Friday, January 28, 2011

The relative merits of flesh, latex and CGI

For those of you who came in late, “TMNT” is an acronym for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the comic book – cartoon – action figure – movie phenomenon spawned in that most awesomely plastic of decades, the 1980s. When the Turtles last blasted across the silver screen, they were foam and latex puppets and costumes worn by little people. In the new film, they are, naturally, CGI creations. Not that anyone ever thought Michelangelo, Donatello, et al were actual flesh and shell beings, but the updated Turtles raise the question: What’s more believable? An actual, if artificial construct… or a computer generated image?

When Merian C. Cooper’s “King Kong” debuted in 1933, Willis O’Brien’s startling effects of the stop-motion ape climbing the Empire State Building stunned audiences. They had simply never seen something so fantastic interacting with the everyday. To look at the film today, the stop motion animal is more quaint than terrifying, with its jerky movement and visible handprints of the manipulating animators on its fur. But for diehard fans, the original remains the quintessential Kong, despite (or, depending on your sensibilities, because of) its technical limitations.

Director John Guillerman’s 1976 remake made headlines by attempting to use an actual full size Kong robot. In the end, the 40-foot, 1.7 million dollar behemoth was stiffer than the 1933 puppet, getting a full minute of screen time. So the filmmakers ended up going with make-up / effects creator Rick Baker in a monkey suit, which looked like, well, an actor in a monkey suit (especially since he didn’t bother to stoop like an ape when he walked).

Then came Peter Jackson’s fully CGI “King Kong” (2005). Ostensibly an ode to the original 1933 film, Jackson’s epic was chock full of giant and/or icky movie monsters and a scarred, dinoflea-ridden, fully realized Kong (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis). And while the film was visually dazzling, many critics felt that it was TOO much, particularly in the scenes on Skull Island, populated with dozens, nay, hundreds of digital creatures. Jackson seemed to fall victim to Lucasitis: an overwhelming inflammation of too many digital effects, culminating in a lack of focus and often leading to eyestrain or headaches and an overall lack of emotional connection. In the end, Jackson’s “Kong” did okay, but wasn’t as enthralling (nor emotional) as its inspiration.

1980’s second entrant in the “Star Wars” series, “The Empire Strikes Back,” introduced the character of Jedi Master Yoda, brought to life by Muppets alumnus Frank Oz in the form of a highly intricate puppet. Despite sounding like a cross between Sesame Street’s Grover and Kung Fu’s Master Po, Yoda became an instantly beloved part of the Star Wars universe. It was obvious that Yoda was a puppet, but it didn’t matter. Yoda was real because, well, Yoda WAS REAL. When he reaches out and pinches Luke Skywalker’s arm to explain how the force isn’t bound by simple flesh, the interaction actually happens, to the benefit of both actor and audience.

Yoda remained foam and latex through the first Star Wars prequel, 1999’s “The Phantom Menace,” but by 2002’s “Attack of the Clones,” Frank Oz’s participation was cut to mere voice work. Yoda was now a full CGI creation, better able to leap into the air and do (very silly looking) light saber battle with Count Dooku, but he was somehow… less believable. The limitations placed on a puppet seemed to better fit a 900 year-old green dwarf than the airy weightlessness of ones and zeroes. It’s sad to speculate that at some point, George “the Terrible Tinkerer” Lucas could go back and replace the puppet Yoda in all of the films with a CGI creation.

Experimentation with CG people began in films like “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), “Terminator 2” (1991) and “Fight Club” (1999), but it wasn’t until Ang Lee’s “Hulk” that the humanoid star of a movie was computer generated (no, “Casper” doesn’t count). While the general public had accepted the bodybuilt but still human Lou Ferrigno as Bill Bixby’s angry alter-ego in the “Incredible Hulk” TV show of the 1970s, the comic book basis was in fact a far more imposing creature, a tank-sized beast that couldn’t even find pants at the Big & Tall Shop (especially not in purple). But, despite a gargantuan size, the bigger, badder movie Hulk failed to connect with an audience. A convoluted, overly serious script was primarily to blame, but could the fact that the Hulk wasn’t “real” have had something to do with it?

All of this is not to say that some movie characters shouldn’t be rendered digitally. Take Ben Grimm, aka The Thing from “Fantastic Four.” In the Marvel Comics universe, the Thing and the Hulk are about the same size, and have gone green-toe-to-orange-toe many times. In the movies, Michael Chiklis buried under makeup just isn’t as imposing (nor as tragic) as the character needs to be. Especially considering the character’s lack of human flesh and hair (two of the hardest things to realistically animate), the Thing’s rocky form seems to beg for the CG treatment (after all, both the flamed-on Human Torch and the Silver Surfer are fully CG in the upcoming “Rise of the Silver Surfer” sequel).

The key to accepting CG characters seems to be integration (ain’t it always?). Last year’s “Superman Returns” is in a way a curious example movie effects coming full circle. In the Superman movie serials of the 1940s, when the Man of Steel (played by Kirk Alyn) would take flight, the live action Superman would suddenly be replaced with a crudely animated character. That obvious cartoon has very little in common with the sophisticated CGI Superman used in many flying shots in “Returns.” Still, while audiences knew that computer graphics were being used, it was the combination of those shots with actual physical effects of Brandon Routh on cables and gimbals that made it work. If you don’t know which shots are “fake” and which are “real,” it becomes easier to get lost in the sum total.

But we still have to opine that the most dazzling flying shot in “Superman Returns” didn’t match the thrill of seeing that first majestic flight of Christopher Reeve in 1978’s “Superman.” That movie drew audiences to the theater with promise of making you believe, for the first time, that a man could fly, and it did, with nary a computer involved.

While the claim is that today’s audiences are more “sophisticated” in expecting far more from their special effects, we’d say it’s actually something less meritorious. Today’s audiences are more cynical. We not only expect that modern effects are flawless, we demand it and anything less than 100% believable is decried as being crappy effects, regardless of how much imagination and toil was involved. Maybe modern CG updates of old characters don’t resonate as strongly because the wonder’s gone. The sad fact is, movie magic has become a thing of the past, replaced with cold movie science. Due to the catch-all answer of “with computers,” nobody ever gasps at the fantastic and asks those five words that entranced moviegoers for practically a century: “How did they DO that?”

10 Temptations of the female persuasion

In “I Think I Love My Wife,” Chris Rock plays a married man who can’t stop fantasizing about other women and finds the ultimate temptation in Kerry Washington. There have been approximately a gazillion movies in which some guy is mooning over some woman he can’t have, and in some instances, infatuation turns to obsession. To wit, our list of the top ten temptation-inducing sirens of the silver screen, some innocuous, some deadly.

10) Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson) in “Match Point” (2005)
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Chris Wilton, a failed tennis pro who finds himself married into a family of means, pressured to start a family, and interminably attracted to his brother-in-law’s saucy girlfriend, Nola (well, it IS Scarlett). Chris’ reckless lust places his comfortable new life in jeopardy, and when Nola becomes pregnant and starts making demands, he sees only one, horrible way out. This pitch-black Woody Allen drama is in many ways a more nihilistic remake of his (better) 1989 film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

9) Jenny Miles (Bo Derek) in “10” (1979)
Despite being a successful songwriter with a loving girlfriend, George Webber is unsatisfied. He’s turning 42 and feels old. Then one day he runs into an impossible beauty en route to her wedding and becomes obsessed with finding out more about her. The tanned, cornrowed Bo Derek became an overnight superstar as Jenny, the unattainable fantasy that George (Dudley Moore) tracks to her honeymoon in Mexico. There, against all odds, George gets to fulfill his wish, but, as is so often the case, reality can’t measure up to fantasy.

8) Charlotte (Kelly Le Brock) in “The Woman in Red” (1984)
Gene Wilder (who also directed) stars as Teddy, a married man whose midlife crisis hits fever pitch when he spots a gorgeous woman dancing over a ventilation grate, her red dress flowing above her waist (see #2 for the inspiration). Teddy decides he MUST have an affair with this woman, and enlists his likewise-philandering buddies to help him bag the babe (to paraphrase Farmer Ted). If there’s a marked lack of guilt evident in Teddy, blame it on the fact that the movie’s a remake of a French film (those cads!).

7) Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) in “American Beauty” (1999)
Another midlife crisis ends in tragedy in Sam Mendes’ take on suburban malaise. Kevin Spacey won an Oscar (one of five the film received) for his role as Lester Burnham, a bored ad exec who begins seeing visions of beauty personified by his teenage daughter’s coquettish friend Angela. Lester’s crush is obvious, and the ostensibly promiscuous Angela feeds the fire by flirting, sending Lester into a second adolescence, working out, smoking pot, ditching his corporate gig for a job at a fast food restaurant and buying a 1970 Pontiac Firebird. Like most of the characters in this movie, Angela’s image is mere façade, forcing an ephiphany upon Lester that comes just a little too late. Or maybe just in time. You have to decide that for yourself.

6) “Baby Doll” Meighan (Carroll Baker) (1956)
In most films about sexual obsession, a married man desires someone else. In Elia Kazan’s film of Tennesse Williams’ story, hapless cotton farmer Archie Lee (Karl Malden) is driven mad by his own wife, the 19 year-old Baby Doll, pledged to remain chaste until her 20th birthday. As the days count down, Baby Doll’s not entirely anxious to consummate the loveless union, and threatens to extend her virginity if Archie doesn’t start making more money. In desperation, Archie burns down the successful rival cotton gin of the dashing Silva Vaccaro (Eli Wallach). When Vaccaro figures out who the arsonist is, he decides to exact revenge by taking the one thing Archie covets most: Baby Doll’s virtue. The highly controversial picture was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and declared by TIME magazine, “the dirtiest American-made motion picture that ever been legally exhibited.”

5) Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) in “Taxi Driver” (1976)
Here’s a tip: Porno movies make for bad first dates. That’s where Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) takes campaign worker Betsy in Martin Scorsese’s tale of isolation amdist the masses. Travis sees Betsy as pure and beautiful, qualities so rare in his filthy Manhattan that when she rejects him, he feels the need to do “something big.” Travis initially plans to assassinate the Senator for whom Betsy works, but when that doesn’t pan out, he instead tries to “save” teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) by killing everyone he perceives is ruining her life. Sadly, the movie will forever be linked to a real life obsession after it inspired John Hinckley to try to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to prove his love to Foster.

4) Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore) in “Citizen Kane” (1941)
Obsession can undo even the most powerful man. Such is the fate of media mogul Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) in what’s often called the greatest movie ever made. Kane’s stuck in a dying marriage to the President’s niece when he meets a young aspiring singer who makes him feel alive again. Kane immediately begins pulling strings to turn the talent-challenged ingénue into a star, but refuses to leave his wife for fear of a divorce ruining his political aspirations. Eventually, the scandal is broken, along with Kane’s dreams and while Susan becomes his second wife, he quickly begins to resent what she has cost him. There’s much (MUCH) more to the story, but Kane’s abuse of his power to make Susan a star is a key part of his downfall. If you still haven’t seen it, fer cryin’ out loud, add it to the queue!!

3) The (unnamed) Girl (Marilyn Monroe) in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955)
In the 1950s, there was no greater object of desire than Marilyn Monroe, and this witty Billy Wilder comedy paints a vivid portrait of what it would be like to have the embodiment of sex living right upstairs. Tommy Ewell plays Richard Sherman, a perfectly nice NYC family man whose wife and son are vacationing in Maine, leaving him a veritable bachelor for the summer. When a bubbly, friendly, va-va-voomy blonde moves into the apartment above him, the normally faithful Richard finds temptation at every turn. Well, how would you react if Marilyn Monroe put her bare feet up in front of your A/C and started talking about how she keeps her panties in the freezer when it gets too hot?

2) Madeleine Elster / Judy Barton (Kim Novak) in “Vertigo” (1958)
The superb James Stewart plays “Scottie” Ferguson, a former police detective hired by an old friend to tail his wife Madeleine and get to the bottom of her strange behavior. After saving Madeleine from a suicidal dive into the San Francisco Bay, Scottie falls in love with the strange, yet haunting woman, but his chronic vertigo prevents him from stopping her second attempt to off herself by jumping from a church bell tower. Scottie has a breakdown, and is unable to get over Maddie until he meets Judy, a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his lost love. Scottie becomes obsessed with restyling Judy into Maddie’s exact likeness, but a familiar piece of jewelry hints that Scottie doesn’t really have to try at all. “Vertigo” was Hitchcock’s most complex film, and perhaps his bleakest as well. It’s also widely considered his best.

1) Dolores “Lolita” Haze (Sue Lyon) (1962)
No obsession ever proved more destructive than that of Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nobokov’s “Lolita.” James Mason is brilliant as the erudite professor who marries his landlady, the shrill Charlotte Haze (Shelley Winters) just to be close to her flirty teenage daughter, Lolita. When Charlotte discovers via Humbert’s journal that his feelings for Lo’ are decidedly un-paternal, she runs into the street… and an oncoming car. Humbert’s subsequent attempt to make Lolita his own is hampered by the obstructions of Hollywood ne’er do well Clare Quilty (a terrific Peter Sellers), suspicious acquaintances and Lolita’s own feisty rebelliousness. To say it ends badly for all involved is putting it mildly. While time has rendered the film somewhat less controversial (although the 1999 remake still had trouble finding a distributor), its depiction of desperation, obsession and self-destruction remains painfully palpable.

So, what’s the lesson here, fellas? Stay single? Keep your roving eyes averted from that bewitching redhead you see at Starbucks every day? Don’t try to date teenagers? There are many things we can learn from these movies, guys, but the main thing to remember is don’t EVER watch any of these films with your significant other. You will get smacked.

Has it EVER been safe to go into the water?

South Korea adds to the vast library of Asian monster movies with this week’s “Gwoemul” aka “The Host,” about a mutant fish-monster wreaking havoc around Seoul’s Han River! There are lots of scary lurking in the murky open waters: Jellyfish, garbage, little kids’ pee, and that weird guy on the boogie board who keeps staring at your girlfriend. But are they as menacing as our list of the top ten water-dwelling movie threats? Strap on your fins and take a dip with us!

10) The Atomic Octopus in “Bride of the Monster” (1956)
Okay, so the guard octopus in Ed Wood’s opus about the evil Dr. Varnoff (Bela Lugosi, ‘natch) and his plot to create atomic super-beings isn’t that impressive at first. Stock footage of an octopus doesn’t match the rubber creature that only moves when a victim is making its arms flail about (gloriously recreated in Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood”). But when the eight-armed creature is shot at the end, it explodes with the power of a nuclear explosion! Oh, wait, that’s just more stock footage.

9) The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
In this groundbreaking monster movie, an atomic test awakens a hibernating Rhedosaurus (don’t look for it at the Museum of Natural History) which swims to New York and wreaks havoc at Coney Island! Stop motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen designed the sense-rattling effects, and the movie begat the whole “atomic monster” genre (which exploded the following year with the star of our next selection).

8) Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster aka Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966)
Two, count ‘em, two giant creatures from the deep do battle in this otherwise unremarkable entrant in the quintessential Japanese monster series. Godzilla’s not tromping Tokyo in this one, he actually spends most of the film napping on a small island until he’s awakened by a bunch of meddling kids to do battle with the evil terrorist organization Red Bamboo… oh, and Ebirah! A giant, evil, um, SHRIMP! No, really! Mothra gets in on the action for a little bit, too.

7) Betty White’s pet in “Lake Placid” (1999)
David E. Kelley may be best known for his legal TV dramas such as “L.A. Law,” “Boston Public” and “The Practice,” but he also penned this campy B monster movie. Bridget Fonda plays a paleontologist who teams with game warden Bill Pullman to investigate a giant creature attacking people in a Maine lake. The beast turns out to be a monstrous crocodile that’s grown to 30 feet due to a diet of swimmers, misplaced bears and cows fed to her by a foul-mouthed Betty White!! No Oscar winner, but good campy fun.

6) Humanoids from the Deep (1980)
Schlockmeister Roger Corman produced this tale of the dangers of playing with your food. When a fishing cannery experiments with growth hormones, some experimental trout escape to the sea, where they’re eaten by other fish that mutate into huge, hideous, large fanged monsters who really hate horny teenagers. A legion of the creatures invade a carnival, ripping the men to shreds and raping the women!?!? Not a feminist fave, the film was remade in 1996 for Showtime, with less gore and no sex… the point being?

5) the, uh, Septopus from “It Came From Beneath the Sea” (1955)
Ray Harryhausen returned to sea creatures with this 1955 entrant, in which an enormous, mutated octopus attacks San Francisco! After destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, the beast slithers inland where it wreaks more destruction before being blown to smithereens. It’s funny to note that due to budgetary and production limitations, this octopus only has six legs! Still, it’s scarier than Ed Wood’s rubber nuke-topus.

4) The She-Creature (1956)
Dr. Carlo Lombardi, an evil hypnotist mesmerizes his lovely assistant (the babealicious Marla English) and conjures her prehistoric ancestor from the sea, the hideous She-Creature! Dr. Lombardi’s reputation as a psychic grows when he begins to predicts someone’s death, then have the creature kill that person! Great idea! Of course, all ends badly for the doctor and well for all mankind. The She-Creature was re-imagined as a mermaid with a dark side in a 2001 Cable Movie, but the original is a far cooler beast from the depths (perhaps the only movie monster to display breasts?).

3) The giant squid in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954)
There have been numerous adaptations of Jules Verne’s classic 1870 novel, none more effective than the 1954 live action Disney film. James Mason stars as Captain Nemo, the vengeful commander of the Nautilus, the world’s first submarine, a metal beast that confused sailors believe to be a sea monster. The true monster of the tale is a giant squid that Nemo does hand-to-tentacle battle with near the film’s climax, a spectacular sequence that netted the film a 1955 Oscar for best visual effects.

2) Jaws (1975)
Arguably the most feared creature on the planet, the shark has figured prominently in hundreds of films, from 1930’s “Tabu” to “Thunderball” (1965) to Wes Anderson’s Jaguar Shark in 2004’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” But no movie, before or since, better captured the primal terror the shark engenders than Steven Spielberg’s classic “Jaws.” The movie’s got it all: superb casting, brilliant acting, a whip smart screenplay and unrelenting tension peppered with moments of sheer terror, all set to John Williams’ perfect score. The movie’s suspense was unintentionally abetted by a reluctance to show too much of the malfunctioning mechanical shark, which worked to the film’s advantage. To date, “Jaws” remains Spielberg’s best film. Really.

1) The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Few classic monster movies have aged as well as this late entrant in the Universal Horror series (originally released in 3D). An archaeological expedition through the Amazon becomes stalked by a man-fish missing link who finds himself attracted (along with every other man in the film) to the lovely Julie Adams. The creature is one of cinema’s most beautiful monster designs, but it’s his humanity that makes the Gill-Man so compelling and tragic. Two not-bad sequels followed, and a remake is in the works, which could be good, but we doubt will be better than the original.

And lest we forget the giant worms of “Deep Rising” (1998), the Godzilla-esque “Gorgo” (1961) and “Behemoth, the Sea Monster” (1959), Captain Ahab’s “Moby Dick” (numerous versions, most notably the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck), the killer oceanographer in a monster costume of “The Beach Girls and the Monster” (1965), the creepy (but heroic) “Swamp Thing” (1982), the genetically altered “Frankenfish” (2004), and the various aquatic beasties from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films just to name a few more. Jeez, with all this monstrous evil goin on in the oceans, maybe Aquaman’s not such a lame superhero after all!