Tag Archives: Steven Spielberg

A few thoughts on Leo, Titanic, and middle school

By Nathanael Griffis

It takes me back to think it has been 15 years since Leonardo DiCaprio’s smirking face and unseemly stiff-gel-parted hair graced the big screen in Titanic. So much has changed. I never saw the movie in the theater because, well, there was a scene that involved inappropriate painting, I was told. Also, I was suspiciously certain there was a significant amount of kissing, which I wanted little to do with when I was ten. Yet despite having never seen it in the theater, I knew of the film and I knew of Leo. Oh how I hated his blue eyes and skinny little neck. I honestly don’t know why, but I despised him simply because he was in Titanic, and eventually, to protect my rep, I would brag about not having seen it.

I finally got a chance to watch the film on television, which was an enormous disappointment as a three-hour movie became a five-hour foray that was all the more disappointing for its lack of exposed breasts. I naturally blamed Leo and continued down my confused road of hatred. I begrudgingly enjoyed Catch Me If You Can, but didn’t watch Gangs of New York. Once I graduated high school, though, I realized that maybe I should have given Leo a break. It seemed that he had realized the error of his ways and was doing cool, gritty movies. Remember when your one friend was dating that awful bitch that you told him to dump, but he kept dating her, then they broke up and he came stumbling around and was always buying you pizza to make up for being such a dick? I feel like Leo’s career has been like that.

It’s as if he directly wanted to gain my approval. Like in some bizzaro universe, I was the father Leo never had, and despite all the accolades and praise he’d won for one of the greatest films of all time, I was never satisfied. Since Titanic, he’s made film after film that I love and has become one of my favorite actors. He’s worked with Scorsese, Spielberg, Nolan, Zwick, Scott, and Mendes. He basically could not have picked a more Nate-centric group of directors. Somehow he spoke directly to my heart and apologized for Titanic, how could I not forgive him? So in my forgiveness, after watching his face explode in The Departed, I sat down to watch Titanic during my sophomore year of college. I loved it, and came to realize that I had been simply jealous.

Looking back, I realize that it’s insanely foolish of us to hate teenage heartthrobs out of sheer jealously. What if it was my face that was plastered over every notebook? I’m not nearly as handsome. I didn’t sink down into the icy waters for love. I can’t sketch nearly that good, but I’d be willing to try. It’s taken 15 years, but I’ve come around and am excited to see Titanic in theaters, if only to finally see it on the big screen. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing.

Leo, if it means anything, I think I speak for all us middle-school haters out there: we forgive you. And I for one will gladly spend $14.50 on a revamped 3D version of your classic if only to thank you for the awesome career you’ve delivered post-Titanic. Here’s to you, Leo. You can sleep soundly now that your bizzaro-world father accepts you and is proud of you.

I love you too, Nate...

Now about this Zac Efron character. I hate that guy…

(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!)

Webstuffs — Mr. Spielberg & Dr. Jones

Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite film ever, #1 on my Flickchart, and probably the film that has contributed more to my love of cinema than any other. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is so close to the first Indiana Jones film in quality that, aside from a handful of very specific problems, it is also one of my favorite films. And I am a bit of a Temple of Doom apologist, though I will admit it is far from perfect.

Like so many who grew up on the Indiana Jones legend, I looked forward to the long-awaited fourth adventure starring Harrison Ford as the reluctant adventurer with bated breath, only to be disappointed by the final product. (Although, unlike the hordes who dismiss it is pure garbage, my grievances are more localized. I happen to think it also displays some of the most amazing stunt work ever to grace the silver screen, as well some of the best Indiana Jones moments of the series.)

"I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about little green men!"

That said, I still have hope for a fifth installment, but it is cautious hope. (Spielberg and Lucas have hurt me before.)

Here are a couple of short articles on the not-yet-announced fifth Indiana Jones film. My reactions? Someone needs to remind Lucas that Indiana Jones is a genre, and someone perhaps needs to advise Spielberg to fire Michael Bay from the Transformers franchise.

–Tom

(Like what you see? Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on TwitterFriend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube! We’re everywhere!)

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.

(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!)

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #5: “No one would have believed that our world was being watched….”

By Tom Kapr

“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”

These are the words of the opening voice-over narration of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, taken almost word for word from the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 novel. (The bit about the 21st century is, of course, the major difference.) Although it has been updated to take place more or less in the year of its release, 2005, and even though the protagonist has been changed from a nameless first-person narrator looking for his wife to a divorced man trying to hold on to his ever more distant children, Spielberg and company’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the book.

This version of War of the Worlds is nearly a perfect film for the first two acts. As with so many big-budget thrillers lately (and with so many Spielberg films lately), it derails in its third act: it becomes cliché, with Spielberg even stealing a bit from one of his own previous films (and not one of his good ones, either); characters start making decisions that make no sense except to set up the next mediocre scene; it ramps up the action aspect too much by having Tom Cruise’s character essentially go commando on an alien ship; and it wraps things up in the end too tidily, giving itself a happy ending it did not earn.

To be honest, the aliens themselves are not even that scary, though they are much more menacing than their description in the novel (in which they are essentially unable to move around in our gravity on their own power). But they have some amazing technology, and that technology is designed solely for the purposes of the worldwide genocide of humanity. As in Battle Los Angeles, the film that got this list going, the invasion and subsequent extermination is much more gritty and in-your-face than in most films in the alien-invasion genre. Whereas Battle Los Angeles spent most of its time at street level in L.A., the extermination process in War of the Worlds has a far more epic feel to it. It is the scenes of the unseen aliens in their tripods, obliterating every human in sight, that earns this film a spot on this list.

And as if monstrous alien machines casually exterminating human beings isn’t scary enough, leave it to Steven Spielberg to pepper his film with visual references to the Holocaust. The first scene in which the tripods attack is one of the most heart-pounding sequences ever filmed: Cruise’s character runs through the streets as people left and right are caught in the alien death ray and literally disintegrated into ash. When he makes it back home and sees himself in the mirror, sees what was recently his neighbors caked all over his face and body, we feel his revulsion as he freaks out. This and a later scene in which the clothes of disintegrated people rain from the sky, as well as a handful of other scenes including a burning train speeding by and a bunch of bodies floating down a river, are reminiscent of Spielberg’s work in Schindler’s List. The director is taking the subtle anti-war themes of Wells’ novel and expanding on them in a powerful way. These echoes of the consequences of Nazism, terrorism, and systematic violence in general, make the invasion of War of the Worlds one of the scariest in film.

They decide to settle it with a staring contest.

(Read Nate’s article on loose adaptations for a slightly less enthusiastic look at Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.)

Next on the countdown: “Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired… there’s nothing more I can do, just wait….”

Loose Adaptations: Children of Men & War of the Worlds

By Nathanael Griffis

A loose adaptation is simply when the source material, a novel normally, is used only as a conceptual basis for a story. Sometimes characters are kept, themes may remain, but the overall plot is basically rewritten. Loose adaptations are tricky. On the one hand you allow for a more creative take on a story. On the other you may offend the loyal fan base of a book. Deciding to adapt a novel loosely is always interesting and for the most part relies on the talent surrounding it, so when you have Alfonso Cuarón, Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, and Chiwetel Ejiofer on a film one can produce one of the best films ever made. Talent isn’t everything though, because Tim Robbins, Steven Spielberg, Dakota Fanning, and Tom Cruise should spell success, but it didn’t. So here’s my look at why these two loose adaptations succeeded and failed respectively.

Plain and simple, one of the greatest moments in film.

Children of Men: If at all possible, let’s forget the revolutionary cinematography, the haunting performances, and the sharp editing of the film, and focus on the story. Theo Faron is asked by his ex-wife Julian to acquire a pass to the coast for a young woman whom we later discover is pregnant in a world where there has not been a pregnancy in 18 years. This is the basic plot of the movie, but it is slightly different from P.D. James’ novel. Theo was never married to Julian, and is significantly older; Julian merely wants an audience with the Warden of England; oh, and Julian is the pregnant woman. So, besides keeping characters’ names and the overall concept of an infertile human race, the differences are significant.

The novel is quieter and more slowly paced, exploring the political side of power structures controlling a population. The government executes the elderly in a mass drowning off the coast of England. The powers that be then use these events to maintain a sense of order through indirect threats, while also satisfying a dying population’s desire for release from the torment of the end of humanity. They dictate what pleasurable activities are allowed and round up foreigners and miscreants (which is kept in the movie). The book is also concerned, as most books are, with being more subjective. We stay with Theo, and his inner struggle is more the story than anything else. Director Alfonso Cuarón keeps this concept in Children of Men, as the camera never really sees what Theo can’t, but we don’t spend time meandering around his brain reminiscing. The book is brilliant and has wonderful characters and descriptions. I have to say the film and the novel are even; neither outshines the other, which is rare.

The film takes the concept of infertility and runs with it, adding ideas of racism and social revolution, which are in the book but not major themes. The decision to connect Julian and Theo is brilliant–it adds another layer to the characters. Both versions have a bleak tone with hopeful endings amidst death and suffering. What is different is that Cuarón understands that his medium is a visual one. He needs the visuals to enhance his thematic ideas. The setting becomes as desolate as the situation. I think of the scene of Theo and the mid-wife, played by Pam Ferris, waiting in an abandoned school. It’s subtle because Cuarón doesn’t meditate on it, but unforgettable as we see the pregnant Kee (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) stolen through rotting playground equipment.  The book relies on description and dialogue to show us man’s reliance on order and power despite a decaying future. The long single takes throughout the film heighten the tension, increase the reality, and provide a more subjective sense for the audience. Cuts give film a sense of fabrication, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but a long single shot of a car being attacked or an entire neighborhood at war places the viewer inside the situation. P.D. James wants us involved in the discussion. Cuarón provides us with an experience. Children of Men is the ultimate example of how to successfully loosely adapt a novel.

War of the Worlds: There are several loose adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, but I am only going to mention two: the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation that sent America into a panic, and the middling action flick that Spielberg offered us in 2005. H.G Wells’ novel is tough to adapt, as any classic is, but especially since it is a science fiction period piece. How does one do futuristic 1898? Well, you have to modernize it, which almost always means a loose adaptation of sorts. What Orson Welles did was brilliant. He took the concept of the alien invasion and its themes of science, warfare, and the ineffectiveness of Victorian mores, and used it to scare the bejeezus out of the country. That is how you loosely adapt something. I can’t speak to much to that performance as I’ve never heard it, but its impact alone is legendary, so we can assume it’s good.

Tom Cruise coming to terms with the film.

Steven Spielberg, we should be able to assume is good too. After Minority Report, a good adaption of a Philip K. Dick short story, the pairing of Cruise and Spielberg should have been welcome, and it was, but the product was underwhelming. Wells’ novel is a cautionary tale at heart. It warns man of the dangers of science for the advancement of warfare. The aliens metaphorically are not some outside force, but a superpower gone wrong. They destroy without any warning, any forethought, out of nothing but a sense of greed and desire to conquer. The novel is frighteningly prophetic when one considers that two world wars followed it and were started, at the basest of levels, out of humanity’s desire to conquer others. These concepts could be taken and placed into a modern day context to warn a growing scientific community that is becoming heavily reliant on government defense contracts to take heed. Instead we are served up with what eventually becomes a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action flick.

Spielberg’s film keeps the concept of a cylinder burying itself in the ground. It keeps the death of the aliens by the common cold, which should signify that humanity/science will ultimately not be able to combat nature in a warfare setting, but here feels like a lame cop-out ending. They add an interesting reference to Harlan Ogilvy, one of the few named characters in the novel, in Tim Robbins. I can’t help but feel though that a lot of this is wasted potential. The beginning has some haunting Holocaust imagery. Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier shaking the ashes of victims from his hair sets a frightening tone. The bodies floating down a river as Ray’s daughter Rachel (played by Dakota Fanning) watches leaves us startled. The blood-drenched trees and landscapes that Ray walks out into horrifies. All these images seem like wasted art, bad abstraction without a directed substance or meaning. They symbolize things and matter within the scene and build character, but they don’t hold weight in the overall story.

Run! No, don't stare at the alien tripod, run, Ru...uh too late.

What both Orson and H.G. did in their stories by keeping the narrator anonymous, was provide the sense of subjectivity we got from Cuarón’s Children of Men. The protagonist becomes an everyman of sorts and we place ourselves in his role, asking what reaction we should have. In the case of Orson Welles, it was such an effective subjectivity as to transcend the line of fiction and lead the masses in the expected reaction of a panic.

There is nothing wrong with building characters in a film. In fact, a film adaptation would require it. Spielberg attempts this with Ferrier as a single father trying to connect with and raise his kids. Initially it works, but there are two problems: First, Tom Cruise is not an everyman. He’s a character actor who portrays an intensely specific persona. I’ve  never seen a performance of his and felt I could relate to it; several times I’ve been impressed, but relate, no. He’s not Jimmy Stewart or, dare I say, Matt Damon.

The second problem is the lack of a consistent theme, along with egregious plot holes. Spielberg’s penchant for tying things up in a bow in his blockbuster films falls flat here and leaves the viewer confused. Why does the son survive and randomly show up with perfect timing? If all it takes is a few grenades, how are the aliens still fearsome? The action becomes the focus in the second half of the film, and the death of the aliens at the hands of the common cold doesn’t resonate. It feels like another unnecessary bow on a muddled package.

So if you’re going to adapt something loosely, make sure it has good themes, and make sure you utilize them. Having the title of the novel, a star actor and director, and good special effects is not enough. It takes innovation, a great script, and an overall sense of purpose to garner success. You don’t have to be unrepentantly loyal to a source material to make a successful story–but what would happen if you were? We’ll see next time when I discuss straight adaptations with The Road and The Da Vinci Code.

Korean films: a look back.

By Nathanael Griffis

A while back someone, I believe it was Steve, asked me if I could identify any patterns in Korean filmmaking after watching a few Korean films in a row. They all speak Korean and there’s a lot more kicking than in American movies, I thought. Neither truly felt accurate, and I doubt I’ll be able to give an accurate description of prevailing themes, styles, techniques, or ideas.  I did, though, begin thinking about my whole experience and how to discuss Korean films in a general sense, at least as much as one can after having seen ten films. There were five main things I took away from this experience that I was impressed with in Korean films: little color correction, strong female characters, bold unhampered violence, a concern for the framed shot, and experimentation especially in editing for narrative. These things are not unique to Korean cinema, but they stood out to me as something that was of a primary concern within most of the films I watched.

This is the country I've been talking about.

The lack of color correction–by which I mean no computer enhanced color palette (i.e. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd’s gray scale and red palette, O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s sepia palette, Amélie’s sun-drenched yellow and green, or the blisteringly annoying steely blue of most sci-fi action films like Transformers)–was refreshing. At first it was disconcerting in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; it felt unpolished. I grew to really appreciate it though, in that film especially, because it lends a realistic feel to the images . Color correction isn’t hard to do. It’s a matter of a few dials, buttons, and toggle switches and you’re all set, so this is not something beyond the filmmakers’ abilities. They consciously choose to shoot with realistic tones. This style is a rarity in American filmmaking. I’m not calling for them to change; I like the difference between the two countries. The use of color correction signals certain themes and genres and allows a director another added level of artistic control. It can be annoying though, especially in poorly made sci-fi and horror, when the color scheme is simply there because that’s the accepted color scheme of a genre. It’s even more annoying on television where, with the exception of reality TV, most procedurals on CBS are given blue tones (just watch an episode of CSI), ABC is garnished with reds and greys, and FOX tends to go with whatever the genre calls for. Sometimes, all the color correction done needlessly all the time becomes tired so I appreciated these films’ decisions to avoid it.

Strong female characters are another large cross-cultural difference. Korea, as I understand it, is much more of a matriarchal society than America, which is almost so individualistic as to be neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but we tend to slide towards the male-dominated end of character development. Every film I watched, with the exceptions of The Good, the Bad, the Weird and Painted Fire, had female characters at the focal point of the film, and they had depth that is rarely seen in American movies. When a film like Black Swan, which presents strong complex female leads, is released in America, it’s seen as daring and different. (Mind you, Black Swan is daring and different for so much more than just strong female characters, but you get my point.)

In case I never mentioned it, Kang-ho Song = amazing.

Films like Lady Vengeance, Mother, My Sassy Girl, and 3-Iron were striking. The difference to me is that both sexes are given equal consideration and complexity. Female character are not used to bolster the male character, but to play off of each other. The actress’s story is just as important as the actor’s. There is little sense, except in Painted Fire, that women are objects men use, or that men are objects strong women use. Having strong, well-written characters of both genders has removed objectification to some extent in these cases. (Mind you, I’m watching what is considered the best of Korean cinema; it could be different if I watched less highly regarded films.) This is something I wish American films would take a cue from, because strong female characters just improve your story as a whole.

Something where both countries are similar though is in their presentation of bold unhampered violence. By this I mean that violence isn’t pulled away from. It’s a visual experience that causes a visceral reaction. American films have always been preoccupied with violence. It is sometimes a popular criticism of them, but both countries have been moving towards a stark presentation of violence. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men is the perfect example of this. Along with David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, we’re seeing more realistic violence in film. The difference is that violence is forthrightly presented as more horrifying instead of the slow-motion glorification of the late 80’s and early 90’s. This is not the period of the John Woos and John McTiernans of earlier.

Korean films follow this trend as well–Chan-wook Park, Ji-woo Kim, and Joon-ho Bong especially. Ji-woo Kim is unique in this category, because he still seems to be glorifying violence and presenting an enjoyable spectacle in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but he uses the stark violence to make the presentation more fluid and exciting. Park’s use of violence is without a doubt horrifying and grotesque at times, while Bong has a sense of grace and beauty built around the extent of the violence he is willing to show. I personally prefer this style and technique for presenting violence. Gore should disturb; it should frighten the audience. We should cringe and turn away from it, not jump up and clap. (I say this, yet I still love a good action flick, but that’s my own personal struggle to contend with.)

The final two things I noticed go together: a strong concern for the framed shot (which most American cinematographers and filmmakers still have) and a desire for experimentation go together. The things Chan-wook Park and Ki-duk Kim do with editing to control the movement of time in their film is fascinating. All of their films have a strong sense of framing. Every detail is placed within the frame for a purpose. This is more than merely skilled filmmaking; it’s really a persistence to continue bettering the art of film. Ji-woon Kim reminds me of early Spielberg, with a panache for exciting stories and a gift for visual presentation. Joon-ho Bong is like Robert Altman reborn and mainstreamed. Chan-wook Park has the gifts of Martin Scorsese, if Scorsese made sci-fi horror movies. I think these filmmakers will be studied in the future for their editing and framing and their impact on film as an art form.

The greatest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is a greater love for the universality of film. Everyone loves stories, and films are such an amazing way to present something as dense as a novel but only as time-consuming as a short story. I want to keep watching more. I missed several, like J.S.A., Peppermint Candy, Simodo, The Man from Nowhere, Secret Sunshine, A Bittersweet life, The Show Must Go On, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Thirst. If I had to recommend one film that you must watch from the ten I saw, it would have to be Memories of Murder–it’s an amazing and unique experience in film. If there’s one I’m sure people will love, it’d be The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

I don’t know what I’ll do next, but that’s half the excitement of writing.

Better Remembered: The Goonies

By Steven Moore

We revere certain films that were important to us as children. Many of the films that we grew up with, watched over and over again, and think fondly of during our mid-life crisis years, are not just bad but downright awful. These films are better remembered than watched. This series of articles aims to destroy your childhood memories, taking away the nostalgia that warms you whenever you think of a terrible movie like Critters, or even classics like Star Trek: The Motion Picture. However, I also want to try to rediscover what it was about these movies that made me personally love them. I hope to come out the other side with a new, more honest appreciation of those films that helped form my cinematic maturity.

The Goonies (from left): Kerri Green, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Sean Astin, Ke Huy Quan, Jeff Cohen, and Martha Plimpton

A few months back a group of friends and I decided to watch The Goonies. This was a movie that I, as I’m sure many of you do, hold up high as one of the cornerstone films of my childhood. The desire to have a Goonies-esque experience of my own launched many ill-advised childhood adventures, one involving getting stuck on top of a water tower for an entire day. The Goonies is a cornerstone film for any child of the eighties, and there is no way to argue against that. However, The Goonies is an awful film. Somehow written by Steven Spielberg and Chris Columbus, the terrible writing is accentuated with bad acting and contrived slapstick comedy that comes together to produce a jumbled mess of a movie.

If you own the DVD and have watched the deleted scenes, you know about the octopus. While this scene was rightly cut from the film, it is a more extreme example of what is wrong with the movie as a whole.  The group has just splashed into the cavern where One-Eyed Willie’s ship has been trapped for hundreds of years. Suddenly, they are attacked by an octopus that just kinds of lies there while the kids wrap its tentacles around them. Eventually, the gang fends off the octopus by literally feeding it 80’s pop music, to which it can’t help but boogie down, while simultaneously fleeing for its life.

"Hey you guys!" (The late John Matuszak as "Sloth")

I feel like this scene was cut from the film, not because it doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the movie or because it’s too silly, but because the special effects are so bad. In other words, it wasn’t the supremely awful writing and filmmaking choices that left this scene on the cutting room floor; it was a technical limitation. Other similar scenes remain in the film. Most of Data’s gadgets are equally absurd. The pinchers of power he uses to save himself from a pit of spikes are awesome–when you’re ten years old. When Data greases the log to keep the criminals from catching him, we are treated to not one, but two crotch shots, which is hilarious–when you’re ten years old.

Of course, all the logic and aesthetic problems of The Goonies didn’t matter when I was ten years old. I wanted to go the goondocks and explore those caves and search for One-Eyed Willie’s treasure. When the group finds Chester Copperpot and realizes they’ve gotten farther than a famous explorer, it was a liberating moment for me. Just because I am an inexperienced kid and have no idea what I’m doing doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. In some ways, I’ve carried that idea through my adult life as well.

The Goonies instilled a sense of adventure in a generation of kids. It may have been a silly, unrealistic, badly conceived adventure, but it worked somehow. My kids felt the same way when I showed it to them. I’ll just warn them not to watch it again when they grow up.

On Trial: Case #001 – Tom Cruise

The Defense, presented by Nathanael Griffis

There is a viewpoint floating out in the ether that Tom Cruise is a bad actor, that he doesn’t make good movies, that he’s annoying, that he’s a crazy goofball. I respectfully and forcefully disagree (though I may not be able to argue against the last point). His ridiculous running style aside, Tom Cruise is a fantastic actor. He’s been nominated for three Oscars and seven Golden Globes (of which he’s won three), and numerous other accolades. He’s shown range in comedies, dramas, and genre films. Most of the criticism of his acting is that he’s too passionate–that he doesn’t have subtlety or the ability to lose himself in a role. Basically, he yells a lot, and this is all people remember. The reason they remember it, though, is because he is amazing at playing a character that lets his emotions build up and then explode. If anything, he has probably been typecast in these roles, but he wrote the book on releasing emotion on screen (not literally). He does take roles that require more subtle touches: Rain Man, Eyes Wide Shut, & Interview with the Vampire come to mind.

If you simply go through his filmography, the resume he’s accumulated is staggering. The directors he’s worked with are the best: Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, both Ridley and Tony Scott, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, Edward Zwick, Michael Mann; and I’ve left some out. I think a lot of the criticism of Tom Cruise comes from his off-screen activities. There also seems to be this ridiculous notion that he’s an action star, which is a sneaky way of trying to lump him in with sub-par actors. The truth is that in real life just about everyone’s a little strange. We all do and say crazy things. If you look at the things he’s done, chewing out cameramen or Matt Lauer, it’s not all that deplorable. He’s also barely an action star. Sure he’s done the Mission: Impossible movies, but that’s only a recent development. Minority Report has some action in it, but with the exception of the Mission: Impossible franchise, even his action-packed films, like Collateral, rely on strong story and characters.

What normally happens with criticism of an actor of Mr. Cruise’s caliber is that the whiny internet trolls have to begrudgingly qualify their insults with some phrase like “A Few Good Men was awesome, though.” The evidence speaks louder than the cover of the National Enquirer claiming Tom Cruise is a big meany. So, I leave you with his filmography for you to view and eventually accept that Tom Cruise makes amazing films. He’s here to stay and will be remembered. Perhaps this fact only builds a greater stubborn jealousy in his critics, but I’m willing to risk it.

Selected* films of Tom Cruise:

Taps (1981)

The Outsiders (1983)

Risky Business (1983)

Legend (1985)

Top Gun (1986)

The Color of Money (1986)

Cocktail (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Far and Away (1992)

A Few Good Men (1992)

The Firm (1993)

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Magnolia (1999)

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Minority Report (2002)

The Last Samurai (2003)

Collateral (2004)

War of the Worlds (2005)

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Valkyrie (2008)

Knight and Day (2010)

*Some films have been excluded from this list because of their lack of notoriety and for space concerns.

The Prosecution, presented by Steven Moore

Never mind that Tom Cruise is kind of a dick in his personal life. If an actor is a douche in real life, it has no bearing on how talented they are or how well they perform their roles. Never mind that Tom Cruise has been in some of the best movies ever made. His film canon is impressive, and he repeatedly chooses films that are amazing. (Who can forget the game-changing Legend). Never mind that Tom Cruise is one of the greatest talents in stunt work of our generation. All that’s beside the point.

Tom Cruise just sucks. That’s all. I see a trailer for a movie he’s going to be in, and I immediately have no interest in seeing it. Something about the guy just makes me want to go anywhere his face isn’t. You can argue that I’m just jealous of a five-foot-tall psychopathic control freak who constantly has to try to re-ingratiate himself to polite society, but I’m not alone. We are legion. When I’m at a function where I don’t know anyone, all I need to do is throw out an “Ugh, I hear Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out.” The ball only starts rolling from there. Soon a crowd is gathered, and we unite as brothers and sisters of humanity through our mutual disgust of Mr. Cruise.

It’s not rational. It’s not even fair. But it’s damn near universal. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about a man who hacks his way into the heart of an unexplored jungle. There he finds creatures whose very presence trigger a flight response in him. When he tries to fight it, he begins vomiting uncontrollably. There is no reason for him to feel this way. The creatures are tiny, harmless, and benevolent. Tom Cruise is like that: tiny and harmless (not sure about the benevolent part), but something about him makes my skin, and a lot of other people’s skin, crawl. Oh, and in the story, the creatures turn out to be the real earthlings, while we are descendants from Martians. I think the conclusion is pretty obvious there. I rest my case.

Remembering Pete Postlethwaite (1946-2011)

by Tom Kapr

I “came of age” as a cinephile in the mid-90s. 1996 in particular seems to stand out in my mind as the year I started to realize that movies could do something more than entertain. They could move something inside me, way down in deepest part of me. This may sound a bit silly, considering the film, but I remember clearly the first footage of DragonHeart I ever saw. I was watching TV–I don’t remember what–and a commercial break came. I saw the silhouette of a hill against the dusk sky. The silhouette of a warrior on horseback crested the hill. Suddenly, a dragon came flying up over the hill. Not a cheap-looking puppet–a real-looking dragon, flapping its great wings and moving gracefully through the sky. What a shot! DragonHeart as a film may be underwhelming, but that single shot is forever etched in my memory, and that is why this silly movie is one of the most important in my personal movie-watching experience.

Postlethwaite as Gilbert of Glockenspur

The reason I’m telling you this is because this was about the time I started paying attention to actors as well. Not just movie stars, but actors. I love Dennis Quaid, but DragonHeart is not one of his greatest moments in film history. However, it is because of Dragonheart that I remember Dina Meyer, David Thewlis, and “Gilbert of Glockenspur” himself, Pete Postlethwaite. He was in a thankless role, but he was good.

Then there was Father Laurence in Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet, complicated big-game hunter Roland Tembo in Spielberg’s The Lost World, and of course, Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. He was also in two of the films we’ve discussed on our podcast this past year, The Town and Inception. Here was a guy who could take a secondary character, even in a mediocre film, and make him interesting. It is quite possible that with DragonHeart in 1996, Pete Postlethwaite was the first time I was aware of what a character actor was, even if I didn’t know the term at the time.

Postlethwaite’s final role is in the upcoming Irish comedy Killing Bono (yes, that Bono) in April. I’ll be looking forward to it.

I’m sure I’ll discover more great Pete Postlethwaite performances as I continue to see some of the lesser-known films of the past 30 years. But I’ll always remember him as that mischievous friar and dragon-friend, Gilbert of Glockenspur.

–Tom Kapr

30 Days of Madness, Day 29: Attack of the Puppet People

Shakes and Lefty are back, and Shakes doesn’t seem to like the latest movie.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958) Written by George Worthing Yates & Bert I. Gordon. Directed by Gordon. Starring John Agar, John Hoyt, June Kenney.

Bert I. Gordon is notorious for his cheesy sci-fi/fantasy/horror flicks. I’ve already written about him in my review of Empire of the Ants, so I won’t go into much detail here except to say that Attack of the Puppet People is better than the rest of his films that I’ve seen but still not what I would call a good movie. The story (screenplay by George Worthing Yates, who also wrote one of my favorite 1950s sci-fi flicks, Them!) involves John Hoyt as a doll-maker who has some real loneliness issues and has devised a method of shrinking people down to doll-size so he can always have company.

According to the trivia section on the Internet Movie Database, it was “rushed into production by American International and Bert I. Gordon to ride the success of Universal-International’s The Incredible Shrinking Man.” All I can say about that is, I’m not surprised, nor am I surprised that not much has changed in Hollywood in this regard in the past 50 years. Writer Richard Matheson and director Jack Arnold’s adaptation of Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man is one of the greatest sci-fi films of the 1950s. Attack of the Puppet People is a lame coattail-rider.

I didn’t take as many notes as I usually do on cheesy movies like this, but here are the few I did write down:

–I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had to deal with John Agar this month. Thankfully, here he is nowhere near as annoying as he was in The Mole People (a favorite of mine from Mystery Science Theater 3000). Still, in his first scene he immediately earns my contempt. Something about his face just makes me want to slap it around. (If that’s a latent rip-off of something Elmore Leonard once wrote, I apologize.) How his obnoxiousness lands him a date with the woman whose face he brays into like a jackass in their first scene together is beyond me.

–The woman, incidentally, is June Kenney from the movie Bloodlust, another MST3K favorite.

–Gordon’s two protagonists (Agar and Kenney) go on a date at the drive-in, where they are watching yet another MST3K favorite of mine (and Gordon’s previous film), The Amazing Colossal Man. We get to watch almost an entire scene from that movie. Way to pad out the running time, Gordon. Has anyone ever done such a thing, featured their own previous film in their immediate next film, before or since this? Even Spielberg never sank to such depths of self-promotion.

–Gordon is known for films that use the effect of superimposing one image over another to create the illusion of abnormally-sized creatures. Somehow it works better here, in which he shows shrunken people against a giant world, than it does in his other films where he shows giants. Still not the best special effects in the world, though. The limitations become more prominent toward the end, when the effects shots start to pile up. There are some real perspective problems throughout, but never so obvious as when Agar and Kenney are being chased through the streets by a rat. Unless New York City has rats half the size of automobiles. (Then again, this might be more accurate than I thought….)

My Netflix rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

–Tom Kapr