Spielberg By Numbers – Raiders of the Lost Ark

And here we get the amazing team-up of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas!

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Plot: Archeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones is hired to find the famed Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis (and Indy’s rival, Belloq) find it first.

Seen It Before?: Literally hundreds of times. I love this movie.

Writing (9): I mean, it WAS written by the folks who gave us the script for The Empire Strikes Back so you know it has to be good. But apart from that, I think the script’s ability to blend genres works really well. It also balances character with action in ways that one doesn’t often see in action-adventure films.

And aside from a few brief moments of lag, the script is marvelously paced, moving along at a brisk pace without leaving the audience feeling that anything is rushed.

Acting (8): Harrison Ford is at the absolute top of his game here. His character is at once a hardened adventurer with years of experience, but he’s never let himself grow cynical. He’s not one to plan anything in advance in a crisis and yet he dilligently takes notes on what he researches. He’s not someone who’s very comfortable in front of crowds (outside of his classroom). He’s a nerd and he’s pretty clueless about women, but when he meets a woman who challenges him, he turns into a big softie.

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I’m always amazed at how multi-layered the character is, even though he’s based on any number of adventure serials from the 30’s and 40’s, all of which tended toward the formulaic end of the spectrum. But Ford is able to find a lot of depth to the character.

I also like Paul Freeman’s slimy Belloq who is the perfect foil for Indy. I really like the scene where he and Marion are drinking, and we get to see him loosen up a bit. He’s corrupt and a creep and he’s not averse to taking credit for other people’s achievements, but we get a glimpse of the charming vulnerable person he probably was in the past before the lure of money and fame drove him to abandon his morals. After that scene, we see him begin to question the Nazi’s treatment of Marion, but instead of doing the right thing and denouncing them, he chooses money and fame and convinces himself that sacrificing Marion is worth it. The script plays him pretty exclusively as a villain (although a charming one), but Freeman gives the character a bit of humanity that adds an extra layer. In another universe, he could have teamed up with Indy to fight the Nazis.

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The best villains are characters who COULD have been heroes.

The rest of the cast is a bit more uneven, but not terribly so. John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah is a delight and often the voice of reason, especially when Indy gets more and more desperate. Marion is a great leading lady, though I wish she’d kept the strength she had in her opening scene. For the rest of the film, she favors the damsel-in-distress end of the spectrum. But I love the scene where she and Indy are together on the ship. Their dynamic is expressed pretty beautifully when she accidentally smashes him in the face with a mirror and then, when he screams at the top of his lungs, she casually peeks around the mirror and asks, “What’d you say?”

Visual Style (9): This film looks incredible. It takes a lot of cues from old adventure serials and classic movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Mummy and yet it always feels new. On top of that, this film still holds up today, in terms of its visual effects. ILM never tried to reach beyond what they were capable of and as a result, the film has a timeless quality about it.

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From the ominous jungle in the beginning to the blinding light of Cairo to the creepy darkness of the Well of Souls, this film doesn’t ever stick to a single color palette or atmosphere, which keeps it interesting.

I did take off a point because the melting Nazis scene (which absolutely terrified me as a kid) does feel a bit dated nowadays.

Music (8): It’s nice to see John Williams doing more of the leitmotif work that he used in Star Wars. Before this, there was often a single theme (The shark theme, the five note message from the aliens, the 1941 march) that was augmented by a musical landscape in which that theme existed. With this one, we get multiple themes (Indy’s heroic march, Marion’s romantic theme, the ark’s ominous choir theme, etc.) and it helps to create the adventure serial tone that the film is gong for (much like how Star Wars grew out of sci-fi action serials).

I also like the creepy atonal moments of the score that hearken back to the horror films of the 1930’s. Those films often used music more as a spooky backdrop than a prominent film element, and Williams is just as good at that as he is created a memorable library of recognizable themes (a la Peter and the Wolf).

I gave it an 8 because I know how much better his scores for future Indy films will get.

Genre (9): I think Lucas’s influence with the script really helped to blend the genres together really well. With Close Encounters, we saw parts that worked and others that didn’t, but with this one, the comedy/horror/comic book action/1930’s romance elements all work together beautifully.

I think it helps that Indy himself is such an everyman hero. He makes just as much sense dressed in tweed in front of a classroom, clueless that all the girls that there taking his class are doing so because they’re in love with him, as he is leaping across chasms in a worn leather jacket and hat sporting a trusty bullwhip.

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Overall Thoughts: A fun enjoyable romp that has such a timeless quality to it that it stands up even among modern action films.

Total Score: 43/50

Rank

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (43)
  2. Jaws (42)
  3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  4. The Sugarland Express (35)
  5. 1941 (27)

Next week, we’re going to be getting a visit from a stubby alien who just wants to phone home!

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Spielberg By Numbers – 1941

Welcome back! This week, we’re looking at Spielberg’s first “flop.” But let’s see what the numbers say.

1941 (1979)

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Plot: (based on a number of real-life instances of paranoia and panic in the days after Pearl Harbor in the 1940’s) Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people in California are paranoid about another attack, and an unhinged pilot, a young man who just wants to dance, and an actual Japanese sub who plans to attack Hollywood ignite things into a manic explosionfest.

Seen It Before?: No. I hadn’t even heard of it until recently.

Writing (3): This hurt because a lot of folks I respect wrote the script, but it obviously suffered through a number of re-writes before it hit the big screen.

It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just that nothing really makes sense. It has a huge cast, and the chaotic setup of every character makes no sense until we get to the explosive finale and everything sort of falls into place.

And, I hate to say it, but the comedy doesn’t work. There are a few moments where I laughed, but those few moments of comedic gold are drowned in a lot of painfully unfunny forced comedy that just doesn’t work. I liked the Jaws parody at the beginning (using the same music and the same actress, even), but a lot of the dialogue-based humor just doesn’t work, and that’s horrifying because the cast features John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and Slim Pickens.

I think the biggest problem is that so much of the slapstick visual gags are thrown at the audience helter skelter with no regard for comedic timing, early on. By the time the movie finds its voice later on, the effective comedy gets spoiled by a lot of pointless shoehorned-in gags that detract from the heartfelt comedy of the main characters.

It tries to do too much, and muddies the waters.

Acting (6): A lot of the best comedic actors are tragically underused. John Belushi’s character is hilarious, but he spends so much of the film by himself that a lot of the gags become repetitive and unfunny, even though his character is the only one I really liked.

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Slim Pickens is another standout. His sequence doesn’t have much to do with anything, but he’s genuinely funny and his character feels like the retirement years of his Dr. Strangelove character (you know, if he didn’t explode…).

Dan Aykroyd (in his first American film) is one of the top-billed actors, but his character is held to the side, playing the straight man when needed, until he gets hit in the head. I must say, his, “I’m a bug!” scene cracked me up and made me wish he’d gotten hit on the head earlier on we could get more of him being a headcase.

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I also need to give a shoutout to Christopher Lee’s character. He speaks German so fluently and elegantly (and angrily) that it’s no wonder the script has him speaking German in every scene (even when he’s talking to people who are responding to him in Japanese and English).

The rest of the cast just feels flat. The weird love stories felt forced and awkward (especially the gal who is turned on by planes), but that may be more the fault of the script than the actors.

Visual Style (7): Believe it or not, this film was nominated for three Oscars (Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Sound Design, but it lost to Alien and Apocalypse Now for obvious reasons). And despite its shaky script, it looks great. From the atmospheric mist in the beginning to the dogfight over Los Angeles to the Japanese attack on the Santa Monica Pier, to the sight of a literal house falling off a cliff, it has a HUGE effects budget worthy of a serious war movie.

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One of my favorite action scenes involved a tank pointlessly smashing through a paint factory and then a turpentine factory, coming out exactly as it was in the beginning. The sight of giant vats of paint exploding and collapsing is really cathartic.

Regardless of how well the comedy works, the action (which just keeps getting crazier and crazier) really saves this film from being a complete write-off. It’s genuinely fun to watch, even if it isn’t super funny at the beginning.

Music (6): I wasn’t expecting the score to be as good as it was. The main theme, the “1941 March” is a delight (Spielberg has said it’s his favorite Williams march from a film he’s directed). The rest of the score has a lot of cues that suggest his later Indiana Jones scores.

My only complaint is that the score sounds like it’s for a totally different movie. It takes itself very seriously, but not in an ironic way. Its war-movie gravitas detracts from the screwball comedic tone. It’s a great score, but this film needed a kookier sound to it.

Genre (5): If it had been a black comedy like Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original script, I think it could have worked a LOT better.

The comedy isn’t actually that bad, but because so much of it is crammed into every open space, it doesn’t work. But I think this COULD have been a really great comedy. John Belushi’s unhinged paranoid pilot who’s convinced there is a looming threat should have been a much more central character and he should have been allowed to play off of more characters (I would have KILLED to see him in a confrontation with Christopher Lee’s straight-laced German captain).

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As a family action film, it works, in parts, but as a screwball comedy, it could have been better.

Overall Thoughts: It’s been three hours since I’ve seen it, now, and I can’t help but keep thinking about the stuff that I genuinely loved about this one. It’s one of those films, you enjoy more once it’s done and you can see where everything was going. But watching it for the first time isn’t a fun experience because you’re not really sure why it isn’t funny yet. But in case you were curious, the film wasn’t actually a flop. It just wasn’t as massive a hit as his previous blockbusters.

Total Score: 27/50

Rank

  1. Jaws (42)
  2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  3. The Sugarland Express (35)
  4. 1941 (27)

 

Next week, we are introduced to Indiana Jones! See you then!

Spielberg By Numbers – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Welcome back! This is a strange mix of genres, but when it works, it works well.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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Plot: A series of UFO encounters lead several people to begin to exhibit strange compulsions to seek out Devil’s Tower while the government tries to cover up the whole thing.

For the purpose of this blog, I watched the Director’s Cut. The Theatrical Cut was the original, but it had some limitations. The Special Edition was a departure from Spielberg’s vision, but the Director’s Cut is the closest to Spielberg’s vision, in his opinion, so it was the one I chose.

Seen it Before?: Yep! I’ve seen all three versions multiple times. Didn’t really get it when I first saw it as a kid, but it grew on me in later years.

Writing (6): This is very much a visual story, so unfortunately there are some points where the script wanders. There are several scenes that really aren’t needed, and some of the dialogue is a bit clunky. The overall plot is great and compelling, but the characters don’t always make the transition from page to screen.

Acting (7): Richard Dreyfuss’ character stands out among the cast. In his descent into manic obsession, when his family falls apart, you can’t tell if you want to sympathize with him or beat him over the head for being so clueless. His actions are completely irrational, but it’s obvious he’s under the influence of an outside force. And there’s the suggestion of an eventual homecoming where he comes back to his family with all the knowledge of what he’s seen.

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The rest of the cast just sort of fades into the background. Teri Garr’s character has to be sort of spacey so that no one else would believe her when he tells them her son was taken, but the end result is that the character ends up being more of an ethereal mother figure without much else.

Francois Truffault’s character also could have been given more characterization. He’s obviously obsessed with figuring out the meaning of what’s going on, just as everyone else is, but his interest is more academic. As a result, he’s basically just an interviewer without a lot of glimpses into his inner state. I feel like he could have been a much more compelling character.

Visual Style (9): I LOVE the look of the UFO’s. This is a very visual film, and the whole look is something that feels different from anything else out there. The bright vivid lights just make you giddy every time they show up. Plus, the culmination of everything at the end with the big reveal of the mothership is just so beautiful it hurts.

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And the effects still hold up today. It still looks completely breathtaking. It’s no mystery the cinematography won an Oscar.

I also love the camera work throughout this one. There’s a effective use of color that gives the film a rich texture, and Spielberg’s use of light (outside of the UFO’s lights) gives everything a really epic feel that I dig.

Music (9):  I can understand why it didn’t win the Oscar for best score because John Williams beat John Williams (he was nominated twice that year; how crazy is that?) with his score for Star Wars. So I totally understand.

But even still, this score is one that I really want to own eventually. It’s a gorgeous mix of ominous wonder, creeping dread, and triumphant beauty. The whole musical landscape is basically just human emotions in music form. And the fact that the climax features the humans communicating with the mothership via a musical vocabulary just gives it that much more scope (Plus, I really enjoyed that the mothership quotes the Jaws theme at one point).  It’s a beautiful score. When the end credits start rolling, you don’t want to turn the TV off because you just want to keep listening to the music and watch that mothership rise up into the sky.

Genre (7): This is definitely a sci-fi classic that’s really important to many people, and I really like it, but I wish it had stuck to one or two genres instead of twelve.

There are scenes of slapstick comedy, scenes of terrifying horror, scenes of optimistic sci-fi, scenes of action adventure, and scenes of tense family drama. Some of it works and some doesn’t.

The scene where the aliens arrive to abduct Barry is pretty much tonal and editing perfection. You feel his mother’s terror as they descned from the roiling clouds and then the aliens all start climbing down the chimney and through the air ducts while the lights blast through the open windows, ultimately stealing her son away from her.

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The finale is also a welcome dose of optimistic sci-fi in a genre dominated by hostile aliens blowing up landmarks. It’s majestic, sweeping, emotional, and uplifting.

Other sequences, like when Roy’s family begins to disintegrate around the dinner table, with him obsessing over his mashed potatoes and his son beginning to cry as he realizes that something’s wrong, is emotionally powerful, especially when it devolves into a screaming match between parents with the kids just wanting their parents to stop fighting. It’s very true to life, and very powerful.

But then we get scenes like when Roy starts building a giant model of Devil’s Tower in his house (which doesn’t add much to the story since he already built a model in his train set) that feels like it’s drifting from drama to comedy, and the tonal shift doesn’t work since that’s when his wife decides to leave him.

Overall Thoughts: When it works, it works great, but it can be inconsistent. Great music, a wonderful performance by Dreyfuss, and a beautiful visual palette that endures to this day.

Total Score: 38/50

Rank

  1. Jaws (42)
  2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (38)
  3. The Sugarland Express (35)

Next week, we’ll be looking at 1941, a film that I hadn’t heard about until recently. See you then!

Spielberg By Numbers – Jaws

Welcome back! This one’s a different-ish film than Sugarland Express, but it feels very much a product of the same mind. Let’s see how it does!

Jaws (1975)

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Plot: (based on the book by Peter Benchley) A killer shark threatens a beachfront community, growing bolder and more dangerous with each kill until the new chief of police decides to hire an eccentric fisherman to help him kill it once and for all.

Seen it before?: Yep! Didn’t feel brave enough to watch it until my 20’s (I’m a wuss, I know) but I absolutely love it!

Writing (9): Peter Benchley co-wrote the script, so you know he made sure nobody screwed up his baby. My favorite thing about the script is how it captures a lot of genuinely true-to-life moments. Obviously, great white sharks don’t leap up onto boats, but a lot of the early scenes with Brody’s family, and the day-to-day chaos of the town of Amity feel really genuine.

Once Quint is introduced, the script moves into a heightened reality which makes the shark’s increasingly uncharacteristic behavior feel more plausible than it would have if Quint wasn’t there being all crazy and amazing. Some of the initial dialogue between Quint and Hooper feels a bit forced, but once the three of them get onto the boat, the pacing picks back up and it’s smooth sailing (kinda) from then until the end.

Acting (8): I love Robert Shaw’s Quint dearly. Especially the devastating scene where he tells the story of how his ship sank in WWII and hundreds of his men died from shark attacks.  He chews a bit of the scenery here and there, but his increasing mania makes sense as you realize he never was able to move on from the awfulness of that event in WWII.

I also really love Brody. His fear of water is very convincingly portrayed. Roy Scheider never has to resort to any melodramatic flailing to get across that he is juuuust barely keeping things together. His moment of apotheosis when he shoots the tank in the shark’s mouth and blows it up, even though his boat is sinking around him is absolutely wonderful and Scheider sells it really well.

Richard Dreyfuss is a little more uneven. I feel like his character is the least fleshed out. He seems so confident, but there’s a suggestion that he’s compensating for feelings of inadequacy (especially since his character is wealthy and probably still supported by his parents). But there isn’t a lot to go on. The script basically uses him as a means of pushing the plot forward, but the actor could have elevated the character beyond that, I think.

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Visual style (8): I like how active the ocean is as a character. We get it drenched in sunsets and darkened by twilight and, even though it is also portrayed as mysterious and dangerous, it’s allowed to be many positive things, too.

The color and energy of the town and its beach are excellent and perpetually engaging, giving background characters a chance to be more than atmospheric wallpaper.

The only points I deduct are for the design of the shark itself. The animatronic shark they created for the film is a masterwork of engineering, especially since the production team had so many problems with it. But once the shark begins inexplicably leaping out of the water and becoming much more visible, growling at the characters and doing its best to make a meal of Quint (poor guy), the rubbery reality of the shark is laid just a bit too bare.

It’s still effective because it’s shot so well, but I think the shark would have been more plausibly menacing had it stayed in the water.

Music (10): John Williams won an Oscar for this score and it’s easy to see why. Not only is the Jaws theme completely iconic, but it is part of a rich landscape of music that Williams creates, blending ominous pursuit with the beauty of the island setting and the triumph of cooperation and ingenuity. There’s no “heroic” theme per se, but the music does create a sort of false sense of security in the third act where you see the three shark-hunters working together as a team, tagging the shark with the yellow barrels, and you have no idea that, very soon, the shark is going to destroy the boat and kill Quint.

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And then we get the bittersweet music at the very end that blends into the end credits. It’s not a bombastic score filled with bold brass and whirling strings. It’s very minimalist, but it works REALLY well in context.

Genre (7): Many consider this a horror film, and it is, I suppose, in parts. The shark attacks are bloody and brutal, and the rising tension is palpable in the final scenes. In many ways, it’s a lot like a slasher flick with the killer going from the virgin girl to the child to those who try to kill it.

I guess it’s more accurately a thriller, but the light-hearted city stuff, especially when the city council is debating closing the beaches, feels a lot more like satirical comedy. The shark is a problem people don’t want to deal with, but once the problem gets worse and worse they’re forced to finally fix the problem that they ultimately created.

The best blending of genre happens in the scene where Quint, Hooper, and Brody are belowdecks drinking, sharing scars and war stories, and then singing while the shark begins banging up the bottom of the boat. It goes from fun to tragic to fun to scary effortlessly, and it’s very effective.

I think a more ominous tone in the beginning would have robbed us of those great day-in-the-life moments, but at the same time, I wonder if this awesome movie could have been more awesome?

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Overall Thoughts: A classic, despite some kooky shark effects. Great music, great characters, and a lot more “real life” than one usually finds in a thriller.

Total Score: 42/50

Rank

  1. Jaws (42)
  2. Sugarland Express (35)

Next week we’ll be looking at Close Encounters of the Third Kind!

 

Spielberg By Numbers – The Sugarland Express

I’ve wanted to do some sort of tribute to my favorite director for a while, so I figured why not! It’s a chance to marathon all of Steven Spielberg’s works in chronological order. I do have a few of these “By Numbers” series going, and don’t worry, they will continue. Once Coco comes out, I’ll do Cars 3 and that film together in the next “Pixar By Numbers.” And Spiderman: Homecoming will be the next “Marvel By Numbers” entry once I get around to seeing it when it comes out on blu-ray.

But moving on!

So, why Spielberg, you ask? Because his career has spanned fifty years and he’s still generating buzz. He’s constantly trying new things, leaping between genres in ways that few others directors would dare. He’s perpetually relevant, and even those films that were huge disappointments when they first aired have found a steady fanbase in later years. He’s optimistic, but isn’t going to pretend that the world isn’t cruel and horrifying sometimes.

I’m going to watch each film in chronological order, staring with The Sugarland Express and ending…well, for now, I’ll end at The BFG, but there’s two more upcoming. I won’t be reviewing his short films (sorry Amblin’, you’re awesome, though! This also means Spielberg’s entry for Twilight Zone: The Movie won’t be included) or his TV films (though you should check out Duel if you can find it because it’s really good).

The five categories I’ve chosen are Writing, Acting, Visual Style, Music (which will basically end up being a review of most of John Williams’ catalogue), and Genre. Each will be graded out of 10.

Let’s get this started with his first theatrical film!

The Sugarland Express (1974)

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Plot: (based on a true story) A husband and wife hijack a police car in a desperate attempt to get their song back from his foster home, leading the Texas police on a long winding chase that becomes a media sensation in which crowds of people gather to see them.

Seen it before?: No, sadly. But I really enjoyed it!

Writing (8): For as wacky as the situation escalated to be, I felt like the dialogue was really natural. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the in-car dialogue was improvised. It moved with a sort of chaotic randomness that I really liked. Also, I LOVED the old couple whose car gets stolen in the beginning. The line, “Aw, shit, our car’s stole” killed me. And then later when we see them standing by the side of the road and she’s angrily grumbling at her husband. It’s just perfect.

The plot in general moved at a nice pace with only a few draggy sections. To be honest, I think some sections could have been cut or shortened, and there were some transitions between sections that were confusing. But the overall arc was really satisfying. This script won the award for Best Screenplay  at Cannes, so that’s something.

Acting (7): Goldie Hawn’s character was incredibly realized and layered. She’s naive, emotional, and smart at some times and not at others. She’s completely convincing as a desperate mother who doesn’t understand anything except how much she wants her child back while being clueless at how unfit a mother she would be at that stage in her life. She gets a perfect ten from me.

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I also really liked Michael Sacks’ Patrolman Maxwell Slide, the young police officer who ends up becoming a sort of ally to the Poplins by the end. He starts out a bit flat but finds a greater depth as the story progresses.

And kudos to Ben Johnson as Captain Tanner who wants to get through this without anyone being killed. His decision to go back on his word is played with a lot of subtlety.

Visual Style (7): This film captures the chaos of the chase, but at times, it gets too chaotic. There are many moments, especially when police cars begin getting destroyed by the dozens in every other scene, where you’re not sure which car you’re supposed to be watching. With that said, the scenes of hundreds upon hundreds of police cars pointlessly joining the chase do a great job of showing how ridiculous the situation becomes. I also like the final shot of Slide silhouetted against the Rio Grande as Tanner finally removes his handcuffs.

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Music (5): This was the first collaboration between John Williams and Spielberg, which is amazing. The main theme itself is OK, but it’s pretty spare and doesn’t linger with you much. The best musical moments involved characters singing in the car.

Genre (8): Dramedy is hard to do. In many cases, audiences will have a hard time “getting” what the director or writer intended because they went in expecting one thing. I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny as it was, which was a pleasant delight, but the shifts in tone from the lighthearted fantasy that these people could actually succeed to the sad reality that things are NOT going to turn out well works really well. There are scenes where nothing particularly meaningful happens, except you’re on the edge of your seat because you’re just waiting for a police sniper to take them out when they’re not expecting it. I also like the audience’s growing unease when they realize that of course they’ll never get their son back, and they’re never going to have a happy life together. There’s a moment near the end where Jean is deliriously happy and you’re happy for her…until you realize that this can’t last. It’s really effective.

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Overall Thoughts: I really enjoyed this one. Great mix of funny and tragic and a fabulous performance from Goldie Hawn.

Total Score: 35/50

Next week, we’re going to be looking at Jaws! See you then!

Cinema – Episode 11: On Prequels and Reboots

Welcome back!

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Take a seat, why dontcha!

On Prequels and Reboots: 2000-2010

FADE IN:

INT. DAY. AN ATTIC.

Your HOST is going through stacks of old books desperately looking for new material while his friends talk about how they really wish there would be another Spiderman origin story.

~~~

This was not a great decade for the industry. There were some huge successes, but overall, a failing economy in America (and in the global sphere) led to audiences refusing to go to the movies, unless it was something they knew they’d like. Throw in the horrible tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war that followed, and you have people turning to superheroes and familiar action heroes the way Depression-Era viewers flocked to frilly escapist musicals.

It was a decade of stagnation. Some directors continued to innovate, but the public retreated to an ever-shrinking bubble of what they were willing to go out and see. Throw in the rise of streaming TV/movie services near the end of the decade, echoing the competition TV gave movies in the 50’s and 60’s, and you’ve got an unstable and Protean film landscape.

Nevertheless, you’ve got some fun stuff here.

CGI was still going strong, of course, and had advanced to the point where motion capture, a technique that turns physical performances into computer generated performances, added greater realism to the film landscape. Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron, whom we’ve met before, brought this technology to its greatest heights, but it was Peter Jackson who pioneered the technique.

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“Smile, Legolas. This is going on our Christmas cards.”

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has long been fantasy’s greatest and most treasured work, but previous film adaptations were either low budget or animated. Peter Jackson’s sweeping film adaptation, which everyone expected to be a soulless remake in a sea of remakes, was a hit with audiences and critics. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) combined as much practical elements as was, well, practical, and blended them with CGI environments and characters to bring Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life. Fellowship was the second-highest grossing film of the year, behind Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which I’ll get to in a bit), and was nominated for thirteen Oscars, winning four.

The next film, The Two Towers (2002), introduced the world to what motion capture technology was capable of when it brought the tortured character of Gollum (played by Andy Serkis) to life. Towers was nominated for six Oscars and won two.

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Gollum is sad that he didn’t get an Oscar.

The final film, Return of the King (2003), did the best of the bunch, winning all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated, including a rare Best Picture. win, which fantasy films had never managed before. Return still holds the record for biggest Oscar sweep.

Motion capture became the IT thing to do. Peter Jackson expanded it for his 2005 adaptation of King Kong wherein Andy Serkis donned the motion capture suit and brought the titular giant ape to life. The film is technically impressive, featuring some jaw-dropping action scenes, but sadly a bland cast (except for Serkis, of course) kept the film from making as big a splash as it could. It had a lot of potential, though. The scene with the T-Rexes is AMAZING.

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Round 1: fight!

Robert Zemeckis, who’s always been a technical innovator, got in on the motion capture trend for three animated films. The Polar Express (2004) took computer generated animation beyond what even Pixar had managed up until that point (and Pixar was doing great at the time) and brought more nuance to its characters by basing their movements directly on the physical performances of the actors who all wore performance capture rigs. Tom Hanks, the unquestionable star of the film, plays six distinct characters.

Zemeckis’ next film was an animated adaptation of Beowulf (2007) that used performance capture to create a gritty brutal world that was absolutely NOTHING like the shiny gorgeousness of The Polar Express. I don’t think audiences and critics really got this one, which does take quite a bit of license with the original story, linking the dragon in the third part directly to the events with Grendel and his mother in the first two sections as opposed to it just being a separate challenge to overcome. I really REALLY like the visual style of this film, and the actors are all amazing, but the pacing is a bit slow and I always find myself falling asleep near the third act. One of these days I need to watch the whole thing because it really features some of the best animation of the decade.

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That’s not something you want to wake up to in the morning…

His last film of the decade returned to the feel of The Polar Express, which had made a bigger splash with audiences than Beowulf. A Christmas Carol (2009) again used motion capture to translate Jim Carrey’s multiple performances (he played Scrooge and all three of the Christmas ghosts) onto the screen. This one’s really good, but it’s faithfulness to the original story’s dark tone (especially the third ghost) made it a bit too scary for young children and some critics (but what do critics know, anyways?).

Jackson and Zemeckis both expanded the limits of animated characters by allowing actors to physically create their character’s performance instead of just being a voice in a soundstage. Disney had done a form of this in its early days where they would have actors in costume act out certain scenes and then the animators would copy those actions on the page. In some cases, they could even rotoscope animated drawings directly over physical performances to give them greater realism, but with motion capture, CGI characters could get the Academy of Arts and Sciences to begin questioning whether or not acting awards could be given to actors who brought a character to life via motion capture (I still think Andy Serkis deserves about twenty Oscars for Gollum).

But motion capture reached its peak with Avatar (2009). While the performances of the actual actors were less impressive than in Lord of the Rings or The Polar Express in terms of their stylistic uniqueness, James Cameron’s ability to create nearly photorealistic CGI characters via performance capture is incredible. After Titanic, he began working on this, but the technology didn’t exist yet. It took a decade or so for Cameron to invent and adapt the technology necessary to bring his vision to life. His work paid off. Avatar is still the highest-grossing film of all time. Its story is familiar and its plot is pretty slight, but it’s such a COOL world to muck about in that audiences flocked to it repeatedly. This film also heralded the resurgence of 3D film. It had been creeping back a few years prior, but Avatar was a film that BEGGED to be seen in 3D.

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“You mean, other movies have had the same plot as ours?!”

After Avatar, many films were upconverted to 3D with uneven success, and then a slew of films were re-released in 3D to capitalize on the trend, again with mixed success. The Lion King and Jurassic Park were AMAZING in 3D, so I guess I’m happy for silly trends. 3D films are still around, but they’re not really the must-see thing. They drive box office profits up but I don’t think they’re going to change theater-going until the technology can be made more practical.

But anyway.

Avatar was an oddball because it was an original story (ish. I mean it was basically a Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves mashup) but the biggest hits of the decade were all remakes, sequels, or reboots.

The Star wars prequels, of course, were a game-changing part of the decade, making huge technical leaps while sparking debates and criticism about how those technical achievements were overshadowing the spirit of the franchise itself. Interestingly enough, Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first film shot entirely with digital instead of physical film. It’s funny that so much of the criticism leveled against the films were for an over-use of CGI since Avatar would later prove that it wasn’t CGI that bothered people. Realizing that cherished franchises, which were being brought out the woodwork throughout the decade, would never be able to have the same specific aesthetic that they had in the seventies and eighties bothered a lot of people. CGI-heavy films like King Kong could be big hits because their source material was far enough away that updated effects seemed necessary (after all, the original King Kong was a combination of dude-in-a-suit and claymation) but when it came to more recent franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the idea of mucking about with them and either telling more of the story or getting into backstory made people really nervous.

Things changed in the second half of the decade when the “gritty reboot” came into fashion. The origin for this, can actually be traced back to the television reboot of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. It took a campy TV show from the seventies and turned it into a dark brooding drama that got a lot of people hooked. The next year, the Batman franchise restarted with Christopher Nolan’s incredible Batman Begins which abandoned all of the series’ campy and fantasy elements and created a relateable commentary on the economic collapse of the Recession that turned Batman from an idealized billionaire fighting crime into a champion for people fighting poverty and corruption.

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“Don’t call it the batmobile! That’s lame! It’s “The Tumbler” now.”

Next up, the long-running James Bond franchise started everything from square one with Casino Royale, a brutal action thriller which abandoned the gadgets and catchphrases of its campier past and re-embraced the grittier realism of earlier films like From Russia with Love. It was a big it with fans and critics and introduced Daniel Craig to the world as a 007 learning that he can’t trust anyone except himself. The series continued to drift back into more fun territory in later years, but during this time in history, this is the James Bond people wanted.

After that, Star Trek was rebooted in film form in 2009 with a new roster of actors taking on the iconic roles of the series 1960’s origins. Despite criticisms (many of them spot on) that the film completely abandoned the spirit of Trek in favor of crowd-pleasing action, the film brought the franchise back into the public eye since the cancellation of prequel series Enterprise in 2004.

This is also the decade of the superhero. In the 90’s, superhero films fizzled out with Batman and Robin, but in 2000, X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Hugh Jackman in his first Hollywood role, proved that superhero films could be a thing again.

In 2002, Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, gained acceptance and appreciation. Fans loved it, critics loved it (it won two Oscars in technical categories), and it set off a chain reaction that’s still unwinding today.

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Strike a pose!

 

Ang Lee’s more cerebral Jekyll & Hyde-style Hulk (2003) wasn’t as big a hit, but it did signal what was possible with superhero films. The Spider-Man franchise continued strong with Spider-Man 2 in 2004 (we won’t talk about Spider-Man 3), and gave studios the confidence to start another massive franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008. The Avengers concept was a big gamble, with multiple film franchises all connecting together into a larger franchise that shared continuity with all of them, but the gamble paid off. Marvel’s success led to their being bought by Disney who oversaw distribution of their films.

It’s easy to get distracted by all the massive franchises that dominated this decade. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Batman, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and others sort of ate up all the media buzz, and it took other films a lot to break through.

One that bears mentioning is Brokeback Mountain (2005), a film that wrestled its way into the front of the line by sheer controversy. It’s central tragic love story would not have caused such a ruckus had it not been between two men. Not only that, but they were stereotypically masculine fellas, which freaked everyone out. Directed by Ang Lee and starring Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger, the film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three (though why it lost Best Picture to Crash is beyond me). It’s funny, today, the film, when brought up in conversation, STILL evokes uncomfortable mutterings about “that gay cowboy movie” even though gay marriage is now legal in the United States and LGBTQ visibility in media is increasing with each year. This movie made America so violently uncomfortable that it will probably be another ten years before folks can more openly appreciate what a good movie it is.

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That horse doesn’t care that those two gents love each other. Be like that horse.

Another big hit during this decade was Gladiator (2000), Ridley Scott’s Roman epic starring Rusell Crowe. Big budget historical epics didn’t generate quite the same buzz as they had in the 90’s, but this one snagged a Best Picture win as well as four other Oscars. The Big Historical Epic would fall out of fashion after this, but Russell Crowe would enjoy a run of amazing success after this, getting nominated for another Oscar the following year with A Beautiful Mind in 2001.

There’s a LOT more I could talk about in this decade, but I HAVE to mention Lee Daniels’ incredible career during this decade, producing the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball and directing the heart-rendingly powerful Precious (2009) which got six Oscar nominations. Incredibly, this is the first Best Picture nominee to be directed by an African-American filmmaker. Geoffery Fletcher’s script won one for Best Adapted Screenplay (making him the first African-American to win in that category), and actress/singer Mo’Nique won best Supporting Actress for her terrifying portrayal of an abusive mother, receiving a standing ovation when she stepped up to accept the award.

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This movie is pretty intense, but worth watching.

And that brings us to the end of Cinema. Looking to the future, the current decade is basically repeating everything the 2000s did. I hope something comes along soon that shakes everything up. If this blog is still going in 2020, I’ll definitely do another episode.

You are all amazing.

 

Sources:

Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 2000’s”

IMDb.com

Cinema – Episode 10: The Computer Generated Invasion

And welcome back!

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I, uh…I don’t know that dance…

The Computer Generated Invasion: 1990-2000

FADE IN:

INT. A LIVING ROOM. DAY.

Everything looks nice. Your HOST is sitting on the couch, when suddenly a huge CGI DINOSAUR smashes through the roof, joined by a gargantuan ALIEN SPACESHIP. He gets up, naturally, and runs out the door.

~~~

Everyone looks back on the 90’s with great fondness, mostly because all of us who love the 90’s were kids during the decade and hadn’t yet realized that life is cruel. In movie land, this was a decade of transition. There were lots of REALLY great movies that came out during this decade, but it was also the decade where the blockbuster craze from the 70’s and 80’s was reaching increasingly goofy heights and sequels were beginning to become tiresome. The upside of that was that while action movies slipped into silly territory, sweeping epics and prestige films (especially historical dramas) rose to prominence again in a big way.

But first, we’ll have to talk about the rise of computer generated imagery (CGI) during this decade. CGI had its genesis in the 70’s with innovative 2D animation in movies such as Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) and the early wireframe graphics used in the briefing near the end of A New Hope (1977), and then it became a practical tool in the 80’s with innovative films such as Tron (1982) and the Industrial Light and Magic animators who would later give birth to Pixar who made the fully CGI short film The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. in 1984. Last week, I also mentioned the water pseudopod from The Abyss that ILM made for James Cameron. This technology was expanded for Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 to bring the liquid metal of the T-1000 to life.

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Don’t worry kids, the hot murderbot bounces right back from this injury!

Computer technologies reached a period of breakneck evolution in the 90’s, going from a few minutes of CGI in some films to the first full-length CGI animated film halfway through the decade to live action films with fully textured CGI environments at the end of the decade.

I’m going to start this whole thing with Jurassic Park (1993), my all time favorite movie ever. Steven Spielberg would take a different direction for much of the 90’s, but Jurassic Park was Spielberg at his action best, combining the tension of Jaws with the wonder and magic of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all told primarily through the eyes of a child as in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, one of Spielberg’s biggest hits of the 80s. Aside from being a CRAZY FUN movie, Jurassic Park was ahead of its time in terms of its use of CGI.

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*gapes in Spielbergian wonder*

There’s only about four minutes of computer generated dinosaurs in the whole movie (the rest are all practical robot effects), but they stand up against a lot of stuff that we see in the second half of the decade, even though the technology had evolved considerably by then. I’m always amused that, during Jurassic Park‘s pre-production, George Lucas’s folks were working on stop motion animation in the vein of Ray Harryhausen to render the dinosaurs because the studio wasn’t sure if CGI was doable or even practical. The screen tests of the stop motion dinosaurs are really good (remember, this was also the year The Nightmare Before Christmas came out) but when compared to the CGI creations ILM came up with, there’s no comparison. Those incredible dinosaurs still hold up today.

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Like, that STILL looks pretty flawless, you guys!

Alright, I’ll move on. I guess.

CGI was used by a number of the decade’s most innovative directors. I mentioned Robert Zemeckis last week, director of Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Romancing the Stone, but this was probably his best decade. After achieving moderate success with Death Becomes Her, a black comedy about dueling immortal zombie socialites (I LOOOVE this movie) that used CGI to great effect to render the various horrible injuries the two women inflict on one another, studios approached him to make one of the decades biggest hits, Forrest Gump. The CGI in this one is more subtle, inserting Tom Hanks (who won his second consecutive acting Oscar for his performance) into various historical events during the 1960s, and erasing the legs of Gary Sinese’s Liutenant Dan (who’s one of the greatest film characters ever). Forrest Gump won six Oscars and became the fourth highest grossing film of all time (for a bit at least).

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“Speech! Speech!”

The biggest success of the decade, however, goes to James Cameron’s Titanic, which was nominated for Fourteen Academy Awards and won eleven. It also became the highest grossing film of all time for a while until James Cameron outdid his own success in later decades. Titanic is notable not just for its teen-focused love story and Celine Dion mega-hit “My Heart Will Go On,” but for its extensive use of CGI to bring the horrific disaster to life in as historically accurate a manner as possible (though of course, creative license was taken with many of the historical characters). It’s shiny and melodramatic, but dammit if this movie doesn’t make me cry every time. Cameron knew what he was doing with this one.

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“I forgive you, even though there was totally enough room on that door.”

Another director I want to mention before I go on to the next section is David Fincher, who made his film debut in this decade with Alien 3 in 1992. The production was insanely troubled on this one, and the theatrical cut did not do well with audiences (though you should TOTALLY watch the reassembly cut that Fincher put together later on with lots of footage that was cut. It’s an entirely different and genuinely incredible film), but Fincher’s talent with atmospheric visuals and getting wonderful performances out of his actors won him a bit of studio clout.

He used this a few years later to make the thrillers  Se7en (1995) and The Game (1997), both of which were well-received by critics and did moderately well at the box office. Then, closing out the decade, he made Fight Club (1999) an incredible adaptation of the original novel by Chuck Palahniuk that the author was incredibly impressed with. Palahniuk even went so far as to say that he liked the movie (especially its ending) more than his own book. Fincher’s string of success continues to this day and he’s become another huge favorite of mine.

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Seriously one of cinema’s greatest final scenes.

This is also the decade where Quentin Tarantino caught the world’s notice. Reservoir Dogs (1992) was his debut(a film which critics adored), but it was Pulp Fiction (1994) that was his biggest hit of the decade. His dialogue-driven non-linear story won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and established him as one of mainstream cinema’s most unique directors.

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This screencap is totally confusing out of context, so you need to see the movie and then discuss theories with me.

The other big trend of the decade was epic prestige films, which frequently swept the Awards ceremonies of the decade. After Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg turned his focus to history and made Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). They earned a collective twelve Oscars (seven for Schindler’s List and five for Saving Private Ryan) after being nominated for twenty seven Academy Awards total (12, 4, and 11 respectively).

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This movie is pretty gripping

Other directors picked up on this trend pretty quickly. Though Mel Gibson had won moderate critical respect for his directorial debut The Man Without a Face in 1993, it was Braveheart (1995) a historical epic that told the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, that was his biggest hit of the decade, winning five Oscars including one for Best Director.

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“HRAAAAUUUUGHHHH!”

Up-and coming director Ron Howard, who had achieved great success in the 80’s with Splash (1984) and Cocoon (1985), got into the historical epic trend with Far and Away (1992), a Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman vehicle which followed Irish immigrants trying to make it in America, and Apollo 13 (1995), the true story of three astronauts trying to get home after a failed moon landing attempt. If you’re going to watch these, watch Braveheart first and feel horrible about how awful the British were to the Scottish people in the 13th century, and then watch Apollo 13 so you can feel inspired about how awesome humans can be when they work together. Both are pretty spectacular.

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Everyone who says NASA is dumb needs to watch this movie.

Let’s see, what else…?

Oh, this was also the decade for a few new studios. We get Dreamworks, the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Jeffery Katzenberg (a former Disney executive). Amistad, which I mentioned earlier, is actually their second film. We also get Pixar showing up this year. Their first CGI animated film, Toy Story (1995) was a massive success and won a special Oscar for its technical achievement in animation. Pixar was distributed by Disney and then later on purchased outright by them, and went on to make quite possibly one of the longest strings of successes in animation history.

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“Woody! It’s an Academy Award!”

While we’re talking about animation, I should also mention that Disney went through their Renaissance during this decade, releasing such enduring classics as Beauty and the Beast (1991) and the Lion King (1994) which reinvigorated the studio after the uneven weirdness they experienced in the 80’s. The new animation style which characterized this decade was notable for its blending of CGI and hand-drawn animation, which gave greater depth and texture to both characters and environments.

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IT’S JUST SO ROMANTIC, YOU GUYS!

There’s a LOT more to talk about, but seriously, this could be a book in and of itself. I haven’t mentioned Independence Day (1996) yet, but that one was another record-breaker, winning big at the box office and wowing audiences (both with their depiction of the blowing up of the White House and of the President’s amazing speech, which seems a bit contradictory, but OK).

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*epic music*

Shakespeare in Love (1998) was another big winner with both critics and audiences, grabbing a handful of Oscars and making tons of money. It’s a fun one because I’ve had two literature professors tell me they love it for its historical accuracy, and then two others which hated it because it was so inaccurate, so I don’t know what to believe. It’s good, I guess. Oh, and of course, The Matrix came along in 1999 and twisted CGI to its limits in cool ways.

Also, James Bond experienced a brief resurgence with Goldeneye (1995), introducing Pierce Brosnan as 007, and he did awesome. My personal favorite is Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) which features Michelle Yeoh as the most awesome Bond girl ever. She kicks so much ass and never lets anyone treat her like an object. You go, girl!

Anyways, that’s it for this week! next week, we’re going to look at the odd transition of the 2000s and the awesomeness that happens.

Take care!

 

Sources

De Semlyen, Phil. “A History of CGI in The Movies”

Dirks, Tim. Filmsite.org

And, of course, IMDb.com