Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dinosaur! (1985) (Documentary Review)

    Dinosaurs were a big fascination of my childhood and I think most kids can agree. There’s something about them that captures our imagination very quickly at a young age. Sure they look really cool, they make for great action figures for kids but I think the big reason they leave such a huge impression on us is because unlike other movie monsters, Dinosaurs actually lived on our planet, they were real life monsters that existed no differently than the animals of today and a part of us can’t help but feel like they should still be here. Why where these mighty giants just killed off so mysteriously, and if they can just parish, why not man, dose their fate preview our own? Just the subject of Dinosaurs can open up a world of so much thought, imagination and when I was a kid there was a single documentary film that took my fascination about Dinosaurs to amazing new heights. Before “The Land Before Time” in 1988 and “Jurassic Park” in 1993, there was a 1985 TV documentary simply titled “Dinosaur!” and it’s here that my whole childhood fascination on the subject all started.    

     It first aired on CBS in 1985, and re-aired several times in the early 90’s on Disney channel. I still own an old VHS tape, distributed by f.h.e. Family Home Entertainment. This was like the ultimate Dinosaur Documentary, covering Dinosaurs in the media, comic books, movies, attractions, museums, toys, decorations you may see out on the highway or in carnivals. There’s interviews with paleontologists like Jack Horner, scientific discoveries, theory’s on what happened back then, what could happen in our future, how some animals that lived back then still live amongst us today, it just covers an impressive gambit of different Dinosaur related topics in just 60 minutes. The musical score got me so hyped as a kid, and even to this day, it’s still a fun little musical score.    

    Our host for this presentation is none other than the classic Superman himself, Christopher Reeve. He has such a gentle yet mature voice and brings a lot of class and dignity to this documentary. But what really makes his appearance so pleasing is that he’s a really big Dinosaur fan himself. You can feel his genuine love and nostalgia for the creatures he talks about, but he never acts like a kid, he still stays calm and is honestly loving every moment of sharing his knowledge and fascination about dinosaurs with us. To further demonstrate his enthusiasm for this documentary, he flew himself out on his own plan to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which is his permanent setting thought the feature. He even requested that several of his scenes be re-shot, just to make sure everything was as perfect as possible. This wasn’t just a job for Christopher Reeve, it really meant something to him, and it makes me care so much more about what he has to share with us. Now I saw this documentary years before I had seen the original “Superman” movie from 1978, and while Christopher Reeve will always be remembered best as the man of steel, I’ll always remember him best as the “Dinosaur” host. 

    In 1984, an animator named Phil Tippet created a ten minuet short film titled “Prehistoric Beast’s”, and it was a test to improve “Go Motion” animation. Phil had earlier animated creatures in “Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back” and later was the animation supervisor for the dinosaur effects in the 1993 hit “Jurassic Park”. The director of this Dinosaur documentary named Robert Guenette was impressed with Phil’s craft and asked him to animate scenes for this documentary alone. In-between takes with our host and other subjects are “Go Motion” animated Dinosaur scenes that show the lives of these creatures in their time. Sometimes there like short films, a lot of which focus on a family of Duckbill Dinosaurs that are raising a single infant. The effects for these Dinosaurs are very impressive for TV documentary standards, in fact they look more genuine and real than the stop-motion Dinosaurs you’d see in actual movies before this. I honestly think these creature effects are cooler than the CG Dinosaur effects we see in documentaries today, and there’s just something really special about this craft. In 1986, this special received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Visual Effects.

    A lot of these Dinosaur scenes could get really scary and violent at times. There’s a scene with a pack of predators ripping the flesh off of another Dinosaur ... it’s so brutal. My favorite part is when the documentary takes a look at the T-Rex, which was my favorite Dinosaur as a kid. This leads to a scene that might just be one of the most terrifying moments of my childhood. The scene opens with a dinosaur lost in the woods while a T-Rex is lurching in the shadows and walking quietly behind the trees. The suspense is just nail bighting, but the T-Rex doesn’t attack right away, instead this pore dinosaur keeps walking around until he finds the remains of other dead dinosaurs. Then when all is quiet, the T-Rex makes his surprise attack! I was four years old when I saw this scene and it scared the piss out of me. The fallowing battle is quiet bloody, with the one dinosaur shoving his horn up the T-Rex’s leg and there’s a piercing musical score that just adds to the intensity of this whole scene. Then just when the T-Rex goes in for the kill, the most bewildering thing happens ... we cut to a kindergarten classroom where little kids are playing with toy models. What the heck, how do we just go from this intense dinosaur battle to the death, then to a room full of kids playing with toys. It’s the most bewildering transition I’ve ever experienced.     

   Perhaps the most freighting aspect of this special is when they go into thoughts on how the Dinosaurs were killed. We get a beautifully created scene of a giant meteor hitting earth, and wiping out the chain of life. It always bothered me to think that something similar could just as easily happen to us. Another moment that always gave me chills is when a scientist determines that if the Dinosaurs had survived, they gradually would have evolved into a species called “Dinosaur Man”. Where then given a wax figure example of what a dinosaur man would most likely look like, and the image of this thing always bugged me. Near the end of this special, we look at modern day myths, and Dinosaurs that may still live amongst us. This includes the Loch Ness Monster from Scotland and the supposed Brontosaurus spotted in the African Congo. While these stories are all dated and more obviously myths, they still fascinated me as a child and make for fun stories.  

    Another really big highlight was when this special looked at Dinosaurs in the movies. I always wanted to identify every movie clip but they were all old films and most of which are unknown to the general public. 

Most of these movies I’d discover on TV or at a rental store and I’d always get excited when I’d recognize familiar Dinosaur movie footage that I didn’t know came from the film. There are moments when they’d play clips from the 1933 film “King Kong” and it was so cool seeing the movie for the first time, and recognizing some of the moments. Clips were used from other Dinosaur movies including “One Million Years BC” (1966), “Planet of the Dinosaurs” (1978), “The Lost World” (1925), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” (1970)Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend” (1985), and one of my favorite clips was from the 1981 movie “Caveman”, which featured a T-Rex eating an intoxicated plant and falling off a cliff like a drunken idiot. My friends and I would re-wind this clip all the time because it was just so funny.  Where also shown a clip of the first animated Dinosaur cartoon ever in 1914 called “Gertie the Dinosaur” and speaking of cartoons, there’s footage of animated classics that reference Dinosaurs including “The Flintstones” cartoon and even the “Charlie Brown” cartoon.                          

        Overall, this documentary is about as enchant as the subject material, which feels very appropriate. Like an old dinosaur fossil yet to be discovered, this little documentary makes for quite the find. If you’re someone who still finds Dinosaurs interesting, definitely try and find this film, because it does an amazing job of being informative and educational while still feeling as engaging and exciting as an actual movie. Even though I’m 22 years old, I still hold this little documentary as a small treasure on my movie shelf and it still has the power to take me back to that wonderful time from my child hood, when Dinosaurs were awesome. 


I give the documentary “Dinosaur!” 4½ stars out of 5.      


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Top Ten favorite Comic book adapted movies (Non-Marvel or Batman related)

     When it comes to comic book adaptations into film, I’m always the most interested in the Marvel comic films or the Batman films, I don’t even know how many times I’ve posed things regarding those two topics, so here’s some other comic book adaptations into film that I love and have nothing to do with either Marvel or Batman.   

10. Kick-Ass 
Kick-Ass” is what it’s called and kick ass is all it does. This is a great warning for us comic book geeks who think it would be cool to be a superhero and at the same time it’s fast, it’s funny, it’s dark and its action packed. Balancing dark tones and juvenile elements with lots of style and wit isn’t easy, but this film does an awesome job of it, bringing together a cast of colorful characters and providing lots of fun for us comic book nerds. 

9.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie 
It’s far from art or even what you may define as a good movie but damn it, do I ever have a big, soft, nostalgic spot for this film. It was the very first super hero movie I had ever seen in my life (I was about 5 years old when I first saw this) and I still enjoy looking back at it to this day. The action scenes are quiet good for people in costumes, the music gets me so pumped and the Shredder is still one of my favorite villains to ever come from a comic book adapted film. All in all, it’s cheesy fun at its best.

8. 300 
Bet you didn’t even know that this was based off of a comic (speaking to a general audience) and it definitely belongs amongst the best. The slow motion, the awesome lines, the rocking sound track mixed with epic battles and a visionary unique style of filming, “300” is simply the perfect, macho, guy flick.

Men in Black 

Not every great comic book adaption has to be based off of a superhero and here’s a perfect example. “Men in Black” manages to combine high-tech gadgets and cool aliens (most notably the giant cockroach at the end of the film) with a relatively competent script and very fun, charismatic performances from two of my favorite actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. It’s easily one of my favorite parings of talented actors and when you combine them with all the style that the film has to offer, you got yourself set for a fun time at the movies.   

6. Hellboy II: The Golden Army 

If you didn’t like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, here’s a fairytale based comic book that completely makes up for it. Ron Perelman and cast deliver very charismatic performances to surprisingly endearing characters and Guillermo Del Toro’s crafty direction, set pieces and creature designs are so elaborate and creative that it livens this film up with a very strong, other worldly atmosphere. This is a fine example of a sequel being far superior to the original.     

5. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World 
Talk about style over substance, but holly cow, what awesome style. “Scott Pilgrims vs. the World”, literally makes the world a live action video game and has a blast doing it. The film may not have much of a story or life like characters but its unique style and creative visuals are just too much fun to pass up.  

4. Mystery Men 
This spoof on the superhero genre packs plenty of laughs and clever gags but it also stands strong as a fun little underdog story about the superhero’s that are great at their job but are never noticed. It’s about the guys who are constantly upstaged by the bigger, stronger characters, and have something to prove. I’m not saying that “Mystery Men” is deep or insightful, it just has a nice little heart that goes a long way and as a whole, it’s a fun, campy superhero film with some perfectly absurd character that are all brought to life terrifically by a very well rounded cast.

3. The Rocketeer
 With all the big budget superhero movies that are constantly released from Hollywood, it’s such a breath of fresh air to just have an old fashioned action adventure like this. "The Rocketeer" is a nice little homage to the old film serials of the 1930’s and 40’s that ages very well with me. The characters are all terrific and it functions as a relatively high spirited adventure for the family. It’s no “Dark Knight” by any means, but it has so many simple charms, exciting action scenes and a genuine self awareness that it’s not trying to be the next big superhero flick, just a very simple good time.  

2. V for Vendetta 
Unlike other comic book adapted movies, “V for Vendetta” is a dark portrayal of a corrupt society and provides a rich story that’s very exciting and honestly quiet thought provoking. Combine that with two outstanding lead performances from Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, some stellar visuals, impressive set pieces and you got something that’s better than just a good comic book adaption, this is a damn good movie in general.

1. The Mask 
It may not be a film about a superhero and it certainly dosn't reach the same level of greatnes that "V for Vendetta" does but it’s still my personal favorite comic book adapted movie that isn’t Marvel or Batman related. It’s funny, it’s wild, it has its charms, it’s never to overly frantic and while it offers a fun aroma of flashy effects and cartoony overtones, they never overshadow the talented cast. Jim Carry just shines in this film, switching between the roles of an everyday guy that can just blend into the crowd, then to this wild and silly cartoon character. Both the actor and the effects work hand in hand without over shadowing one another and the rest of the cast do an equally good job giving the film it’s substance, most especially Cameron Diaz, who’s insanely good looks still get men drooling to this day. Overall, it may not be cinematic gold, but it sure is a fun film to watch. 

The End

Vertigo (1958) (Movie Review)

     Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker who needs no introduction, as he was one of the first to achieve wide spread acclaim, and attention. I’ve reviewed many of his movies on my site before, and in general, I’ve always been a fan ever sense I first took a film class back in high-school. While many of his movies have been widely regarded as motion picture classics, there’s one that’s achieved its own level of greatness, and according to some sites, it’s actually a contender with “Citizen Kane” as one of the greatest movies ever made. I’m naturally building up to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1958 drama “Vertigo”. This is a movie I’ve wanted to review for years as it contains several things I love and want to praise, but I also have some unpopular opinions of the film that I likewise wanted to share. However, I’ve also been avoiding this film as it’s a difficult one to discuss without spoiling key details. Part of the majesty of watching an Alfred Hitchcock classic is being surprised at every turn. Thus, I’ll do my best to keep the spoilers vague, while I share my personal feelings of “Vertigo” ... one of cinemas most acclaimed achievements.  

         Scotty Ferguson is a detective on the police force, but he’s unfortunately also suffering from an uncontrollable fear of heights. One day while on duty, his acrophobia culminates in the death of a fellow officer, and thus Scotty quits the force. With little direction left in his life, Scotty takes on a favor for a friend … to watch over his friends emotionally unstable wife, who might just be suicidal. Gradually, Scotty becomes infatuated with her, and once the two meet through an incident, she in turn reveals that the feelings are mutual. Naturally a romance develops, but before to long, Scotty faces his fears once again, and can’t stop her from climbing a tall church tower. After a fatal accident, Scotty slips into depression, and his obsession with his lost love causes his mind to snap. Time passes, and eventually a new girl comes into his life, but rather then build a new relationship, Scotty aims to us this new woman as a vessel to recreate his lost love. In essence, it’s Hitchcock conveying a notion of one man’s obsession with obtaining perfection, as Scotty is trying to moiled this lookalike into an exact replica of the love he lost prematurely. It’s all about what’s going on in Scotty’s mind, has he truly lost his sanity, or is he on the verge of exposing an even bigger deception laid before him?

      Anyone who decides the view this movie has to be prepared for a slow burning first half. There are lengthy scenes without any dialogue, and it almost seems a little repetitive after a while. Some may see this as boring, while others could view it as the movie working it’s magic, and slowly hypnotizing you into it’s entrancing spell. While I can’t say with a straight face that I was riveted by the first half, I still couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, as both the musical score by Bernard Herrmann, and the overall film-making techniques on display had me hooked. Eventually we get to a point where I just felt submersed in the experience, and I wanted to see certain things unfold around me. Truthfully, while I wouldn’t call “Vertigo” Hitchcock’s absolute best movie (even though I know most would), I do think it’s his best achievement as visual work of art. The film-making on display is nothing short of inspiring, and he incorporates various technical components in certain shots to put the audience squarely in the characters shoes. There are countless individual shots that have always resonated in the back of my mind, including this one built-up shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, which might just be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen it captured on film. This movie also contains one of the most artistic 360 shots I’ve ever seen. Now the 360 shot is a common cliché in which the camera orbits around a person, or several people, and in the case of this film, it’s two people in a loving embrace. However, there’s so much more added to this shot rather than just the camera orbiting around two people kissing.  

     My favorite individual scene of the whole movie is a dream sequence, in which we visually see Scotty’s mental state of mind breaking down. 

For his time, Alfred Hitchcock was a visionary mastermind like no other, and who better to artistically show the mental deterioration of someone’s obsessed mind. In this scene Scotty is slipping in and out of his own consciousness, resulting in this trippy dream sequence with flashy effects, stylish direction, impressive animation, and a hypnotic feel that literally puts you into a trans while watching. James Stewart naturally is our star, and he delivers a solid performance in the role of Scotty. What’s more, I love watching characters go through a personal transition, as the Scotty we first met in the opening is someone completely different from who we see at the end. Kim Novak also brings a duel performance to the role of Scotty’s love interest, and it’s likewise fascinating to see the peaks and vales she goes through. On a quick side note, the 2002 family movie "Stuart Little 2" was one of my childhood favorites, and it contains a scene in which both Stuart and a possible love interest are watching the memorable beach scene from Vertigo”, but I initially had no idea what the clip was from. When I finally saw "Vertigo" years later for the first time, the scene just exploded in my head ... like holly cow, that was the movie Stuart and his friend were watching the whole time. Suddenly I'm inspired to create a fan-fiction, and I'll title it ... "Jimmy Stewart Little". Okay, lets get back on track ...    

        Unfortunately, once we get the third act of the movie, my problems start rising to the surface. Early at the start of act three, a character reveals all the movies secrets through voice over, and that for me was a huge mistake. 

I think the film would have been far more effective if we were just as much in the dark as Scotty up until the end, and even then I think the film could have left certain things up to interpretation as opposed to delivering the strait up facts. Still, I suppose for the sake of emotional context, some things just had to be addressed. We then come to the finale, which takes place on the steps of the same church tower from before. Just a quick clip note, but it’s impossible for me to watch this ending without thinking of the climax to Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”, which also takes place in a similar location. I’m not sure if Burton took inspiration from “Vertigo”, but the pacing, lighting and visual aesthetics on display are eerily similar. Now without spoiling anything, I was not a fan of how the movie ends, as it just felt very abrupt after so much build up, and it just leaves the experience feeling hollow. Usually Hitchcock always delivers a payoff that I’m on board with, but this one just left me feeling empty and frustrated. Of course, I should mention that there’s a final image involving a nun’s sudden arrival miring a death like figure, which I think would have been more effective if the nun wasn’t talking the second she arrived on site. Like, imagine how much more terrifying that would have been if she was approaching in complete silence?

       In short, “Vertigo” is a unique and unpredictable experience, but for me, it’s not one that demands repeat viewings … unlike some of Hitchcock’s other films that I continue to enjoy repeatedly. I suppose this film falls into the same camp for me as “Citizen Kane”, where it’s unmistakably a great movie, but not one that I have any real love or feelings for. I’ll say this, between the two, I’d much rather watch “Vertigo”. I’m also kind of shocked that such an acclaimed film only won two Oscars, for best sound and best art direction. Seriously, it didn’t even get a nomination for best picture … isn’t that crazy. Still, to this day my personal favorite Hitchcock movie, which for me has only gotten better with repeat viewings is “North by Northwest”. Never the less, even though I’m not the biggest fan, one can’t undermine “Vertigo” for all it achieved, and for still inspiring young filmmakers all these years later. Maybe I won’t give it a perfect five-star rating, but it’ll certainly give a positive one, and if you haven’t yet seen the movie, do yourself a favor and check it out.

I give “Vertigo” 3 ½ stars out of 5.