Monday, May 26, 2008

Jones vs. Bond - Raiders of the Lost Ark

According to legend Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the 1980 James Bond movie. It ended up not happening and instead he started working on "Raiders of the Lost Ark". If Spielberg had tackled Bond, he would have to have followed "Moonraker" one of the most popular and financially successful James Bond films of the 70's and 80's. If you watch "Moonraker" and follow it with "Raiders" you'll be wondering just what Spielberg might have done.

"Moonraker" takes the mold of the Roger Moore Bond, and pushes it to the extreme. It meanders along, with a well coifed Bond moving through scenes that are fun, but hold little tension. The movie is very jokey (bordering on silly) and seems to be a well made Bond spoof. The ending is special effects extravaganza with lots of explosions models and the obligatory "Bond caught in the act" joke that was a favorite of the 70's spy films. Would this type of movie appeal to Spielberg? Or would he have tried to turn the Bond series around a little bit, bringing it back to the more gritty 60's Bond adventures like "From Russia with Love"?

When 1981 rolled around James Bond was back in "For Your Eyes Only". This movie had a new director behind the camera, but Roger Moore back in front of it. He plays the part with a harder edge. He is actually in danger in this film instead of going through the motions. Large special effects heavy set pieces are replaced with top notch stunt work, real locations and an intensity that had been missing from the Bond films since 1969. Strangely enough, this movie was not a hit. In fact most people don't remember "For Your Eyes Only". Maybe because viewers associated over the top antics of "The Spy Who Loved Me" or "Moonraker" with James Bond. Maybe they were disappointed with this return to the more realistic spy story. Or maybe it was because Spielberg beat them to the punch.

The week before "Raiders of the Lost Ark" exploded onto the screens. It seems that Spielberg wanted to make Indiana Jones the anti-bond in many ways. Indiana gets dirty, he gets hurt, he's often proven wrong, he cheats when he has to, he falls asleep when kissing the girl, and he ends up needing God to save his bacon. In addition, "Raiders" was a true thrill ride, going from one action set piece to the next (especially in the second half of the movie). There was humor in the film, but it wasn't bad puns and sight gags. It was sardonic wit and even gallows humor. Add to that, a crackling script, a wonderful score by John William's at the height of his theme-heavy style, and Spielberg use of the warm brown and gold hues, and the movie was a real pleasure to watch. Audience loved the film and watched it again and again. A new hero was born and he just about pushed James Bond out of the consciousness of 80's movie goers.

Of course there are some things to consider. James Bond started life as a spy, and his movies were usually based more of detective and suspense movie conventions. Even the more action packed adventures still held some mystery to them. When "Star Wars" arrived and began to shake up movie making with quick editing and special effects - "Moonraker" adapted by using the 70's Bond formula and injecting some glossy visuals into it. It also acknowledged that is was having fun with it's conventions and kept winking at the audience. Bond wasn't serious any more, and Roger Moore played it all very lightly.

On the other hand Indiana Jones was based on serial shorts that audiences enjoyed before a main feature. These "cliffhangers" were filled with nonsensical plots, but speedy action and plenty of chases and escapes. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg took that model, polished it up, added the anti-James Bond and suddenly you had a fresh new hero and an adventure that was thrilling enough to get people to come back again and again.

In a way "Raiders" legacy has influenced adventure and action movies since it's release. James Bond fell more and more into that mold (check out "Octopussy" and "Never Say Never Again" two Bond films released a couple of years after "Raiders"). This lasted up into the 1990's with the Brosnan tenure as 007. It's interesting to see that action movies started to swing the other way around the time of "The Matrix". Now action is elegant and brutally fast, and over the top violent. The hero's are now rough nasty anti-heroes. Even James Bond is a killer - less suave, but much more dangerous (and closer to his book persona than ever). Indiana Jones comes back and his cutting edge nature seems a bit old fashioned. But as they say, everything old becomes new again.

Do you think "Raiders" changed the course of action movies, or am I making this stuff up? Have you seen this type of change occur in books or other genre's of film? Who would win in a fight: Indiana Jones (of Raiders) or James Bond (of For Your Eyes Only)?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Tale of Two Epics - Ben Hur

I recently got my hands on the four disc set of "Ben Hur". This movie is often considered one of the best made epics of all time, and at the least the best made epic of the 50's. What made this box set extra intriguing for a film geek like me is that it included the 1920's silent version of the movie as well a a bunch of documentaries about the making of the 50's version.

So in the course of a weekend I watched the silent version and the full blown 50's epic. I was amazed by how similar they were and at the same time the key differences between the films.

Each film is a product of it's time. Both pushed the envelope for scope and wow factor in their decades. Both cost a small fortune to make and pleased audiences and critics in their day.

The silent film is shorter than it's color counterpart. The narrative is the same but it comes in at around two hours. It moves briskly from plot point to plot point. The viewer is pulled in by the adventure story. One of the key differences between the two films is how they handle the large scale ocean battle. In the silent, actual boats were built and put to sea. What you see is what you get, with what looks like a pretty good sized fleet going at it. The 50's version uses models as well as rear projection and sets to pull off the same thing. On this side of things the silent is more exciting and realistic.

However the acting in the silent film is just what you'd expect for this type of movie, over-exagerated facial expressions and hand gestures. Some of it will have modern viewers giggling, as will the amount of make up the lead actors are wearing (should Judea Ben Hur have such curly eye lashes?)

On the flip side, the 50's version of the film clocks in at just under 4 hours. This is epic in every sense of the word - huge sets, lots of color, filmed in 70 millimeter cinema scope, a massive orchestral score by Milos Rozsa, and of course Charleton Heston as Ben Hur. This film was made at a time when films felt they were really competing with television for audiences and so they pulled out all their tricks to get butts in seats. This movie is huge, opulent and massive.

It is also very, very slow moving in almost all the dialogue scenes. There is a pause after each sentence, followed by a glance or meaningful look. Some scenes that should only take five minutes are stretched out the twenty or so. The worst offenders take place before the intermission, when you know the chariot race is coming, but the movie is just taking all the time in the world to get there.

But when the race gets there, it's worth the wait. The chariot race is still awesome, full of color, action, motion and intensity. But do you know what? The silent version tops it. I'm not kidding. I think it has to do with the camera work, but for some reason the chariot race in the silent is even more immersive, even if it seems to lack a bit of the scale of the 50's version.

The acting in the 50's version is better, if it wasn't for the languid direction it would probably be more effective. In addition, the integration of the love story works better in the 50's version. In the silent, Esther seems more like an side character. In the color film, she is much more important to the story and to the development of Ben-Hur's character.

Both films handle the biblical side story with equal skill. Interestingly, both films choose not to show the face of Jesus, but just enough of his iconic clothing and settings to let the audience know who the character is. In fact the 50's version goes one better and you don't ever hear Jesus speak. In the silent, he does "speak" and in verses from the gospel no less.

Both films also go for a stylized look at the ancient Roman world. This seems heavily influenced by the Neoclassical painters of the 1800's. It's a beautiful looking world, but probably not very realistic.

In the end, I think the silent film is a more entertaining film, especially because of it's brisker pace, explosive sea battle and unstoppable chariot race. That's not to say the 50's film was a slouch. It is a great movie as well, just know that it takes it's sweet time going anywhere. But the scope and spectacle are worth seeing at least once, and the score is excellent - even on CD if you enjoy your film music without the film.

After seeing these two versions of the same story, it made me wonder if more silent films should be remade. No one watches silent films any more, except for film geeks. And they made some great films back then. These would be ripe for some re-imagining and if done right could be great movies of today. Imagine someone like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Ridley Scott or Steven Speilburg behind the camera for a remake of "Metropolis". Now that would be something.

Do you have a film you enjoy in it's original and remake form? Can you think of any silent films that would make great remakes? Or do you know of a movie that was such a product of it's time, but if it was revisited would be a great film now? Or do you think that all remakes are just plain evil?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Going through the Motions - Gunsmith Cats Burst

I'm gonna start this with a bit of personal history. I was reintroduced to Japanese Animation in the mid-90's (I had always known about it,. My parents video store always had some form of Japanese animation, usually in the form of kids movies or a dubbed series). A coworker at the video store was a fan, and I happened to be at the store when his newest Laserdisc copy of a series came in. The show was called "Gunsmith Cats". I asked him about it and he ended up letting me borrow the disc (what is it about japanese anime fans that makes them so eager to pull others into the fold). Well, I was impressed with the episode I saw. Its slick animation captured the look and feel of an 80's action flick. Our leads were a team of female bounty hunters and the story was their little mix-up with a gunrunner and a sleazy ATF agent. The show was action packed, the girls were tough and there were even a few laughs to be had.

A few years later I was deep into Japanese animation and retained a soft spot for "Gunsmith Cats". I found out that it started life as a Japanese comic book and as luck would have it, the series was being released in the US. Our video store wasn't far from a comic/hobby shop, so I went down there to see if they had it - they did. I was hooked again. The comic was edgier, sexier, and each new story line was better than the last. The creator Kenichi Sonada was obsessed with guns, 70's cars and tough girls. It was a mix that worked well, and once he threw in some nasty villains it was great. I ended up following the series all the way through it's initial run. Sonada left "Gunsmith Cats" to work on a sci-fi comic for a few years and I lost touch with the world of Japanese comics and animation.

Late last year I saw that some new "Gunsmith Cats" comics were being released. I went to my old comic shelf and picked up some of the books I remembered enjoying. I was surprised how well they still held up. The fast paced action, and tight story telling was just as exciting as ever, so I ordered the new series, (Gunsmith Cats: Burst) and waited.

When I got the new books I found myself more disappointed with each page. The art wasn't as detailed, the stories were stale and my favorite characters were almost relegated to supporting roles. What happened?

I did some research and found out that even though the "Gunsmith Cats" series was very popular in Japan and a good seller in the US, Sonoda was getting bored with the series by the end of it's 90's run. Turned out he had more fun with his sci-fi series. I suspect he was pressured to come back to the "Gunsmith Cats" universe but his heart wasn't really in it. You can tell.

I put myself in his position. What happens when characters you create and love start to become stale or boring? Worse, what happens when you complete the story you want to tell with those characters, but your fans want more. Do you suck it up and make new but sub-par stories, or do you stick to your guns and say, "I'm done with those stories. I'm gonna work on something new." It's tough to say, especially if you make your living writing stories.

What would you do in that situation? Is there a way to keep old characters fresh? have you had a experience where a series you love starts to feel like it's going through the motions?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fantasy’s Dark Side... for kids! - Spirited Away

It is rare that I travel outside my local sphere to catch a limited release for a movie, but when the opportunity came up to see "Spirited Away" in a theater, I made arrangements and went. This Japanese animated film was created by Hayao Miyazaki, often considered to be one of the greatest living creators of animated stories. His work is immensely popular around the world, but has yet to find popularity in the states. Disney has obtained the rights to his movies and have been releasing them (and others by his studio) in theaters and DVD.

I remember recommending the film "Spirited Away" to many of my coworkers when it came out on DVD. In the end I did get a few people to see it. Some enjoyed it, but weren't as enthralled with it as I was. One person in particular came back to me and said, "That was one F-ed up movie. That was for kids!?"

The basic story goes like this, young Chieko (around 6 or so) is moving to a new home in a different city. One the way there, her family stops at a mysterious, abandoned, amusement park. They find an amazing restaurant with tons of great food, but no one around. The parents start eating, but Chieko is afraid they'll get in trouble. She wanders around the amusement park and sees something startling - it looks like a ghost. She runs back to her parents and finds that they have been turned into pigs. Suddenly Chieko is trapped in a strange world filled with mythical spirits, witches, living soot-balls and dragons. She is forced into servitude by the witch who runs things but is determined to find a way to find her parents and change them back into humans, before they become a main course.

This movie was made with a sense of wonder and love the marvelous and unreal. It is filled to bursting with strange characters. Some of them, like the witch Yubaba, can go from unusual to terrifying at the drop of a hat. Some of the spirits are cute, like the ones that look like newly hatched chickens. Others are just plain bizarre, like the turnip spirit. Miyazaki mixes the weird with the wonderful, creating amazing settings, intense action scenes, and his masterful use of flight. I have yet to see an animator capture the exhilaration of flying like Miyazaki does.

Since the movie deals with ghosts, witches and the terrifying possibility that Chieko's parents might stay in the form of pigs and get turned into a meal - it has a dark edge. I believe that Miyazaki is targeting that age where kids are still afraid to be on their own, but need to begin to feel secure by themselves. They need to know that there are dangerous things out there, but they also need to think on their own and realize that the choices they make affect others. This is a lesson I think some adults need to learn.

I highly recommend "Spirited Away". It has top notch animation, great characters, wonderful music, and solid voice acting for the English dub. If you haven't seen it, give it a try, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. For what it's worth the Academy of Motion Pictures gave the film an Oscar for best animated feature. Some have called it a Japanese take on "Alice in Wonderland" and I can see that - but more along the lines of the original book and not the Disney-fied version.

Have you seen "Spirited Away"? What did you think of it? What makes a film appropriate for kids? How scary is too scary?