Wednesday, December 02, 2009

CGI and green-screen

I know, it's boring to decry CGI, but it's starting to impact some films that I - or friends of mine - really, really like, and that's unpleasant. So, a few words:

For a lot of films I've liked over the past, I would say, almost 20 years, CGI actually ages more painfully than any effect from "the old days." And under that umbrella, I would include everything from early Melies to '80s Cronenberg. More fairly recent films than I can ignore seem not a little spoiled by the fact that digital and greenscreen effects seem "Scotch-taped" in, like the matte shots in the original Star Wars.

What is going on here? Do effects rot, like fruit, or laserdiscs, or AA batteries? It was acceptable in the theater...or were we just tricking our minds, selling ourselves the feat of Hollywood magicians? This is, admittedly, easier for younger moviegoers - and some of my older colleagues probably have zero sympathy whatever.

Here goes:

* Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi got a lot of mileage from its digital blood-spray effects, which appeared unreal, uncanny, and unnerving. Now they just seem unreal. And spot the uncooperative digital blades waving freely between Ichi's opponents' shoulder blades. This made me very unhappy - I still like Kitano's films as director quite a lot, and Zatoichi was the favorite, based on a single viewing at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival. I took a chance on the Blu-ray disc and...regretted it.

* Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers: well, in all honesty, fewer reservations here. In a recent viewing, I was overwhelmed, in spite of myself, by the emotional force of the totally, totally absurd story and characters (as with Sirk!!), and to his credit, Verhoeven actually cares a heck of a lot more about framing a shot, or making an effective cut, than wowing audiences with "realistic" computer animation. That, and his more conventional, plastic effects are very effective: like when Rico's love rival gets "brainsucked."

* Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy: have never been a fan, but since I have a young one, I occasionally have to put up with it. Unfortunately for Jackson, since almost EVERYTHING in the trilogy was filmed against greenscreen, it is crystal clear that you're watching little more than a parade of actors standing, or waiting, or swinging props, against a blank wall with a post-it note saying "rear projection TBD." They all look like overly done-up extras standing in a phone booth while a high-power fan blows bits of papier-mache and crap around their heads.

* the Wachowski's Matrix trilogy, in particular the second film. Here's an odd cross between my comments above, regarding Jackson and Verhoeven. I've actually come around to enjoying the Wachowski brothers' work, after I fled from the middle Matrix (i.e. Reloaded) and avoided the concluding chapter (Revolutions). After I was positively blown away by Speed Racer - for a number of reasons, not least of which was what I now see as a heartfelt commitment to total, goofy unreality - I went back to revisit the trilogy. The first one remains the best, with its indelible (and iconic) imagery, the way it hinted at a hidden other-world without showing a whole heck of a lot of it (contrast this with the second and third installments, when every aspect of the Wachowskis' creation is illustrated explicitly, flipped upside down, and turned inside out), and - I'm still working on this one - as a film ABOUT TALKING, in its many forms: chatting, lying, intoning, arguing, persuading, proselytizing, etc., etc. The second film has the worst process shots, in particular a wide shot of Morpheus traversing the top of an 18-wheeler, where it's clear that everything we see, right down to the well-known, Oscar-nominated actor, is a choppy, pixely, robo-phony. And yet, and yet... in spite of what can be accepted as flaws, I LIKE what the Wachowskis do, and the third film, warts and all, is full of incredible energy and nimbleness for a good forty-five minutes. (Right up to the end of the siege at the Dock, after which the film is still okay, but playing on a lower key.)

* Karyn Kusama's Aeon Flux: My better half thought it was spectacular. I could hardly believe my eyes, my ears, my...whatever other senses it affected. Destined to be Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder for future generations (when that show is inevitably "rebooted"). Stunningly, this was released a mere four years ago, and already the effects seem to be peeling apart, as you may expect from weak rubber cement and uncooperative posterboard.

If there's lessons to be learned - to quote the grammar-resistant Gabriella Cilmi - it's that an effective deployment of basic, cinematic competence can purchase a lot of viewer goodwill. At least, that's my attitude. One of the strangest and most unforgivingly effective horror sequences I can recall - and it's from a comedy-musical, at that - is the transformation sequence in the original Nutty Professor. There are no "effects" to speak of, no process shots, only some eerie music (or was it silent?), a wealth of costume/prosthetic devices, and two key ingredients: Jerry the actor, and Jerry the director, investing an ostensibly humble "monster" montage into something of sweaty nightmares.

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