Sense of Wonder: Piranha 3D Part 2?

Piranha 3D (2010) CGI fishDimension Films is so happy about the reaction to PIRANHA 3D that they have put out a press release announcing that a sequel is already in the works. The announcement is rather premature, reading more like a marketing ploy to boost the box office fortunes of PIRANHA 3D’s current theatrical release than like a legitimate announcement of a sequel:

DIMENSION FILMS ANNOUNCES THAT PIRANHA 3D – THE SEQUEL IS IN THE WORKS PIRANHA 3D WINS SUCCESS WITH AUDIENCES, CRITICS AND AT THE BOXOFFICE
New York, NY – August 23, 2010 – After earning rave reviews from top critics, wild cheers from audiences around the country, and $10 million in its opening weekend boxoffice, Dimension Films is pleased to announce that PIRANHA 3D – THE SEQUEL is in the works.
PIRANHA 3D producer Mark Canton stated, “We are thrilled that audiences are not just loving PIRANHA 3D, but cheering for it. And it’s fantastic that so many critics are really getting the movie and recommending it. We can’t wait to get to work on the sequel.”

The sentence “PIRANHA 3D wins success with audiences” should to be interpreted in relative terms. The film’s $10-million opening weekend placed it at #6, behind THE EXPENDABLES, VAMPIRES SUCK, EAT PRAY LOVE, THE LOTTERY TICKET, and THE OTHER GUYS. That’s not an astounding opening.
Even making allowances for the film, viewing it as a David-versus-Goliath battle against bigger product in the marketplace, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. THE EXPENDABLES is also from an independent company, Lions Gate Films, and it’s in its second weekend. VAMPIRES SUCK, though released by Fox, is a $20-million movie ($4-million less than PIRANHA 3D) without box office stars. LOTTERY TICKET is from Warner Brothers, but it opened on fewer screens than PIRANHA 3D (1,973 instead of 2,470).
When judging that $10-million gross, one should also remember that PIRANHA 3D has an advantage over the competition: thanks to the unsatisfying post-production 3-D conversion, PIRANHA 3D charges an extra $3 per ticket. At this rate, the film’s final U.S. gross will probably barely earn back its production costs. Overseas sales should help earn back the money spent on prints and advertising (which can double or triple a film’s budget). And home video sales should eventually ensure that the film makes money.
In short, the numbers are nothing to shout about, and if PIRANHA 3D is on its way to success, it is only because it was produced cheaply enough to guarantee profitability on modest returns after all the numbers are added up. The sequel announcement is probably part of Dimension’s tongue-in-cheek promotional campaign, which also includes hyping the exploitation film as an Oscar hopeful.

Read the complete press release here.

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Sense of Wonder: Somebody likes me – or at least my review of Despicable Me

Despicable Me (2010)There seems to be something inherent in human nature – and I’m no exception – that makes us more eager to complain than to praise. I guess it makes sense: if every thing’s going along fine, you just take it for granted and go about your business; but if something offends, you raise hell in order to get things changed. What this means in the world of reviewing is that your email box tends to fill up with more tirades of complaint than hymns of praise. Therefore, I was rather surprised and delighted to find a few hits coming to my DESPICABLE ME review from this post over at a blog called Squared Reviews. (The title is a clever play on the fact that the blog reviews reviews. No, that’s not a typo: they write reviews of reviews that others have written about movies. A review of a review is a review squared. Get it?)
Anway, the reviewer (who goes by the nom de plume Dash Kwiat) is tickled by the bricks and barbs I hurled at the execrable SHREK FOREVER AFTER. More important, he seems to have had a similar experience to mine: expecting little from DESPICABLE ME and then being pleasantly surprised. For modesty’s sake, I will not quote every nice thing said about me, but here are some excerpts:

I’m going to level with you guys; I really liked this review because […] I can identify with his seemingly cynical take on cinema. It’s as if coming into the theater, he expected a standard animated film, thrown together to entertain stupid children and sell toys, and was shocked and pleased by a well told narrative.
Come on let’s be fair, we all thought it would be terrible.
The funny part is that while Biodrowski compares the plot of “Despicable Me” to “A Christmal Carol,” that’s how I see this review. Biodrowksi has shown that children’s movies can be fun again.
Biodrowski hits all the important things a review needs, an explication of the plot, the characters, the storyline, but more than that, his faith in cartoons [not made by Pixar, since they never strayed from the path] seems to be restored.
This is a heartwarming review of a heartwarming film.

Well, all I can say is thanks. DESPICABLE ME was a pleasant surprise, and I am happy to have shared that experience in a way that found favor with someone of obviously discriminating tastes and a fine eye for good writing.
Of course, not all readers are so favorable. In a day or two, I’ll get around to telling you what someone thought of my ancient capsule review (unfortunately not available online yet) of HALLOWEEN IV.

Sense of Wonder: Evil of Frankenstein, Suspiria and the Blu-ray Experience

The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
Should horror, fantasy and science fiction fans with large DVD collections upgrade to Blu-ray? Read on for the experience of one DVD hold-out who finally made the change.

Last week I finally broke down and brought a Blu-ray player. Being a late adopter of new technology, I had put off this purchase as long as possible. I was happy with the DVD format and with the Roku box that allows me to stream Netflix movies instantly onto my 50-inch high-definition television. I knew that Blu-ray offered improved picture quality, and that it would even upgrade the look of my old DVDs, but I wasn’t sure the improvement was worth the money, especially when product reviews suggested that low-end, affordable players were not reliable; for the money, an upgrade DVD player sounded like a more reasonable alternative.  And so I sat, poised on the cusp of indecision, until the home video industry forced my hand.
Why do I say forced? Because, with increasing frequency, DVDs are being released without bonus features that are available on Blu-ray. I’m not talking about features that are possible only with the Blu-ray format, such as picture-in-picture and BD Live; I’m talking about material that once would have been a no-brainer for inclusion on a DVD, such as the alternate endings and behind-the-scenes featurettes that were included on Universal Pictures’ Blu-ray release of THE WOLF MAN but not on the DVD (unless you purchased the two-disc DVD available only as an in-store offer at Best Buy).
Even worse, we are seeing more and more examples of DVDs being released without any bonus features at all, a move that seems deliberately designed to drive the format out of existence. Why purchase a bare-bones DVD of SHERLOCK HOLMES or SHUTTER ISLAND when you could get the Blu-ray with all the extras? (Perhaps these DVDs still appeal to casual viewers who want only to rent, but without bonus features there is no advantage to opting for the disc instead of watching the films via Video on Demand.)
So, when I had an opportunity to get an advance review copy of the new Blu-ray disc for JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, I decided it was time to leave the past behind and boldly embrace the future. After checking out prices and reading some reviews, I opted for the new Insignia Blu-ray Disc Player (model NS-WBRDVD), which offers built-in Wi-Fi connectability to the Internet.
Insignia is the in-store brand for Best Buy; its purpose is to offer good value for customers who do not want – or cannot afford – to go top of the line. My high-def television is Insignia, and it has provided extremely satisfying results for a price that no other brand could match, so I felt confident in selecting their Blu-ray player. Although many reviews warn against going economical when choosing this particular piece of technology, the previous Insignia Blu-ray player (model NS-2BRDVD) had a good reputation; the newer model added wireless capability and, on sale, was available for almost the same price ($129, marked down from $179).
Now, at last we get to the point of this little rumination, answering the question that all you other DVD hold-outs are asking: Was the purchase worth the price? Yes, with one caveat, related not to the disc functionality but to the alleged wireless capability. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
When I popped the Blu-ray disc of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH into the machine, I saw graphics and images that looked every bit as clear and beautiful as the displays you see in the electronics sections of stores eager to lure you into adopting the Blu-ray format. That was more or less expected, but it’s always good to see expectation met and even exceeded.

Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation
Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation

Since I was not planning to run out and buy a casket-full of Blu-ray discs, the  factor that would immediately determine whether the new player was worth the money was whether or not it would improve the look of my old DVDs. To answer this, I selected my standard test subject: Hammer Films’ THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1963), available on the Hammer Horror Series DVD box set. One of many colorful horror films starring the late Peter Cushing as the brilliant Baron, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is far from the best in the series, but it has at least one stand-out sequence: a lengthy flashback, almost totally without dialogue, in which we see Frankenstein bring his creature to life.
The highly visual sequence, filled with impressive sets, props, and special effects (all carefully captured by the graceful camera of director Freddie Francis), is the one I use to judge any new piece of home video equipment; I previously played it on my first large screen television and again when that technological dinosaur was replaced by the current high-def widescreen set. Would the EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN DVD look even better with its standard-definition signal upgraded by the Blu-ray player to suit the high-definition monitor?
Unless my eyes deceive me, the answer is an unqualified yes. This DVD release was roundly criticized when it came out, from compressing two movies per side onto a double-sided disc, yet I have always found the results pleasing to watch, probably because the films themselves looked so good, with that slightly artificial sheen to the color and sets that leaves “realism” somewhat beside the point. On the new Blu-ray player, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN looked slightly better than before – a rich, beautiful experience that does not leave one unsatisfied. (And a good thing, too – because the film is not available on Blu-ray, so this is the best the movie is going to look for the foreseeable future.)
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.

After THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, I next tried out the final chapter stop from the limited edition THX-Mastered DVD of SUSPIRIA. I chose this particular disc because Dario Argento’s 1977 film has long been noted for its striking visuals; even more important, the disc itself includes a series of tests to calibrate your television set to recreate the colors and tones of the theatrical version. With this kind of exactitude, the SUSPIRIA DVD seemed like another perfect test for the capacity of the Blu-ray player to upgrade the signal for a high-def television.
Again, the results were extremely satisfying. The widescreen image (slightly letterboxed, even on a widescreen monitor) betrayed traces of film grain – about the only detail marring an otherwise splendid image. The highly artificial colors came through loud and clear, practically popping off the screen, with a clarity beyond what had previously been delivered by the old DVD player. Even my wife, no fan of the film’s over-the-top violence, volunteered that the picture quality was “beautiful.”
Of course, the DVD is still no match for a Blu-ray disc, and I”m sure a SUSPRIRIA Blu-ray would look even better; nevertheless, the improvement in the DVD image is noticeable, and I think anyone sitting on the fencepost about whether to upgrade really should consider this. If you’re like me, you hesitate, thinking you don’t want to replace all your old DVDs with new Blu-ray discs – but even if you hold onto those old discs, they will look better, especially on a plasma TV, whose deep blacks are suited for cinematic visuals (as opposed to LCD TVs, which reportedly are better suited to sports broadcasts).
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.

This consideration is especially important for Cinefantastique readers. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction films offer opportunities for visual extravagance far beyond the levels seen in most non-genre films. Does it really make much difference whether you see THE BLIND SIDE or 12 ANGRY MEN in high-def – maybe, but not as much as seeing AVATAR, STAR TREK, BLADE RUNNER, or LORD OF THE RINGS.
The next big question is whether or not you will eventually opt to replace your DVD collection. My first impression is that I’m in no hurry. Although Blu-ray has the capacity to deliver a much better image, you do have to contend with the picture quality of the original source: I’m sure that old movies shot in formats like 70mm or Super Panavision (such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) will look much improved on Blu-ray, but I’m not sure that some old exploitation opus with grainy cinematography will benefit from a Blu-ray transfer – short of a complete digital restoration. For the time being I am content to hold onto the DVDs, but I will finally get around to replacing the still lingering laserdisc collection.
So, would I recommend the Insignia Blu-ray player? Well, that depends on the one caveat I mentioned earlier: although I purchased the unit to replace both my DVD player and the Roku box, I have not yet been able to get the wireless functionality to function, which means I cannot use the Insignia player to stream Netflix Instant Movies (or any other video on demand service). Judging from a search around the Internet, I am far from the only one to suffer this problem. I have no doubt that there is a way to overcome this obstacle (if worse came to worse, I could hook the Blu-ray player to the Internet by an Ethernet cable); but frankly, overcoming an obstacle should not even be a consideration when paying $129 for a brand-new piece of technology. My old Roku box cost $99, and it worked the first time I fired it up. If Roku wireless connection to the Internet easy, then Insignia should be able to do the same, without putting their customers to unnecessary trouble.
insignia blu-ray
click to purchase

My conclusion is that, had I paid full price for the Insignia player, I would feel that the extra $50 (for the new wireless model) would have been wasted; however, since I got the player for the same price as the old, pre-wireless model, I am not inclined to take the unit back to the store and demand a refund. Since I still have my Roku box, I can use that for instant streaming of movies. But customers seeking both a Blu-ray player and a movie-streamer in a single device should be aware of the potential problem; you may be better off spending a little bit more for a player whose wireless capacity works without resorting to customer service.

NOTE: This article has been expanded since its initial posting.

Sense of Wonder: Counting Horror, Fantasy & Sci-Fi Franchises on One Hand?

franchise combo copy

In this post about SAW 3-D, being touted as the finale installment in the Jigsaw saga, Lionsgate president Jason Constantine makes the following statement about the longevity of the SAW franchise:

“You can count on one hand the franchises that lasted seven years — and every year, no less,” says Jason Constantine, Lionsgate’s president of acquisitions and co-productions. “It became part of pop-culture discourse.”

This strikes my as slightly myopic in terms of the history of horror, fantasy and science fiction film franchise. Off the top of my head, here are several more than you can count on one hand – unless you are a polydactyl alien from a galaxy far, far away:

  • The Universal Pictures Frankenstein series began in 1931 with FRANKENSTEIN and continued through 1948 with ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, totaling eight films.
  • Toho Studio’s original Godzilla franchise began in 1954 with GODZILLA (a.k.a. GOJIRA) and took a breather after TERROR OF MECHA-GODZILLA in 1974. The franchise revived in 1985 and lasted until GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER in 1996, then resumed again in 1999, wrapping up with GODZILLA: FINAL WARS in 2004, with 26 films on its resume.
  • The Hammer Films Frankenstein series began in 1957 with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and ended in 1974 with FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, totalling six films (not counting the aberration known as HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN)
  • Hammer’s Dracula series began in 1958 with HORROR OF DRACULA and ended in 1974 with LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (a.k.a. THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA), totaling eight films (nine if you count BRIDES OF DRACULA, in which the Count does not appear).
  • The James Bond franchise launched in 1962 with DR. NO and continued until QUANTUM OF SOLACE in 2008, totaling over 20 films. (There was a haitus in the 1990s, but still this is a long-lived franchise).
  • HALLOWEEN started its reign of terror in 1978, which lasted through HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION in 2002. The franchise started up again in 2008 with a remake.
  • FRIDAY THE 13TH began in 1980 and lasted through 2003’s FREDDY VS. JASON, before launching a remake last year.
  • A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET arrived in 1984 and officially ended with FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE in 1991 – barely six years. But then the franchise started up again in 1996 with WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, followed by FREDDY VS. JASON in 2003, and then a remake this year.

Well, that makes eight. I guess we’re not supposed to count the ALIEN franchise and George A. Romero’s sequels to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), because the films were spaced out at long intervals: the ALIEN films extend from 1979 through ALIENS VS. PREDATOR in 2007; Romero’s latest, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, arrived earlier this year.
If we include non-sequel franchise, we get the Vincent Price Poe movies from HOUSE OF USHER in 1960 through THE OBLONG BOX in 1969. Extending past the real of cinefantastique, we get lengthy franchises devoted to Sherlock Holmes and other screen detectives, not to mention such low-brow fare as Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule.
Let me know if there are any I missed.
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Sense of Wonder: Sorcerer's Apprentice versus Harry Potter

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)Over at the Kansas City Star, in a review of THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE titled ‘The magic is lost to all but young viewers, Jason Heck asks the rhetorical question:

“Ever wonder what the ‘Harry Potter’ films would be like without an ounce of wit, grace or subtlety?”

To which I reply: We don’t need THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE to tell us that!

Sense of Wonder: The Last Airbender is no Avatar, and it's time to boycott bad 3-D

The Last Airbender (2010) and Avatar (2009)
M. Night Shyamalan owes audiences an apology. Paramount pictures owes viewers a refund. Not for the overall defectivness of THE LAST AIRBENDER (although there is that). Rather, they owe us for the abominable 3-D presentation, which costs consumers an extra $4 per ticket – money that could be far more entertainingly used by bending it into origami torture devices and inserting into the vulnerable anatomical areas of those responsible for the post-production 3-D conversion.
THE LAST AIRBENDER is the current bete noir of those who prefer their 3-D films shot that way, rather than retrofitted after the fact. Like the upcoming THE GREEN HORNET, Shyamalan’s film was shot in standard 2-D, then converted, because 3-D makes everything better – or, rather, it allows theatres to charge more for the allegedly premium viewing experience. Never mind that the results are haphazard, sometimes lacking depth, at other times stretching the anatomical proportions of a shoulder to that of a mountain range. And the polaroid lenses darken the image by one or two stops, diminishing the sparkle of the cinematography. Far from a premium experience, THE LAST AIRBENDER ends up looking as if it were being projected in a second-run theatre striving to save on projector bulbs by turning down the illumination.
Why would a distributor foist such a defective product on paying customers? Hollywood has jumped on the 3-D bandwagon in a big way since James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster AVATAR blew through the international box office, earning billions worldwide. Fortunately for viewers, AVATAR was actually shot in 3-D, and the difference is stunning in its clarity and depth, helping to immerse viewers in the on-screen action. Unfortunately for viewers, the extra dollars earned by charging more for 3-D screenings tempted Hollywood to cash in, regardless of quality, with last-minute 3-D conversions for ALICE IN WONDERLAND and CLASH OF THE TITANS. THE LAST AIRBENDER – which, ironically, is based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series titled AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER – is simply the latest example, and it is an understatement of Godzilla-size proportions to say that LAST AIRBENDER is no AVATAR.
Sadly, if atrocious 3-D conversions continue, audiences might revolt against being ripped off for higher prices that do not deliver higher quality, and we could see the third wave of 3-D come to a premature conclusion, just as similar waves died out in the 1950s and 1980s. That would be a disaster, because today’s 3-D technology is capable of offering viewers something better than they have ever seen before; it simply needs to be done correctly.

The letters "3D" were removed from most posters due to the lack of specially equipped theatres.
The "3D" was removed from most posters due to a lack of specially equipped theatres.

Although the current 3-D craze flew onto the Hollywood radar with AVATAR, it actually launched considerably earlier. Cameron has long been advocating for an industry-wide shift to 3-D, and so has Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks Animation recently released HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and SHREK FOREVER AFTER in 3-D. Two years ago, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was originally titled JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH IN 3-D, until it became apparent that the lack of 3-D theatres would require that most engagements be in 2-D; unfortunately, the film was so bad that 3-D was almost the only appealing thing about it. The far superior  CORALINE (2009) also used 3-D to enhance its fantasy world, adding depth to the texture of its stop-motion puppets and miniature sets.
Meanwhile, a couple of modestly budgeted horror films put 3-D to good use last year: MY BLOODY VALENTINE and THE FINAL DESTINATION opted for the old-fashioned gimmick of tossing objects out of the screen; pick axes and shrapnel seemed to fly right into your face, providing a cheap but very entertaining thrill, not all that different from the ping-pong ball that seemed to bounce under your nose in HOUSE OF WAX back in 1953. What is different is that the new digital 3-D offers a pristine picture, unmarred by double images, blur, or any of the other problems that used to plague stereo-vision movies of yesteryear.
3-D is being adopted today for the same reason it was in the past: as a way of luring audiences back into theatres. In the 1950s the enemy was television; in the 1980s it was the new home video market. Now we have DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, streaming, iPods, etc. – all of which pose a threat to theatrical distribution. Widescreen high-def television sets can offer a great home viewing experience, but the glory of IMAX 3-D is still available only in theatres. However, Hollywood needs to learn a lesson from the past.
Though technically primitive, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN made great use of 3D
Back in 1973, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN made great use of 3D

The two previous 3-D waves lasted about a year each: 1953 and 1983. In each case, the novelty of 3-D wore off quickly, marred by bad movies and eyestrain. There have also been sporadic attempts to use 3-D as a gimmick in exploitation films like THE STEWARDESSES (1969). ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN (a.k.a. FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, 1973) offered X-rated nudity and gore by the boatload, which raised the question of whether 3-D might inherently be most appropriate for lurid subject matter. Certainly, the 3-D Frankenstein film (which was actually written and directed by Paul Morrissey, with an assist from Antonio Margherti) made some of the best use of the process ever; the entrails and organs dangling in front of viewer noses heightened the absurd nature of the campy storyline in a way that no 2-D presentation could match.
The conventional wisdom became that 3-D was a gimmick; even if the technical issues could be resolved, it was not appropriate for “serious” films. For many years, few filmmakers even attempted it, outside of theme park attractions like CAPTAIN EO, motion-simulation rides, and IMAX short subjects like SIEGFRIED AND ROY’S THE MAGIC BOX. Because these short films were presented in at most a handful of specially designed theatres, the quality of the 3-D could be maintained in a way that was not possible for a nationwide release screened at the local multiplex. For years, it seemed that this was all 3-D would ever be.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-DThat changed thanks to new digital technology. Whether or not you swoon at the sight of a pick ax flying into your face, or burning shrapnel exploding out into the audience, you have to admit that MY BLOODY VALENTINE’s 3-D and THE FINAL DESTINATION proved that all the old problems had been; each film looked as good as – or better than – the best 3-D ever seen. Even though they still required polaroid lenses, the image was clear, sharp, and bright; you didn’t suffer from mismatched brightness for the right eye versus the left eye (as happened with the red-green glasses used for the 3-D sequence of FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, for example). In short, this and other recent 3-D films proved that the process could be viable for a nationwide release, with a presentation in your local theatre that could equal the viewing experience previously achieved only in a specially designed venue for something like TERMINATOR 2 3-D.
With high-quality 3-D now seemingly within the grasp of even modest filmmakers, the equation has shifted. It’s no longer a matter of smacking thrill-seekers in the face with a few objects popping off the screen. The beautiful sense of the depth, coupled with the ease on the eyes, allows for opportunities to fashion more subtle movies, in which the stereo-vision simply makes the movie seem more real, as if you are looking through a window upon another world. 3-D can be more than an exploitation gimmick; it might turn out to be a tool used to enhance many different kinds of stories, not just ones emphasizing sex and violence. At very least, the potential seems to be there, if creative filmmakers can seize it.
3-D conversion, however, is another matter – a last-minute effort to layer a phony sheen on a film not designed for it (even if you can add depth, you cannot retroactively create sequences designed to showcase the third dimension). Advocates selling their processes claim their results can be as good as or better than films shot in 3-D, and there are cases that yield good results . Computer-generated movies – which exist only in the virtual realm anyway – can be digitally retooled to create double images for the left and right eye, yielding a convincing sense of depth even if the films lack gimmicky images of objects flying off the screen. Also, the 2006 3-D conversion of Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993) looked beautiful: something about the stop-motion figures and sets lent itself to the process; the added depth made them seem even more tangible.
Live-action, however, turns out to be a less successful mad scientist’s experiment, one that creates results as mis-shappen as any Frankenstein monster. There are reports of blockbusters like STAR WARS, TITANIC, and KING KONG being converted to 3-D with great results, which we should be seeing in upcoming re-releases. However, the few post-AVATAR examples we have seen do not bode well, failing to deliver results that would justify the extra expense.
3-D separate the image with bizarre results in CLASH OF THE TITANS
3-D yielded bizarre results in CLASH OF THE TITANS

CLASH OF THE TITANS presented what looked like flat figures cut out and separated into foreground, midground, and background; when depth did appear, it cold be grossly out of proportion, as when Ralph Fiennes’ hair seemed to be floating about a food behind his head. THE LAST AIRBENDER often looks flat. Worse, it looks so dingy that removing the polaroid glasses often improves the viewing experience; much of the live-action appears without the double images necessary to create the separation between left eye and right eye that is necessary for 3-D. In short, you would be better off paying for a 2-D screening and saving yourself the extra bucks.
And extra bucks is what this is all about, really. Hollywood has been advocating for tiered ticket prices for over a decade, hoping to charge more for their more lavish blockbusters, and 3-D finally has finally given them the excuse they need. But is this a good idea? If theatres charge more, audiences have a right to expect more – and the films had better deliver all the flash of a supernova.*
Instead, we find ourselves in a situation where little local theatres are charging more for a premium experience that is far from premium. This is, to put it bluntly, a rip-off, and viewers should boycott future 3-D conversions until someone proves they can deliver the depth and visual immersion of genuine 3-D. While I’m on the topic of rip-offs: if you attend an “IMAX” 3-D presentation at your local multiplex, the chances are that you are not seeing true IMAX, which requires a phenomenally large screen and steep, stadium-style seating, which can only be achieved in a specially built theatre. But calling it “IMAX” allows the theatres to charge even more, ripping you off twice as much.
AVATAR delivered the spectacle that justified higher ticket prices.
AVATAR delivered the spectacle that justified higher ticket prices.

Genuine 3-D is worth the extra money – if the film itself is good. The same can be said of genuine IMAX. A combination of the two, applied to a great film, offers the kind of spectacle that deserves to be called “premium viewing.” If Hollywood wants to lure viewers back into theatres, away from their iPods and digital downloads, they need to offer the real deal – good films designed for 3-D from the ground up – not bad movies polished up with an artificial sheen that does nothing to hide their underlying faults. To use 3-d that way would be to repeat the mistakes of the past, and if Hollywood is too stupid to self-correct their own destructive course, then we need to send the studios a message: We will pay premium prices for films that truly deliver a premium experience, but not for a ghastly imitation.
FOOTNOTE:

  • In a sense, there used to be a tiered system: decades ago, blockbusters were rolled out gradually, first appearing in exclusive, months-long engagements in lavish movie palaces with higher ticket prices, while smaller studio productions and independent films moved more quickly into the less expensive local theatres. Even when Hollywood started releasing everything nationwide on opening weekend, there was still a sort of self-selecting form of tiered pricing: viewers were more likely to drive to an expensive downtown theatre to see LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOW SHIP OF THE RING than to see HOSTEL 2.

Sense of Wonder: Celebrating 1960's Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films

Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY, one of the great horror films of 1960
Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY, one of the great horror films of 1960

PSYCHO, which opened on June 16, 1960, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, leading to numerous retrospectives on the Internet, including this week’s Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast 1:20. The accolades were well deserved, because five decades later, Alfred Hitchcock’s film still stands as one of the towering achievements in the horror genre; however, it is worth remembering that other great genre films were released the same year, including PEEPING TOM and HOUSE OF USHER (also covered in the podcast). In fact, 1960 was something of a banner year: although the number of titles released was relatively small (about half as many as last year, for example), many have endured as classics worthy of inclusion on any all-time best list: BLACK SUNDAY, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, CITY OF THE DEAD, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, JIGOKU, THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL.
With that in mind, it seems like a nice idea to launch a blog-a-thon celebration of 1960’s horror, fantasy, and science fiction films. We have invited our contributors to cast their minds back through the mists of time and summon forth their memories and impressions of these classic efforts, with an eye toward defining why these films have endured and why, fifty years later, they are still worth watching. As with our previous blog-a-thon (Favorite Nightmares from Elm Street), the posts will be serialized, meaning that each entry will contain, at the bottom, a linked list of all other posts in the series, making it easy for you to navigate back and forth.
Being Cinefantastique, we already have a head-start on the theme, with several reviews and retrospectives already in our archives. Unfortunately, our Serial Posts feature, which automatically links the series together, allows a post to belong to only one series; consequently, these pre-existing posts may not show up, if they were already assigned to some other series. In order to avoid any omissions, I am manually including links to relevant articles that already exist in our archives:

  • BLACK SUNDAY – retrospective article: Mario Bava’s classic black-and-white nightmare of vampirism and witchcraft, starring the Queen of Horror, Barbara Steele
  • BLOOD AND ROSES – retrospective look at director Roger Vadim’s adaptation of “Carmilla.”
  • THE BRIDES OF DRACULA – review
  • CITY OF THE DEAD – DVD review: great moody piece set in a spooky New England town, with a structure that parallels PSYCHO
  • EYES WITHOUT A FACE – retrospective review: French director George Franju’s art house horror film, one of the genre’s greats
  • PSYCHO – review: the Hitchcock classic
  • PSYCHO – Interview with Anthony Perkins: the actor who brought Norman Bates to life
  • PSYCHO – interview with Joseph Stefano: the screenwriter who adapted Robert Bloch’s novel
  • THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL – review: under-rated but very inventive variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale, from Hammer Films

Over the coming days and weeks, we will be adding more, so check back from time to time as we add entries on everything from DINOSAURUS to THE TIME MACHINE, from THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER to o THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, from BRIDES OF DRACULA to JIGOKU to TERROR OF THE TONGS .
All in all, 1960 was a very good year.
[serialposts]

Sense of Wonder: King Kong stomps onto Universal Studios

This Tuesday, wearing my other hat – as proprietor of Hollywood Gothique, the website of Fantasy Films, Mystery Movies, Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in Los Angeles – I attended the press preview of the new “King Kong 360 3-D” attraction, which opens today at Universal Studios Hollywood. For those who don’t recall, Universal’s back lot was devastated by a fire two years ago that destroyed prints (but thankfully not negatives) of classic horror films, along with part of the tram tour. Among the casualties was the old King Kong, a life-size mechanical replica, seen from the chest up, pulling the wires of an elevated train. The replacement Kong is a combination of 3-D projection and motion simulation modeled after the 2005 remake of KING KONG directed by Peter Jackson, who is given a “created by” credit for the new attraction.

Peter Jackson appeared via 3-D video clip
Peter Jackson appeared via 3-D video clip

Universal rolled out King Kong 360 3-D with a press event that featured celebrities walking the red carpet, studio executives expressing their pride at getting Kong back on the tour, and a 3-D video clip of Jackson himself, who explained his involvement by saying, because the KING KONG film does not lend itself to a sequel, he “was just thrilled to have an excuse to go back and have a bit more fun with King Kong.”
Fun is the operative word. I was not a big fan of Jackson’s KING KONG (reviewed here), which was like watching a rough draft of a concept, in which each and every idea is included, whether or not they gel, and I found the special effects set pieces like the dinosaur stampede and especially the Kong-Tyrannosaurs battle (dangling from vines in a chasm) to be laughably absurd. Fortunately, this kind of excess, which works to the detriment of a narrative film, is perfectly tuned for a theme park ride, where visceral impact outweighs any credibility concerns. King Kong 360 3-D is one wild ride.
However, potential visitors should consider that, unlike Universal’s TERMINATOR 2 3-D, or any of the motion-simulation rides that have graced the theme park of the years (including BACK TO THE FUTURE and, currently, THE SIMPSONS), King Kong 360 3-D is not a stand-alone attraction; it is one of many sights seen the tour through the back lot. Situated near the old rickety bridge (which used to sag on cue as the tram rolled over it), the new Kong attraction takes you inside a darkened tunnel, leading you to Skull Island, which is visualized on two colossal digital screens, one on either side of the tram.
The crushed tram does not bode well for your chances on Skull Island.
The crushed tram does not bode well for your chances on Skull Island.

After passing a smashed and smoking tram – a sign of the dangers to come – you enter a tunnel leading to Skull Island. Inside, images of dense foliage give way to raptors that appear to chase the tram – until they are interrupted by hungry T-Rexes, bring the tour to a stop. Just when all seems lost, Kong appears to battle the carnivorous dinosaurs. The action runs continuously on both screens as if happening in real time, synchronized so that when Kong tosses a T-Rex from one side of the tram, it appears to land on the other. The visual impact is heightened by motion simulation, creating the illusion that the tram is being buffeted by the battling creatures. As if that we’re not enough, you get sprayed by dinosaur saliva (actually water) as the reptiles shakes their heads at you.
The highlight is the convincingly realized illusion that a T-Rex has grabbed the last car of the tram, pulling it around until it is visible on the left – and then dragging it over the edge of a cliff, leading to what feels like a 100-foot free fall, arrested only by some convenient vines. Will Kong arrive in time to prevent you from plunging to the bottom of the abyss?
The tram takes visitors into the jungles of Skull Island.
The tram takes visitors into the jungles of Skull Island.

The computer-generated visual effects are well rendered, and the 3-D is also nicely done. (You are told when to put on the requisite 3-D glasses, handed out as you board the tram.) The imagery is especially effective when you consider that, essentially, you are seeing two long, continuous takes, uninterrupted by editing, in order to create the illusion that you are viewing live-action on both sides of the tram.
The slight downside is that the large screens (the size is necessary to fill your entire field of vision) are not quite perfectly bright and clear. Also, the 3-D illusion is ever so slightly marred by the fact that, depending on your seat in the tram, you are often not watching the action at a 90-degree angle to the screen. (It feels as if you should be able to see around and behind objects, but actually viewing them at an oblique angle undermines the illusion.) On the plus side, the initial glimpse of the Skull Island forest effectively conveys the sense that you are travelling past real objects.
The old King Kong, destroyed in the 2008 fire
The old King Kong, destroyed in the 2008 fire

The experience is visually impressive, but is King Kong 360 3-D worth a special visit to Universal Studios Hollywood? At a minute-and-a-half in length, probably not, but it is great to have Kong back in action on the back lot. Just remember that, despite the ballyhoo, this is not a stand-alone attraction. However, if you are considering a trip to Universal’s’ theme park, it is definitely worth the wait in line to take the back lot tour. You will not be disappointed.
Celebrities who attended the debut included Christopher Lloyd (BACK TO THE FUTURE), Mark Pelligrino (LOST), and Thomas Kretschmann (the 2005 KING KONG) and Jack O’Halloran (the 1976 KING KONG).
Christopher Lloyd Mark Pelligrino (LOST) Thomas Kretschmann (from KING KONG 2005) and Jack O'Halloran (from KING KONG 1976)

Sense of Wonder: Was Hollywood ruined by Star Wars and Jaws?

Star Wars (1977)

A couple days ago, R. Patrick Alberty weighed in on the subject of whether JAWS (1975) ruined the modern Hollywood blockbuster. The inspiration for Alberty’s piece was this editorial by Ross Douthat, defending JAWS and STAR WARS against charges made by John Podhoretz and David Edelstein. I wanted to weigh in on the subject, not to cast my vote for who is right or wrong but to “take the bull by the horns” – in the old fashioned sense that logicians use to mean navigating a narrow course between two opposing options. In my view, debating about whether STAR WARS and JAWS should be faulted for the current state of the cinematic arts assumes there is something to be faulted for – an assumption I take issue with.
First off, I can see both sides of the argument: You may like STAR WARS and JAWS but still believe that their influence on Hollywood was a net negative; on the other hand, why hold films from the 1970s responsible for the current state of cinema? My objection is that, whatever their disagreements, all sides in the blockbuster debate accept the underlying premise that there is something seriously wrong with today’s movies. Podhoretz, who comes across like a bitter old man, laments the lack of “seriousness of purpose…and adult themes” in current Hollywood fare. Edelstein, who comes across equally old and equally bitter, fondly recalls an earlier era of films like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, EASY RIDER, and BANANAS. Ross, who is not old and is only slightly bitter, merely opines that “blockbusters were arguably better in the 1980s, and they’re arguably worse now.” Even Alberty, the youngest and in no way bitter member of the debate, cites a move “away from the basic foundations of good storytelling” and a “lowering of quality.”
More or less, everyone agrees: “Today’s Hollywood movies – or at least big-budget summer tent-pole movies – really suck.” The only disagreement is about how much they suck, exactly when they started sucking, and who is to blame for the suckage. For me, this is the old Golden Age Theory rearing its ugly head once again: once upon a time, things were great, and now they’re not. After sitting through something like JONAH HEX, I can certainly understand why some would think we’re living in the cinematic equivalent of the Dark Ages, but as someone who was old enough to see it first hand, I can tell you that the earlier “Golden Age” was not that golden.
Basically, franchise film-making has been around since the silent era. Long before almost every sequel had a number after its title, there were countless movies about Ma and Pa Kettel and Francis the Talking mule – not to mention durable characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and James Bond. Not only that: big-budget blockbusters have been with us forever, and not all of them turned out as successfully as GONE WITH THE WIND. (CLEOPATRA, anyone?) In short, just about every complaint you could make about today’s Hollywood (recycling, overspending, glitz over substance) could have been – and has been lodged – for decades.
So, am I saying that nothing has changed since JAWS and STARS hit big in the 1970s? Of course not. Release patterns, as Podhoretz rightly points out, have changed from the days when Hollywood opened its movies in exclusive engagements and gradually rolled them out over the rest of the country. But I suspect this change would have occurred whether or not Universal had struck gold by debuting JAWS in wide release (on 400 screens – miniscule by today’s standards). The reality of home entertainment options like DVD and VOD have pretty much seen to that.
I think what really has Podhoretz and Edelstein riled is not so much bigger budgets and wider release patterns; it’s that genre films, once relegated to the low-budget ghetto, now receive prestige treatment. Once upon a time, a critic at a major outlet could ignore horror, fantasy, and science fiction films; they would be handed off to a second-stringer, if they were reviewed at all. But when IRON MAN 2 opens in thousands of theatres, there’s a certain obligation to assess its merits, for good or bad.
What’s funny about this is that JAWS and STAR WARS do not represent Hollywood’s first love with genre subject matter elevated to big-budget status. Back in the early ’70s, when young directors and writers were implementing the lessons learned in film school and trying to make artistic statements, William Friedkin was winning Oscars for THE FRENCH CONNECTION – a gritty police shoot-em up that became 1971’s Best Film of the Year. Unlike a filmmaker of today, who would probably feel some kind of obligation to justify that success by following up with some kind of serious “message movie,” Friedkin instead brought us a film version of THE EXORCIST, a big-budget horror movie, which also minted box office gold and earned multiple Oscar nominations.
In a sense, Steven Spielberg (with JAWS) and George Lucas with (STAR WARS) were following in Friedkin’s footsteps: taking genre material and giving it the lavish Hollywood treatment, with all the craftsmanship and artistry of a prestige production. I suspect this is the real crime in the eyes of critics like Podhoretz and Edelstein – critics who believe that art isn’t worth examining unless it comes wrapped in a blanket of heavy-duty seriositude, who believe that conventional, down-to-earth subject matter is somehow inherently superior to the amazing flights of imagination that can be achieved in the realm of cinefantastique. In short, critics who have allowed their Sense of Wonder to atrophy.
Seen from this perspective, I don’t think Ross Douthat is much of an improvement. Sure, he is not ready to pin blame on STAR WARS and JAWS for the current blockbusters that he dislikes (who can argue when he cites TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN and PIRATES OF THE CARIBEAN: AT WORLD’S END?). But still, like Edlestein and Podhoretz, he yearns for a return to a Golden Age; the only difference is that for Douthat the Golden Age is not the ’60s and ’70s but the ’80s.
For myself I would argue that our current era, despite its obvious lapses, need make no apology to the Hollywood of the past. Last year’s STAR TREK movie was as much fun as STAR WARS. The first IRON MAN was as good a movie as SUPERMAN (1978). AVATAR may not be perfect, but it pushes the envelope on film technology and uses that technology in a genuine effort to tell a story with some kind of thematic resonance, however heavy handed. Everyone seems to agree that Pixar’s animation blockbusters, like the current TOY STORY 3, deserve the millions of dollars they make.
Lastly, Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) belies every argument one could make against the Hollywood blockbuster. It fits the formula we are supposed to hate (a talented filmmaker wasting his time on a summer studio franchise flick based on an old comic book), yet it emerges not only as a great piece of summer entertainment; it is also a complex, dark, and thoughtful meditation on themes as profound as any you will see in a “serious” drama (which I explored earlier here).
Yes, STAR WARS and JAWS taught Hollywood that they could make a galaxy full of money during the summer months, and many bad movies have been made trying to replicate that success. But the silver lining to this allegedly dark cloud is that horror, fantasy, and science fiction films are no longer trapped in the low-budget ghetto, and some amazing, truly wonderful films have been made as a result.
[serialposts]

Sense of Wonder: Gender equality on Doctor Who?

Karen Gillan and Matt Smith
Karen Gillan and Matt Smith

It seems the latest incarnation of DOCTOR WHO, played by Matt Smith, is engendering some controversy across the Atlantic, due to the short skirts worn by  current travelling companionAmy Pond (Karen Gillan), which are considered “too sexy” by certain Brit viewers. Ms. Gillan is not the only one accused of exposing too much skin: There was also a seen in which Smith appeared clad only in a towel, prompting some fans to complain that they could see the Full Monty – a claim refuted by the BBC. (Smith was wearing “an item to protect his modesty.”)
Defending her character’s wardrobe, actress Karen Gillan points out that Amy Pond’s skirts are standard length for young women of her age:

“I just don’t get it with the skirts. It’s what any girl on the street is wearing. I mean, Amy’s not a schoolgirl, she’s 21, pretty much the same age as me, and we all wear stuff like this.”

Fair enough. However, Gillan goes on to say that Amy Pond is the Doctor’s equal:

“It’s just never occurred to me that a woman wouldn’t be equal, in any sphere, to a man,” she said. “It’s nothing that has ever come up in my life and nothing I’ve thought about in terms of Amy. She’s just a strong girl, woman, whatever. Oh, let’s just say she’s a strong female.”

I’m all for gender equality, so if Amy Pond is going to wear short skirts, I suppose it’s only fair for the Doctor to show up in a towel. However, the issue here is not equality between a man and a women. It’s between a 21-year-old Earthling and a Time Lord who has lived thousands of years. It’s just a wee bit absurd to imagine that anyone from Earth, male or female, could be the Doctor’s equal. The only way we’re going to get gender equality on DOCTOR WHO is if the BBC decides to bring back Romana from the E-Space parallel dimension, where she remained at the end of WARRIOR’S GATE during the Tom Baker era.