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Monthly Archives: February 2008

I’ve finally gotten a chance to write a piece on something that’s been bugging me for some time: the lazy overuse of CGI in today’s movies.

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as CGI (computer-generated imagery). Gosh, movies sure must have been boring way back then, eh?


This particular raptor is an animatronic, not CGI.

I admit, CGI definitely has its place. It allows filmmakers to stretch their imaginations and put whatever they can dream up on the screen. However, this freedom is also their liability since a good number of directors lazily substitute potentially more realistic special effects with CGI. Why build a set when it would be cheaper to digitally replace a blue background with an image of the natural world outside, or the interior of a house or spaceship?

Sure, stop-motion animation and glass paintings and models weren’t (and still aren’t) totally convincing, but they are more appropriate in a real-world context. The CGI monster in Cloverfield looks real only because it’s set in a digital landscape from the point of view of a digital camcorder. But it can be hard to buy into a movie when every character in it is real except for a few (like most fantasy films). Those CGI creations can end up distracting the audience from the storyline.

And there are simply some things that CGI can’t recreate. The jitters of the puppets in a stop-motion animated film like The Nightmare Before Christmas would have a much different effect on its audience if the movie was completed with computer graphics rather than the painstaking work of moving characters frame-by-frame. Who would’ve guessed that the opening shot of Xanadu in Citizen Kane is a superbly rendered glass painting? Honestly, it looks more real than CGI can expect to. Georges Méliès’ films and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would not be nearly the same if they were done with a computer instead of miniatures.

German director Werner Herzog is known for showing real things happening rather than using special effects, and he always pulls off brilliant cinematic moments. The famous dancing chicken sequence in Stroszek, the scurrying rats in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, the towing of the 340-ton steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, and the hundreds of crabs on the rocks by the sea in Invincible are all simple shots and scenes, yet they carry an incredible dramatic weight as the audience realizes, “Wow. That’s real. He didn’t fake that.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hater. Computer-generated special effects are necessary sometimes, and they can be wonderful creations. Jurassic Park alone is enough proof that CGI can work beautifully. But most action movies show that these special effects can also be abused, too. Who is dazzled anymore when Spiderman flies across the screen? Don’t we all just nod and think, “Hey, that’s pretty good CGI,” even though the fact that we recognize it reveals that it’s an example of bad CGI?

So even though fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, it’s usual more truth-telling. There’s just something about seeing something occurring on the screen and realizing it’s a true event. Don’t believe me? Go to the video store or library this week, rent a Herzog movie or documentary, and try to tell me I’m wrong.

Let’s admit it: John Hughes is a tad overrated. As much as I like his movies, they’re not part of the cinematic canon. We can all agree, though, that they’re fun, humorous, and maybe a little insightful as we see into the lives of adolescents. This is basically my summation of Charlie Bartlett, because anyone who remembers high school will find much to appreciate.

Charlie (Anton Yelchin) keeps getting kicked out of prep schools. He’s smart, but he keeps finding himself in trouble because he’s trying to make people like him. His mom, Marilyn (Hope Davis), sends him to public school since there are no private schools left for him to attend. When students begin to tell him about their private issues, he starts “prescribing” them medication by getting it from his psychiatrist. Yet in no time, that development ends. The movie isn’t about drugs but how Charlie wants kids to like him and what he’s willing to do. And haven’t we all been there?

Even though a handful of clichés may get in the way of one enjoying the movie, the performances cancel them out. Yelchin fits into the role of Charlie like a glove, Davis shines in the role of the nutjob mother without turning her into a cartoon, and Robert Downey, Jr. continues to make acting look easy, sculpting a believable character that we want to hug.

After watching the movie, I remembered how difficult high school can be. Granted, I never bought pills or sought psychiatric advice from another student. But I did want to be liked, and even though I don’t condone some of Charlie’s approaches to becoming the big guy on campus, I do respect his internal conflict that we all have all shared at one point or another.

Rating: 8/10

Get this for a plot: Jerry (Jack Black) tries to bring down a power plant, but he ends up being magnetized, so when he goes to the video store to see his friend Mike (Mos Def), he accidentally erases all the VHS tapes. To replace the tapes, Jerry and Mike shoot their own homemade versions of hit movies and rent them out to people. These “sweded” movies (as they’re called in the movie) attract a lot of attention and give the video store a little more life than it had before.

Yes, it’s bizarre, and yes, it’s contrived and unbelievable, yet as the movie progresses, you can’t help but want to see what happens next. What keeps the movie rolling is the love for cinema embedded in each and every scene. And Director Michel Gondry doesn’t focus on elitist art when it comes to the films that get “sweded.” He is more than willing to include movies that people enjoy watching but wouldn’t put on a top-ten list. What movie junky won’t get a kick out of Mike and Jerry’s homemade versions of Ghostbusters, 2001: a Space Odyssey, and Rush Hour 2?

Gondry is an abstract genius, and his creativity in everything from his music videos (“Fell in Love with a Girl”) to his movies (Science of Sleep) doesn’t belong in a movie with a reasonable plot structure. Be Kind Rewind is appropriately abstract for Gondry’s wild imagination, and if you are a fan of his or movies in general, this is a must-see.

Rating: 8/10

I can best describe the dumb and shallow Vantage Point as “empty.” The film has no center other than its concept, which is ripped off from Rashômon, which (according to Orson Welles) was ripped off from “Citizen Kane.” But there’s a difference: Akira Kurosawa is a talented director who can use a familiar concept and make it seem completely original. Pete Travis, the director of Vantage Point, lacks this ability, as the concept feels more like a device than an integral part of the story. The key to the entire film is finding out who is good and who is bad. That’s it.The plot is almost too simple. The President (William Hurt) goes to Spain, and before he has the chance to give a speech, he is shot. This same storyline is re-played four times, so we are supposed see the same scene from four different perspectives.

This is where the movie fails miserably, though. Whereas Kurosawa clearly showed different interpretations of the same event in Rashômon, Travis in Vantage Point merely withholds information until the following segment. The basic story is tiresome the first time it’s repeated. Imagine how I felt by the time the credits were rolling.

As is typical of generic “thrillers,” there is a twist here and there that doesn’t really make a lick of difference. So why should anybody in the audience care about the plot? They shouldn’t. Anyone who sits through the film should only care about finding a way to get a refund.

Rating: 4/10

In In Bruges, Colin Farrell plays mobster Ray, who kills a priest and, accidentally, a young child while on a “job.” He and another gangster, Ken (Brendan Gleeson, Professor “Mad­Eye” Moody from the latest Harry Potter films), are re-located by their boss (Ralph Fiennes in a small role) to Bruges, a town in Belgium, while the dead-child disaster boils over. What starts off as an intriguing logline slowly develops into a story influenced by the people who were influenced by Quentin Tarantino. This watered-down, not-so-witty homage to bloody violence and four-letter words fails to do anything new with the “genre” (if you can, in fact, call it that).

I never go into a movie hoping it will be bad. I want every movie I see to be good (even if it happens to be made by Paul Haggis or Michael Bay), but I always manage to stumble across something that sucks. I wanted to like In Bruges. I already like Ralph Fiennes, Colin Farrell, dark humor, bloody violence, and a nice 25-words-or-less storyline. So what’s wrong with this picture? 

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s only previous film work includes the live-action short Six Shooter, which won McDonagh an Oscar. However, he doesn’t appear to be ready for a feature-length canvas. Too many scenes are filled with repetitious dialogue for no apparent artistic, or logical, reason. These same scenes include diversions and tangents that, while inspired by Tarantino and Kevin Smith, don’t work, as they don’t move the plot and aren’t even (at least) humorous. Instead of debating the sexual nature of foot massages or if 37 is a few dozen too many, the characters B.S. about the suicidal tendencies of midgets, the inevitable race war, and how boring Bruges can be. The actors have been good in other films, and they do what they can with their roles. Their joint efforts amounts to nought, though, as they come off as strained, awkward, and showy.

I’ve seen a performance of one of McDonagh’s plays (The Lieutenant of Inishmore), and it’s a great balance between very dark humor and extreme, graphic violence. McDonagh doesn’t stick with this strength in In Bruges, and this decision only shows as a weakness. The year has started off dismally with a few bright spots, but this movie already ranks as one of the worst of 2008.

Rating: 4/10