Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993) – Fant-Asia Film Review

This is one of the most enjoyable over-the-top action-fantasy-comedy-romances you are ever likely to see – a film that delivers the colorful costumes, acrobatic action, and supernatural thrills associated with the genre while adding a winning dose of humor. Viewers familiar with Hong Kong’s supernatural martial arts cinema will find this parody a real scream, but the uninitiated may find themselves baffled, rather as if watching AIRPLANE without have seen AIRPORT.
Basically, almost everyone you’ve ever seen in one of these films is on hand to spoof him/herself. The plot, ostensibly about a villain’s attempt to usurp a kingdom and kidnap a princess (Lin), mostly follows the ways the multitude of characters criss-cross paths at cross purposes, always falling in love with someone who is in love with someone else. You would almost suspect a Woody Allen influence, but the feary tale reference sin the sub-titles (those in the theatrical print and reportedly better than on the video) suggest MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM as a more likely source.
The combination of fight choreography and comedy yields some truly hilarious results. One highlight – worth the price of admission all on its own – occurs when one of our love-lorn heroes decides he just wants to end it all. The villain of the piece happens upon him and obligingly offers to put him out of his misery. However, an increasingly ridiculous series of martial arts stances (all named after animals) fails to deliver the death blow, because our allgedly suicidal hero just can’t prevent his defensive instincts from kicking in. The villian’s increasingly frustrated reaction to being thocked, thumped, and thwacked by someone who allegedly intends to put up no defense, is priceless, as is our hero’s repeated apologies for fighting back.
The other comic-action set pieces are too numerous to list. Suffice to say that the tone is epitomized when the villain gloats that only a deux ex machina can possibly save our heroes – and one conveniently arrives.

TRIVIA

This film is companion piece of sorts to ASHES OF TIME. Director Wong Kar Wai’s genre-defying costume epic, loosely based on the same source material as EAGLE SHOOTING HEROES, was shot in 1992 but not released until 1994. Using much of the same cast, the producer shot this film to help recoup some of his investment while waiting for Wong Kar Wai to finish and release his rather expensive production.
EAGLE SHOOTING HEROES (Se Diu Ying Hung Ji Dung Sing Sai Jau, 1993). Directed by Jeffrey Lau. Based on the novel by Louis Cha. Cast: Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wa, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau, Joey Wang, Veronic Yip, Kenny Bee.

Copyright 1995 Steve Biodrowski. This review originally appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of Imagi-Movies magazine.

Jurassic Park (1993)

This film deserves the highest of all praise: it actually lived up to its hype when it was released in the summer of 1993. This is the event for which dino-fans had been waiting; it is the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of its genre – the best dinosaur movie ever – one whose special effects render previous efforts obsolete. (Admittedly, it’s not as good as the original KING KONG. But KING KONG is not a dinosaur movie; it’s an ape movie, with the dinosaurs as costars.)
A reasonably faithful approximation of its source material, the film streamlines the structure of Michael Crichton’s novel and even retains some of his ideas, while adding wickedly clever touches of black humor, courtesy of co-screenwriter David Koepp.
As with JAWS, director Spielberg juggles the fates of his characters (compared to what happened in the book) and opts for a more spectacular ending, a sort of dino ex machina; the latter change may violate conventional dramatic structure, but one can hardly fault its effectiveness.
Technical credits are excellent, although John Williams, as usual, emphasizes the obvious (lush music for lush settings, etc.). Industrial Light & Magic’s computer wizardry imbues the creatures with amazing life: full-motion shots feature some incredible interaction with actors, and intercutting with Stan Winston’s full-scale, live-action versions is virtually seamless.
As with the novel, the human cannot quite compete with their saurian co-stars, but that doesn’t stop the cast from giving good performances, especially Jeff Goldblum in a role obviously tailor-made for him. Amazing enough for Spielberg, the children are not overly sentimentalized; if anything, they are exploited for all the fear they can elicit thr4ough their terrorized reactions to the rampaging reptiles. The PG-13 excises most of Crichton’s gore, but Spielberg ratchets up the suspense to compensate.
This was the best science-fiction/horror film of 1993 and easily the best film of Spielberg’s often overrated career up to that point. (SCHINDLER’S LIST came out later that year). Genre films don’t get much better, at least on a visceral-visual level. Inevitably, such a popular attraction draws its share of nay-sayers, but we should not allow these cynics to prevent the rest of us from opening our eyes in childlike wonder, exhilarated and stunned by the technique and artistry that brought dinosaurs to life as never before. The final glimpse of the triumphant T-Rex, roaring while a “When Dinosaurs Ruled the earth” banner floats to the floor, is sheer visual poetry; in comparison, Bruce the Shark from JAWS resembles a toothless minnow.

THE NOVEL

In print, author Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK often read like a dissertation on Chaos Theory, with the action serving as a dramatic illustration of the lesson being taught. There was plenty of suspense and gore, but in between the dramatic dinosaur attacks, Crichton offered up pages and pages of intellectual discourse, most of it through the mouth of Dr. Ian Malcolm, who acted as a sort of modern-day Cassandra, warning of the dangers to come.
Amazingly, the exercise was almost entirely successful, creating a book that was simultaneously a rousing adventure story and a fascinating piece of intelligent science-fiction. The film version, of course, could barely begin to scratch the surface of the novel’s text; instead, the screenplay gives a cliff notes condensed version of Chaos Theory. As a result, the movie tends to come across as a fairly simple, almost classic piece of alarmist sci-fi – a sort of high-tech version of Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.”
The book, although also open to this interpretation, was far more detailed and nuanced. The point was not simply that genetic engineering is potentially dangerous and science invites disaster by tampering with Nature’s domain. It was that, in a complex world with innumerable variables, it is often impossible to predict consequences with any reasonable degree of accuracy. Science, as a doctrine, is concerned with how to do accomplish something, not with whether that accomplishment is the right thing to do.
In the case of the story’s artificially recreated reptiles, the dinosaurs are not a new Frankenstein monster terrorizing their creator; they are simply wild animals – but animals whose behavior patterns are unknown. It is therefore impossible to predict their actions and/or completely control them, but the people involved in the project are too arrogant to admit that they do not have a 100% grasp of the situation. Inevitably, this leads to disaster.
The film version offers a thumbnail version of these events, presented with greater visceral impact because of the excellent computer-generated effects; however, the novel still stands on its own as an excellent piece of literary science-fiction, thanks to the far more detailed examination of the ramifications of the situation. Crichton clearly wanted to entertain his readers; fortunately, he did not shy away from trying to illuminate them as well.

TRIVIA

When the film was released in 1993, the video and DVD market were in the process of cutting into the theatrical life of motion pictures, which were spending less time in theatres before heading to home video shelves. JURASSIC PARK (along with PULP FICTION one year later) bucked this trend: JURASSIC PARK played continuously in theatres for over one year after is initial release.
In the same issue of Cinefantastique (October 1993) that contained my original capsule review of JURASSIC PARK, a letter appeared from a disgruntled reader who asked, “Was I the only one who wondered what happened to all the park rangers and geneticists in JURASSIC PARK?” Whether Mr. Ron Murillo was the only one who pondered this question is unknown, but dialogue in the film makes it clear that the staff leaves by boat before disaster strikes (although this is not shown). This may be a cheap dramatic device to clear the decks and streamline the movie, but technically, it is not a continuity error.
Jurassic Park (1993). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Michael Cricthon and David Koepp, based on the novel by Crichton. Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, B.D. Wong, Wayne Knight.
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Nightmare Before Christmas – Film & DVD Review

Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS gets another go-round in theatres beginning this week. Last year, the film was digitally enhanced with 3D for its annual Halloween reappearance. Disney puts the film into its El Capitan Theater in Hollywood every year; for 2006, the 3D presentation warranted  other theatres around the country – a tactic being repeated this year. If you have yet to see the 3D version, you should not miss this second opportunity. The results are not spectacularly eye-popping. Because NIGHTMARE was not designed as a 3D movie, there are few of the obvious sight gags we associate with the process: a couple of ghosts seem to float out of the screen early on, but there are no objects hurtling straight into our eyes. Instead, you perceive a wonderful depth and dimensionality to the stop-motion characters, as if looking into a window on their world. The digital enhancement seems to have sharpened the image, making everything seem real enough to touch. The beauty of the imagery – which contrasts the moody Halloween Town with the brightly colored land of Christmas – is more breath-taking than ever before, even if the characters are not leaping off the screen into our laps. 
Tim Burton`s skewered sensibility finds excellent expression through the masterful stop-motion of director Henry Selick. The songs and score by Danny Elfman are wonderful; the characters are engaging; the visuals are enthralling. Amidst all the weirdness of Halloween Town, the film still strikes a wonderful sentimental chord, emerging as a wonderful Christmas movie even more than a wonderful Halloween movie. Even the muted romance between Jack Skellington and Sally is poignant, and Jack`s reawakening to the joys of being the King of Halloween is invigorating.


A technical marvel of special effects, the film is also magical and beguiling in a way that few films ever are. Credit is due to all the wonderful talent assembled by Burton: especially stop-motion director Selick, composer Elfman, and screenwriter Caroline Thompson. Their combined efforts make this one of the greatest fantasies every committed to celluloid. Despite availability on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD, this is a film well worth seeing on the big screen again. In fact, why not turn it into a Rocky Horror-type experience and start singing the lyrics out loud along with the rest of the audience?
One of the great things about this movie is that it’s not afraid to be creepy, yet at the same time it has a warm and lovable feeling about it, although sometimes that seems to be more apparent to younger viewers. Let’s face it: any film that has parents saying it’s too scary for their children, while the children themselves love it, has something going for it.
Another interesting point is that, in a curious way, the film is a companion piece to JURASSIC PARK (which also came out in 1993), in that both are about the limits of intellect: JURASSIC’s John Hammond mistakenly thinks he and his staff can plan for every exigency and control the consequences, whereas Jack Skellington thinks he can know Christmas without really understanding it. In trying to analyze this alien (to him) holiday, Jack misses its spirit (or gestalt, if you prefer a less metaphysical term) and, unable to find it, mistakenly concludes that it doesn’t exist. Jack’s attempt to reinvent the yuletide season is somewhat less disastrous than Hammond’s attempt to recreate the Jurassic Period, but he nonetheless learns his lesson, and by the end, has found a renewed vigor for returning to what he knows best: being the Pumpkin King of Halloween.
All this may be a bit too intellectual for a film that truly is just a joy to watch. So just sit back and enjoy.

LASERDISC/DVD DETAILS

The The Nightmare Before Christmas “Special Edition” DVD is filled with the same extras and supplemental material that should mad fans drool when they appeared on laserdisc; the DVD basically replicates everything from the magnificent laserdisc box set, except the price: the laserdisc ran for about $100; you can own the DVD for closer to $20.
In either format, this presentation really is the last word on the film. Of course, DVD picture quality is, technically, superior, and you don’t have to get up and change discs (there were three to contain the film and the supplemental material). On the other hand, the laser presentation was more lavish in terms of packaging: the set came in an impressively sized box, with a rich velour interior, which also contained the coffee table picture book The Film, The Art, The Vision: Tim Burrton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, written by Frank Thompson. The book, with an introduction by Tim Burton and the complete lyrics by Danny Elfman, was quite a prize in and of itself, filled with behind-the-scenes photographs and information that would fascinate any true fan of this classic film masterpiece. Needless to say, that tiny CD case has no room for this lovely item.

Other than that, the two packages are almost identical in terms of content: a “making of” documentary, animation tests, deleted story boarded sequences not filmed, deleted scenes, an alternate ending with a surprise revelation about the identify of Oogie Boogie, a still frame archive, early pencil tests, audio commentary by director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik, and three great short subjects: Tim Burrton’s “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie” and Henry Selick’s “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimension.”
As a film, The Nightmare Before Christmas is probably the greatest achievement of Tim Burrton’s career, but that credit must be shared with his many collaborators, including director Henry Selick, composer-lyricist Danny Elfman, and screenwriter Caroline Thompson. The making-of documentary helps gives some insight into the various contributions of these people, while tracing the origin of the project back to Burrton’s days at Disney (when he hoped the project would be a half-hour holiday TV special, along the lines of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer). You’ll also get a glimpse of the “frame-grabber” that helped elevate the quality of the stop-motion animation to new levels. Basically, the device allows the animators to reference the previous five frames of animation, in order to make sure that the puppet’s next photographed position will blend together for a smooth illusion of movement when projected.
The audio commentary by Selick and Kozachick is dense and informative; in fact, the only problem is that, with literally every shot being an elaborate special effect, there is not time for them to dwell on specifics—each images ranks only a few brief comments, and then it’s on to the next. Still, this is hardly much of a problem, as the film is then followed by a making-of documentary and loads of behind-the-scenes footage that fills in the details that have been only briefly discussed in the commentary. Curiously, throughout most of the film, it sounds as though Selick and Kozachick were recorded separately and then edited together, with their voices carefully alternating back and forth; only near the end do they finally overlap and actually address a comment or two to each other, revealing that, yes indeed, they were recorded together. Presumably, they realized they didn’t have time for chit and chat, and most likely they stopped and started the recording several times in order to make their comments as to-the-point as possible. One only wonders whether Kozachick’s verbal references to the “laserdisc” will survive on DVD. (At one point, he suggests spending a Saturday afternoon counting the number of shots in the movie, which he reckons to be near 800.)
The storyboards show some interesting material, including an abandoned last-reel revelation that Oogie Boogie was supposed to be Dr. Finklestein in disguise. This twist was wisely abandoned, as it adds nothing to the plot; it’s just one of those movie moments that’s there because—well, audience expect twists endings, right? Deleted footage contains some early test scenes, without the final dialogue as heard in the finished movie; in fact, it sounds closer to Burrton’s original poem, which formed the basis of the story (and was later published as an illustrated book).
The three short subjects throw some light onto the creative input of Burton and Selick. Burrton’s “Vincent,” in particular, reveals a visual style that is strikingly similar to Nightmare (there is even a briefly glimpsed cat that looks the same in both films), and the black-and-white Universal horror pastiche of “Frankenweenie” also foreshadows some of the monochromatic imagery of Halloween Town. Selick’s “Slow Bob,” on the other hand, has a more brightly colorful palette, suggesting both Nightmare’s Christmas Town setting and also Selick’s later feature film, James and the Giant Peach.
Of the shorts, Slow Bob and “Frankenweenie” are both charming efforts, and you’ll be happy to own them as part of this disc. But the real stand-out is “Vincent,” a wonderfully ghoulish little gem that resonates like a film version of Burrton’s twisted tales as seen in his book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, and Other Stories. Structured like a music video, the film is set to a series of verses that tell the tale of Vincent, a young boy who wants to emulate his hero, Vincent Price (who reads the narration on the soundtrack). The images segue and shift to keep pace with the verses, switching back and forth between Vincent’s real life and his imaginary one (think of Calvin and Hobbes, if conceived by Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, and Gary Larson). My personal favorite is “Vincent performs experiments on his dog Abercrombie/In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie.” A mini-masterpiece, it’s almost worth buying this disc just for this short subject.
In short, whether on laserdisc or DVD, this package is a must-have for fans, presenting an excellent film with a multitude of extra features and supplemental material. Somehow, the large-sized box set seemed a more appropriate package for such a wonderful collectors edition, but that little DVD fits much more easily onto your shelves.

Jack Skellington tries his boney hand at filling in for Santa.

TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993; 3D versio 2006). Directed by Henry Selick. Story by Tim Burton, adaptation by Michael McDowell, screenplay by Caroline Thompson. Voices: Danny Elfman, Christ Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken page, Edward Ivory.

Interview: Stan Winston on making Jurassic Park's full-size dinos live and breath

Stan Winston's live-action raptors from JURASSIC PARKIn discussing his live-action dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, makeup effects expert Stan Winston referred to Willis OBrien’s KING KONG as “yet to be surpassed.” But the praise ir O’Brien had an edge. Winston bore the confidence of one who expected his work to be the top dog come June. But dinosaur film fans, who have seen many a live-action dinosaur fall on its face, will need a lot of convincing. “Steven [Spielberg] wanted to do live action as much as possible,” said Winston. “He asked how much we could do. I, being a little insane, told him we could do a great deal. He asked. ‘How?’ My response was. ‘I don’t know, but since it’s something we would love to do, we’ll figure out a way.’ I think that’s pretty much what Steven wanted to hear.”
Figuring out a way required revising the script and dropping some sequences, such as when the T-Rex takes to the water. “If we don’t feel we can do exactly what’s scripted, then it’s a matter of going back and adjusting to work within certain parameters,” said Winston. The parameters are not necessarily, ‘Can you do it?’ My gut feeling is that with the magic of the film-making process we can do anything, given enough time and money. The question is, ‘How can we do it within limitations on money and time – how much we’ll spend, how much can we get done?’ To bring in a movie of this scope on the dollars they spent, we were very frugal. Nothing in excess of $50-million is cheap, but investment equates to return. What you see on the screen will in every way justify the expense of this movie.”
Winston noted he faced two major challenges on the film: the artistic challenge of making the dinosaurs look good and the practical challenge of bringing them to life. “Our job was to create the most realistic dinosaurs that anyone has ever seen,” said Winston. “We did an enormous amount of research. We maintained a legitimacy to all of the available knowledge when it came to what dinosaurs looked like and how they lived. We had to take that reality and make it as interesting, as dramatic, as beautiful, and as spectacular as you have ever seen.”
As with men, not all Raptors, for example, are created equal. “Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are both men,” noted Winston. “We had to make artistic judgments in the creation of our dinosaurs to make this Raptor or that Tyrannosaurus the neatest one you’ve ever seen? A lot of that is instinct, not right or wrong.”


Winston saw the task of bringing the dinosaurs to life his biggest challenge. “They had to act,” said Winston. “We couldn’t cast a gorgeous actor who couldn’t deliver a line; we had to create saurian Robert DeNiros and Jack Nicholsons. That’s stretching it, but in the broadest sense of the term, we did need to create characters that performed. I think what we accomplished is beyond anything like this that’s been done in motion-picture history. I’m hoping the audience will feel as I do.”
The biggest influence on the look of Winston’s dinosaurs was the work of artist John Gurche. “I have an enormous amount of respect for the feeling of reality, drama and character in his work,” said Winston. “That’s what we shot for: that our dinosaurs were as dramatic and beautiful as a Gurche dinosaur.”
Winston began with a series of pencil renderings by staff artist Mark “Crash” McCreery. “I’m surrounded, fortunately, in every area – from sketching to painting to sculpting – by an unsurpassed group of artists,” said Winston.
Once the sketches received approval from Spielberg, fifth-scale miniatures were built, then full-scale sculptures.
“We attacked our sculptures in a much more technically engineered way,” said Winston. “Instead of just sculpting free-hand, we took our fifth-scale sculptures and sliced them into pies, so to speak, so we had a sculpture put together like the hull of an airplane; then we blew those slices up five times, recreated those hull pieces, and put the armature back together, so that we had an armature that was very close to the finished structure of the character. Then it was a matter of detailing: putting on the skin and doing the final sculpting on an armature that gave us the shape.”
At the same time, Winston and his crew were deciding on a variety of methods to bring the dinosaurs to life: cable-actuation, radio-control and computer-governed hydraulics. The most innovative method was strapping the top half of the T¬Rex to an airplane flight simulator.
“That concept came from Craig Caton, one of my key mechanical coordinators,” said Winston. “It limited a certain amount of shooting ability, because for many of the shots we would only be able to shoot the T-Rex from the waist up, but it seemed like a perfect way to do the broad moves-it’s a tried-and-true method of taking a lot of weight and giving it a mutli-axis.” Winston’s crew also built an insert head, hoisted by a 13,000 lb. crane, and insert legs.

The live-action T-Rex head was placed atop an airplane flight simulator for simple movements

For the Tyrannosaur’s more complex movements, Winston developed an idea “that came to me in the middle of the night: a performance-capturing Waldo. It was always a concern how we were going to puppet this enormous guy. We did have some people with us whose background was amusement park-size creatures like King Kong. The conventional method was, on a slide-pot board, to log in the actions of the hydraulic character, motion by motion; then, once that action is created, the computer memorizes it, and you can play it back over and over again. But it takes a long time to program that action and we needed to be able to take direction on a set. So I came up with the idea of recreating the dinosaurs’ inner structure mechanically – which we had already done in mock-up-so that we knew how everything would move. For every joint or axis of motion, we placed a linear potentiometer – which is a slide-pot, so to speak, that looks like a little piston. If we could get those little pistons to match the movements of the hydraulics, then instead of putting them on a control board, we could put them in place of where the hydraulics would be in the full-size character. This gave us a small version of the insides of the big version, so that any movement we gave to the small T-Rex as a puppet – holding onto it as a puppeteer and mov¬ing the head – would go right into the dinosaur, and he would do what we wanted, in real time. It worked beautifully.”
The film’s Triceratops and Bilophosaurs (a poison-spitting species) were filmed totally live using Winston’s creations. For the Brachiosaur, Winston’s team built only the head and neck. For the Raptors, Winston’s crew employed a variety of rod puppets, cable and radio-control versions, as well as the conventional man-in-a-suit approach. Fuller shots of the T¬Rex, Brachiosaur and Raptors were augmented with ILM’s CGI work.
Winston said matching his dinosaurs to the computer-generated versions of ILM was not one of his concerns. “It didn’t influence the design at all,” he stated. “They took exactly what we designed here and duplicated it. Phil Tippett was a major influence. I think that a great deal of any continuity that we have between live-action and computer-generated is greatly due to Phil and his helping us create as realistic dinosaur motions as we could. Phil’s a dinosaur himself.”
The live-action Triceratops was the only dino to go to HawaiiThe only dinosaur to visit the Hawaii location was the Triceratops, for a scene where the creature is found lying ill That left the majority of dinosaur effects to be filmed am stage, under the supervision of Michael Lantieri.
“Michael worked very closely with us,” said Winston. “We had certain requirements from a floor effects standpoint, a crane, for instance, to operate characters externally. We knew what was needed from his team and how any physical apparatus, interior or exterior, would marry. It was a perfectly coordinated marriage of teams.
“I would say that about the whole movie,” Winston continued. “It was the most perfectly coordinated movie I’ve ever worked on, from set design art direction, floor effects to creature effects. Every aspect of this film was a team effort, helmed by a director I had an enormous amount of respect for, even though I had never worked with him. Now, having worked with him, I know that it is no accident that Steven Spielberg is Steven Spielberg. He’s an incredible director, and he has an amazing feel for film. This could have been the worst working experience of my life, because it was the biggest. It turned out to be the opposite. It was a joy to go to work every day. It was the best working experience I’ve ever had, with the exception of directing my own movies.”


Copyright 1993 by Steve Biodrowski. This article orignally appeared in Cinefantastique Volume 24 Number 2 August 1993.