In an article at Boingboing.net. author Ethan Gilsdorf muses on the recent passing of special effects artist Ray Harryhausen, an event which inevitably symbolizes the demise of old-fashioned analog special effects: miniatures, models, and most especially the Harryhausen style of stop-motion puppetry that brought imaginative creatures to life for decades. While acknowledging that digital effects offer their own brand of artistry, Gilsdorf believes these effects lack heft, gravity, and presence.
Gilsdorf’s point is a bit vague in terms of defining realism and its cinematic value. On the one hand, Harryhausen used puppets with texture – palpable objects that could be touched, lending a greater sense of reality – and this makes his stop-motion monsters superior to today’s artificially created computer-generated effects. On the other hand, today’s computer-generated creations are feeding audience appetite for ever greater realism and becoming so convincing that they will soon be indistinguishable from images that were actually photographed – and this makes them somehow inferior.
So, which is more real, and which is best? Though the answer to the former question is unclear, Gilsdorf’s enthusiasm for stop-motion comes through.
Like many people who address this topic, Gilsdorf has a view of modern effects that is tainted by (an acknowledged) nostalgia for older techniques. For him, the death of Harryhausen represents the death of “real” special effects and of the “real” in fantasy films. “Times have changed,” he insists. “And not necessarily for the better.”
Perhaps, but not necessarily for the worst, either. Today’s computer-generated effects may be overused, but they have solved numerous problems that plagued older movies; in particular, CGI has freed the camera from its lock-down, proscenium arch look that often identified effects in Harryhausen films. Today, filmmakers can create effects-laden sequences that fit seemlessly into the live-action, the camera style virtually identical.
The problem, I think, is that the over-abundance of effects leads to a certain carelessness – not in technical matters but in artistic ones. What “effect” – emotional, intellectual, whatever – is supposed to be accomplished by each special “effect” in the movie? When filmmakers were limited by time, money, and technology, they had to make sure that their special effects paid off with emotional effects. Even JURASSIC PARK, the film that spelled the death-knell for stop-motion (switching from that technique to computers during pre-production) was somewhat old-school in this regard, making fairly economical in its use of movie magic, so that each dinosaur shot really seemed to matter.
I, too, miss the demise of stop-motion as a special effects technique, along with models and miniatures; I believe there are stylistic reasons why those techniques are superior in some situations. However, the same holds true for computer-generated imagery, which gave us, for example, the Balrog in LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING – one of the most convincing movie monsters ever depicted.
Fortunately, stop-motion lives on in films such as PARANORMAN and FRANKENWEENIE. Hopefully, it will continue to enchant film-goers for at least a few more years.
EPIC – the new computer-animated film from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios – marks an achievement of note, though not of honor: it is the most beautiful boring movie ever made. The 3D virtual photography is not merely eye candy; it is an absolutely stunning display of artistry, with vivid color and intricate details bringing its miniature world to life with breath-taking impact. Unfortunately, what happens within that world will be of little interest to anyone over the age of 12; the story – which is barely enough to fill an after-school special despite the presence of six credited writers – moves as slowly at the snail-and-slug comedy relief duo, whose unfunny patter leaves one yearning for visceral visual gags of director Chris Wedge’s Scrat character from the ICE AGE films.
Two plot threads intersect a bit conveniently in EPIC: After the death of her mother, Mary Katherine (Amanday Seyfried) is reuniting with her father, who believes a race of tiny people exist in the forest near his home. Meanwhile, the tiny forest people are fighting off the encroaching menace of Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and his evil minions, who want to turn the forest to rot. Mary Katherine (who likes to be known as M.K. now that she is not a child) stumbles upon Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), who has been wounded after performing a ceremony to select a magical bud that will crown a new queen. M.K. is shrunk down to size, joining forces with the noble warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell) and the brash young Nod (Josh Hutcherson). There is a time-lock involved: the bud must bloom beneath the full moon at a very particularly time; otherwise, it will yield not a new queen but an evil dark prince.
Will M.K.’s quest to aid the Leaf People somehow resolve her estranged relationship with her father? You bet it will! Not that anything she learns or does leads to any maturation on her part; it’s enough just to know that his belief was not sheer lunacy after all. Unfortunately, that revelation occurs in the first reel, leaving little to develop over the remaining hour-and-a-half, which is loaded with more than enough action antics but not nearly enough of whatever magic elixir it is that makes us care about what is happening on screen.
The characters are all defined in simple ways, which should be good enough in a fairy-tale world of the imagination, but somehow never generates the primal sense of identification that should come from a confrontation between Good and Evil. Mandrake is a meanie but not a particularly memorable one; even with the benefit Waltz’ voice, he never truly becomes a man you love to hate. Farrell fares a little better as the stoic Ronin because we’re supposed to imagine a softer side hiding beneath, but Nod’s character arc is as soporific as a lotus flower: he bristles at the rules and does things his own way, until he learns better. (This worked much better when the film was called RISE OF THE GUARDIANS last year.)
The dialogue (especially when it turns to jokes) lacks zing. The one exception is a brief hysterical bit, with a fruit fly going through it’s entire life cycle in a few seconds. The lesson here is that brevity is the soul of wit; unfortunately, EPIC takes its own title too close to heart, stretching its events out as if they were epic in grandeur and therefore needed to feel epic in length.
Sadly, this is not due solely to the script. As a director, Wedge attempts to build suspense – within individual scenes and within the film as a whole – by dragging out sequences that should have been short and snappy. He fares much better when avoiding dialogue and characterization; the film’s most fully realized character is Ozzie – an endearing one-eyed, three-legged dog who is as close as the film ever gets to capturing the manic energy of Scrat.
As for the rest: given forest full of beautiful creatures* (courtesy of production designer William Joyce, whose children’s book inspired the film), Wedge has little imaginative idea what to do with them. At various times, ravens and bats (for the bad guys) and hummingbirds and finches (for the good guys) duel in elaborate aerial battles, but none of them exhibits any defining flight pattern (you would think the hoovering hummingbirds and the acrobatic bats would offer an opportunity for an interesting match of competing skills, but you would be wrong). Instead, Wedge relies on sheer numbers to dazzle the viewer: so many birds that you cannot tell which is which, so many bats that they coalesce into an ominous cloud (admittedly, the last is a plot point, as they must blot out the full moon before it helps the bud bloom).
Wedge is at his best when portraying the pomp and circumstance of the Leaf People’s ceremony; otherwise, he is unable to invest the images with much excitement, let alone any kind of dramatic resonance. An exception is a doleful shot of a riderless hummingbird, waiting faithfully on a moonlit branch for a warrior we have seen fall in battle. A few more moments like this, and EPIC would have come closer to earning its name.
The final conflict is nicely realized if a bit generic, and the two plot lines finally dovetail nicely (M.K.’s dad discovered the voices of the little people while recording the sounds bats make to summon each other – a recording that proves useful at a crucial moment).
Even here, the film cannot resist the urge to over-egg the pudding, as the moment before M.K.’s return to normal size is elongated to allow a final romantic clinch with Nod. The filmmakers seem unperturbed by the notion of romantic longing frustrated by relative size, but no doubt they expect to shrink M.K. down again for a sequel – or, god forbid, turn the tables by growing Nod.
If not for the visual splendor, EPIC would be a total time-waster. Bereft of a compelling story, the imagery is better served in the film’s first trailer, where it is augmented by Snow Patrol’s song “The Lightening Strike” – which works much better than the Beyonce tune heard in the actual film. The haunting riff of “The Lightening Strike” suggests the epic grandeur that EPIC strives but fails to achieve. Potential viewers are advised to stay home and watch the trailer. Or better yet: watch THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY.
On the CFQ review scale of zero to five stars.
- The one exception is Queen Tara, who angular facial lines are more suggestive of a plastic doll recreation of a Disney villainess.
EPIC (20th Century Fox: May 24, 2013). Directed by Chris Wedge. Screenplay by James V. Hart & William Joyce and Daniel Shere & Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember; from a story by William Joyce & James V. Hart and Chris Wedge, inspired by Joyce’s book “The Leaf Men and the Good Bugs.” Rated PG. 102 minutes. Voices: Amanda Seyfried, Collin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Beyonce Knowles, Blake Anderson, Steven Tyler, Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd, Pitbull.
There’s no magic in this beanstalk, and viewers foolish enough to spend money on tickets are likely to feel as cheated as Jack when told he’s been swindled out of a horse and cart for a few worthless beans. The root of the problem lies in a fatal uncertainty about exactly what JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is supposed to be: a grim fairy tale, a light-hearted adventured, or an epic LORD OF THE RINGS knock-off. Whatever the intent, with its British flavor and oddball mix of humor and horror applied to a fanciful childhood tale, the film recalls JABBERWOCKY (1977). The misbegotten result would seem to suggest that only Terry Gilliam should direct Terry Gilliam films. (After all, if he couldn’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?)
The jumbled screenplay (credited to four different writers) mixes in bits of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the “King Incognito” plot device (in which a royal personage takes on the guise of a peasant in order to get a street-level view of the kingdom). There is also a love story and a villain plotting to overthrow a kingdom, and needless to say, there is a third-act ogre battle.
If this sounds like more than enough to fill up an entertaining movie, then I am not doing my job, because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER feels empty – of warmth, romance, humor, and most especially wonder. The exposition plods; the jokes fall flat; the adventure stalls; and the love story withers on the … beanstalk, I guess.
Director Bryan Singer is undoubtedly talented, but he does not have the required deft touch for this sort of thing, nor does his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The opening prologue is a cut-rate version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, telling us what we need to know without making us care. The “clever” cross cutting between Isabelle the Princess and Jack the farm boy foreshadows their eventual union, but the parallels are ridiculously exact and leave the end result in absolutely no doubt, so that the love story feels over before it begins.
Unable to install a Sense of Wonder into the proceedings, Singer and McQuarrie eventually resort to visceral shocks. Giants (whose visages are impressively detailed if not cleverly designed or particularly expressive) munch and crunch their victims, both animal and human, which seems a bit daring (though not explicit, thanks to the PG-13 rating), but in the end it amounts to little more than gratuitous titillation, something seen and then forgotten in time for the happy ending.
In a way, this points up the difficult of transferring fairy tales to the screen. The strength of the original lies in its simplicity and in its literary form: terrible things happen – as when, for example, the Big Bad Wolf devours the first two of the Three Little Pigs – but those deaths are abstract and symbolic on the page, a warning that bad behavior leads to bad ends, while the audience identification figure survives by doing the right thing. The characters are archetypal, without distinguishing details to bring them to life in a way that would make them mourn their demise. Children can enjoy these stories without being traumatized, enjoying the thrill of fear and the cathartic satisfaction when their hero triumphs, often by exactly a grizzly retribution on the villain – a safe, simple morality tale that works precisely because there is no gray area to cloud the issue. Movies, which usually at least attempt to create individual characters have it a lot tougher; the visceral impact is stronger, eclipsing the moral point, which in any case is usually not profound enough to warrant being expanded beyond a few pages.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER certainly has little to say that would suffice to justify the running time. Unless you think it is profound wisdom to opine people of lowly station may aspire to something bigger. Or that a princess should get to know her kingdom. Or that her father shouldn’t marry her off to a scoundrel. Strangely, for all its attempts to build Eleanor up as a strong female lead, her role remains that of a damsel in distress; her appearance in armor is just another form of bling, not indicating that she is actually going to do anything.
But wait, not all is lost. Although romantic leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are undermined by the script insistence on keeping them bland (Hoult made a much better lover when he was a zombie in WARM BODIES), the supporting cast shine through. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the princess guard, Elmont; his confident smile hits just the right tone – almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. Ian McShane is an impressive king. Bill Nighy provides an intimidating voice for the lead giant, General Fallon.
Best of all is Stanley Tucci as the scheming Roderick. In fact, he is too good. He makes you hate him so much you want to see him dispatched with – well – dispatch, but if and when that happens, what else has the movie got?
Well, the film does have that colossal confrontation toward the conclusion, when the giants rain down on humanity like organic meteors. The siege is reasonably well done because it relies not only on visual flair (giants hurling burning trees over the castle walls) but also on at least halfway believable depictions of how a human army might attempt to hold off a horde of giants. Truthfully, a bit more could have been done with this (showcasing – for example – how leverage might be applied by a smaller adversary to topple a larger foe), but at least the screenplay pulls off an interesting variation on “Chekov’s Gun” (you know, the one that’s loaded in the first act and therefore must be fired in the third) – in this case, a leftover magic bean that Jack puts to good use at a crucial moment.
As is almost obligatory these days, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is being presented in 3D engagements. Although officially not a post-production conversion, the film often looks like one. The early quiet scenes (of our lead characters as children, listening to bedtime stories) do provide a nice sense of depth, as the production design offers a genuine fairy tale ambiance. But once Jack and the Princess grow to young adulthood, and the action-adventure elements take over, Singer opts for camera angles and lens choices that create a resolutely flat look, with only a mild separation between the characters and the backgrounds. In a few cases, when we see human from the POV of giants looking down, the results are noticeably bizarre, with the human form stretched to ridiculous proportions, suggesting Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is another sad example of a big-budget movie with all the production value Hollywood can offer (including a fine score by John Ottman) but little in the way of inspiration. If not for the spark of life provided by the cast, the film would be dead as a diver after leaping off the rocky cliffs of the giant’s land in the clouds. In striving to be big in execution, the film feels small in imagination – a fact strangely underlined in Singer’s occasional choice of downward camera angles that lend a diminutive-looking stature to the giants. Taking something meant to be large and making it look small is no great accomplishment. If, instead, Singer had taken Warwick Davis (who shows up in a bit part) and cast him as a giant – now, that would have shown at least a touch of wit.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin. A production by Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Entertainment, Legendary Pictures. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy.
All movies cheat, but horror, fantasy films, and science fiction films are a special case. Every motion picture shoots its scenes over and over, then edits the best bits together to hide the seams: camera angles conceal objects the filmmakers do not want us to see; lens filters enhance the look of real locations, while unreal locations are built on sound stages; computer-generated imagery airbrushes away flaws in live-action photography. Fantasy-oriented film-making takes this make-believe a step further: miniatures assume gargantuan proportions on the big screen; makeup alters men into monsters; and CGI creates not only imaginary creatures but also entire worlds in which they live.
In such a context, when everything seems possible and much of what is visible on screen exists only because it was created with special effects, how does one define a movie cheat? Like this: In most films, whether they are achieved with live-action, animation, or special effects, the techniques used are supposed to be invisible to the average viewer, creating a sense of verisimilitude. The film is meant to unreel as if the events are actually happening, and the audience accepts what they are seeing without questioning how it was achieved.
Some filmmakers, however, are bolder than this. Sometimes in order to make a dramatic point, or more often to spring a surprise on the audience — the filmic equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat — the filmmakers will violate the “internal reality” of the film with a clever visual or audio cheat. This is different from the special effects that create a fantasy environment: wizards and monsters exist in the imaginary world of LORD OF THE RINGS, so it is hardly a “cheat” to portray them by whatever means necessary.
In this context, a “cheat” means a piece of cinematic sleight-of-hand that pulls a fast one on the audience, that shows something contradictory or impossible according to the film’s own logic. In short, a cheat works because the trickery is visible – intentionally so – otherwise, the impact would be lost. You may need sharp eyes (or the reverse button on your DVD player), but you should be able to spot the subterfuge if you look for it.
Take, for example, Walt Disney Pictures animated gem, TANGLED (2010). Computer-generated imagery takes us so far into the realm of fantasy that one may question the wisdom of pointing out a cheat; after all, what reality is there to violate? Yet, this wonderful animated fairy tale does indeed include a classic movie cheat, one previously seen in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE (1982). Watch the following sequence of shots to see how directors Nathan Greno and Bryon Howard use a movie cheat to create an impossible surprise.
When Flynn Rider first enters Rapunzel’s tower, he is seen in long-shot, clearly alone; there is nowhere for anyone to be hiding behind him.
As he pauses to open a satchel containing a stolen crown, the film cuts in to a closer angle, hiding the (previously empty) space behind him. However, before he can enjoy his ill-gotten gains….
Rider is wacked from behind, falling to the floor and revealing Rapunzel standing behind him, a frying pan in her hand.
How did Rapunzel manage to get behind Rider without being seen by the audience? In the long-shot that begins the sequence, there is nowhere for her to be hiding (unless her pet chameleon Pascal has somehow magically transferred his powers to her).
Presumably, Rapunzel sneaked up from behind, but there is a wall at her back and no object to provide cover. She could have entered the scene only from the right side of the frame, which should have made her visible to us – unless we are to assume that she crawled into the waist-high medium shot on her hands and knees, and then rose up once she had positioned herself so that Rider would hide her from the camera.
In short, Rapunzel’s appearance behind Rider is impossible within the “reality” presented by the film TANGLED. Does that make this a film flub? No, it is a wonderful example of an excellent movie cheat used to create a memorably effective moment that might have been mitigated by restrictions to the semblance of reality. This is movie magic at its best, using basic techniques of camera placement and editing to create illusions so convincing that we do not question them, even when they are “impossible.”
This article is the first in a series of favorite movie cheats visible in fantasy, horror and science-fiction films. These are all moments that catch the eye and/or provide dramatic impact because the films dare to violate the dictates of “realism.” Hopefully, exposing this sleight-of-hand will not undermine your appreciation of the magic; if anything, awareness of the cheat should increase your appreciation of the deft techniques used to achieve these remarkable and startling effects.
So, in the place of a CINEFANTASTIQUE PODCAST in which we discuss our top ten lists for 2010, we give you a CINEFANTASTIQUE POST-MORTEM in which we discuss doing a show in which we discuss our top ten lists for 2010. Who knew a little thing like a holiday weekend was going to interfere with our plans?
Oh, Steve Biodrowski also delivers his verdict on the Surprisingly Not Intolerable YOGI BEAR; and Lawrence French and Dan Persons join him in an evaluation on the original TRON’s retro-future, and on the evocative Japanese horror film, ONIBABA.
Maybe not the Lionel train set you wanted under your tree, but at least it’s not a boxful of underwear. Click on the player to hear the show.
In 1999, Warner’s released THE IRON GIANT. Well… released may not be the best term. Slipped into theaters under the cover of night so that anyone who might be remotely interested couldn’t possibly know of its existence… yeah, that’s the term. Despite the stealth marketing, director Brad Bird’s animated tale of a young boy who lives in red-scare, 1950’s America and manages to bond with a giant, gentle, metal-eating robot managed to catch a few discerning eyes (mine included), and has since been championed as a tremendously entertaining animation classic. As for Bird, well, the guys at Pixar took note, too, and Brad wound up helming a couple of minor trifles you might have heard of: THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE.
The staff over at New York’s Film Forum clearly know a good thing when they see it, and this year, they decided to treat their audience to a limited run of THE IRON GIANT as a holiday treat. It’s running from December 22nd through the 28th, and to commemorate the event, I got an opportunity to talk with Bird. We were able to discuss the creation of GIANT, plus look into some of his other projects, including his live-action debut: the Tom Cruise-starring MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL.
Click on the player to hear the interview.
In the latest episode of the THE CINEFANTASTIQUE PODCAST, Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons attempt to build their own consensual reality after a viewing of Disney’s return to the gaming grid, TRON: LEGACY. Has visual artistry overrode engaging narrative in this sequel? In a cyber world portrayed as a thriving urban civilization, how many audience members want to waste time in a virtual dance club? Who should preside over such a world: a young, menacing, but virile Jeff Bridges or an older, wizened, fatherly Jeff Bridges? And how long will it be before Siren action figures become the top-selling item over at Entertainment Earth?
Plus news, theatrical and home video releases, and just general, good chatter.
Having survived the rocky shoals of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons decide to kick it freestyle (as the kids all say — the kids do all say that, don’t they?) in a wide-ranging, nay, recklessly random episode of THE CINEFANTASTIQUE POST-MORTEM PODCAST. Covered in the discussion are Larry’s impressions of Julie Taymor’s daring adaptation of THE TEMPEST, Dan’s reactions to Bill Plympton’s impertinent animated short THE COW WHO WANTED TO BE A HAMBURGER, and Steve’s serene confidence amidst his critical brethren. Plus vag-monsters, John Lasseter, the COMMUNITY Christmas special, competing George C. Scott impressions, and the waning tyranny of THX Certification.
Hoping for a success along the lines of ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, Warner Brothers Pictures releases this live-action film version of the old television cartoon. Dan Aykroyd and Justin Timberlake provide the voices of the computer-generated Yogi and Boo-boo. Anna Faris, Tom Cavanagh, T.J. Miller , Nathan Corddry, and Andrew Daly head the human cast. Eric Brevig (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH) directed, from a screenplay by Jeffrey Ventimilia & Joshua Sternin and Brad Copeland, about a documentary filmmaker (Faris) who travels to Jellystone Park to shoot a project and soon crosses paths with Yogi and his sidekick Boo-Boo, who needless to say are in hot pursuit of pic-i-nic baskets.
Walt Disney Pictures releases the seuqel to TRON nationwide, including a run at the Disney-owned El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. The first TRON was, to put it mildly, a disappointment – a weak story propped up by (then) amazing computer graphics and an electronic score by Wendy Carlos (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE). Supposedly, the original has developed a cult following, which Walt Disney Pictures hopes will turn out for the sequel. Joseph Kosinski directed from a screenplay by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz, from a story by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz and Brian Klugmam & Lee Sternthal, based on the original concept by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird. Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner are back, with newcomers Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, James Frain, and Beau Garrett.