), until the most evil and warped mind in the galaxy comes aboard. This evil and warped mind belongs to a man named Benson.

Seriously. Benson. Benson is the name of the bad guy. Well, actually he only kills a guy named Benson for some inexplicable reason and assumes his identity, but really now. Benson? Benson is a dim-witted manservant, not a malevolent space villain. Anyway, Benson is played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), but it gets better. Evidently the director was not altogether pleased by Mr. Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent and so he Keitel awkwardly dubbed by some other robot-sounding British guy (it reminded me of Andie McDowell’s awkward dubbing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).

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It’s the wacky space adventures of Benson the Sociopath and Hector the Murder-Robot!

Benson is revealed to be mentally imbalanced in the beginning of the film (because suspenselessness) and then, once aboard Saturn 3, he puts a giant suppository filled with brains into an 8-ft tall robot named Hector. He gives the robot his own thoughts and then tries to get in Alex’s pants with the most awkward space-future come-on lines since Demolition Man. Adam gets jealous and they talk about killing Benson because he is weird. Then the robot chops their pet dog in half and tries to rape Alex. The movie is a wreck and actually pretty boring despite the presence of a horny, rampaging robot. Saturn 3 also feels simultaneously unnecessarily dark and unintentionally silly. For instance, there is a scene where Hector, the robot, wears Harvey Keitel’s severed head as a hat as a disguise. A very, very bad disguise.


Next up it’s Starcrash (1978), also known as The Adventures of Stella Star. I actually love this movie. It’s near-nonstop mayhem in the same campy vein as Barbarella. But much, much cheaper.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

The incredibly hot Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) stars as the frequently scantily clad Stella Star—the only hope for the galaxy. This film is more blatant a rip off of Star Wars and it is oh-so-hokey.

Outer space looks like an awkward jumble of bad Christmas decorations hastily assembled by a one-eyed crazy person. Who knew the stars and galaxies were so vibrant and psychedelic? The special effects for the spaceships are actually pretty decent, but again, the colors are more akin to a pinball machine that has lost its mind. The malevolent Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is the bad guy and his hairdo does for evil exactly whatever the name Benson did for evil. He also has his own version of the Death Star, except his is in the shape of a big, evil robot hand that clutches into a fist when it goes into attack mode.

No one messes with the do!

No one messes with the do!

There is also an extremely sexually ambiguous sidekick for Stella. His name is Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and he apparently has a new and incredibly convenient super power in each instance of peril. He bravely dies sword-fighting a stop-motion robot when his arm gets grazed and briefly caught on fire. The film also has a bald green dude, and a good robot with a Texas accent (half the film I just wanted to give him a ten-gallon hat to go with his Dr. Phil-esque homespun aphorisms). Starcrash also boasts  lightsabers and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). The costumes are great and I couldn’t help but notice the recurring use of arrows on helmets seemingly pointing to the face of the wearer, and on belt buckles pointing to the crotch.

The movie is crazy and the plot is on crack. We go from an outer space battle to a strange planet to a space jail to the jungle and back into space and then on to another planet with cavemen or amazons and giant robots in like 4 minutes. It’s like the first 60 seconds of the Power Rangers pilot. The film does slow down occasionally. . . for overly long spaceship docking scenes. What you eventually learn is that the film is strategically conditioning you to not care about the characters so you won’t be mad when new characters are randomly introduced and old ones go away or return without rhyme or reason.

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: "Don't worry. I'll live forever."

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: “Don’t worry. I’ll live forever.”

The best part of this movie? It’s a tie between Caroline Munro’s outfits (she dresses like Vampirella) and the great Christopher Plummer’s (The Sound of Music) emotionally detached and disenfranchised line deliveries. You can actually see it in his regretful eyes how much he hates that he’s in this movie. All around the movie is awesomely bad and I highly recommend this frenetically-paced, sexist light show. It’s a great bit of 70′s Italian schlock.


Last and most certainly least is The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is known in its home country, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or as it is most commonly referred to, Turkish Star Wars (1982).

*not Darth Vader

*not Darth Vader

Every time somebody mentions the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) I fire back with Turkish Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so bad it makes you wonder how there was a successful franchise afterward.  Turkish Star Wars is so bad it makes you wonder why God has not destroyed humanity yet. Seriously, have the people who made this ever seen a movie before? It is film heresy. The whole spectacle is a noisy, raucous, incoherent Frankenstein mess of a film. It is a mind-boggling artistic travesty on all fronts. AND I LOVE IT!!!

*not racist

*not racist

A guy and his best pal (Murat and Ali) crash land on an alien desert planet and they meet an impoverished, rock-dwelling civilization that is tormented by a big, nasty, beardy space bad guy, who allegedly is a centuries old wizard who needs a human brain so he can understand stuff and conquer the universe. The two guys decide to help the people and proceed to fight the worst excuses for robots and aliens you will ever see. Toilet-paper mummies, dusty zombies, rubber robots, dudes in skeleton outfits, and great big orange stuffed animals, and even racist-looking (African, Asian, and possibly Jewish or maybe Armenian—it’s Turkey, after all) rubber mask baddies, are only the half of it.

The love story between Murat and woman-who’s-name-escapes-me is also great. You see, occasionally jarringly softer music will play and we get reverse closeups of their eyes as they longingly/indifferently gaze at each other while performing mundane space activities. This unprecedented and clashing change of pace denotes romantic interest. Understand?

*not forced romance

*not awkwardly forced romance based solely on the fact that she is maybe blonde

I’d be kidding if I said I could explain the rest of the plot of this weird movie. There are mentions of the virtues of humanity and the human brain as the key to all things (something the filmmakers ironically refused to use for the production of Turkish Star Wars), and vague references to Islam and other things, but the story is so convoluted and poorly executed that it hardly matters. One minute our protagonists are fighting monsters, the next minute they’re in space jail, then the bad guy has monsters slaughter a cave full of frightened orphan children and he proceeds to drink their blood through a crazy straw, then Murat is wielding a giant, golden Final Fantasy sword [made of cardboard] and melting it in a huge vat and then thrusting his bare fists into the molten gold only to have them emerge with clunky gold space mittens on. Seriously. Tone! You can’t murder children in a film like this. It’s like the naked suicide in Endhiran.

*not more realistic than Rocky

*not more realistic than Rocky

One particularly memorable sequence is the training montage where Murat ties boulders to his ankles and goes jogging and then works his fist muscles by slapping big rocks. Instead of the Force, Murat has the amazing power to jump kinda high and karate chop things in half (boulders, stuffed animal monsters, robot heads, *SPOILER ALERT* the bad guy…except that they just black out half the screen and show him on the ground with his eyes closed, and in doing the same for the other half—to truly indicate the pure in-halfedness of our antagonist—the filmmakers also accidentally reveal that both halves apparently have full noses, but I digress). The finale is a jarring, headache-inducing mélange of so much incoherent violence, jumping, and explosions that you will be fighting—and fighting hard—your body’s urge to roll your eyes back in your head and halt all blood-flow to the brain. It’s like Vogon poetry really. Your welcome, Douglas Adams fans.

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

The absolute best part of Turkish Star Wars is how it is edited. I know that sounds nerdy, but let me explain. Not only does nothing make sense, but the film is notorious for ripping actual stolen footage from the real Star Wars—and several other fantasy movies and even a few newsreels—and splicing them into the movie. And the transfers are just terrible, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Best of all, they do it at inappropriate times. For example, to show space travel they film a character with a stupid hat moving a wheel while scenes from the assault on the Death Star play behind him (except the real Star Wars footage keeps cutting to other shots so the backgrounds don’t make any sense). The music is also stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bunch of other popular movies as well.

If this movie weren’t so wonderfully, miserably bad  and hysterically inept it would have been facing an arsenal of lawsuits. People say I’m crazy, but I have actually watched this wretched film at least 5 times. It takes a certain constitution to enjoy bad movies like this. Turkish Star Wars is really more of an endurance test than a film. Are you ready for the challenge?

*not evil stuffed animals

*not evil stuffed animals


There you have it. Saturn 3 you might as well skip as it is the most boring and unimaginative of them all, but it does have a stupid enough plot to keep you with it and the Keitel dub is wondawful. Starcrash is awesome trash and you definitely should see it for Munro’s body and Plummer’s face. Turkish Star Wars you can watch, but this one comes with a warning: it is disorientingly bad and you may not be able to readily relate to people immediately after a viewing, but for Troll 2 and Birdemic fans I must insist you try. At least it’s not After Last Season.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 25, 2011.

Me, Myself, and CGI

moon trip

A Trip to the Moon (1902)—man in makeup, painted glass.

Special effects have been a part of film since the very beginning. The very idea of organizing a series of slightly different images and playing them in quick succession to establish the illusion of movement in the eye of the viewer is in itself something of a special effect. Eadweard Muybridge*, you sly dog, you.

Film is merely still pictures dancing through time and it still fools us. French magician and film pioneer, Georges Melies, took the medium a step further. Let’s play further tricks on the audience’s mind, he thought. His early films featured expanding body parts, human disintegration, dancing specters, explosions, and much imagination. Melies’ most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902), inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, features one of the most iconic screen images: that of a rocketship wedged in the eye of the man in the moon. This image, although considered crudely realized to some by today’s standards, is still a magical special effect and gets the fantastical point across loud and clear.

metropolis

Metropolis (1927)—huge miniatures and impressive sets to match.

J. Stuart Blackton is credited as being one of the first people to use stop-motion animation special effects, using the technique as early as 1898.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)---composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)—composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

To conjure the extinct relics of eons past, stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien used tiny figures to create the gargantuan prehistoric terrors of The Lost World (1925) and the infamous beasts and creatures from King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).  Ray Harryhausen would become one of the most famous and prolific of all stop-motion effects maestros of the 20th century, with credits including 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961),  Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the Sinbad adventure movies. Other effects teams would use puppets, or men in suits, or (the oddest of all) real lizards with bonnets and spikes glued to their bodies to create dinosaurs and monsters from other worlds. Irwin Allen must have been on something.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (1953)—miniatures and animated lasers.

Before the advent of computerized special effects technology, earth was invaded by flying saucers; Godzilla stomped Tokyo; the thief of Bagdad rode a flying carpet, was aided by a monstrous djini, and fought a giant spider; Darth Vader dominated the galaxy only to be defeated by Luke Skywalker and the rebel alliance; blade runners pursued replicants; archaeologist, Indiana Jones, battled

Baron Prasil (1961)

Baron Prasil (1961)—hyper-stylized mixture of live-action, puppets, composite shots, in-camera tricks, stop-motion, and matte paintings.

Nazis and supernatural relics; Robbie the Robot made beer; Kubrick showed us the year 2001; Moses parted the Red Sea (twice!); E.T. got stranded on earth; Marty McFly went back to the future; Linda Blair did neck twists; Ben-Hur entered a magnificent chariot race (also twice!); the Ghostbusters got steady slime sleuthing work; Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life; Fritz Lang built a Metropolis; a murderous alien held a small group hostage in the north pole (twice!); Roger Rabbit shook Eddie Valiant’s hand; we journeyed 20,000 leagues under the sea (at least twice); the Blues Brothers crashed hundreds of cop cars; and Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did their own stunts. Everything had to be carefully thought out and done and you knew a lot of thought went into it. There was no magic bullet to answer all the problems of how to achieve the impossible on screen. Before CGI if you saw it on screen you knew it was real somewhere. Perhaps smaller, perhaps less shiny in real life, but something occupied real space. Probably still in some freaky prophouse.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)—guy in suit.

One of my grievances with the overuse of computer-generated special effects is just that: overuse.  It seems to create this shortcut to the magic and for me the magic has rarely been more convincing this new way. Shortcuts are not in themselves bad, but they can be used too much. So many films to come out in the past few decades seemed to be leaning a little too much on this readily available tool. Stephen Sommers’ movies like The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004) and Michael

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—miniatures and composite shots and maybe backlighting.

Bay’s Transformers movies (2007, 2009, 2011) are exhausting to watch. Too much wispy, plastic, pristine CGI crammed into the seams. Maybe Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) worked a little bit better because we weren’t always focused on them and there were enough scale models and interesting characters to pull us in. But then think on the suspenseless cartooniness of The Hobbit (2013, 2014 so far) movies. The CG is better, but now it’s used even more than in The Lord of the Rings movies. I don’t know about you, but too much special effects sucks me out of the action.

Legend (1985)---makeup and prosthetics.

Legend (1985)—makeup and prosthetics.

In addition to just being poorly written, acted, directed, etc. the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005) are overloaded with CGI special effects. My brain can’t take it all at once. I remember watching Episode I in the theaters and just being baffled at why Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon. It seems there’s just less imagination when all of the questions can be answered by computers. It’s convenient one-stop shopping and that means any bozo can get at the goodies. Which is not to say that the artists behind the new trends are less gifted. The best in the business, like always, are spectacular treasures to be celebrated.

Older techniques were used sparingly and had to be incorporated more innovatively because they were expensive, difficult, and sometimes might not always be convincing. Had they been cheaper and overused and overstuffed then perhaps we would see them in the same light as we do bombastic CGI overuse.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)—no special effect. Actually dragged a ferry over a mountain in the jungle.

Perhaps my biggest grievance from the latest special effects trend is that CGI has eclipsed so many other means to create the illusions I love. I miss matte paintings, backlighting, stop-motion, and puppets. I’m not the biggest fan of Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), but imagine if all the creatures were CG. I couldn’t imagine it being nearly as creepy or gritty. Imagine Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) the same way. If Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1985) were made today you can bet they wouldn’t build a real boat and drag over a mountain (probably less people would have died too). And you can forget Akira Kurosawa’s torching of an entire castle set for Ran (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky burning down a house twice for The Sacrifice (1986).

Safety Last (192

Safety Last (1923)—no special effect. Trick angle and safety mattress out of frame.

Why did Lucas feel the need to make a Star Wars: Special Edition (which, you may notice, highlights some extremely poorly aged CGI special effects juxtaposed with the old puppets and prosthetics that still look pretty great today)? And why did Spielberg screw around with E.T. by injecting the already wonderfully expressive face with cartoonish CG “enhancements?” I’m with Quentin Tarantino on this one: CGI car crashes are boring and ugly. Where’s the grit? I like grit in my movies. I love the asymmetry and dirt and dimension. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) blows Time Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) out of the water (though that probably wasn’t too hard). CGI may be cheaper and easier, but it’s less fun to look at for me personally. Maybe it is simply a love affair for glorious expensive excess on my part, but if it is excess they wish to throw at me I’d like it to at least be real and have true substance. That’s what I’m paying for.

Maybe it’s me but I just could not find the appeal of Avatar (2009).

Empire Strikes Back (1980)---miniatures and stop-motion.

Empire Strikes Back (1980)—miniatures and stop-motion.

It all really boils down to personal preference, I guess. CGI very often looks cartoony to me. I feel more detached by the illusion because I just know that deep down nothing happened. When a digital spaceship blows up there’s nothing for me to cling to. When a three-dimensional model of a spaceship blows up it’s thrilling to me because something that had actual matter has been destroyed (and my brain knows the difference). I like the character and texture of the older special effects. It’s purely an aesthetic choice, but film is about aesthetics.

Jason and the Argonauts (19)---stop-motion miniatures composite.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—stop-motion miniatures composite.

In the end all special effects do the same thing. They try to fool us into believing the impossible but today’s cynical audience isn’t fooled by any process. We will always know when it’s fake. A CGI Godzilla or King Kong doesn’t fool me more than a rubber suit or stop-motion miniature…yet I admire the pioneering craft more in the old-fashioned processes. Some have told me that “old” special effects are dated and cheesy. This can be the case sometimes, but bad puppets and prosthetics can be charming. Bad CGI doesn’t hold that same charm for me. The creatures manufactured through special effects (CG or otherwise) are never going to trick us into believing they’re real off the screen. But something from the Jim Henson’s workshop has a rather unique mystique in that it might still be around but dormant in some old warehouse and the creatures from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) are simply confined to some digital space on several computers. Return of the Jedi’s (1983) Rancor and the giant scorpion from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) seem more real and interesting to me than most of the digital monsters thrown at audiences today.

Hausu (1977)---composites, animations, etc.

Hausu (1977)—composites, animations, etc.

It’s not that I’m against technological progress (entirely), but I do think it might be appropriate to question it and reminisce on the magical times shared between traditional effects. When Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) came out, people were dazzled by the stained-glass window knight that sprung to life because of CGI. Jurassic Park (1993) works splendidly as it is, combining digital effects with life-size animatronics, but that was back when CGI was new and exciting and used sparingly to fill in the gaps that would be too difficult to produce another way. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) and Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994) worked great too but today CGI can come off as a bit of a cheap crutch and its novelty is gone. . . for me at least. Imagine if Burton’s Wonderland was made with every digital character done via stop-motion (this was what a lot of us thought it was going to be a few years back). It’s a personal preference, but the aesthetic of CGI sometimes runs the risk of being flat and boring. I don’t like my movies to look like video games. I like it more real and present. Remember, for every filmmaker who utilizes the latest technologies afforded to him with cunning and craft there are countless hacks who butcher the blessings and produce lackluster products with meaningless, artless piffle.

Jurassic Park (1993)---large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Jurassic Park (1993)—large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Consider this: the original Clash of the Titans (1981) feels personal like classic Ray Harryhausen whereas the 2010 remake looks and feels like every recent bad overblown Hollywood special effects extravaganza.

I don’t hate CGI. I think there are plenty of times when it is effective and cool, but as it becomes cheaper and more accessible I see more and more of it and the spectacle it once was is no more. It’s ho-hum and standard now. A lot of new films have become visually boring because of their over-reliance on CGI. And special effects should never be boring.

The Two Towers (2002)---CGI

The Two Towers (2002)—CGI

We will never have the time back when movie magic was largely a mystery. Studios used to be cagey and not like to reveal how the illusions were done. Now every movie comes with at least a few documentaries on how it was all done. Jaws (1975) may be a clunky robot shark, but we get that it’s a big, scary shark and that’s all the film needs it to do. A CG shark could be just as distracting (consider 1999′s Deep Blue Sea). Would Spartacus’ army be more believable as a CGI onslaught or as flesh and blood actors as they are in the 1960 film?

Is it bad to know how the trick is done? No. Not if your a magician. But the audience likes to be fooled. They like to keep guessing and looking for the seams. At least I do.

Lost in Space (1998)---CGI

Lost in Space (1998)—CGI

What do other people think? I’m curious. Am I just too old-fashioned and finicky for my own good? What movies get you? What are some of your favorite movie special effects?

[update] Here’s an interesting effects reel for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Mixes a few different techniques quite effectively, I think.  http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/watch-impressive-vfx-reel-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-20140428

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 5, 2010.

The Hulabaloo About Star Wars

A million other nerds have voiced their opinions, so why not I? Why not indeed.

I am nothing special (but you don’t really believe that). I grew up watching Star Wars and it has influenced my life very much, just like a lot of you folks. Our old VHS’s and taped off o’ television copies bear their wear-marks well. As a young boy obsessed with dinosaurs, monsters, robots, aliens, outer space, and, of course, ‘splosions, the Star Wars trilogy was a childhood wet-dream come true. It had it all and I loved it. I remember when the ‘special’ edition hit theaters. I saw them all, so happy to see my favorite characters all pristine and new like I had never seen before. I remember puzzling about some strikingly odd additions to the so-called ‘special’ edition. It featured some wonky and flat CGI. George Lucas may have given birth to modern special effects and all that, but us kids who had already seen Jurassic Park (not to mention the original theatrical releases of Star Wars) required a bit more by the time of the mid-90s. The ‘bonus’ effects by and large did not mesh well, but it was still Star Wars and I ate it up with a spoon, I did.

Then the infamous prequels started to hit theaters. We were initially baffled by the name, I admit. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Huh. That’s a tough double-m, but we were sure George Lucas knew what he was doing. Besides many of us had been waiting since before we were born for this momentous event. Anybody else remember hearing hushed murmurs that it sucked before it officially came out? My old school librarian was somehow always in the know of every new thing and she tipped us off. She must have read a lot or something.

But we all saw it anyway, didn’t we?

Remember that chill that shot straight down your spine to your feet and then bounced all the way back up to your brain along with all the blood in your body causing you to momentarily lose consciousness when that first brass blast of the unmistakable John Williams fanfare erupted in the dark theater? It was awesome. Remember when you started to read the little spiel before the movie and thinking to yourself, “am I gonna be smart enough for this? What’s all this stuff about embargoes and Trade Federations and oil tariffs and 27B-6’s?” Remember being distracted by how shallow and plastic everything looked and how easy it all was for a jedi to fight an onslaught of death robots? Remember that big battle between those incompetent battle pez-dispensers and those clumsy salamander-rabbits on Naboo? Remember that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach you got when a terrible little boy cheered lines like “yippee!” and “now this is pod-racing”?

I was a kid but I recall wondering why George Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon out of it if it was all going to be so devoid of actual people. George Lucas once said, “special effects are just a tool used to tell a story.” This is true, but a stapler is also still a tool even after I use it to staple a bunch of babies right their little unsuspecting eyes. Just saying. This tool is being wielded by a madman.

Was this Star Wars? How could it be? Well, there are spaceships and they did have light-sabers and Yoda and R2-D2 and all that. Remember how you kept kidding yourself by saying, “It wasn’t all bad…the pod-race scene was pretty cool.” Then remember when you remembered the chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959)? Much has been already expressed in regards to all that was wrong with Jedi the Menace and the other two movies that would inevitably follow (my favorite commentaries coming from the crudely articulate rebuttals of Mr. Plinkett at Red Letter Media).

We the people can ignore these sci-fi hokum shows. They were cheap baby pablum and we adults can ignore them. We can pretend like they never even happened. There remains still a snag, however. With our pure VHS copies of the original theatrical releases becoming grainy and dingy, when then can we turn to DVD or blu-ray?

The DVDs all feature the ‘special edition’ stuff.

The upcoming blu-ray incorporates the ‘special edition’ garbage as well as some other new alterations and additions. You may have heard tell of the Darth Vader “Noooooo!” but there’s a few other things too.

I am still waiting on those original theatrical releases (WITHOUT THE OPTIONAL ‘SEPCIAL EDITION’ HOOEY) to be on DVD. The thing is I can usually good at recognizing a marketing ploy when I see one. Peter Jackson releases the theatrical and extended versions to Lord of the Rings and King Kong separately and it makes sense. You get to sell more product and it goes to whoever prefers which ever version. I wonder where the extended cut of Meet the Feebles is. George Lucas is a bazillionaire and he’s a littler harder to read. He may be a shrewd businessman, but I seriously question whether or not he does indeed ever intend to make available the original theatrical releases alone to an upgraded form. I think Mr. Lucas is actually embarrassed for his original creations.

I know I speak for many many purists and fans when I say; do not be ashamed of the original Star Wars, Mr. Lucas. We love it. So maybe it’s not shiny and streamlined and maybe you don’t feel comfortable with that one angle in that one scene or maybe there’s an edit in there that bothers you. Films are not made to be perfect. They are time capsules that can transport us to other worlds and other times. Tinker if you must, but let us celebrate the memories we cherished most of all.

It’s a hard fact. An artist is almost never happy with his work. But this doesn’t mean it’s no good. A sign of a real artist is to know when to stop. When the painter restrains himself from making one more brush stroke he becomes the artist. I suppose all this is moot because George Lucas is a businessman and not really an artist. Why did he put those cartoon monkeys in at the end of THX-1138 special edition?! I’m not an idealist over-romanticizing my experiences with the original trilogy, I just know what worked and what I like.

Ah, well. Still no true DVD. The coming blu-ray looks to be a sham. Now who wants to bet the re-re-release of Star Wars (this time in wretched, wretched, oh-so-wretched 3D) won’t be the special edition? Maybe someday after George Lucas is dead us fans can finally get the real movie.