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.
Awhile back I wrote about the animated movies you didn’t see I suggested you check out Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocleot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008)—all absolutely wonderful films. You may notice I write a lot about animated movies. Animation is near and dear to my heart and when it sneaks up and surprises me it is all the more precious. Today I have four more suggestions of animated films you might have missed and I strongly encourage you to check them out, and they are Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin (1975), Marcell Jankovic’s psychedelic Son of the White Mare (1981), John Korty’s screwy Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Will Vinton’s peculiar exploration into The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). . . Get ready. Things are about to get weird.
Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic) is like an X-rated Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). Both are ambitious little animation rebels that seem to have trouble finding mainstream success and consistency, yet you gotta applaud their work even when they miss. Bakshi is the man responsible for strange efforts like Wizards (rather dated), Fire and Ice (an unfortunate misfire that tries to replicate the artwork of Frank Frazetta in fully animated environments), Fritz the Cat (based on the comic by Robert Crumb who apparently hated the film), the animated Lord of the Rings (not bad), American Pop (a mess, but I liked it), and Cool World (there’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s such a shambles let’s just move on). I have to set the stage for Coonskin because only Bakshi could pull it off…or even try. He’s always done things a little differently and he’s never shied away from, shall we say, intensity. Coonskin (aka Street Fight aka Bustin’ Out aka Harlem Nights aka Coonskin No More) is the story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as you have never seen them before.* Scatman Crothers (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) sets the mood with a catchy little number called “Ah’m a Nigger Man” (already you can see the controversy, but the song is really great and a biting jab at white ignorance and racism). As some folks in the live action world prepare for a daring jailbreak, a wise old timer (Crothers) tells the cartoon story of three animal folk heroes who take on racist cops, the Italian mafia, bad religion, and black corruption in Harlem.
The film is ugly, abrasive, gritty and excessively violent and sexual, but there’s a strange, grotesque satirical allure to it all. Something this provocative clearly had every moment meticulously planned, and its gross stereotypes might be more of a condemnation of the audience who might have thought all these horrible things all along. It’s purposely steeped in blaxploitation to force you to consider the images you are seeing. This movie is what would have happened if Robert Crumb and John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) did Schoolhouse Rock. For all its raucous abandon, there is a painful fatalism underneath. The scenes where a poor black drifter tries to woo a buxom, nude, and manipulative female representation of America are funny, but shocking when you consider the commentary behind it. Coonskin is very much a product of its time (and Bakshi’s imagination) and should offend everyone; black, white, women, gay, religious, etc. It’s a gross assault on all things right and that is entirely the point that Al Sharpton missed (he was a leader in the fight to stop this movie). It’s not racist. It’s an honest American race tragedy (but perhaps with a glimmer of hope) and you can unpack that more after you see it. It also stars Barry White, Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, and Al Lewis (The Munsters).
The next film comes from Hungary and is sure to alienate everyone at the party—unless they are hugely into Hungarian folklore and/or on magic mushrooms. Marcell Jankovic’s Son of the White Mare cured me from being wary of Hungarian cartoons (I had a bad experience with The District). It starts as a delirious mélange of colors and shapes until after about ten minutes we figure out we’ve been watching a horse give birth to human babies the whole time. She has two sons who leave, but the third wants to be able to throw trees around so he listens to the old weird guy he meets in the forest (who might be God?) and suckles at his horse-mother’s teat for several decades to grow strong. When he is fully grown and his mother is dry and dying he becomes Tree-Shaker and goes on a journey to restore the three kingdoms (and save their princesses) from the wicked rule of the three evil dragons. Along the way he picks up his fair-weather brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Iron-Kneader, and a mischievous demon who only the superhuman Tree-Shaker can outsmart. When his brothers chicken out at the gates Tree-Shaker realizes he must battle the dragons by himself. One dragon is a three-headed rock golem-type creature. The next is a seven headed battle tank and the final dragon is a twelve-headed computerized city monster. Tree-Shaker manages many other folk hero obstacles like being stuck in the under world, killing a snake, and even feeding his own legs to a griffin.
The story is very mythic and ancient feeling, but the lively, surreal animations are wonderfully superb. Even if you don’t get all the folklore stuff, the madness of the vibrantly moving illustrations will keep your attention (it almost reminded me of Yellow Submarine in a strange way). This sort of imaginative, freedom-embracing approach is what animation is all about. Seriously, lines go everywhere and colors collapse into one another like crazy! Watch Son of the White Mare and educate yourself on Hungarian folktales and have one heck of a trip. It’s like the works of Homer as realized by Vince Collins.
Ya’ll know who George Lucas is? Sure, he’s the guy who made Star Wars…and produced Howard the Duck. Speaking of Howard the Duck, as awful as that film was, it reveals a daring side to Mr. Lucas. He would give money to those crazy ideas from time to time, and I’m sure glad he did here. Such is the case for the criminally snubbed George Lucas produced film Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty. This is a wonderful comic tale with zero substance. It’s great. Written in almost nonstop puns and clever banter (Yellow Submarine again?) and animated in a technique called “Lumage,” a sort of plastic backlit stop-motion animation, Twice Upon a Time is the story of how the black-and-white live-action Rushers of Din were almost bombarded with nightmares from the Murkworks, run by the odious Synonamess Botch, until some unlikely heroes emerged out of sunny Frivoli’s dreamland. The nightmare vultures snatch up all the Fig Men of Frivoli and trick the good-hearted Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his mute companion, Mum, into stealing the spring to stop time in Din. Then Synonamess Botch plants nightmare bombs all over Din, planning to set them off all at once. Amidst the chaos Flora Fauna studies to be an actress, the Fairy Godmother blows up a telephone pole, Rod Rescueman tries to rescue something, Scuzzbopper toils away at the Great Amurkian Novel, a robot gorilla with a television for a face does stuff, etc. Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Every inch of this movie is designed to be delightful fluff.
It’s a highly imaginative and breezy little film with clever dialogue and a sense of flippant mayhem that could only be birthed on a Saturday morning eating “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” (Calvin & Hobbes anyone?). You’ll laugh and thrill as Ralph, Mum, Rod, and the whole gang do battle with the cantankerous Synonamess Botch and restore the spring to Din. The animation is strange and fascinating and the humor is adult and hilarious while being kid-friendly (depending on which dub of the movie you get, I’ve seen both and I actually think the one without the swearing is a lot better). It’s a whimsical delight that has plenty of action, grating 80s songs, and the soothing tempo of Lorenzo Music’s voice. Lorenzo Music plays the main protagonist, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, but you probably recognize this sleepy timbre from the Garfield animated series. Since the film makes no pretense of even pretending to be important it frees itself from all moral and plot confines and soars to new heights of comic frivolity and triviality. It’s a magnificent trifle that is thoroughly enjoyable.
Will Vinton is an animation legend most famous for his work with the iconic “California Raisins” commercials from the 80s. He has done many great short films (Martin the Cobbler) and TV specials (A Claymation Christmas Celebration), but his interpretation of the great American literary legend, Mark Twain, is the reason we’re here today. If you’ve ever wondered what was that weird youtube clip of a claymation Satan creating a tiny civilization in space and then indifferently murdering them, then I am here to tell you. That’s a scene from Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain! Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher stowaway on a bizarrely constructed airship piloted by an aging Mark Twain—and secretly co-piloted by Twain’s dark side. James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) provides the voice of Twain as the three stowaways learn about other great Twain tales like “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” and others. Twain was a complicated man, and the film portrays this by way of a sort of literal manifestation of bipolar disorder—there is a light Twain who is happy and eager to share a story and then there is a dark Twain who is joyless and fatalistic. Sawyer and the other kids soon learn that Mark Twain is leaving earth in an airship to make a suicide voyage into Halley’s Comet—echoing the real Twain’s words, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year , and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Despite the whimsy, languid pace, bright colors, and pleasing shapes there is a dark sense of urgency throughout. Vinton does not give us Mark Twain’s works so much as he gives us Twain himself. The film does a grand job of displaying Twain’s own sense of humor, melancholy, imagination, and wisdom. Vinton’s designs may look childish, but they are gloriously detailed and impressive. These are not George Pal Puppetoons, these are living balls of clay in constant motion and evolution and it is a pleasure behold. I personally love the design of the airship.
Live-action plus animation, traditional cel-animation with added trippiness, “Lumage,” and smooth, fluid claymation; all with very unique and distinctive styles. It’s a shame these films are not more readily available as I enjoyed them all very much and would encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them for yourself. Whether it’s gritty, obscene Coonskin, the mythically hallucinatory Son of the White Mare, the proactively weightless Twice Upon a Time, or the strange take on a literary legend in The Adventures of Mark Twain I hope one of these creative films (if not all) finds its way to your TV screen. The weirdness is out there.
*Check out my review for Song of the South.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 22, 2011
So these two movies I want to mention today have almost nothing in common except that they are both wonderful comedies, star some of my favorite people, and feature Sergei Prokofiev’s effervescent Lieutenant Kijé – Troika (fourth movement) as their theme music. It just goes to show you how filmmakers can take great classical pieces and change their meaning. Consider Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in many of his films. It’s hard for many people to hear Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 by Strauss without seeing weird lunar eclipses and apes bashing tapir’s brains in. It’s hard for many people to hear Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 without imagining a humble and unprejudiced pig quietly herding sheep around a green. Do you first think Paul Dukas or Mickey Mouse when you hear the uppity bassoons from The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Sometimes movies take great music and make it their own by redefining it and giving it new context.
Me? I can’t hear “Journey of the Sorceror” by the Eagles without thinking the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show is about to come on.
Sir Alec Guinness must have seen the comedic potential in this bouncy Russian tune for his film about a hard-headed artist named Gulley Jimson in the film The Horse’s Mouth (1958). Woody Allen’s use of the same piece might seem more logical as Love and Death (1975) is a satire on great Russian literature. In any event, such good movies, no matter how unrelated, deserve another mention.
The Horse’s Mouth is one of the movies I am sad more people haven’t heard of. Directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Advneture, Hopscotch), The Horse’s Mouth is a splendidly buoyant and enjoyable little British comedy that stars the great Alec Guinness. Guinness is one of the British legends who most people probably only know as Obiwan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movies. In addition to jedi master he was also in many of the equally great David Lean films (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago) and Ealing studios comedies (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and my personal favorite, The Ladykillers). He was also George Smiley from the miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). The Horse’s Mouth was the film Guinness did right after he won the Academy Award for his performance in Lean’s (best film, so says I) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and it’s also the only film for which he wrote the screenplay. Like another legendary British performer, Charles Laughton who only directed one movie, the amazing Night of the Hunter (1955), Guinness proved he was more than a talented actor with this singular outing as writer.
Prokofiev’s piece gives The Horse’s Mouth an extra does of comic energy at just the right times and fits the film perfectly.
Gulley Jimson is a lovable rogue. He’s eccentric. He’s a drunk. He’s lazy. He lies. He’s pinches women’s behinds. He’s in and out of jail. He lives on a dilapidated boat next to a crazy person. He ignores social parameters. He’s a struggling artist who wants to do things his own way. The Horse’s Mouth was based on a book by Joyce Cary, but Guinness makes it his own. He crafts a very fun character, with gravelly voice and tattered clothes. Despite it being a comedy, there is in fact a lot of pathos. Jimson is old and depends upon his long-suffering barmaid friend, Coker (Kay Walsh). The sparks and animosity shared between these two old souls could only have been founded in feelings of affection from somewhere down deep. Jimson may be eccentric, but he’s a three-dimensional character and we understand his plight. He wants to leave his mark. He sees wondrous artistic potential everywhere, but can’t find money and rarely feels too proud of his work once it’s completed. Life is a neverending wave of brilliant horizons and disappointing sunsets for Jimson. But why go on about the minutiae of the plot? Just watch the movie. It’s wonderful and funny and reveals much about Guinness’s talents as an actor and a writer. Michael Gough (perhaps most famous as Alfred from the Burton and Schumacher Batmans) and Ernst Thesiger (the incomparable Dr. Septimus Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein) also have supporting roles.
So Woody Allen is still making movies. After making at least one movie every year since 1965, the 76 year old New York intellectual nebbish director, actor, writer is still going. For my money Allen’s best work comes out of the 70s. Titles like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper, Annie Hall, and Manhattan are just a few reasons why he’s an important filmmaker. His skewering of Russian authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and even, curiously, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, is Love and Death. As usual, Allen wrote, directed, and starred in this fun classic comedy. This film was the last film Allen made before Annie Hall and that whole paradigm shift into the realm of mixing realism alongside his oddball style of humor. It followed Sleeper which was a hilarious mixture of Rip van Winkle, science fiction dystopias, and silent comedy. What all of this means is that Love and Death is still just a zany comedy for comedy’s sake (which is totally fine). What makes it work is that it mixes philosophy, theology, and history together so well and the anachronistic Jewish New Yorker with glasses and incessant existential crises just fits in with the philosophies but so humorously against the historical backdrop.
Once again, Prokofiev’s enchanting melody gives us an upbeat tempo and sets the tone. It feels unmistakably Russian but it’s joy and snappy pace are like Allen in that their levity offsets the heavy philosophical and theological quagmires suffered by the characters. It’s comedy.
Allen is Boris, the third son of a proud family or oblivious weirdos. In love with his promiscuous cousin (Diane Keaton, of course), but sent to fight the French in battle, the anemic hero must survive wars, duals, dullards, and cold Russian winters to be with his beloved cousin again. In the end they decide to attempt to assassinate Napoleon (played by James Tolkan from Back to the Future). There are some great lines and wonderful sight gags and clever riffs on classical literature in this movie and it is very funny from start to finish. My one complaint is that it does sort of run out of steam by the third act but the finale is enjoyably underwhelming. It’s about Woody Allen’s two favorite subjects; love and death, and his comedy is always best when it’s subject matter is a little depressing. Interestingly enough, the final lines from Sleeper are a response to if he believes in anything. His answer in Sleeper was, “sex and death.” Coincidental lead in to this movie?
For people who only know Sir Alec Guinness from his dramatic roles and Star Wars I would strongly suggest you check out his comedies. The Horse’s Mouth showcases Guinness’s comedic prowess as well as considerable writing talents. And for those of you who only know Woody Allen from Antz and Midnight in Paris, you should really acquaint yourself with his 70’s work and Love and Death is a pretty good place to start. I liked Prokofiev’s music before, but it’s fun to see it being used in different contexts. Whether it be a rambunctious renegade painter scarpering off into the horizon or Woody Allen dancing with the grim reaper we can all tap our toes along to this familiar, lively piece.
Frank posted a delectable challenge the other day. The challenge was this: “Let’s combine movie titles and their plots! Here’s a couple: 50 First Dates + 50/50 = 50/50 First Dates. A girl keeps forgetting she has cancer. Empire Strikes Back to the Future– In an attempt to find the rebel base on Hoth, Darth Vader accidentally travels back in time and must ensure that his father takes his mom to the slave prom. Ok you try it.”
This spawned a very long thread with many folks interacting. Here are the highlights.
- Frank – 300 Days of Summer: King Leonidas falls in love with a woman only to find out the romance isn’t all he thought it would be.
- Frank – Harry Potter and The Temple of Doom: Harry travels to India to find a magic stone hidden in an evil temple.
- Becky – Ironman in the Iron Mask.
- Daniel – The Hunger Hunger Games: Michael Fassbender competes to be the last person to die of starvation in an event run by the British government in order to punish the IRA for their rebellion.
- Thomas Lazo – The Magnificent Seven Samurai: a poor Japanese film studio hires elite swordsmen to defend their movies from being remade in America.
- Thomas Lazo – The Lion in Winter Light: King Henry deals with a crisis of faith after Prince Philip of France and Eleanor of Aquitane develop nuclear weapons.
- Thomas Lazo – Let it Be Cool: John Travolta tries to get the surviving Beatles to cameo on his movie in the hopes that it’ll make enough money opening weekend to save his career.
- Thomas Lazo – Do the Right The Thing: A group of african american scientists in the arctic try to avoid killing a monster that takes the form of the people it kills because it’s offensively stereotypical that the black characters die first.
- Thomas Lazo – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Walk with Me: Harry and Ron investigate the week leading up to the death of Cedric Diggory as Harry begins feeling phantom labor pains for his indwelling infant Voldemort horcrux while Hermione and an army of backward talking House elves find creatively erotic things to do with polyjuice potion and a collection of Dennis Hoppers toenail clippings in a house of mirrors.
- Andrew Bowcock – Air Force The One: President Jet Li has to protect his family and presidential cabinet on his plane from a group of alternate universe presidents mysteriously transported onto the plane in a freak science experiment.
- Andrew Bowcock – Dancer in the Dark City: Bjork is going blind and gets framed for murder, but by an alien race who controls the world around her. As she loses her vision, she starts to gain powers to change her surroundings; can she discover the whole truth before she completely loses her vision?
- Andrew Bowcock – Once Upon a Time in American Pie: A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to Brooklyn, where he reminisces about the time when he and a few gang buddies entered a pact to lose their virginity by prom night.
- Andrew Bowcock – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead Alive: when two brothers organize the robbery of their parents’ jewelry store the job goes horribly wrong when one of them gets bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey and dies, then comes back to life, killing and eating dogs, nurses, friends, and neighbors.
- Thomas Lazo – Inception 2–They Shoot Horses Don’t They Shoot Horses Don’t They Shoot Horses Don’t They Shoot Horses Don’t They Shoot Horses Don’t They?: At a large dancing competition, a smaller dance evolves among several dancers which then leads to an even smaller group of dancers doing a new dance until all the dancers involve die and find out that the afterlife is a giant dancing competition.
- Thomas Lazo – To End all War of the Worlds: Aliens gather all movie directors in a concentration camp to stop future remakes of classic movies only to die after exposure to reality TV.
- Thomas Lazo – It’s Patton: Julia Sweeney stars as an androgynous WWII general who struggles to defeat Hitler while the media continually attempts to discover his/her gender.
- Thomas Lazo – Bridget Jones Diary of Anne Frank: An outrageous young woman takes on love, lingerie, losing weight, and ethnic cleansing as she decides between…ah screw this one, even I have standards.
- Burrello Submarine – The Last King Kong of Scotland: an eccentric giant gorilla leader is confronted on his tyranny when his British physician tries to gun him down with biplanes on top of the Uganda State Building.
- Burrello Submarine – The Taking of Pelham 123 Easy as ABC: when a prepubescent Michael Jackson takes a subway car hostage it’s up to Walter Matthau to get him to sing.
- Burrello Submarine – The Treasure of the Sierra Todo Sobre Mi Madre: following the death of her beloved son, Manuela embarks on a journey into the Mexican desert with a tight knit group of frustrated yet spunky transexuals to find gold. As greed overtakes one of their party they must come face to face with the elements, banditos, and rediscover what makes a she-man.
- Thomas Lazo – Dirty Harry Potter and the Half Blood Princess Bride of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man of La Mancha: Terry Gilliam is slated to direct this work in progress, but it is doubtful whether he will be able to come in under budget.
- BurrelloSumarine – Life Is a Beautiful Mind: a young boy and his father are taken to a concentration camp during WWII, fortunately the lad’s father’s schizophrenia gives them all a good laugh as his increasingly erratic antics boost morale and provide hope for all in even the most dire of circumstances.
- BurrelloSubmarine – The Adventures of the Rin-Tintin Drum: a young dog-boy with a precocious mind growing up in Germany in the 1930s decides he’s got a bit of a Peter Pan complex and so he joins forces with an aging alcoholic to unearth buried treasure in this black symbolic action satire that will be an adventure for the whole family.
- Burrello Submarine – Twelve Angry Monkeys: Bruce Willis must convince an exhausted jury that he can do things other than “Die Hard.”
- Burrello Sumarine – Get Him to the Zorba the Greek: Alan Bates must get a sloppy but lovable rockstar back to the island of Crete before his boss gets stoned to death.
- Andrew Bowcock – The Bridges of Madison County on the River Kwai: a National Geographic photographer wanders into the life of a lonely housewife who shows him the bridges he was meant to photograph, only to find that there appears to be more that wasn’t listed in his research…and then the Japanese military show up…and a couple of white guys underneath, what the hell?! Then: BOOM!!!
- Andrew Bowcock – Metropo-Schizopolis: in a dystopic future where human classes are separated by an entire layer of ground, Steven Soderbergh makes funny faces in a mirror and thinks he might have a doppelganger.
- Allfor – Schindler’s Bucket List: rich German Business man makes a deal with two sick elderly Jewish men, who have been best friends all their lives, agreeing to help keep them out of the concentration camps if they promise to write a list of things they have always wanted to do but never did and do them all before they die.
- David Halberstadt – UHF THX 1138: Weird Al Yankovic rebels against a totalitarian television corporation by buying a small TV station and airing porn.
- David Halberstadt – The Tree of Life Aquatic: Bill Murray descends into the deepest part of the sea and sees a bunch of weirdness he doesn’t understand while also thinking about growing up as Sean Penn.
- David Halberstadt – I’m Still Being There: a hilarious satire about Peter Sellers’ descent into mild retardation and his brief career as a rapper.
- Frank – The Return of the King’s Speech: 6 Hours of Elven speeches.
- Frank – The Empire of the Sun Strikes Back: Darth Vader goes after Christian Bale in WW2 China.
- Thomas Lazo – Boogie Nights in Rodanthe: A woman with a failing marriage meets a man in a cabin who shows her all kinds of neat tricks from the job he had in the 70s, somebody better call PETA.
- Frank – Stranger Than Pulp Fiction: Lowlifes and criminals have their lives narrated by an English woman.
- Thomas Lazo – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Encounters of the Third Kind: after 9/11, conspiracy theorist Richard Dreyfuss embarks on a maniac journey to discover the extra terrestrial secrets behind Building 7.
- Thomas Lazo – Shaun of the Dead Poet’s Society: A charismatic English professor inspires a group of British friends to “seize the cricket bat” and not become a social zombie.
- Frank – Rocky V For Vendetta: Rocky Balboa dons a Guy Fawks mask and starts a war against a totalitarian state. Survivor does the soundtrack.
- Thomas Lazo – I Know Who Killed Me, Myself and Irene: Jim Carrey.
- Burrello Submarine – City of Godzilla: the atomic reptile moves to Brazil and tries to be a photographer but gets mixed up in a street gang and decides to trample Rio de Janiero instead.
- Frank – I Am Legend of the Guardians: Owls are the only thing left on earth after everyone becomes a zombie.
- Thomas Lazo – The Last Rocky Horror Picture Show: Cross dressing country boys come of age in a dying town in west Transylvania.
- Burrello Submarine – Videodromeo + Juliet: Baz Luhrman directs James Wood’s stomach vagina that recites the works of Shakespeare in a contemporary setting that satirizes cable television.
- Thomas Lazo – Purple Rain of Fire: Prince sexes up some dragons.
- David Halberstadt – No Country for Oldboy: after being locked in a trailer home for 15 years, Josh Brolin goes to Mexico, seeking vengeance while Tommy Lee Jones is sad.
- Burrello Submarine – Nanook of the North by Northwest: Alfred Hitchcock stages Eskimo footage on Mt. Rushmore.
- Thomas Lazo – The Jonas Brothers Karamazov Live in 3D: Three Russian scenester brothers debate the existence of God in front of an ampitheater of rabid 12 year old girls.
- Thomas Lazo – Pretty in Pink Flamingos.
- Andrew Bowcock – License to Kill a Mockingbird: James Bond is fired from MI:6, but finds that the only way he can stop the drug lord who tried to murder his friend is to become a lawyer in the Depression-era South and defend a black man against racism and an undeserved rape charge.
- Burrello Submarine – Black Paper Moon: a slick, dust-bowl conman reluctantly takes in a willful girl who is battling nightmarishly vivid hallucinations regarding female puberty in this plotless symbolic comedy arthouse family film for adults.
- Thomas Lazo – Aguirre–The Wrath of Kahn: On their mission to boldly go where no man has gone before Captain Kirk suspiciously starts killing off the crew of the Enterprise so they won’t steal his Aztec gold.
- Burrello Submarine – Dog Day of the Dolphin Afternoon: a bank heist—which is also a plot to assassinate the president—to get the money to get a sex change for talking dolphins goes horribly wrong.
- Thomas Lazo – Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Quest: Aliens typecast Alan Rickman twice.
- Burrello Submarine – The Bicycle Thief of Bagdad: a vibrant but depressing technicolor Italian neorealist fantasy epic.
- Andrew Bowcock – From Russia with Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Actually the Bomb: follows the lives various couples dealing with their love lives in loosely related tales all set during a frantic Christmas season in London, England. One tale follows James Bond, who ends up falling for a naive Russian beauty during an undercover mission — that mission is the final hope in a ploy that’s being manipulated by some of the world’s most powerful minds to prevent a worldwide nuclear meltdown.
- Thomas Lazo – 20,000 Leagues Under the Seabiscuit: An eccentric scientist forces his submarine captives to race sea horses.
- David Halberstadt – A Night to Remember the Titans: a recently desegregated school’s football team board the Titanic on their way to the championships and must work through their inherent racism to keep the ship afloat after it strikes an iceberg.
- Burrello Submarine – The Big Sleep Well: Philip Marlowe must unravel the mystery of how exactly Kurosawa is adapting Hamlet.
- Burrello Submarine – Helvetica Comes to Frogtown: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper must consider which font would be the most threatening to scare off mutant frog-people in this post-apocalyptic documentary.
- Thomas Lazo – Angels in American Pie: Kirk Cameron stars in this cautionary tale of 4 promiscuous teenagers who catch AIDS before prom.
- David Halberstadt – Midnight in Paris, Texas: a nostalgic young man finds himself magically transported to a small Texas town where he attempts to find and reconnect with his young son and Salvador Dali.
- Thomas Lazo – Little Orphan Annie Hall: Woody Allen adopts Diane Keaton, marries her, then divorces her.
- David Halberstadt – The Thin Red Shoes: a ballerina is sent to fight in World War II and through her dancing, inspires her platoon to whisper deep philosophical thoughts to themselves.
- Thomas Lazo – The Goodbye Girl With a Dragon Tattoo: A struggling young mother shares her apartment with a journalist whom she must save from a serial killer.
- Burrello Submarine – Twice Upon a Time After Time: using an animation technique called “lumage” producer George Lucas uses a time machine to stop Jack the Ripper from stealing a spring from the 1970s that will enable him to plant nightmare bombs all over Mary Steenburgen’s home. Lorenzo “Garfield” Music provides the voice of H. G. Wells.
- Burrello Submarine – The Bed-Sitting The Room: Tommy Wiseau stars in this dystopic absurdist science-fiction comedy of non-sequiturs about Englanders going about their lives after a nuclear explosion that is a direct result of Lisa cheating on Johnny.
- Andrew Bowcock – The Wild Strawberries Bunch at Heart: an old, psychopathic, southern Nicolas Cage reminisces about whether or not he’s wasted his life, which included participating in an outlaw gang causing several wild west massacres leaving very few alive.
- David Halberstadt – Girls Gone Wild Strawberries: an old man on a road trip to Cancun recalls the crazy partying days of his youth.
- Burrello Submarine – Rize of the Planet of the Apes: intellectually accelerated monkeys develop a new dance phenomena out of South Central LA. …wow that actually sounds really racist.
- Thomas Lazo – Can’t Hardly Wait Until Dark: Criminals terrorize blind high schoolers at a party.
- Thomas Lazo – Crazy Hearts Can’t Be Broken: An alcoholic country musician runs away from his band to join a circus where he jumps horses off of high dives and drinks himself blind.
- David Halberstadt – After Last Season of the Witch: Nicholas Cage dreams about fighting invisible witches with early 90s computer graphics… I think.
- Thomas Lazo – American Beauty and the Beast: A teenage girl lost in the forest tames Kevin Spacey’s violent heart with marijuana while Gaston videotapes plastic bags floating in the wind.
- David Halberstadt – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Life of Brian: a man close to death is visited by his old disciples who once mistook him for the messiah.
- Burrello Submarine – Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded White Fang: when an obnoxious little boy day-dreams about going to jail in the Yukon he must befriend an abused dog-wolf to escape from an infantile luchador and his minions.
- Kris – The Lion King of Kong: A Fistfull of Quarters — Years after he has been banished from his homeland following the death of his father, an African lion returns home in order to claim his birthright; but in order to do so he must defeat his uncle in a game of Donkey Kong.
- Burrello Submarine – Sexy Beast of Yucca Flats: a grotesque and persistent radioactive British Soviet monster wanders around the desert trying to convince an ex gangster to go on one last heist.
- Burrello Submarine – Oliver Twister: a tornado unites a wide-eyed urchin with the family he always deserved.
- David Halberstadt – A Boy and His White Dog: in an apocalyptic wasteland, a racist talking dog hunts for bitches to have sex with and black people to kill.
- Kevin – Some Like it Hot Fuzz: When two musicians witness a mob hit, they flee to a small England town and disguise themselves as female police officers in order to solve mysteries and kick general ass.
- Burrello Submarine – Elephant Man Boy: a young and hideously deformed Indian boy becomes a helpful guide through the jungle to a British doctor with an existential crisis.
- Andrew Bowcock – Austin Powers: A Serious Man of Mystery: after no woman will sleep with him any longer, Austin realizes that his “mojo” is now useless, and his son’s Bar mitzvah becomes a microcosm for his meaningless existence.
- Burrello Submarine – Lost in Wild America: Albert Brooks and Jonathan Taylor Thomas star in this true-life saga about the Stouffer brothers finding their way through the country after their collective wife blows their nest-egg at Vegas.
- David Halberstadt – Black Black Sheep: a genetically mutated Chris Farley begins killing political candidates in New Zealand and it’s up to David Spade to stop him.
- Andrew Bowcock – Ghost World in the Shell: two “social outsider” cyborg girls have to choose between tracking down and destroying a dangerous hacker or just playing a prank on a sad middle-aged man.
- Burrello Submarine – The Enigma of Casper House: a friendly ghost who has never had any social interaction must try to adjust to life in a haunted house that eats Japanese schoolgirls.
- Kris – The Lost Weekend at Bernie’s: Billy Wilder adapts Charles R. Jackson’s frank novel about an insurance agent who recounts through flashbacks about the weekend he and his best friend masqueraded around the Hamptons with the body of his older brother, a novelist who drank himself to death.
- David Halberstadt – The Black Dark Knight Rises: Batman (played by Martin Lawrence) accidentally travels back in time to the medieval period where he must fight Tom Hardy and save the kingdom.
- Burrello Submarine – Inherit the Wind and the Willows: Mr. Toad causes unrest in his small town for teaching evolution.
- Kevin – Andrei Rubber: Robert the Tire tracks down the great icon painter through the turbulent 15th century Russia, using his telekinesis to explode heads and horses alike.
- Burrello Submarine – GoldenEye Finger.
- Andrew Bowcock – Rosemary’s Baby Geniuses.
- Burrello Submarine – Wings of a Streetcar Named Desire: an uneducated abusive German angel haunts Peter Falk and gets drunk a lot in order to discover how to become more human.
- David Halberstadt – I Spit on Your Grave of the Fireflies: orphaned after the bombing of Hiroshima, a young boy and his infant sister maim, torture, and ultimately kill the American soldiers responsible for killing their parents.
- Kris – The Unbearable Lightness of Being John Malkovich: an unemployed puppeteer discovers a doorway that leads the user into the consciousness of a Czech surgeon and intellectual living in Communist Prague.
- Burrello Submarine – Allegro non Trop Gun: animated homoerotic airforce footage set to classical music compositions in this irreverent Italian action satire of Fantasia.
- Kevin – The Sum of All Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Jack Ryan must thwart the plans of Hunter S. Thompson and his psychopathic lawyer to induce a world-wide acid trip by launching a nuclear bomb into an enormous bong.
- Kris – Grosse Point Break: Keanu Reeves plays and FBI Agent who is forced to simultaneously attend his high school reunion while working an undercover case in which he has to infiltrate a supposed unionized group of assassins lead by Dan Aykroyd and Patrick Swayze.
- Burrello Submarine – Quatermass and the Pit and the Pendulum: Vincent plays an ancient race of space grasshoppers going mad in a castle.
- Andrew Bowcock – 2001: An Office Space Odyssey: monkeys beat up a copy machine with a bone in slow motion.
- Burrello Submarine – Humanoids from the Deep Impact: taking advantage of the mass hysteria surrounding a comet heading straight towards earth some fish monsters decide the rape as many people as they can.
- David Halberstadt – The American Werewolf in London: gunsmith George Clooney is turned into a werewolf but spends most of his time just wandering the streets of London and talking to his dead prostitute girlfriend that only he can see.
- Kris – The Running Man on the Moon: the true story of how visionary entertainer Andy Kaufman was able to convince the world that one his character creations, an Austria bodybuilding champion, was actually a framed American police officer in a post-apocalyptic world forced to fight for his life on national television.
- Kris – Die Hard Day’s Night: while trying to escape from their manager and a horde of rabid fans on Christmas Eve, four moptop kids from Liverpool find themselves trapped in a Los Angeles skyscraper that is being held hostage by a group of highly organized German terrorists.
- Frank – Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom of the Opera: an opera house is bought by two jedi who have to find the weird sith haunting it.
- Burrello Submarine– Playtime Bandits: time-traveling dwarfs steal a map with all the holes of modernist Parisian society on it in this whimsically alienating movie featuring Jacques Tati as Satan.
- Burrello Submarine –The Good-bye Mr . Chips, the Bad News Bears, and the Coyote Ugly: an affable British professor decides to retire so he can divide time between coaching some rambunctious and foul-mouthed kids with their little league games and his questionable nightlife working a bar run by tough chicks during World War II in this epic spaghetti western.
Please add more in the comments section. The game is far from over. Anything from Sleeper in Seattle to Malcolm X-Men: the Last Tango in Paris. We want to hear it!
I 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.
- You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
- You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
- You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
- You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
- You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
- You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
- 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).
- There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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 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).
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!!!
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.