Tag Archives: Classic Films

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Dir. Nicholas Meyer

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The Wrath of Khan is considered by many to be the best film out of all of Star Trek. My personal favorite is actually Star Trek: First Contact, and I know that might seem like heresy to Star Trek, but hey, I grew up on TNG. I actually had the experience of seeing that film in a theater, and I was absolutely thrilled by the end of it. I was only an infant when Star Trek 2 first came out, but I imagine I would have gotten the same thrill out of it had I been able to see it then. I never really got around to seeing Star Trek 2 until I was in college. But it surprised me greatly, and I firmly believe it’s the best of the TOS Trek series. It doesn’t have quite the effects budget of the first film, but the even better alternative is that it has a strong, tight and compelling story. It also has a tremendous bigger than life villain, as well as being the most fun of all the Star Trek films.

Is it a perfect film? Almost. There are a few small things that don’t quite gel with me in this movie. One of them is the Kirk, Spock, McCoy dynamic. It is good here, but some of the things I never understood…Why does McCoy go into a rant on Spock debating the Genesis device when it’s pretty clear Spock was speaking in scientific terms as opposed to morality issues regarding the device. It’s true that McCoy likes to read into things, but there’s a lack of motivation behind his words, and the scene falls flat for me. Some of which might be due to editing. The second thing that’s a bit of a let down for me is some of the production design and effects work. Again, it’s good, but you can see more of the budget constraints on this film compared to the first Star Trek, and I find some of the sets in this film to be a little hokey and not terribly well lit. I think mainly of the space station science lab when Kirk’s away team arrives, and we see Khan has killed most of the staff. The lighting of that sequence just doesn’t seem that atmospheric and eerie enough. But those are minor complaints.

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Quite frankly I would watch Wrath of Khan 100x over than the first Star Trek film. The thing that was missing most from the first film was a driving force, which in this film is Kirk who leads the story. This is Kirk’s film, and everyone around him plays their parts as support for his personal journey. There is more emphasis on Character in Star Trek 2, as well as better editing of sequences, which keep the pacing focused, driving the story forward. When I rewatched the film today, there was one aspect I found still got to me, and that was the death of Spock. Originally when The Wrath of Khan originally came out in 1982, pretty much everybody had heard Spock was going to die. So what Nicholas Meyer did in the film was kill everyone off in a fake out death scene in the beginning. This was done not simply to throw people off, but to get the build up out of the way so people would forget about Spock and focus on the story. Admittedly the same thing happened to me rewatching the film, as I forgot that Spock was supposed to die until it actually happened. It just goes to show how incredibly smart and well thought out the story was. For much of the film, Spock is simply there as support for Kirk, so there isn’t too much focus on what happens to him. To this day, it’s still a terrific death scene, and Leonard Nimoy’s performance is one of the best he’s ever done in all of Star Trek. I’ve always liked that while Kirk and Spock are the best of friends, when Spock is near death, he still stands and adjusts his shirt to present himself to his captain…a great touch. Everything comes home for Kirk in that moment, where this time he can’t beat the no-win scenario without someone else taking the sacrifice.

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The adventure is most compelling here, as the emotional center of the film is Kirk facing his aging body and feels something deeper is missing from his life. The challenge here is that Kirk has spent most of his life cheating death, but it’s also the one thing he’s most afraid of, trying to deny it within himself. He struggles with feeling that he now has to accept old age almost considers his life as captain to be over. It’s this human journey that makes this one of the most emotionally engaging Trek adventures. Kirk has that admission once he realizes he can’t beat the no-win scenario, he finally admits that he knows nothing. What I like even more is that the story keeps it simple here by focusing on Kirk, and of the subplots, such as the Reliant finding Khan all tie into Kirk’s journey. Humorously, as well as being true to the story, Kirk keeps managing to get the best of Khan throughout the film. But Kirk always managing to beat him relates to his problem in that it was only easy for him because he knows things about starships that Khan doesn’t. Still that doesn’t stop Khan from being a greater threat, having killed Federation civilians mercilessly, and doing some crippling damage to the Enterprise. Khan also seems to fall in the vein of literary villains, who have memorized books like Moby Dick word for word, but never actually learned anything from the story! To be honest, he’s not my favorite of all the Trek villains, but he is a lot of fun, and Ricardo Montalban does a great job hamming it up. Khan himself is a rich character, and a joy to watch at times. It’s interesting too that Khan and Kirk have a relationship in the film, but never actually meet in person accept when talking to each other through the Enterprise viewscreen.

I also don’t want to go on without mentioning Kristie Alley as Savvik in this film, and she’s just terrific. I really miss that she didn’t come back (for whatever reason) to do Star Trek 3 and 4. Her replacement, Robin Curtis, does a decent job, but Kristie Alley really owned Savvik as a character, who while being a Vulcan, we still sense a slight bit of pride to her actions. She is not completely emotionless. I also can’t think of his name, but I really like Khan’s right hand man, his most trusted comrade who also begs Khan to let go of his need for vengeance and take the Reliant wherever they want to go. Khan fights him at times, but he keeps vigilant admiration and respect for his leader. Khan is even saddened and angry about his death near the end of the film. We sympathize with several other minor characters in this film, including Scotty’s brash young nephew in the engine room. It’s a minor role, but his death garners plenty of sympathy from us.

The Wrath of Khan is a great enjoyable film, and one of the finest in all of Star Trek. While I have some quibbles about the movie, they are seriously minor to how great this movie really is. It’s an engaging, moving, well told story, and one of the best adventure films of all time.

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#StartrekTheWrathOfKhan #Startrek

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Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Dir. Robert Wise

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On the heels of a new J.J. Abrams Star Trek film, I’ve decided that I’m going to watch and review all the Star Trek films in order, leading up to the release of the new film.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t have terribly high hopes for the new Star Trek just based on the advertising campaign, and I’m not really thrilled of the notion of showing a post apocalyptic version of Star Trek.  But it is Star Trek, and I am a fan, so will be seeing it.  Somehow watching all of the other films beforehand might help me build my immunity in case the new film is a travesty.  At any rate, I hope you enjoy this series leading up to the new films release!

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a film I haven’t seen in a while and probably for good reason.  It’s easily the slowest and most difficult Star Trek film to sit through.  That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film though.  It’s got some interesting elements of science fiction, particularly the return of the Voyager spacecraft as an emerged consciousness.  This Trek film also sports the best model work out of all the Trek films (yes, even the new ones).  But the visual effects are part of the films difficulty as for many sequences we have to sit through what feels like several minutes just showing off the Enterprise, or even longer scenes of of the Enterprise moving through the alien spacecraft.  It’s all pretty to watch, but it feels like it drags the story to a snails pace, when our biggest concerns should be with the characters and their personal issues.

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Thankfully the film picks up after the arrival of Dr. McCoy, and Deforrest Kelly adds a lot of much needed lightness and humor.  This Star Trek film I found to be the most difficult to connect with the characters, in that so much time is spent in between the spectacle and trying to move the story forward that I felt it difficult to engage with any one characters issue.  It feels like we’re scattered equally among separate character motivations, and there isn’t anyone in particular that’s a driving force for the film.  Kirk is rusty behind the wheel of his ship, having not served as Captain for over two years.  His problems “competing” with Commander Dekker seem somewhat petty.  It’s not like Star Trek 2, where more attention is focused on Kirk’s aging and dealing with his mortality, as well as his usefulness to Starfleet.  This film taps into that a little bit, but I never get enough of the sense of Kirk leading the way here.

As for Spock, he’s got problems of his own, being turned down in a ritual to purge himself of all emotion.  Spock joins the mission to seek out this alien threat, which is based in logic, for his own search for meaning.  There is even some wonder among the crew if Spock’s personal ulterior motives might end up sabotaging the mission.    But again, there is a lack of drive in the story to give us more investment in the kind of mythological heroes journey he undergoes here.  It’s that lack of who and what to focus on that doesn’t do much to bring everything together by the end of the film.  There was something about Spock’s story that didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Why is this journey to find himself happening for him at practically middle age (ignoring for a moment the Vulcan’s prolonged lifespan)?  If this ritual of his to find his life purpose were happening at a younger age, maybe it would be understandable about what he’s going through to want to have all emotion purged.  But for a character like Spock to be struggling and moping that he doesn’t know who he is seems out of touch for the character we know who is wise beyond his years.  The message seems almost too obvious by the end of the film, about logic embracing with emotion and humanity.  This seems like something he would already know about himself, and if anything, he would have been put to more use serving as a guide for the Voyager entity to understand its purpose than trying to figure out his personal problems.

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One of the more interesting characters for me was Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), who holds his own as a commander, and thankfully the writers never stoop to giving him a cocky attitude by comparison to Kirk.  Decker actually makes all the right decisions when he knows more about the ships newer operations than Kirk.  However, we aren’t given enough time in the film to really feel much for his relationship with Ilia, especially to make their sacrifices at the end more powerful.  We get the two have a relationship and a history, but the film doesn’t do enough to explore it as there’s just too much else going on.  There just doesn’t feel like much behind the sacrifice to mean more than just the message of technology and humanity embracing.

I find it interesting that during this period with the rise of computer technology, there were many films that talked about the debate of whether technology would overrun us or if humanity would prevail.  We saw this previously with Star Wars with Luke having to shut off the machine and trust his instincts.  I’m also reminded of Tron and the image of Flynn at the end diving into the MCP, and the two merging to become one.  Although I think Tron makes a bigger connection thematically than Star Trek: The Motion Picture does.  This film also seems more bogged down in seriousness than other Star Trek films, which is why Bones is so desperately needed by the time he shows up.  The aging Trek crew doesn’t hit their stride until the next film came along, which makes this film, for me, the most difficult to sit through.  I know for most people they say Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is the worst Trek, but I actually love that film.  I admit it’s a terrible film, but I actually love it for its stupidity and outrageousness, and most of all, to me, it’s still more fun than this film.  There’s plenty of dazzling visuals in this movie, and it achieves some of the greatest model work in motion picture history.  But the plodding, serious story, and too much time spent glamoring on visual effects shots over moving things forward gets in the way of what could have been a more fun and engaging science fiction story.

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#StarTrekTheMotionPicture #StarTrekReviews #FilmCriticism #FilmReviews #moviecappastartrek

Quigley Down Under (1990) Dir. Simon Wincer

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Here’s a film I had long forgotten, Quigley Down Under.  This is another film I remember seeing in the theater when I was 8 years old.  I really liked it at the time because it was a Western set in the Australian Outback,  but it was also an adventure story.  I wasn’t sure if I would have the same feeling revisiting the film after over 23 years.  The film started out a bit of a rocky for me, once Alan Rickman’s villain Elliot Marsten showed up, the film took off for me, and I was thrilled to go along with the ride once more.

I don’t know if this film is still remembered by a lot of people, but if you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s really worth a revisit.  It’s got a great story, and the experience I had re-watching the movie was an interesting one.  At first I wasn’t sure if this was going to be the movie I remembered.  Once Quigley arrives on the shores of Australia, he meets Crazy Cora, a woman he saves from Marsten’s men, and she keeps calling Quigley, “Roy”.  At first, I was just as annoyed as Quigley because for a woman who was supposedly crazy, I didn’t know if they were going to go anywhere with the character apart from trying to make her a goofy sidekick/potential love interest.  Thankfully, the storytellers actually did a great thing with the character, as we find out later on she’s the victim of a trauma.  During an Apache attack on her home in America, Cora accidentally smothered her baby to keep it quiet during the attack.  Her husband, Roy, was so outraged, blaming her for sacrificing their baby to save herself, that he had her exiled on a boat to Australia.  What’s great is through the course of the film, she is able to work through her trauma and in the end finds her way to Quigley to start her life over.  I found Cora to be a step up on characters that are portrayed with mental illness because as a heroic character, she manages to save herself and survive.  She is able to move on with her life.  Cora wound up being the most engaging and sympathetic characters in the film.

As for Tom Selleck as Quigley, well…he plays Tom Selleck, but that’s just fine.  I liked Tom Selleck as a kid, and he’s still just as entertaining as a kick ass/nice guy western hero.  He is pretty much a nice guy, saying no to anyone showing harsh intolerance and violence against anybody.  Quigley is hired by Marsten as a long range rifle shooter.  But when he finds out that Marsten wants him to use his gifts as a sharpshooter to kill Aborigines, Quigley quickly has Marsten thrown through a window, and it doesn’t take very long before the two wind up becoming enemies.  Marsten has Quigley and Cora sent to die out in the middle of the Australian Outback, and it’s up to the two of them to survive and make it back and stop Marsten from wiping out more Aborigine tribesmen.  When Marsten finds out they’re still alive, he keeps sending men after them only to have them continually wiped out.

Another one of the great things about this film is that Marsten’s henchmen are actually unique and fun characters on their own.  My favorite of them was a young red head kid who, while remaining with the bad guys all the way through, he doesn’t come off as cocky or obnoxious, but as somebody trying to fit in with the other guys.  There’s a funny scene where he practices shooting, and he asks Marsten, “Do you think someday I’ll be able to shoot as well as you, sir?”  Marsten: “You mean if you keep practicing hard every day?  No.”   Alan Rickman is gleefully evil in this, and is just a dick. He steals his scenes pretty effectively as the villain, It’s like taking Hans Gruber and making him the bad rancher of the west.  This is definitely one of the more fun villains Alan Rickman has portrayed.  He channels Gruber quite a bit in this movie, and like I said, once Rickman arrives on the scene, the movie shifts gears and just becomes a really good time.

If you haven’t seen Quigley Down Under, it’s available on Netflix Instant, so by all means check it out.  It’s just a really good time, and somewhat of a forgotten classic.  It’s got a great cast, a great story, and plenty of action.  Don’t miss it.

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#Quigleydownunder #AlanRickman #TomSelleck #Westerns #forgottenclassics

 

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Dir. Roman Polanski

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I recall seeing Rosemary’s Baby awhile ago on TV, but not knowing what it was.  It all came back to me as I remembered seeing this film before, but thankfully this time I got to see it from the beginning.  And it is a truly great horror film, one that could have ended up being far sillier than it turned out to be.  I mean the premise is pretty silly when you think about it, especially since this was made in 1968.  It was pretty natural at that time for a younger generation to believe anyone over 60 worshiped Satan.  But what makes it work so well is that the older people in the film are intentionally made funny, especially the diabolical, and not to mention incredibly nosy, Minnie Castevet (hilariously portrayed by Ruth Gordon).  Their ability to manipulate young Rosemary (Mia Farrow), is pretty unprecedented, as anytime Rosemary wants to get away or find her own way, the scheming old timers simply compromise and bargain with her, playing to her wishes when they know in time they will definitely get what they want.  They have pretty much all the patience in the world.  They’ve probably done this so many times manipulating young girls that Rosemary is probably just too easy for them (well, okay, she’s a bit of a challenge, but by the end we see nothing they can’t handle).

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The only other Polanski film I’ve seen is Chinatown, but that is also an incredible film, and the director has a unique style and vision, and dare I say is a game changer in cinema.  The film is grounded firmly in the reality it portrays, and what’s great are the incredibly natural performances that come from the cast, making it all the more real and frightening for us as the film goes on.  The young couple, Rosemary and Guy (John Cassavetes) start out as a free spirited, only to be seduced and taken over by the older generation, eventually crippling what’s left of their youthful vigor.  Guy especially, who seems manipulated into joining them right off the bat when he’s promised a great career at the expense of having somebody else suddenly and inexplicably becoming blind. Dark stuff indeed.  I especially loved the character Dr. Saperstien (Ralph Bellamy), who is just as conniving as they come, but always the patient and meticulous doctor, doing everything to please Rosemary, while covering up his sinister intentions.

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As far as the ending goes, it’s a bit uncertain what’s happening in Rosemary’s mind as we fade out from the final shot, having realized she’s just delivered the anti-Christ.  What’s scary about that final look is seeing her as she gives in to the darkness.  Her previous identity gone.  Rosemary’s Baby shows what happens when we lose that free spiritedness in ourselves, and how older values corrupt the spirit when we are trying to find ourselves and figure out what we want most in our lives.  The older medicine winds up causing Rosemary more pain than anything, and even her younger friends try to warn her to seek help from a younger professional.

There is something to be said about this era of cinema, especially with horror, which served as a great medium for expressing the anger and rebellion happening among a younger generation during those times.  Rosemary’s Baby is no exception and delivers it in a scary and fun way.  There’s a great balance with the humor and the more insidious threat being played out.  This is definitely a great horror film.

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Jurassic Park (1993) Dir. Steven Spielberg

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This weekend I got the chance to once again see Jurassic Park on the big screen with it’s new 3D conversion.  First, to be perfectly honest, I don’t care to talk about the 3D because 3D itself doesn’t have much of an effect on me, apart from noticing it for maybe the first 10 minutes of the film and then completely forgetting about it for the rest of the film.  So if 3D’s your thing, from what I saw it looks pretty good.  Other than that, I want to delve right into the film.

I saw Jurassic Park like many people when it first came out in 1993.  I remember the experience like it was yesterday.  We went to the just opened AMC Town 6 theater in Burbank.  What I remember most was that this film was the first time I sat in a theater with stadium seating.  The theater was brand new, the sound was exquisite…it was really the ultimate movie going experience.  I loved the move when I was 11 years old and there were those moments of sheer terror that blew me out of the water.  Over the years and subsequent viewings I’ve had more time to process the story and the film itself.  It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the film all the way through as I look at it now through adult eyes.  To be honest, this isn’t one of my favorite Spielberg movies, but I enjoy it for what it is, even if there are parts of the story that don’t quite mesh (which I’ll get into).  This movie was made at the same time as Schindler’s List, and is in my opinion the pinnacle of Spielberg’s career.  Everything after Schindler, for me has been a slow decline, where his movies still had moments of greatness, like Private Ryan for example where the main plot is nowhere near as exceptional as the incredible D-Day attack in the first 20 minutes.

Now we’re in the age of Kingdom of The Crystal Skull, Warhorse, and Lincoln, where Spielberg has now lost the one thing that kept even his weakest stories afloat:  Character.  Character if anything is the one thing that has epitomized the success of the best of Spielberg’s career.  Without great characters to empathize with, we would never have the sense of wonder and joy of the fantastic in his films.  We would never feel any of this had we not seen it through the eyes of these wonderful actors who portray these characters.  It’s the reason a film like Jurassic Park works so well on audiences.  We can’t help but love the characters in this movie even if the story might begin to loose its focus from the first half in favor of the popcorn adventure of the second half.  We love Alan Grant, the kids, the funny, womanizing Ian Malcom, Ellie, Hammond, and even great supporting characters such as Nedry, Mr. Arnold, etc.  There was even a funny bit I had never noticed before that made me laugh.  When Dodgson is meeting Nedry to deliver the embryo canister, he gets out of his cab and leaves the door open.  We see in the background the cabbie get out of the car, shut the backseat door and throw Dodgson an angry gesture.  For a character that just has one scene, it’s great that Spielberg still showed in that little moment just to show what a son-of-a-bitch Dodgson is, and that he has no respect for anyone subservient.  Touches like these are great because Dodgson represents Hammond’s competitors trying to get their hands on the valuable dinosaur embryos, and because he only has one scene, a lot is done in that moment to make this one shot character memorable.  Spielberg does this with all the characters in the film, giving them each a little trait the audience can latch on and identify with, such as Hammond’s Walt Disney like enthusiasm, Ian’s womanizing, the fact that Grant doesn’t like kids, Lex who thrives on being a computer nerd and vegetarian despite being chased by carnivores for most of the film.  Gennero’s sudden turn to greed once he sees what a gold mine the park really is.

As for the story, the problem the film has is that it sets up a lot of interesting ideas about DNA, genetics, Chaos Theory, the fact that the dinosaurs are all female to keep them from breeding, but there’s no payoff to any of these story points except to set up the set piece of the characters being chased by dinos in the second half of the film.  There’s nothing wrong with the way the second half of the film plays out because obviously that’s the most fun part of the movie, and it’s the most engaging in that we care so much about the characters that we don’t want to see anything terrible happen to them.  But there are things, for example, like the idea of the dinosaurs being female, but the frog DNA chosen causes the dinosaurs to inexplicibly change sex and breed anyway.  What’s funny to me about this is it almost seems smarter if the bred them all as males at least to deny to dinosaurs a physiology system that would allow them to lay eggs.  When Grant later finds the eggs, we see that the dinosaurs are in fact breeding on their own, but there’s no real payoff except to say that “Life found a way”.  Which is interesting commentary but doesn’t really say anything regarding the rest of the film.  What goes on like in the dinner scene where Malcolm is complaining to Hammond about playing God and never earning the responsibility of the knowledge for himself, these are all fascinating ideas and debates that are discussed, but then abandoned when it comes time for the dinosaur chase.  This doesn’t change my enjoyment of Jurassic Park knowing any of this about the story, it’s just that as enjoyable as the film is, it isn’t as tightly structured with its ideas as, say, Spielberg’s earlier films like Jaws, Raiders, or E.T.

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I have three favorite sequences in this film.  The first is the sick triceratops scene.  I think it’s a beautiful moment for Grant, and it’s a terrific setup as we’re introduced to the triceratops from Tim’s perspective, walking through the tall grass and then seeing the dinosaur revealed.  Grant goes on about how beautiful she is, even feeling every breath, and it gives us some backstory that the triceratops was Grant’s favorite dinosaur as a kid, tapping into that childlike wonder in him that seemed forgotten when we first meet him.

My second favorite scene is where Hammond talks about his first attraction, a motorized flea circus.  Again, this is a scene that gives us a lot of wonderful history on Hammond, a dreamer and a creator who wished for the day that his creations weren’t an illusion, but something real that people could see and touch.  It even touches a little into Hammonds dark side and his compulsion to play God with his line “Creation is an act of will.”  Ellie has to shake him back into reality when he becomes more concerned with the outlook of the park than the lives of people they love who are in danger.  Hammond struggles through this with the rest of the film as his dream begins to crumble.  The back and forth debate in his head with the park vs. the well being of the people he loves is one of the stronger moments of the film.

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The third sequence, and possibly my favorite in the film is the raptors stalking the children in the kitchen.  For those who know me well, I’m a sucker for child endangerment in films, and this is most definitely one of the scariest sequences put on film.  We learn just how smart raptors are quite simply because they figured out how to open doors.  They’re strategic and incredibly vicious.  The only thing I’m curious about is that in the earlier scene when Muldoon is talking about the raptors, and one of them being particularly vicious, taking over the pack, I kind of wonder which raptor he was referring to.  It doesn’t take away the scariness in anyway, but the whole setup and the way the sequence plays out is just brilliant.

I had an interesting discussion once about this film with my life drawing teacher regarding the effects work and animation done on the dinosaurs in this film.  One of the things we all agreed on is that the dinosaurs in this film are the most convincing out of all the Jurassic Park films.  One of the reasons for that was the stop motion animation work done by Phil Tippitt and his team.  Originally, the computer technology used for the full motion dinosaurs was so new that nobody was sure it was going to work.  As a back up, Phil Tippit did stop motion animation of all the dinosaur sequences, including the T-Rex attacks, the brachiasaurs, the Gallymimus sequence, and the raptors in the kitchen sequence.  These stop motion films served as reference for the CG animators, giving the dinos a sense of weight and timing.  More attention to weight especially makes the dinosaurs more convincing because Tippitt was relying on real life puppets to animate.  The other Jurassic Park films skip this process entirely which is a shame as much as it is frustrating, because the animation in those films isn’t nearly as convincing or interesting.  In breaking new ground with the first film, the creators were forced through circumstances and a lack of technology to find ways to make the dinosaurs not so much realistic, but instead BELIEVABLE, which is the one thing we strive for more than realism when making films. I discuss this in another post called Realism and Believability in the Movies.

But quite frankly that’s what also amounts to the success of Jurassic Park as a film as well.  While we strive for a story that is tight where all the pieces are in place, it’s the believability of the characters that makes the film real for us.  Spielberg gives us character moments spread throughout the film.  One of my favorite acting moments in the film is where Malcolm is explaining chaos theory to Ellie while at the same time hitting on her.  In a subtle way we can see she’s a little creeped out by his overbearing advances.  It’s a good moment of interaction among the characters.  Grant likes to scare children, such as the obnoxious kid in the beginning of the film to get him to show “more respect” for velociraptors, or faking Lex and Tim out getting electrocuted by the fence.  Or even Hammond sitting by himself eating ice cream and his moment with Ellie when he talks about the flea circus.  These little moments add up to our empathy with the characters.

Jurassic Park is by no means a perfect film.  But for a Spielberg movie, it’s still makes for a great, engaging ride, with terrific visuals and giving us a reason to care about these characters, something that is sorely missed now from his more recent efforts.

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Cinecon 49!

49film_couldhappenHey everyone!  Cinecon 49 is coming up soon!  For those who don’t know, Cinecon is a terrific classic film festival held every year at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and features fantastic prints of some rare Hollywood treasures, some of which are so good and yet currently unavailable on DVD.  This is your one place to see them!  The festival this year is held Labor Day weekend, from August 29th to September 2nd.  Already the site has updated with some of the films they will be showing this year. Check it out here!

Toy Story (1995) Dir. John Lasseter

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I took a great class yesterday from Marshall Vandruff, a terrific artist and teacher. The class was a Visual Storytelling Analysis of the film Toy Story, where we went through the entire film, stopping after each sequence and discussing the story structure and emotional line of the film. It was an absolutely terrific seminar. I wanted to talk a little bit about Toy Story as a film in general, because it really is such a great, well told story.  This is a film where the story was allowed to be what it should have been.  There was a tremendous amount of searching to find the film this would eventually become, but this movie turned out to be the ultimate game changer for animation.  What’s even more astounding is that this film does not feel dated in the slightest.  While the animation and visuals would technically be considered “primitive” to what CG films can do know, Toy Story was still approached with a wonderful artistic eye, and the visuals are still just as wonderful and aesthetically pleasing to the eye as it was when it first premiered.

I was 14 when Toy Story first came out.  From what I do remember about seeing the film, I remember how much I liked it although I didn’t know the impact it would have that one day CG would completely take over the animation field.  I never saw myself wanting to go into a career in CG after this, but I saw it as the use of a different medium.  The story was great, and the film itself was a lot of fun.  There was one particular scene that hit me pretty hard when I first saw it, and still today it’s my favorite scene in the whole film.  It’s basically the fall of Buzz Lightyear when he discovers that he’s not a space ranger, just “an insignificant stupid little toy”.  It’s his fall from grace and his discovery that the world was never what he imagined it would be.  The scene I refer to in this is where Buzz and Woody are talking in the middle of the night at Sid’s house and Woody is trying to get Buzz to help him escape.  Buzz just sits their alone with his sad line, “I can’t help.  I can’t help anybody.”  It’s been a few years since I’ve watched this film, but yesterday as I watched the film I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by this sequence.  Not in a heavy depressed way, but as the scene plays out, the two of them have reached a penultimate moment where they couldn’t get any lower and two guys that were once enemies finally reach common ground.  It’s a beautiful scene.  And when Buzz finally sees the words “Andy” on his shoe and gets the message that there is a new, better life for him out there, you see a character that finds bliss in that moment.

There’s a lot of great visual storytelling devices in this movie.  I’ve always liked the opening sequence with Andy playing with his toys.  The camera is always kept at the Toy’s point of view, even though they are in “play mode”, meaning they don’t move.  When we’re introduced to Woody, who appears to us as just an ordinary toy, the camera keeps everything so that we see what he sees in his head, from going down the stair railing to spinning in the chair with Andy.  One of the interesting things that was pointed out when I was in the class was an idea that started out as a cliche joke and goes on to become an important part of the story.  The scene starts with the army men going to investigate the new birthday presents Andy is getting.  After one of them gets crushed, the wounded soldier shouts out “Go on without me!” to which the Army captain returns and says, “A good soldier never leaves a man behind!”  This theme is echoed through to the final sequence in the film, where twice Woody and Buzz make self sacrifices for each other.  For instance, the first time Buzz is caught in a fence as the moving van is leaving, and he shouts to Woody, “Go on, I’ll catch up”, to which Woody who is right at his moment of victory, decides to jump down and help Buzz.  Then the second time it happens, Woody’s leg is caught in the dogs mouth and he cries out to Buzz, “Take care of Andy for me!”, to which Buzz shouts No! and jumps on the dog, pulling up and snapping its eyelids.

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From a structural standpoint it was interesting to see how so many different elements are set up and paid off later in the movie.  The story structure of this film is a solid as they come.  The sequels were never quite the same when it came to this film, and one of the things I enjoyed about this film was Mr. Potato Head, who is much more of a smart ass, and while he’s not a villain, he is a bit more of an antagonist figure here.  A part of it is that he’s somewhat jealous of Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy, and manages to convince the other toys not to let Woody come back to them after what he did to Buzz.  While Potato Head makes some good points, at the same time, you can’t help but feel his motives are a little ulterior even if he’s not conscieous about what he’s doing.  There’s a part of him that already wants Woody to go away anyway, just because Woody decided to be self-proclaimed leader of the toys.  Potato head even gets a bit of comeuppance at the end of the film when the race car flies into him and his body parts scatter all over the place.  And then of course, he gets a happy ending when he finally gets Ms. Potato Head!

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I’ve always had problems with the sequels for this film, because to me the idea of the toys getting replaced because their masters grew up or moved on…for some reason that story was never important to me.  It’s almost like it comes to a shock to all the toys that their master is going to grow up, when I think if every toy before hand had to deal with this, you’d think toys would have some plan or initiative on what to do when they had to move on to another master.  You’d think instead of “holding on” to each other, that one day they would split up and move on to other people, and one day eventually end up in the trash pile.  But that’s just what their existence is.  It seems like they’re not okay with the idea of dying or moving on.  I was more interested in the first Toy Story because it dealt with the toys dealing with ordinary problems that we can relate to as people.  The jealousy of a new toy coming into the picture when Buzz arrives, which angers Woody, is very human and a story we can all relate to when somebody comes into our lives we didn’t ask for and we don’t know how to deal when that person comes in with newer or more impressive ideas than the old toy.  Some of the aspects we talked about in this film were the metaphors about how the space race came in during the 60’s and took over when before every kid was interested in cowboys and Indians and then suddenly everyone was into space and astronauts.  All of this helps to build on a great rivalry with the characters.

Toy Story will always be one of Pixar’s greatest triumphs.  The story is so solid as well because the filmmakers had no choice but to go in that direction.  They had to accept and allow the story to unfold and be what it wanted to be.  It’s disappointing to me that the rest of the Pixar films (at least everything after The Incredibles) couldn’t be as on par and allow their films to bloom in the way that Toy Story does.  It’s just a great solid film, and one of my favorite animated films ever made.

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