Tag Archives: Star Wars

Why I’m worried about “The Dark Knight Rises”

By Tom Kapr

 

Like any good movie nerd, I have been eagerly anticipating the release of The Dark Knight Rises since Batman escaped into hiding during the final scene of The Dark Knight in 2008. That’s four years ago. In this day and age, that’s almost an eternity to wait for the next chapter in whatever epic saga one is currently into. And Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (as it is now known) is the epitome of the modern epic saga. In fact, this is a first for the comic book superhero genre. Bryan Singer is the only other filmmaker to approach this success, in artistic terms, with the first two X-Men movies. Unfortunately, he decided to forgo directing the third one in favor of helming Superman Returns, leaving X-Men 3 in the hands of Brett Ratner. (Wow. I think I actually felt you shudder.)

This actually brings me to my first point in why I’m worried about The Dark Knight Rises. Traditionally, if the first two films in a series are great, the third will tend toward a huge drop-off in quality. This is especially true in the superhero genre. I’ve already mentioned X-Men: The Last Stand, which was frustratingly close to good, but only because it had a handful of great scenes surrounded by some truly dreadful ones. Spider-Man 3 was nowhere near the quality of Sam Raimi’s first two, which is a pity since everyone was really looking forward to Spider-Man fighting his great arch-nemesis Venom. Superman III doesn’t belong in the same category as Superman and Superman II. And when it comes back around to Batman, while I am no fan of the excessively unpleasant Batman Returns, it almost looks like a masterpiece compared to the cartoonish Batman Forever. I’m even going to throw Return of the Jedi into this, because while it will forever be a childhood favorite, if I look at it objectively, it’s not nearly as good as its predecessors.

 

This is actually the LEAST of my problems with JEDI.

 

Hey, Batman Forever is a stupid name for a movie, isn’t it? Superhero movies, and blockbuster sequels in general, tend to generate some stupid movie titles, usually because, rather than just slapping a sequential number on the title, they’re trying to go for something that stands out a little more. I could launch into a long tirade about stupid movie titles, but let’s stick with Batman. While it may not be as dumb as Batman Forever, The Dark Knight Rises is a stupid title. The Dark Knight Returns might have been a more fitting one, but then it would be the same title as Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel, which, while clearly having inspired Nolan’s vision of his trilogy, tells a much different story (involving Two-Face, Green Arrow, Selina Kyle as the madame of an escort service, a metaphorically castrated Superman, a female 13-year-old Robin, and the Joker going so far as to — SPOILER ALERT — chemically annihilate a Boy Scout troop). But hey, Batman Begins is an even worse title, and that was a great movie, so I’m just splitting hairs here.

I think the thing that worries me the most is that this follows The Dark Knight, which is possibly the greatest superhero movie ever made. (I personally think The Avengers beats it, but I have to at least put Dark Knight in a Top 3 of all time with that and X-Men 2.) And while it has some flaws, The Dark Knight isn’t just a phenomenally superior superhero movie — it’s one of the best thrillers ever made, period. It will rival any great crime thriller or psychological thriller you can put up against it. And this is largely due to the presence of the Joker. The Joker, as written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer, and as performed by the late Heath Ledger, is the best depiction of this iconic villain ever put on the screen. Not only is this one of the greatest and most memorable characters in the history of film, I would argue that Heath Ledger gave one of the all-time greatest performances of any genre, ever. That’s a lot of superlatives, I know. But while The Dark Knight is a good movie, it’s really the Joker, more than any other ingredient, that makes it great.

 

 

How can Nolan follow that? This isn’t necessarily a matter of topping oneself, but he has to at least be up to the standard that he himself created. While I can envision Rises being of the same general quality as The Dark Knight, what I can not envision is anything coming anywhere near the performance and the overall presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker. No disrespect to Tom Hardy, an actor I admire, nor to Bane, the formidable villain he portrays in Rises, nor even to the writing and directing talents of Nolan, who’s probably the greatest director of complex epic thrillers of the past decade. But just, how could he possibly live up to his own quality?

 

Then there's this. Whatever this exactly means for Batman, it indicates some degree of tragedy, and it is extremely difficult to make tragedy dramatically satisfying.

 

I guess I just have to hope for the best. And as I said, that is what Nolan is — the best. He has a better track record over his career than any other director I can think of. Memento, The Prestige, and Inception, the underrated Insomnia, and including of course Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – the man has never made anything less than a good movie. And with the exception of his much quieter and more difficult-to-love first film Following, he has never made a film that has been anything less than awe-inspiring.

I have to put my faith in Nolan’s abilities. I know that if I go in expecting another Joker, I’m going to be disappointed, so I have to limit myself to expecting, at least, another engaging villain and another engaging plot. I do have enough faith to know that Nolan will not re-tread what he has already done in the first two films. Every film he makes is its own film, and engages me in unique ways, so that is what I will be expecting from Rises. Take into account the established pillars that are Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine, as well as the considerable talents of Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and what you have is a cast at least as formidable as that of either of the first two films. (If you subtract Heath Ledger, of course.)

 

I also have this to look forward to.

 

At the very least I expect nothing less, but nothing more, from Christian Bale, who I sometimes forget is even in these movies.

The Films That Made Us — U-571

By Nathanael Griffis

Every film I’ve ever seen has had some personal impact; it is simply the degree of impact that differs. I would argue, that it is the point of something artistic, to have a personal impact. Art is meant to reach out to a viewer and affect them somehow. Quality does not necessarily lead to impact. Citizen Kane is one of the best films I have ever seen, but it does nothing for me personally. This does not diminish its value as art. It is simply to state that personal impact is just that, personal and not tied to quality. I love the film Troll 2  because of all the Friday nights I’ve spent sharing this film with friends, but it is undoubtedly one of the worst films ever made.

Still, one film has always stayed with throughout my life: U-571. This is by no means the best film I’ve seen, or even my favorite, but I’ll always love it for what it meant to me and what it still means to me. It was late April 2000 and I was on spring break. I had always liked films, but truth be told I was a bookworm and saw movies simply as entertainment. I liked Schwarzenegger movies, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Monty Python, and that was about it. Movies with kissing were lame, stupid, and girly, and as such to be avoided. Basically, I was a teenage boy.

 

 

I saw U-571 in the theaters on opening weekend, which was unusual for me. I know you expect me to say I came out of the film changed, that my vision toward film or something was shaken, but the truth is U-571 is not that kind of film. What was important to me was that I went with my Dad and a friend of his who was visiting in town. This mattered to me greatly, because they let me choose and I trusted my instincts, which turned out to be good. We all enjoyed it. I remember my father’s friend and my father turning to me as we left:

“Good pick, Nate, that was one intense film. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time,” my father’s friend said.

“Yeah Nate, that was a good movie. I’m glad we saw it. You did a good job picking that one,” my father said.

Now sure, we could say this is nothing more than a clichéd response to liking a film. Where’s the depth right? Shouldn’t I be talking about a movie that resulted in a long three-hour conversation over coffee and left me a different person? No, sorry. This film matters more than most others, because I had chosen a film and people I respected enjoyed it. It lifted me up and made me realize that my opinion mattered and that I could contribute. For a child this is a profound moment; this is truly a moment when one finds an important aspect of one’s identity. It had little to do with the film, which I still think is fantastic and has some of the most intense scenes in film. It had everything to do with the idea that I could choose a good film.

How many times do we look at kids and discount their opinions, because they’re kids. Hey, it’s cute that they watch silly Disney Channel shows. We throw away what they like and neglect to even give anything from music, books, or movies that they enjoy proper consideration. It meant so much to me to know that my Dad respected me and thought I’d made a good decision. It made me feel like an adult. It made me realize I mattered. Teenagers’ opinions are brushed off and thought of as ridiculous fads (sometimes rightly), so much so that we sometimes see adolescence itself as a fad of sorts. We see it as a phase that a person just needs to get through until they matter and can start contributing.

U-571 made me want to love films more, but not because of its filmmaking prowess, the depth charges, Matthew McConaughey or Harvey Keitel’s acting, or that insane scene where McConaughey willingly sacrifices one of his men to save the rest. It was because I wanted that affirmation. Simply put, I wanted people to like me. I wanted my Dad to be proud of my choices. It seems trivial and if I look at it objectively it is, but I’m a person and people are subjective. I have since seen at least 100 more films that are better and have a strong impact on me. WALL-E reminds me of the amazing bond and value of love and friendship. Up in the Air spoke to me when I was in a time of personal struggle between being single or in a healthy relationship. A History of Violence made me reevaluate my ideas about violence in film and in life completely. A Beautiful Mind gave me hope in my own ability to conquer whatever challenge was set before me. Singin’ in the Rain is nothing short of good memories of my family and sheer elation on screen. Finding Neverland helped me address issues of imagination and reality and their relationship to mortality.

None of these matter more to me than the simple act of my father being proud of me.

By Odin’s beard, let Thor 2 be an improvement

By Kevin McCabe

 

By the time Thor hit the big screen in the spring of 2011, the build-up to an even bigger Avengers release was already in place.  We had been given tasty morsels of semi-sweet chocolate Marvel with The Incredible Hulk and both Iron Man films.  And quickly on the heels of a shirtless Chris Hemsworth, was an equally stripped Chris Evans as Captain America: The First Avenger, to round out the group. I’m sure we will be talking about this collection of films in decades to come as we do now with the original Star Wars trilogy. Let’s just hope they don’t go down the same path that Lucas did and stick some Jar Jar Binks character into a prequel that disappoints all of us.

For now my focus is on Thor, and in my opinion it’s the weakest link in this chain. The out of this world locations, while necessary and in keeping with Stan Lee’s original 1960’s comic book series, were over the top with CGI. I understand the landscape of Asgard is supposed to be fantastical, but it looked like they borrowed building and scenery ideas from every other-worldly movie done in the last 15 years. It was inconsistent, very distracting, and didn’t truly help the story.

 

 

The other major flaw in my opinion was the A-list cast they pulled into the film that did nothing more than add their names to the marquee. With stars like Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Rene Russo as his mythical mother Frigga, and Natalie Portman as the love interest Jane Foster, they had a Yankees-type starting line-up. Sadly, they performed more like the Mets. I see that Hopkins and Portman are already signed up for Thor 2 coming out next year. I pray the new director and writers better use the talent at their disposal.

 

 

Despite these shortcomings though, Thor is still an impressive film. Kenneth Branagh skillfully introduces us to Thor’s half-brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston (also signed on for Thor 2). We get to see his character grow and mature into the typical jealous brother. Their relationship fuels the storyline here, and again in The Avengers. And I’m looking forward to watching it fester in the next installment. Hiddleston does a good job of making you loathe him one minute, and then feel sympathy for him the next. He and Hemsworth are a good matchup with nice chemistry, but I wish I could say the same for Portman and Hemsworth.

 

 

We are also briefly exposed to Jeremy Renner’s Avengers character, Hawkeye. As with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Hawkeye shows us enough mystery and skill to let the viewer know there’s something bigger in store. However, I would have liked to see a bit more action or back-story here.  Having him perch above the hammer impact site for five minutes of footage just wasn’t enough. We get only a little more history in The Avengers from both these characters. Maybe it’s because they don’t possess actual superpowers or the money to create them, but I think their roles are critical in order to properly balance the team. I know I’m not alone when I say that a separate movie about Hawkeye and Black Widow would be as well received as Thor, if not more so.

 

 

It’s a difficult task to successfully weave together almost a dozen or so key roles into a single storyline. To give each of them enough face time and depth of character so any one of them could support a full story… well that would take hours and hours. We’ve already been fortunate enough to have these six full-length feature films devoted to Stan Lee’s Marvel creations. And there are already plans for at least another four installments. I can’t wait. (And actually, I’m going to see The Avengers again this afternoon.)

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

A Quick Rant — Daniel Radcliffe

By Tom Kapr

It took me a long time to become a fan of the Harry Potter films (until around this time last year, I had only seen two of the films, Sorcerer’s Stone and Order of the Phoenix, and had only minimal admiration for both). A cram session of sorts (watching Chamber of Secrets through Half-Blood Prince in relatively quick succession) before viewing Deathly Hallows: Part 1 for that film’s Buried Cinema podcast made me realize that this film series is a towering achievement in fantasy cinema on par with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy. Rare is this level of consistency of content, story, and characters and actors in a film series; it is unheard of through eight films over the course of a decade. Rarer still is this level of consistency of quality. Sure, not every film in the series is a great film, but every one of them is at least a fairly well-made, enjoyable movie.

But let’s take a quick look at this film series’ most central and consistent quality. It is astounding to me, uncanny even, that the casting for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was so good that, over the course of ten years (which is an eon in the life of a child), every major child role would still be performed by same young actor who originated it, and that every one of those children would turn out to be a charismatic actor who could carry a scene, and carry it well. And none, of course, is more impressive than Daniel Radcliffe in the central role of Harry Potter. (Major props to Stone director Chris Columbus and his casting team Susie Figgis, Janet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins, and Karen Lindsay-Stewart for scoring the pivotal triumvirate chemistry of Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, especially.)

From the opening scenes of Sorcerer’s Stone to those final moments on the bridge in Deathly Hallows: Part 2, we get the distinct pleasure of watching a talented child actor become an instant star and then slowly mature into an even finer actor, all of 21 years of age, with an eternal cinematic legacy already behind him. It wasn’t until that final scene in Part 2, however, when I realized how distinct Radcliffe the actor was from Harry Potter, his character, and that, indeed, there may be a wealth of talent there heretofore unseen.

 

 

(Warning: Here be spoilers!)

The final scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 depicts Harry and his best friends Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, and Ginny Weasley (now his wife) as adults with children of their own, sending them off to a new school year at Hogwarts. In Harry’s case, he’s sending his son off to his first year, a reflection of Harry’s own moments stepping into the frontier from the first film. (And I don’t care what the guys said on the podcast for Part 2: the age makeup in this scene is perfect–it’s understated, just enough to show that time has passed and their childlike features are gone.)

When I first saw this scene in the theater, and Daniel Radcliffe walked into frame as a man in view of his middle-age years, I was astonished. He walked differently. He talked differently. He moved his face differently. Even just standing, he held himself differently. No sign of an awkward teenager remained. He had the physical confidence of a man who had been through life. And yet, he was without a doubt still Harry Potter. I can’t even do it justice by describing it. It has to be seen. But it has to be seen in the context of a decade’s worth of work. Before this scene, my thoughts were, “Wow, this kid has become a good actor.” As the credits rolled, I was thinking, “I genuinely believe Daniel Radcliffe deserves an Oscar nomination.”

And I do. He won’t get it, but he deserves it, for the final film alone and more importantly as a token of honor for the seven films before it. If not for that scene, I might be in doubt of Radcliffe’s future movie-star career. There have been so many one-trick ponies, especially when it comes to child stars. But in that one closing scene, Radcliffe showed he has  more to him than Harry Potter. (Understand also, this is coming from someone who hasn’t seen his one or two other non-Harry Potter films, nor his work on the stage.)

That final scene is the reason I am excited to watch Daniel Radcliffe’s career from this point on, and why I am looking forward to seeing The Woman in Black next month. It will be Radcliffe’s first post-Potter film role, a starring role in what looks to be a classic-style slow-boil horror film. He plays a young lawyer (a naive one?) on a seemingly routine job who gets caught up in the unfortunate history of the house in which he is staying and the, shall we say, unhappy ghost who still resides there.

 

 

You can watch the trailer here. Not only is it genuinely creepy (what with all those bizarre toys–what child wants those things?), but it looks genuinely artistic in its framing and production value. Thankfully, it also forgoes the usual horror-trailer jump-at-the-end cliché.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

The Old Toy Chest — Captain EO

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I simply can’t remember a time when Michael Jackson’s presence wasn’t everywhere (except for these past two years, of course). I wasn’t a fan; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to listen to his music when I was a kid. My mother found him disgusting, what with all the crotch-grabbing and whatnot, but since we had a TV in the house (yep, just one), being influenced by the man and his music was inescapable even for a sheltered kid like me.

As an adult, I’ve developed an appreciation for Jackson’s work. I’m still not what you’d call a fan, but I love certain songs of his, like “Billie Jean,” “Rock with You,” and “Smooth Criminal.” I have Thriller in my library, and I appreciate that Jackson pioneered the long-form music video with the title track of that album. But to this day, I’ve always kind of thought of him as Captain EO.

That's not a special effect on Michael's shoulder. That's the idea fairy that would whisper into his ear and drive him to do things.

Captain EO was probably the only Michael Jackson product I was allowed by my parents (begrudgingly, I’m sure) to embrace as a child; after all, it was the cool new thing at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and we were on vacation. Various Disney parks were the only places you could see the 17-minute short film — in the first example of “4D” (innovated by the film’s writer/producer Rusty Lemorande), in which the film is shot and exhibited in 3D and supplemented with in-theater effects to amplify the experience. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with a score by James Horner and two new songs by Jackson, and featuring Anjelica Huston as the villainous Supreme Leader (though it’s never explained why the “leader” of the good guys is the villain), the film has a lot of pedigree.

I recently re-watched Captain EO, having seen it before only once in the 80′s. And I have to say… pedigree ain’t everything.

The film opens on a shot of a meteor spinning slowly through outer space toward the camera… IN 3D!!! Suddenly a laser blast reduces it to astro-dust and a quaint-looking spaceship flies into view. Once inside the ship, we find that it’s populated by various Muppet rejects. (This would have been a perfect venue for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. However, the Jim Henson Company had nothing to do with the production. Captain EO was released as a Disney parks attraction in 1986; the Walt Disney Company did not acquire the Muppets until 1989. Two years later, they unveiled Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney-MGM Studios, which itself was only two years old. It was another example of the Disney Imagineers’ pioneering “4D” technology, and is overall a much better film experience than our current subject.)

These pseudo-Muppets make a lot of noise until they are silenced by the entrance of our hero — Captain EO himself. How this captain came to have such a strange crew of small aliens and robots is anyone’s guess. Captain EO immediate commands the room with his boyish, almost whining, “Listen!”

Clearly inspired by H.R. Giger's Alien design. Later inspired the design of the Borg Queen. And so we are all connected in the great circle of sci-fi.

Michael Jackson really looks like he’s trying hard to act, like he’s aware every second that he’s in a movie. Actually, it’s more like he looks like he’s constantly thinking, “Woohoo, I’m in a cool science fiction movie! The Star Wars guy is sitting right over there! Eee-heee!” then does a twirl, and throws his jacket off his shoulders and then flips it back on again — only, you know, in his head. In the meantime, he’s squeakily commanding his crew. The arrival of enemy craft trying to shoot them down only makes his voice squeakier. Michael Jackson’s squeak-singing always annoyed me, though he was a great singer underneath it all. His line-readings, however…

Commander Bog shows up on some sort of holographic intercom, and the actor playing him, Dick Shawn (himself known more as a singer), manages to ham it up with just his face more than Pauly Shore ever could with his entire body. Bog commands the crew to complete their mission: to locate some homing beacon, find the Supreme Leader (again, why they need to find their own leader is never explained), and give her some mysterious “gift.”

There’s some blatant Star Wars rip-off scenes (Lucas is one of the few who can rip off his own movies) as EO’s ship somehow manages to out-fly all the enemy ships and literally land on the homing beacon. To make a 17-minute story short, the crew is kidnapped by a bunch of stormtroopers in a junkyard and taken to the Supreme Leader, who lives in a dark industrial complex of some sort and turns out to be a spider-like woman who drops out of the ceiling like one of the Alien aliens and sentences EO to 100 years of torture and his crew to death.

EO finally unveils his “gift” — and it turns out his “gift” is an on-the-spot music video for “We Are Here to Change the World.” Michael Jackson’s — uh, I mean, Captain EO’s — sheer awesomeness is enough to turn the Supreme Leader’s troops into groovy background dancers. After some poorly choreographed tussles with some tougher bad guys, EO goes back to dancing and finally uses the power of song to turn the Supreme Leader into Anjelica Huston. The ugly industrial setting melts into a bland paradise not unlike the Mount Olympus of the old Clash of the Titans.

Michael's "gift" to the Supreme Leader -- and, as we are meant to believe, to the world.

And EO and his crew dance off into the sunset.

I imagine a lot of this was more impressive on a big screen with 3D glasses on and special effects literally moving through the theater, but just as a film, it’s really cheesy. It’s a glorified music video, and not one of Jackson’s better, which is a pity considering it’s directed by the man who gave us The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. And it has some of the trippiest imagery this side of a David Lynch film.

My recollection of seeing Captain EO as a little boy is a mix of wonder and embarrassment — leaning much more heavily toward the embarrassment, mostly as a result of all the lascivious dancing and my mother sitting right there disapproving. Plus, I have a vague memory of being a little uneasy over the appearance and tone of the Supreme Leader. I remember the whole thing being very dark in tone, but of course at the time I liked the annoying little not-Muppets. What can I say, I was a kid in the 80s — I thought neon-colored baggy pants and slap bracelets were awesome.

Captain EO may not be a good film, but it does deserve to be remembered as a unique pop culture artifact. It’s definitely representative of its time and place, for better or worse. And though it is not currently available in any official capacity for home viewing, you can watch it in its entirety (albeit in boring old 2D) here.

Still hard to believe these three ever sat in a room together.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

The Old Toy Chest — Harry and the Hendersons

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

I was born in January 1982, five months before the release of E.T., a film that has a solid place in my Top 20 films of all time.  As a child, I loved E.T. and watched it many times, despite how much it scared me. It wasn’t E.T. himself that provided the nightmare fuel, but specifically his slow death from being separated from the healing powers of his home planet, turning a sickly white and eventually wheezing his dying breath, as well as the human response to his presence (government men invading Elliott’s house wearing faceless hazmat suits and quarantining both the alien and the boy — who is also slowly dying, by the way — in a claustrophobic, sterile field laboratory).

How could you not love this face?

My love for E.T. only deepened when I finally watched it again as an adult (or at least, as a college student). I understood for the first time the profound psychic connection that develops between the boy Elliott and E.T., who I realized for the first time is also only a child. I understood that it is this psychic bond that causes Elliott’s near-death experience when E.T. begins to die. Perhaps most importantly, I understood at long last that these initially faceless suits who terrified me as a child (and still carry an aura of fear about them even now) are, in a fresh departure from the conventions and clichés of the genre, not true villains but rather humans concerned about the possible negative effects of this alien’s presence, both on the planet and on the alien himself, and that they are thankfully led by a man who views E.T. with compassion, even if not understanding. (Of course, these people still try to stop the kids from helping E.T. escape and make it back to a rendezvous with his home spaceship.)

I also realized that those departures from the conventions and clichés of the genre are not really departures at all, because before E.T., the genre did not exist. Director Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison’s wonderful film created the genre — a fantasy genre defined by a fish-out-of-water plot in which some strange benevolent creature, by some accident, is separated from its home and becomes emotionally attached with a human (or human family) who must then fight to protect it after its presence is discovered by the rest of humanity — and humanity’s response is overwhelmingly one either of fear (because I do not understand it, I fear it, and therefore I must destroy it) or of exploitative greed (usually by government agents).

THIS face, however....

E.T. also, for better or worse, intensified the cross-promotional market saturation begun by George Lucas’s Star Wars films. In stores, in fast food restaurants, on billboards, all over television and radio (and eventually in pop-up ads), you would from now on see and hear a film being sold as stuffed animals, as Happy Meal toys, as action figures, as board games, as video games, in sweepstakes, yada yada yada, ad infinitum. Then of course, there were the genre films themselves. They were never as good as E.T., but some were decent and memorable in their own way, such as Harry and the Hendersons (benevolent Bigfoot finds himself in the city and bonds with a human family) and Short Circuit (benevolent sapient robot escapes government program and bonds with Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, and one very strange Fisher Stevens). Some were egregious rip-offs, such as Los nuevos extraterrestres (or as it is known to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, Pod People). Most were forgettable, such as… well, there you go. And then there was one, at the very bottom of the barrel, called Mac and Me, which I have to confess to owning on VHS and watching almost as many times as I watched E.T. (Perhaps I’ll eventually review that turd of a film as well. For now, you can watch this sample lunacy on YouTube. You can also watch this great film criticism video, which eerily has a lot in common with everything I’ve just written.)

Harry and the Hendersons was one of my favorites when I was a child in the late 80s. My whole family seemed to enjoy it. We loved the humor, the heart, and of course, the happy ending. As a fanatical animal lover, I particularly connected with how gentle Bigfoot Harry was with critters (the way he tames the family dog was especially endearing). I watched Harry and the Hendersons so many times as a kid that, when I watched it recently after not having seen it for the better part of two decades, I remembered most of the beats, like hearing an old favorite song for the first time in years and still being able to sing along.

A little of that old E.T.-style loveability.

It is difficult, as an adult, to be objective about a film you loved so much as a child. As I watched Harry and the Hendersons this last time, I knew I was not watching a very good film. It’s cliché (sort of a given considering that whole genre thing); its humor tends to be noisy and in-your-face (and noisy, in-your-face humor, for me, is the cinematic equivalent of scratching my fingernails across a chalkboard or rubbing my hands on a carpet–I can literally feel my sanity slipping away); and its script is absolutely awful much of the time. As I think back, however, I cannot help but remember it in fondness. But that doesn’t excuse its issues.

There are three major weaknesses in this film, if I’m not being nitpicky. One is that the plotting, at least for the second half of the film, is some of the most contrived and arbitrary storytelling you’ll ever see. The way in which Harry ends up at the Hendersons’ house is believable enough — the family is out camping in the Northwest woods and in a moment of distraction hits the Bigfoot with the car, then dad decides to strap the “dead” creature to the roof because it’s a major discovery and might be worth a lot of money. Makes sense, perfectly fine. (What is such an elusive creature doing on a well-traveled road in the middle of the day? Like I said, if I’m not being nitpicky…)

The real problems begin when the family decides the best thing to do is to take Harry back to the forest, maybe halfway through the film. In one single scene, the Bigfoot acquires the name Harry in the most contrived way possible and then runs off into the wilderness of Seattle, presumably out of sorrow from the impending separation (which happens after all of, like, a day and a half). After that, it takes a long, long time for dad to take it upon himself to track Harry down. Yes, the growing interest in the creature’s presence in the city reaches a boiling point (as most of that interest involves gun-nuts out to shoot the creature for profit), which is decent motivation for dad to want to rescue Harry, but if he believes Harry being loose in the city is his fault (which it is), why doesn’t he go looking for him the night Harry disappears?

Another major problem is one of physics (without going all Star Trek on it). Much of the humor of the film derives from Harry being a large humanoid creature who doesn’t always know his own strength living in a house too small for him. A lot of these are easy jokes, but I can live with easy jokes as long as a film has other things going for it. What drives me nuts is the inconsistency — Harry breaking things when the script calls for it but not breaking much more fragile things when the joke is over. The scene that best exemplifies this is when Harry sits in the dining room (by throwing himself backward, which is already humor gone overboard) and crashes through the wood floor and into the basement. (I know from experience that even dropping a huge piece of furniture on the floor doesn’t cause nearly as much damage to the floor. Unless the Hendersons’ real problem is not a Bigfoot but termites.) Harry then pulls himself out of the hole by reaching up and slamming his arm down on the dining room table, and using it to pull himself back up. No damage to the table. He sits on a sofa, it cracks in half; he puts his full weight on the edge of a table — nothing.

The third major problem seems to be one of scripting and/or directing not aligning with actual performance, and this falls squarely on the villain, Jacques Lafleur. Actor David Suchet is actually a fairly intense actor, and he brings some of that intensity to his role as the hunter whose life goal is to bring down a sasquatch. But while he seems to be playing Lafleur with absolute seriousness, the folks behind the camera seem to be playing him for laughs. Occasionally this mismatch works, but for most of the film, it leaves me wondering if I’m supposed to be afraid of this guy or if he’s supposed to be more like comic relief. The nature of the character would suggest that fear is the appropriate response, but it’s difficult to maintain that when his competency shifts from one scene to the next, depending on whether the scene is supposed to call for a laugh or not — or, of course, to conveniently let Harry escape unscathed.

Other lesser gripes involve the family’s reaction to finding the Bigfoot very much alive and holding dad up against the wall by the neck (more bemusement than fear); how quickly the family becomes attached to Harry; and how trusting they are of this creature, even after I as a viewer am on board with the familial attachment — what I mean is, the filmmakers have thrown in our faces how Harry doesn’t know his own strength at the expense of the furniture and structural integrity of the house, yet it’s okay for the little boy to sleep on the floor right next to him. I’m not a Bigfoot, but I know how easily I could roll over and crush a living thing that’s a third my size. (In the same scene, the little boy is also sleeping next to the old man they just met, so…)

And then there is that great late 80s/early 90s family-film tradition of having the main character experience a groin-meets-solid-object collision. Nothing is quite so funny, nor quite so reflective of the “family comedy” genre, as watching a Sasquatch getting kicked in the nads.

Oh gosh, I forgot the scene where Harry is splayed for the camera.

Having said all that, I still like this movie. The talented cast includes the aforementioned David Suchet, John Lithgow as the dad, M. Emmett Walsh as his dad, and Don Ameche as the aforementioned old man. Ameche’s Dr. Wrightwood, a longtime Bigfoot believer who has grown jaded after years of disappointment, is actually a likable character, scoring one of the film’s best moments in the scene where he meets Harry (fulfilling his lifelong dream of seeing an actual Bigfoot) and, unable to contain his youthful enthusiasm, bellows, “Yaaa-hooooooo!” I know it sounds corny, but Ameche totally sells it. Boy, I miss Don Ameche. The film’s best casting decision, however, was Melinda Dillon. She’s played other, more memorable moms in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A Christmas Story, but she brings that same natural acting ability, which is full of wonderful surprises, to her role here and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. (On the other hand, there’s Lainie Kazan…)

The character of Harry is himself pretty wonderful in many ways (scripting inconsistencies aside). He is played, in a believable Sasquatch-suit, by Kevin Peter Hall, whose biggest claim to fame is in another film that came out the same year as Harry and the Hendersons – he played the title role in Predator, as well as in Predator 2 three years later. The pure physicality of his performances as both the Predator and as Harry is great — the way he walks, the way he stands, and, particularly in Harry’s case, the things he does with his arms and hands. The Harry performance would be incomplete, however, without the genius of Rick Baker and his crew of makeup and effects artists. Harry is one of of the best animatronic creations in the history of cinema, so at least Harry and the Hendersons has that superlative to be remembered by. Although occasionally creepy (and for this I put the blame more on the way the camera is used), the range of emotion in Harry’s face is pure movie magic.

Aside from these things, and amid all the cheesiness and pedestrian film techniques, the film has a big heart and a handful of truly inspired moments, and altogether it is still one that is worth going back to from time to time. It might even be fun to make a more in-depth analysis of the film’s merits and shortcomings at some point. It’s a film I’ll probably want to introduce to my own children, when I have some, especially before they stumble upon one of the many, much-lesser Bigfoot-themed films that followed in Harry’s wake. (See? Harry and the Hendersons launched its own spate of terrible rip-offs!) I’ll probably even sit them down and explain how this film is the result of an era of family-film-making that tried and failed to replicate the quality of a film that can never be replicated. Maybe I’ll even make them read this article. Then, when I feel they’ve grasped the seriousness of the situation, I’ll let them loose to watch this and whatever other middling-to-poor family fantasy fare they set their little sights upon.

Go, children, and enjoy…

... but always remember the best.

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Adaptations: Remakes: Cape Fear vs. Star Wars

By Nathanael Griffis

In what is simply horrifying news, and a disturbing continuation of a frightening trend in Hollywood, Tony Scott recently announced a remake of The Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, his more talented brother Ridley announced in past weeks a return to the Blade Runner universe for a pseudo-remake. One seen as an awful idea, the other an exciting idea. Why is it that two respected classics, neither of which need a remake, can be greeted with differing opinions? I agree with the opinions, mind you, but the reason for incessant remakes bothers me. One reason is that Sam Peckinpah should be avoided for remakes. (I’m looking at you, Rod Lurie.) Films like Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch are complex, disturbing, and hard to understand with Peckinpah behind the camera.  Remakes are nothing new, of course, and remaking movies is essentially what an adaptation is in the long run, but because a movie, unlike a live play, can exist in it’s original form for a longer time, it often seems unnecessary to remake it. And still we’re getting a new Footloose. Last year we were subjected to The A-Team. Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs have returned, but then again we’re also getting The Muppets coming up. With such a mixed bag it’s hard to filter through it all, so I will attempt to by giving you a good example and then the prime unholy grail of all examples. (Warning: I may geek out a little.)

Cape Fear (1962 & 1991)

Cape Fear is a unique remake, but I think the perfect example of a successful one. The 1962 version starring Gregory Peck as a lawyer driven to the brink by Robert Mitchum’s psychotic rapist is a frightening film that was heavily censored in the 60’s. What survived on screen is still pretty surprising. Max Cady (Mitchum) was imprisoned for rape and when released moves into the same town as Sam Bowden (Peck), the lawyer who poorly defended him years before. Cady then proceeds to manipulate, stalk, torture, and eventually attempt to rape and kill Sam Bowden and his family. Cady, as a man fueled by hate and some primal psychotic desire to sexually overpower women, including the 14-year-old daughter of Sam Bowden, is scary, really scary. It’s a terrifying performance by Mitchum, which is stunningly counterbalanced by Gregory Peck’s fascinating turn as Sam Bowden, who turns to breaking the law to protect his family. It is an interesting deviation from Atticus Finch in many ways.

When Martin Scorsese directed the remake in 1991 it seemed almost unnecessary considering the status of the first one, but the finished product proves that theory wrong. Scorsese, as he did often in the 70′s, 80′s, and 90′s, turned to Robert De Niro to play Max Cady. He brought in Nick Nolte for Sam Bowden, and Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis play his wife and daughter. There are wonderful supporting performances by Robert Mitchum as the town sheriff and Gregory Peck, in his last big screen role, as Cady’s oily religious fanatic defense lawyer. The first thing Scorsese’s remake is able to do is kick the censors out the door. The original Cape Fear, while challenging, clearly feels hampered by its 60’s mentality. Issues are never fully discussed. It’s frustrating in a lot of ways to see Robert Mitchum beat and rape a women, and then listen as the characters dance around the subject, because it’s not appropriate to talk about. In an interview with the director of the original, J. Lee Thompson mentioned his frustration and noted that several scenes of dialogue were cut because of the nature of the discussion. The censors were frequently asking for the film to be rewritten, going over the film scene by scene to control the artistic expression.

Scorsese has no such problem, and he’s able to flesh the characters out a lot more. Sam Bowden is given more depth; he’s not a perfect or pristine symbol of honor like Gregory Peck, which fits with Scorsese themes. Everyone in this film is guilty of something; crime and violence inhabit our world, and it’s how we respond to it that matters. Max Cady is let off of his leash, and De Niro delivers what is, in my opinion, his most frightening performance. He’s manipulative, unforgiving, and driven by some demonic sense of hatred to hurt anything the Bowdens get near. The final scene, which I won’t spoil, is as terrifying a death as any in cinema. The reason this remake works is because Scorsese is not simply trying to cash in. He’s taking these characters and this well-respected film and building upon it, reinterpreting it for a new generation, and improving the technical aspects of the filmmaking. The film simply looks better, the art direction is better, and it feels more realistic and less set-piece-driven. Visually, it’s a cleaner and more clearly shot film with better camera work.

A lot of times the main argument for remaking a film is that the original was good in concept but poor in execution (e.g., Tron). I want to point out that this is not the case. A good remake is more about how you tell the story, who’s involved, and the theme you’re trying to convey. You must have a reason to remake a film, and the good concept- bad execution is a good reason, but not the only one. Don’t get up in arms simply because Fright Night was remade (turns out it was good) or that Aronofsky wants to do Robocop (it could be good). Cross your fingers and calm down, it’s not the end of the world–unless George Lucas is involved, in which case it just might be.

Star Wars (1977, 1997, 2008)

Leaving aside his prequels and his astounding ability to ruin childhoods, George Lucas created the greatest sci-fi franchise ever and then proceeded to stomp all over it. Initially a “special edition” that is remastered and cleaned up sounds like a great idea, and watching the documentaries of the process to clean up the negative of the original trilogy fascinated me as child. I saw all three special editions in theaters, being as I was too young to see the original films in theaters, and truthfully enjoyed them. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become more and more bothered by the changes Lucas keeps making. He’s not merely adding a deleted scene, extending a song montage, giving us a more lively Mos Eisley, or simply a better picture quality–the story is shifting and changing.  A New Hope has plot holes, physics problems, and technical issues, but with the 2008 DVD release, none of those issues are fixed, they’re simply compounded with new problems.

Let’s try and let our nerd problems go and forgive Lucas for the 1997 remakes, because for the most part it is simply a remake that technically needed to happen. The original negative was degrading and it had to be remastered. It looks better and some of the improvements, like adding more character to Mos Eisley and Cloud City bring out the worlds more. The sarlacc’s beak and tentacles do look better than just the pit of sand with spikes in the original. The extended Max Rebo Band sequence is fine, sometimes annoying, but it doesn’t detract from the character or story. Yes, Greedo shoots first, but let’s calm down–if there weren’t T-shirts and websites dedicated to complaining about this fact, we might not have noticed.

What is truly appaling is the 2008 DVD release version that tries to connect the original trilogy to the prequels. Hayden Christensen’s visage has replaced Sebastian Shaw, which just creates an inconsistency, because why doesn’t Ewan McGregor then replace Alec Guinness? It’s as if Lucas was afraid to do this (perhaps the thought of Alec Guinness’ ghost haunting him with those judgemental hazel eyes makes him think twice), leaving us wondering, why is Obi-Wan old, but not Anakin? Gungans make an appearance in the final celebration, though thankfully no Jar-Jar. Voice actors are changed to fit with the prequels–Boba Fett is now voiced Temuera Morrison, the voice of Jango Fett in the prequels, which seems like nothing short of an insult to Jason Wingreen from the original and again an added inconsistency, because shouldn’t the son sound different from the father? New scenes of Ewan McGregor talking with Uncle Owen just seem out of place, and the lighting and scenery don’t coalesce with the later shots of Tatooine. Overall, though, what is most disturbing is that the digital remastering is severely botched. At one point Luke’s lightsaber has been color-corrected to be green. Vader’s lightsaber has lost its deep red hue and turned to a rosy pink, and there is a strong blue wash over the film, similar to the wash that is found commonly in modern sci-fi.

It’s infuriating, but what is happening is that an author has not been made to stop. As a writer, if I don’t put my work out there, I will never finish it. I am never content with what I write, and I always feel like there is something worth changing, so I constantly change things, but what we have here is an artist who’s in the midst of revision and gives us his drafts every couple of years and claims each draft as the true masterpiece instead of just leaving them alone. I suspect Lucas will in a few years (I’m afraid of the Blu-ray) correct some of these problems, but he’s created so many more with his changes that there’s little room for trust in his ability any more. He’s not fixing inconsistencies, like why Obi-Wan disappears from his cloak but Qui-Gon doesn’t; he’s simply tweaking and adding inconsistencies that loosely tie all six films together.

Remakes need to be just that, remade entirely. You have to start anew. Treat it as an old concept with a new spin and go from there. We can’t have one bearded madman destroy everything we know and love about science fiction in film. The good thing is that even though they may try to remake classics like Akira, we can always go back and watch the original.

Next, I’ll finish up my long and drawn out series on adaptations with some of the oddballs, like adapting a song, a theme park ride, or a painting.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #7: Pretty much anything that lives on Tatooine

By Tom Kapr

This month I’m looking at the best and worst that alien sci-fi cinema has to offer, beginning with my countdown of ten great scary movie aliens.

#7. Luke Skywalker: “I was born here, y’know.” Han Solo: “You’re gonna die here, y’know. Convenient.”

Yes, chances are, wander too far on the Skywalkers’ home desert-planet of Tatooine, and something will either try to kill you or, at the very least, capture you and sell you into slavery–to somebody that will likely end up trying to kill you.

Yes, that is an arm hanging out of the rancor's mouth.

Many of the horrible nasties to be found on Tatooine make appearances in the rousing opening scenes of Return of the Jedi, when Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Lando Calrissian make their multi-phased attempt to rescue a carbonite-frozen Han Solo from the clutches of the evil gang-lord Jabba the Hutt. Jabba dumps Luke into the den of the rancor, a huge mass of claws and teeth that we’ve already seen munch on two unfortunate alien folks. (The rancor surely was nightmare fuel for many a young Star Wars fan–I know it wasn’t just me. Right?)

Not long after Luke kills the rancor (in an oddly sympathetic death scene complete with a dog-like whimper), Jabba attempts to throw him and his friends to the sarlacc, in whose belly they shall, as C-3PO translates from Jabba, “find a new definition of pain and suffering as [they] are slowly digested over a thousand years.” One would assume it would take a far shorter time than a thousand years for that digestion to actually kill you, but the idea alone was enough to scare… um, many a young Star Wars fan. Then to actually see some of the bad guys falling into the sarlacc’s gullet during our heroes’ glorious escape scene is enough to solidify that horror.

Jabba the Hutt. (Possible meth addict.)

We can go back to the first Star Wars film as well, when Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the droids had to contend with not only the profiteering Jawas and a cantina full of hard cases that would shoot you as soon as look at you, but also the terrifying Tusken Raiders–who are not an overly aggressive football team, as their name might suggest, but a race of savage “sand people” who look like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. They are a warlike race who are known to raid farms and settlements.

(As if that were not enough, Darth Vader’s stormtroopers are on the prowl searching for the two droids, and resort to burning the Skywalker home while Luke is off contending with the sand people, reducing his unfortunate aunt and uncle to charred skeletons–another image for children to dwell on while lying awake at night.)

There are other vile creatures that live on Tatooine that are never seen in the films, like krayt dragons and womp rats, but let us not forget the horrors of Jabba himself. During the time period of the original trilogy, Jabba is the head of the Hutt gangster clan that rules Tatooine through violence, intimidation, and shady dealings with the Empire. He looks like a putrid slug, he sounds like a demon, and he uses that long disgusting tongue on Leia. Ick.

No wonder Luke was in such a hurry to join the rebellion.

Next on the countdown: “She says the jungle… it came alive and took him.”