Saturday, November 30, 2013

Give Credit to Contemporary Movies

This was a letter sent in to the Straits Times Life! Saturday mail bag last week:

Here's the letter I wrote in reply to it: 

This was Mr. Rajathurai's follow-up letter:

I refer to the letter “Movies in 1960s and 1970s better” by Manoraj Rajathurai (Life, Nov 23). While it is true that major movie studios exist primarily to turn a profit and are always on the lookout for the next big franchise, I do not think the blanket statement that all contemporary films cannot compare to films from the late 60s and 70s is true. 

It is interesting that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is cited by Mr. Rajathurai as having a “lack of depth”. For a film aimed primarily at a teenaged audience, the Hunger Games series touches on thought-provoking, compelling themes, including that of violence as the opiate of the masses. The Hunger Games books and films have served as a gateway for teenagers into literary dystopian classics like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

The French Connection and Midnight Cowboy were Best Picture Oscar winners and The Exorcist was a nominee, so it stands to reason that these films be stacked up against recent Oscar winners, as opposed to the Twilight films. Are Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men and The Departed really worse than The French Connection and Midnight Cowboy?

The 1970s saw the exploitation boom, a rise in B-movies and grindhouse pictures. Objectively speaking, it is hard to say that The Clones of Bruce Lee, Blacula or Fräulein Devil are better than every single film made recently. Mr. Rajathurai also states that films of that era “were not about the special effects”, when films like The Poseidon Adventure, Star Wars, Superman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Alien certainly are about the special effects, in addition to being modern classics. 

Ultimately, I think it’s a case of comparing apples to apples. Sure, it might seem like every other new movie is a remake or a sequel, but high-quality films still get made today in addition to bad movies, just as in the late 60s and 70s.

Jedd Jong


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Counsellor

For F*** Magazine


Director: Ridley Scott
Cast:    Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, Natalie Dormer, Rosie Perez, Richard Cabral, Sam Spruell
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Run Time: 118 mins
Opens: 28 November 2013
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scene, Violence and Coarse Language)

Why do people swim with sharks? After all, sharks have a long-standing reputation as fearsome creatures, nature’s perfect predator, and the self-preservation instinct in all of us dictates that we stay as far away from them as possible. Perhaps some have nerves of steel, others wish to face their fears; some are drawn to the allure of living on the edge, others convinced that the circumstances are controlled and safe and that sharks are largely misunderstood.

Here, our “swimmer” is the Counsellor of the title (Fassbender), otherwise unnamed. He seems to have everything: he’s handsome, wears lots of Armani and is very much in love with his girlfriend Laura (Cruz). He has, however, run into money troubles and decides to enter into an illicit drug deal with eccentric kingpin Reiner (Bardem). Within Reiner’s circle are his vampy love Malkina (Diaz) and middleman Westray (Pitt). The Counsellor is also the court-appointed lawyer to convict Ruth (Perez), mother of a high-ranking cartel figure (Cabral). Of course, things go awry, as things must, the Counsellor’s existence crumbling apart as the days go by, all he holds dear at stake.

The Counsellor is directed by Ridley Scott, from a script by nigh-legendary novelist Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men, The Road, All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. The Counsellor is the veteran writer’s first screenplay, and what an unfortunate clunker this is. The dialogue consists almost exclusively of endless strings of platitudes, opaque threats and nauseating anecdotes of violence and sex. Cringe-worthy, faux-portentous lines like “I think the truth has no temperature” crop up repeatedly. The shootouts and a car chase seem like very perfunctory insertions, as if they’re there only to fulfil some unwritten requirement about a thriller film involving the drug trade.

Yes, Ridley Scott has earned his reputation as a well-regarded director and does stage some shocking moments of graphic violence fairly effectively. There’s a bit with a motorcycle and a trip wire, and a scene involving the deployment of a “bolito”, a nasty motorised garrotte. The problem is, the material isn’t very cinematic and it seems even he finds it hard to make two people talking to each other look interesting or dynamic.

In addition to the pedigree behind the camera, the film’s mostly solid cast also contributes to how ultimately disappointing it is. Seeing all those names on the poster should whet the appetite and admittedly, these actors aren’t bad. Michael Fassbender’s Counsellor seems to be caught in a moral dilemma and he does have some moments of gut-wrenching emotion – but we barely get to know the character at all and he’s a somewhat smug guy whose troubles are of his own making, making it difficult to sympathise with him in spite of Fassbender’s best efforts. He was a lot more interesting as the android David in Scott’s previous film Prometheus.

Real-life husband and wife Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are in this, though they do not share the screen together. Both are alumni of Cormac McCarthy film adaptations; Bardem having starred in No Country For Old Men and Cruz in All the Pretty Horses. Bardem appears to be having fun with the role, flamboyant and equal parts affable and shady and carrying hints of his Bond villain Silva from last year’s Skyfall. Cruz’s Laura is very much “the girlfriend”, doing nothing actually of note through the whole film beyond a roll in the hay with the Counsellor and some poolside flirting with Malkina. Brad Pitt in his supporting role will make moviegoers go “oh hey, it’s Brad Pitt in a supporting role” and that’s about it.

Of course, there’s one performer who absolutely pulls the whole thing down with her every time she’s on screen: Cameron Diaz. The name conjures up images of ditzy blonde characters clapping their hands and squealing in delight. She is far from the first person who comes to mind when one thinks “femme fatale”, and she amply demonstrates how inept she is with stilted line delivery and laughable posturing. In fact, she attempted to affect a Barbadian accent, but test audiences found it so distracting that she was forced to re-dub all her dialogue in post-production. Angelina Jolie was attached to the role for a time and there’s no question that she would have been a better fit. Looking at Malkina’s character poster, it seems the poster designer’s brief was “make Cameron Diaz look as much like Angelina Jolie as possible.” We can tell the difference, we really can. Even looking past Diaz’s performance, the character is written as a man-eating, wicked wildcat, followed everywhere by two pet cheetahs and sporting a cheetah tattoo. It’s a caricature that beggars belief.

The Counsellor comes off as one of those films that imagines itself to be far cleverer than it actually is, appearing daring and edgy but ultimately hollow, unpalatable and unsatisfying. Its top-tier cast are given pages of drivel to spout; a pity since Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay was an eagerly-anticipated work. More alienating and off-putting than thrilling and absorbing, The Counsellor flounders even under Scott’s direction and will leave audiences drowning in a miasma of highfalutin excess.

SUMMARY: The Counsellor lays down the law, crushing its illustrious cast, prolific writer and celebrated director flat.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Haus

Here's an article I wrote several months back on the legendary special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, on his passing.




By Jedd Jong 13/5/13

We hear the term “escapism” used a lot to describe a good time at the movies. There are certain genres audiences love for their ability to whisk us away from the mundane for two hours or so. Genres like fantasy, adventure and science-fiction. And there’s an undeniable mass appeal to movies that lead to collective jaw-dropping and gasps of “how did they do that?!”

One of the pioneers of the art of making moviegoers drop their jaws and gasp “how did they do that?!” was special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen was responsible for creating some of the most iconic beasts, critters and magical beings to ever stomp and slither their way across the silver screen. The swordfighting skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts? The six-armed scimitar-wielding Kali statue from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad? The fast-growing Ymir that crushed Rome beneath its reptilian feet in 20 Million Miles to Earth? All lovingly crafted stop-motion puppets and the handiwork of Ray Harryhausen.

But isn’t all this quaint and old-fashioned? Hasn’t computer-generated imagery long since usurped jerky puppets as the go-to method for creating movie magic? Read on, for you just might be surprised at the far-reaching effect the work that Harryhausen did has on some of the most prolific and well-regarded filmmakers today.


Before exploring the realm of fearsome mythological creatures and lumbering dinosaurs, Harryhausen’s earliest professional work was slightly cuddlier. “The Fairytales were what I really call my ‘teething rings’,” he recalled. His father Fred helped machine the metal armatures for the puppets and his mother Martha crafted the clothes said puppets would wear.

The Impact:

Nick Park, animator and creator of Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, says the Mother Goose stories were his first exposure to Harryhausen’s work and he went on to become a lifelong fan. “I always considered Ray Harryhausen’s work so fine that it was way out of my league,” the animator graciously wrote in his tribute to Harryhausen.


If Harryhausen is considered the grandfather of stop-frame animation, then Willis O’Brien could be considered the great-grandfather. O’Brien was responsible for realizing the titular character in the 1933 classic King Kong. Harryhausen cites King Kong as the film that got him really interested in pursuing a career in the industry, and he got to work alongside Willis O’Brien as his assistant on a slightly different giant gorilla film, Mighty Joe Young.

Harryhausen had a particularly healthy method when animating Joe Young: “I thought I’d get in the mood by eating celery and carrots for my tea break so I’d feel like a gorilla!”

The Impact:

“I think that’s some of his best stuff because the personality in Joe Young is amazing!” said John Landis, director of An American Werewolf in London. “And the way he moves, he does move like a gorilla whereas King Kong doesn’t move like a gorilla at all.”

Mighty Joe Young was remade in 1998, this version starring Charlize Theron.


Harryhausen’s good friend and fellow “Ray”, science fiction author Ray Bradbury, said “Ray Harryhausen and I showed up at the same time, and he said ‘well, maybe someday, you’ll write a screenplay for me and I’ll do dinosaurs for you,’ and I said ‘well, I’m gonna pray to God for that’.” The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms, based on a short story by Bradbury, was the eventual result.

The titular Beast, a “Rhedosaurus”, was a fictional dinosaur devised by Harryhausen, the writers and producers of the film. In order to complete the film economically, Harryhausen devised a revolutionary rear projection method that would allow him to superimpose his stop-motion animation on the live-action photography – a precursor of sorts to digital compositing.

The Impact:

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when one hears “giant lizard rampaging about a big city”? That thing was inspired by The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms.

““Gojira is a direct result of Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms! Exactly! I think Toho (studios) said ‘we’ll make one of those!’” John Landis declared.

The Japanese filmmakers took a different approach in creating their monster, though. As Harryhausen himself put it, “(Gojira) was a man in a suit stomping around on miniature sets!”


Producer Charles H. Schneer wanted to create a monster movie about a giant octopus attacking San Francisco. Schneer and Harryhausen had a hard time getting the City Fathers to cooperate, as they felt that seeing an octopus bring down the Golden Gate Bridge would shake the confidence of moviegoers. Harryhausen recounted the ‘guerrilla tactics’ they used in the making of the film. “We had to do things from devious means. We put a camera in the back of a bakery truck and went back and forth on the bridge to get projection plates, secretly”.

Due to budget constraints, the octopus from It Came from Beneath the Sea only had six tentacles. Harryhausen had to animate it in such a way as to hide this shortcoming. He apparently liked referring to his creation as the “sextopus” (feel free to insert your own adult anime reference here).

The Impact:

The Kraken in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was given six tentacles as a reference to the octopus in It Came From Beneath the Sea. Davy Jones was also designed to emulate the “in-your-face” feel of Harryhausen’s creature animation.

Steve Johnson, animatronics and prosthetics artist and special effects supervisor on Spider-Man 2 noted “I think it’s pretty obvious that Sam Raimi is a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen if you take a look at the work in Spider-Man 2 – Doctor Octopus.” The way Doc Ock’s robot arms moved and behaved gave them a personality not unlike that displayed by some of Harryhausen’s creatures.

And from another superhero film sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the ‘Forest Elemental’.


The 50s were arguably the height of UFO mania, and Hollywood was quick to capitalize on it and stoke the fires. Senior Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM, Dennis Muren, said “there were a lot of movies made in the 50s with flying saucers that were pretty dull to look at but Ray gave them personality and life and you were just enthralled as a kid looking at them.”
Harryhausen found it a challenge to give the suggestion of an alien intelligence within the metallic discs – without ever showing what exactly was inside. The flying saucers were machined with the help of Ray’s father Fred, and Ray invented a geared aerial bracing system that allowed him to suspend the flying saucers at an angle.

Harryhausen happily declared, “I knocked over the Washington monument long before Tim Burton did!”

The Impact:

Mars Attacks! , of course!

Independence Day went a tiny bit larger with its monument-destroying flying saucer.


In this film, an alien beast from the planet Venus crashes on earth off the Sicilian coast – he starts out tiny, but very soon he’s fighting elephants and rampaging through Rome. The monster was to have originally laid waste to Chicago, but Harryhausen “changed it to Rome because (he) wanted a trip to Europe”.

“I felt you could get much more emotion out of a humanoid type of figure than with an animal type of figure,” Harryhausen said of the decision to give the Venusian Ymir a humanoid torso.

The Impact:

“The Ymir is probably one of the best black-and-white monsters that he’s ever created, particularly in the early stages when it’s small…(with) all the humanoid gestures that make these monsters so personable and so much more appealing,” said Joe Dante, director of films such as Piranha and Gremlins.  “The design of the creature that we have in Piranha is a little bit like an Ymir,” he pointed out. “In Piranha, there was no stop-motion monster written into the script. The stop-motion monster was in the movie simply because Jon Davison, the producer, and I liked stop-motion. Any kind of stop-motion in my movies is a tribute to Ray Harryhausen or Willis O’Brien.”

Vicenzo Natali, director of the sci-fi horror film Splice, also remarked on Harryhausen’s ability to make his creatures likeable to a degree. “You can’t make a creature film without thinking of Ray Harryhausen because he created creatures that were so sympathetic and let’s face it, he made some of the greatest monster movies of all time.”


The 7th Voyage of Sinbad marked Harryhausen’s first foray into the realm of period fantasy in which he would create some of his best-remembered work. Harryhausen said “I destroyed New York with the Beast, I destroyed San Francisco with the octopus, I destroyed Rome with the Ymir and I destroyed Washington with the flying saucers, and that got rather tedious so I was looking for a new avenue in which to use stop-motion animation, and I latched upon Sinbad.”

Sinbad was a risk for the studio because a then-recent film on the same subject, Howard Hughes’ Son of Sinbad, was a flop. “Oh, costume pictures are dead,” studio executives would say. Harryhausen was inspired by the likes of the Arabian Nights films from the 40s and The Thief of Baghdad.

For The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Harryhausen would produce what went on to be among the best-loved of his creations. “I get more fan mail coming in about the Cyclops I think than any other creature,” he said. “I designed the Cyclops very carefully because I didn’t want people to think it was a man in a suit, so I put goat legs on like a satyr in ancient mythology. I gave him an appearance of three fingers so no one could assume that there was a man inside the Cyclops, and I think it worked out very well.”

The Impact:

“It’s so inspiring that it made you want to make movies,” Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter said. The Pixar film Monsters, Inc. included a shoutout or two in the form of the Cyclopean characters Mike and Celia who go to eat at the fancy restaurant named ‘Harryhausen’s’.

“Without The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, you would never have Lord of the Rings,” Vicenzo Natali commented. He might’ve been right: take a look at this guy Peter Jackson brought along to the Return of the King set from a short film he had made at age 15, called The Valley:

“When I was 12, 13 years old and other kids were getting interested in cars, sport and girls, I used to love monsters and I particularly loved Ray’s films,” Jackson said fondly of his teen years.


Based on the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts is held by many as Harryhausen’s crowning achievement. “A lot of people find Jason and the Argonauts one of our best films,” Harryhausen acknowledged. “It’s my favourite because it was the most complete.”

“Some of the films are better made than others. And some of them have better scripts than others. I mean Jason and the Argonauts probably has the most literate screenplay, so it is a better movie,” John Landis remarked.

“I want to speak on behalf of all the actors that appeared in Harryhausen films,” John Cairney, who played Hylas in Jason, said. “They weren’t all monsters, they weren’t all effects – there were real live actors in there…We were trained to be classical actors. To appear at the Old Vic, that was our standard. But there was I, eating sand in Palinuro – and loved it, loved it, loved being there, being part of this titanic imagination of this man.”

But of course, the stars still were the creatures. Jason and the Argonauts boasted the seven-headed Hydra (in lieu of a more ordinary dragon) and the gigantic Bronze figure of Talos that rises from its pedestal to stomp across the beach. However, the most iconic sequence from the film probably was the skeleton fight.

The skeletons were conceptualized with rotting flesh hanging off them, but in order to avoid an X rating, Harryhausen went with the clean-cut skeletons we’re so familiar with today. The skeletons were designed with all the joints a real human skeleton would have, and it wasn’t easy putting it all together. The actors meticulously rehearsed the battle with stuntmen, and then shadow-fought against nothing with the skeletons inserted later via Harryhausen’s rear-projection method. “Sometimes I would only get about 13-15 frames a day,” Harryhausen revealed (you need 24 frames for one second of film). “It took four months to animate the sequence; it only took two weeks to shoot the live-action.”

The Impact:

Where do we even begin?

Army of Darkness

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The Terminator

“The images of those skeletons leaped off the screen and drove straight into my DNA… I’m sure there’s a direct link between those demonic skeletons and the chrome death figure in The Terminator,” James Cameron said of the influence the Jason and the Argonauts scene had on him.

Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams


Ray Harryhausen had always loved the works of H. G. Wells and wanted to make a film based on a Wells story. After finding that the rights to War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were unavailable, he settled on First Men in the Moon. The film was also owed a fair bit to Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon and Harryhausen even owned an original business card of the pioneering filmmaker.

The Impact:

“I’m always saying to the guys I work with now in computer graphics, ‘do it like Ray Harryhausen’ or ‘why don’t you look at Ray Harryhausen and see what he did,” said Phil Tippett, creature visual effects supervisor on Starship Troopers.


Yeah, we know this film is best remembered for the fanservice Raquel Welch so lovingly provided. “Raquel Welch was cast in the picture; that was one of her first films. She never looked like a real cavewoman; she wasn’t supposed to – that wouldn’t have been very entertaining to the public. If cavewomen in prehistoric days looked like Raquel Welch, we’ve regressed today!” laughed Harryhausen. 

The film was a remake of a 1940 film starring Victor Mature and Carole Landis – for that film, lizards with fins glued to their backs stood in for dinosaurs, something Harryhausen felt looked too “phony”. The dinosaur models in the newer one were inspired by paintings and drawings done by Charles R. Knight, one of the first painters to envision what dinosaurs might’ve looked like back in the day. Harryhausen also made research trips to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In order to make the dinosaurs look less static, he would animate them with their tails swishing about as they moved.

The Impact:

“Ray Harryhausen’s work had a huge impact on us during the design of King Kong (2005). There are a lot of different ways we could possibly go with the design of the creatures and the dinosaurs, and Peter (Jackson) especially, he said he didn’t want them to be real dinosaurs as such, he wanted them to be movie dinosaurs,” said Greg Broadmoore, concept designer on King Kong. “So we were trying to evoke that era of dinosaurs from movie history and really wanted to capture that, so in that sense they were more like monsters in their characters than true animals.”

There’s also Roland Emmerich’s 10 000 B.C.


The next feature film Harryhausen worked on also dealt with dinosaurs and was about a group of cowboys who hope to stage the ultimate rodeo after capturing the “Gwangi” of the title – a vicious Allosaurus – from the valley of the title. The film is most famous for a scene in which the cowboys attempt to lasso Gwangi, a sequence that took Harryhausen well over two and a half months to complete. Unfortunately, the film was released too late and dumped on the market, with moviegoers assuming it was a Japanese production. Harryhausen has stated that it didn’t have the advertising required to give it visibility, and that perhaps it was too kitschy for audiences to swallow even then.

The Impact:

This bit where poachers try to lasso a Parasaurolophus in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.


Following the box office failure of Gwangi, Harryhausen decided to do a Sinbad sequel. This would be followed by Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in 1976. The film is known for the six-armed Kali idol which comes alive to battle Sinbad and his compatriots. The Kali sequence was a vestige of the intention to use India as a filming location; the movie was eventually shot in Spain.

“I think my favourite creature from a Ray Harryhausen film would probably be from the first one I ever saw, which was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and it was the Kali, the giant statue that comes to life,” Vicenzo Natali said. “And it was just so shocking to see so beautifully rendered and animated and I think stands the test of time. It hasn’t really aged one bit and I still find it terrifying.”

The Impact

Notice the way General Grievous extends his extra arms in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

And the Brahman statue that comes to life in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.


The last major motion picture Ray Harryhausen worked on gave him the chance to create mythological creatures that would stand alongside the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses – including Sir Laurence Olivier’s “I’m only doing this for the money” turn as Zeus. One of the highlights of the film is the tension-filled sequence in Medusa’s lair.

Ray Harryhausen recalled a film that portrayed Medusa by way of giving an actress a wig with rubber snakes that would bobble around as she walked. “It wouldn’t frighten a two year-old child!” He declared. “I tried to design her so that she wouldn’t have clothes, that’s why I gave her a reptilian body, because I didn’t want to animate flowing cloth. We gave her the arrow from Diana’s bow and arrow and the rattlesnake’s tail so that she could be a menace from the sound effects point of view. It became a big problem because she had 12 snakes in her hair; each snake had to be moved, the head and the tail, every frame of film, along with her body and her face and her eyes and the snake body.” He wanted to give the character green eyes, but had to make do with blue eyes that he manipulated with the eraser end of a pencil.

 The other famous creature Harryhausen made for Clash of the Titans was the Kraken – which is actually a sea monster from Norse, and not Greek, myth. Harryhausen opted for a more humanoid design, with tentacles that ended in hands. He cited French artist Gustave Doré as one of his main influences over the years - Doré was known for a dramatically-illustrated edition of the Bible.

Harryhausen found himself needing some assistance and hired animators Jim Danforth and Steve Archer – up until that time, he had done all of the animation himself. Danforth animated the bulk of the sequences involving Pegasus the winged horse, and Archer was responsible for most of the shots featuring Bubo the mechanical owl.

The Impact:

Clash of the Titans was remade in 2010. Many devotees feel that in spite of the refined look of the newer film, it just doesn’t match the heart and the charm of the original.


When asked about what led to his decision to retire, Harryhausen answered “young people have been brainwashed by television to want everything quickly, and you just can’t have an explosion every five minutes in Greek mythology, so I felt it was time to retire. I felt I had had enough.”

“Steven Spielberg, when Ray was in town, got him over to the editorial suite for Jurassic Park,” recalled Phil Tippett, animator and ‘dinosaur supervisor’ on that film. “Ray was blown away by it. He thought it was just really an amazing process.”

“I couldn’t say anything negative because it was most impressive!” Harryhausen admitted.

James Cameron said, “I think Ray would have loved to have had access to the tools that we have now for computer-generated animated characters, because…the stop-motion puppetry was a way for him to get the images that were in his head up on film, and that was the only way to do it at that time. If Ray were working right now, he’d be using the tools that we’re using right now, he wouldn’t cling to the puppetry, his imagination would require that he use the best, most fantastic techniques available.”

However, Harryhausen himself wasn’t so sure. “Well, I don’t know, it’s hard to say – it’s just another way of making films. I think I would prefer to make films with the model animation rather than CGI, today even…I would find it rather unappealing to just sit at a desk and push buttons to get a visual image up on a screen!”

Both stop-motion animation and computer-generated imagery are different ways of creating movie magic, and each has its own pros and cons. While stop-motion animation is, more often than not, not quite ‘realistic’, Harryhausen saw that as one of its charms. “There’s something that happens with a model I’ve always felt, when you use a model instead of computer-generated images, the model is strange, it gives the nightmare quality of a fantasy. If you make fantasy too real, I think it loses the quality of a nightmare, of a dream.”

The way Harryhausen made films, where it was largely just him designing, building and animating his models, just isn’t the way things work anymore. Now, there are armies upon armies of visual effects artist, each working on a small part of a scene. While it is more efficient, perhaps some of the human touch that Harryhausen gave to each frame by painstakingly manipulating the models by hand has been lost.

 “There’s a real danger of the effects not being special anymore, they’re just common,” Dennis Muren warns. It’s interesting to note that some of the big names in the digital effects business today, including Muren and Tippett, started out as stop-motion animators.

The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, which seeks to educate the public on stop-motion animation and preserve the heritage of Harryhausen’s work, was set up in 1986 to ensure that Harryhausen’s contributions to film history will always be remembered. Peter Jackson’s visual effects company Weta Digital helped make a digital duplicate of one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts. So while the way visual effects are made may be changing, what won’t change is the tremendous effect Harryhausen’s work has had on filmmakers and film-lovers everywhere.

“His legacy of course is in good hands because it’s carried in the DNA of so many film fans,” James Cameron said. “I think all of us who are practitioners of the art of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contributions to the collective dreamscape, we would not be who we are.”

“I just want to acknowledge the fact that we wouldn’t be here today making these movies like Jurassic Park and like Avatar without Ray, the father of all we do today, in the business of science fiction, fantasy and adventure,” said Steven Spielberg. “Ray, your inspiration goes with us forever.”


The primary source for this article was the 2011 documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, which I highly recommend. Packed with revealing interviews, footage from all the films Harryhausen has worked on and behind-the-scenes images of him creating his magic.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

For F*** Magazine


Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast:   Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Bruno Gunn, Alan Ritchson, E. Roger Mitchell, Maria Howell, Stephanie Leigh Schlund, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright
Genre: Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
Run Time: 146 mins
Opens: 21 November 2013
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)

2012 probably saw an uptick in the number of kids signing up for archery classes, characters like Merida from Brave and Hawkeye from The Avengers making a weapon dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic cool again. The figure who played the biggest part in this was Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the blockbuster adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series who returns in Catching Fire.

Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) come home triumphant from the 74th annual Hunger Games and embark on a victory tour throughout the twelve districts of Panem, leaving behind loved ones including Katniss’ sweetheart Gale (Hemsworth). The autocratic ruler of Panem, President Snow (Sutherland), sees that Katniss and Peeta have given the masses hope and might have sown the seeds for a revolution. Together with the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman), he plans for Katniss and Peeta to take the fall in as dramatic a way as possible. For the 75th Hunger Games, the tributes are reaped from existing winners – meaning Katniss and Peeta are plunged back into the lion’s den and pitted against experienced killers. The pair work to form an alliance with the other tributes, including the dashing Finnick (Claflin), the elderly Mags (Cohen), rebellious and unpredictable Johanna (Malone), and the tech-savvy duo of Beetee (Wright) and Wiress (Plummer). Mentor Haymitch (Harrelson) warns that “there are no winners, only survivors” – and Katniss and Peeta learn just how right he is.

Young adult novels and film adaptations of said novels have earned something of a bad reputation, often associated with shallow romance and the inane cries of “woe is me”. The Hunger Games is a series that is firmly about something, exploring the idea of violence as the opiate of the masses through the eyes of a strong, relatable heroine. This film delves deeper into the futuristic dystopia that is Panem, having established what the Hunger Games are and being able to spend more time further developing the characters of Katniss and Peeta. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to star Jennifer), known for films like Constantine, I Am Legend and Water for Elephants, takes the directorial baton from Gary Ross with an assured turn behind the camera, working from an eloquently-adapted screenplay by Oscar-winners Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (credited here as Michael DeBruyn).

The immense success of the first film allowed this one a bigger budget, $140 million in comparison to $78 million. While an excellent film, The Hunger Games did suffer a tad in its production values and this film is definitely an improvement in that regard. For example, the murderous mandrills look better than the wolf-like Muttations in the first film. However, the film is not spectacle-driven and it is a good one and half hours before the 75th Hunger Games actually begin. The focus of this one is the aftermath of the events of the previous film and the toll that that experience has had on Katniss and Peeta, Katniss in particular emerging as a shell-shocked veteran, haunted by the carnage she bore witness to first-hand. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that just because the games haven’t begun proper, it doesn’t mean the proceedings are boring. Moments that are equal parts intense and emotional, including a scene in which Gale is flogged in public by the totalitarian “peacekeepers”, are not in short supply.

Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar-winner for The Silver Linings Playbook, makes a confident return to the role that made her a superstar. The character doesn’t sit around moping and licking her wounds, Lawrence excelling at showing the conflict between Katniss’ true anguish and the public façade she has to don in the midst of this life-or-death situation. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta has not lost all of his idealism from the first film and learns to play to the cameras, though he wishes that the romance wasn’t all for show. Hutcherson ably supports the film’s leading lady alongside Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and Elizabeth Banks, all returning from the first film as the team who prepares Katniss and Peeta for the Games.

The casting in the first film was pitch-perfect, and that certainly continues in this film. Philip Seymour Hoffman effortlessly lends the picture gravitas as the sly master strategist Plutarch, sharing most of his scenes with Donald Sutherland – who is once again absolutely frightening without so much as lifting a finger. Also, since Toby Jones returns, this means there are two Truman Capotes in the same movie. The tributes who align themselves with Katniss and Peeta in the arena are all well-portrayed as well: Lynn Cohen bringing a warmth and sadness to the silent Mags, Jena Malone entertainingly spunky as Johanna, Sam Claflin suave and strapping as the sexy Finnick and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer eccentric but reliable as Beetee and Wiress respectively. This is a bunch we truly can root for and yet are never 100% sure if they won’t turn on each other.

While The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a solid film, it is very much a middle instalment in the vein of The Empire Strikes Back and viewers are advised to watch the first film beforehand. The events of this film are not cleanly resolved and it does end on a cliffhanger, but this does not feel like a lazy tactic and we are keenly looking forward to Mockingjay Part 1.

SUMMARY: This sequel sets the screen ablaze with an engrossing, masterfully-told follow-up to The Hunger Games. Now can we stop with the Twilight comparisons already?

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Friday, November 15, 2013

Captain Phillips


Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Worshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Catherine Keener, Max Martini, Omar Berdouni
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Run Time: 134 mins
Opens: 14 November 2013
Rating: PG (Some Violence)

Forrest ain’t no shrimpin’ boat captain no more.

In this film based on the book A Captain’s Duty, a memoir written by the Richard Phillips of the title with Stephan Talty, Tom Hanks as Phillips is in charge of a much larger vessel than the Jenny – the MV Maersk Alabama. What was to be a routine voyage from Oman to Mombasa for the freighter turns extremely dangerous, the area living up to its notorious reputation as a hotbed for piracy. A crew of pirates from Eyl, Somalia led by Muse (Abdi) hijacks the Alabama in search of a payday. Captain Phillips, his first mate Shane Murphy (Chernus) and the rest of the crew have to avoid death at the hands of the pirates. The marauders eventually kidnap Captain Phillips, holding him hostage aboard a lifeboat as a Navy SEAL rescue mission is put in motion. Frightened for his life and trapped in a confined space, Captain Phillips has to tough it out as a full-blown crisis quickly unravels around him.

Director Paul Greengrass, who comes from a documentary filmmaking background, has become known for films that put the audience right in the thick of it with cinéma vérité-style handheld camera work, tight closeups and grain and noise-filled nighttime scenes. You can almost smell the seawater, feel the heat of the engine room and might emerge feeling a wee bit seasick. This is absolutely the right approach for Captain Phillips, Greengrass’ hand in the proceedings ensuring that this feels authentic and visceral as opposed to glossy and embellished. It’s a “based on a true story” type deal that unfolds in a way that does seem very close to how the actual events might have went, though nobody except those directly involved can say for certain. 

The film has attracted a degree of controversy in the form of some sailors aboard the Maersk Alabama filing suit against the Maersk Line and the Watership Steam Corp, claiming that Captain Phillips was not the hero the film made him out to be and that the hijacking was caused in part by his negligence and arrogance. Director Greengrass has defended the depiction of Captain Phillips in the film, having done the research and making judgement calls in his direction, saying he stands by the movie’s version of events “100%”. At the end of the day, the story has been told in a gripping, engaging manner and for those who appreciate Greengrass’ other films based on true events, Bloody Sunday and United 93, this is a must-watch.

Tom Hanks is an actor who has been much-celebrated over the course of his career and who has become a much-beloved figure in the movie biz. He has attracted well-deserved Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Richard Phillips; if there’s anyone who can do the “everyman thrust into a life or death situation” thing, it is Tom Hanks. He isn’t an actor who jumps around onscreen, waving his hands and proclaiming “look at me, I’m a movie star” – this could well have been the case were it a different actor in the captain’s chair. Hanks’ Captain Phillips works hard at containing his fear and is calm and even in his interactions with his captors; Hanks’ layered performance working all these emotions in. There’s a particularly shocking moment during the movies denouement that Hanks plays extremely well. 

Aside from Catherine Keener, who has a brief appearance as Phillips’ wife Andrea, the cast is bereft of “name actors”, which definitely keeps the movie from getting distracting as an overly familiar face in a supporting role might well pull one out from the moment. Wiry-framed Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi who plays the leader of the pirates is intense, intimidating and naturalistic in his portrayal. He totally holds his own against Tom Hanks; Hanks has said he was “truly petrified” acting opposite Abdi and the other actors who played the pirates. The film is commendable in giving them just enough backstory for the audience to grasp their motivations, instead of portraying them as cackling movie monsters.

The film does take a while to get into gear, it’s probably a good 40 minutes before the pirates board the Alabama. That said, Greengrass’ pacing is impeccable, the events taking on a true unpredictability in spite of the procedure and protocol of the rescue mission shown. It certainly doesn’t feel like a vainglorious military propaganda piece the way something like Act of Valor was. The focus stays square on the title character even when SEALs and military figures enter the fray. It may seem like a cliché, but this is one of those movies simply about men and women going about their jobs - it’s just that said jobs can take on stakes far higher than most of us can imagine. 

Henry Jackman’s soundtrack can be pretty generic at times and there at moments when the computer-generated imagery used to create long shots of the ships is a wee bit conspicuous, but this does very little to take away from the genuine tension that fuels the film. It’s no mean feat to make an audience feel stuck in a harrowing situation alongside the protagonist – that’s exactly what Greengrass, Hanks, screenwriter Billy Ray and crew have done with Captain Phillips.

SUMMARY: It’s nail-biting suspense on the high seas as director Paul Greengrass and star Tom Hanks bring a “ripped from the headlines” story to riveting, involving life.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Make Your Move

For F*** Magazine


Director: Duane Adler
Cast:   BoA, Derek Hough, Izabella Miko, Wesley Jonathan, Will Yun Lee
Genre: Musical, Drama
Run Time: 110 mins
Opens: 14 November 2013
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

         We’ve all heard of the Die Hard on an X  formula: Speed is Die Hard on a bus, Under Siege is Die Hard on a battleship, Sudden Death is Die Hard in a hockey stadium, Air Force One is Die Hard on the Presidential plane and so on. Here’s a formula even more popular than that one: Romeo and Juliet with an X. Gnomeo and Juliet is Romeo and Juliet with garden gnomes, Upside Down is Romeo and Juliet with metaphysical fantasy, Warm Bodies is Romeo and Juliet with zombies and The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride is Romeo and Juliet with anthropomorphic safari animals. Make Your Move is Romeo and Juliet with dancing, in New York. Okay, so maybe West Side Story has laid claim to that premise.

            Donny (Hough) is a New Orleans dancer fresh out of jail and looking to make a new start. He evades his parole officer (Dan Lauria) and travels to New York, where his foster brother Nick (Jonathan) has set up a hot new underground club called Static. Nick’s ex-partner-turned-rival Kaz (Lee) has established the swanky joint Oto in competition; both no longer on good terms. Kaz’s sister Aya fronts a crew called Cobu which incorporates taiko drums into their dance act. Naturally, Donny is smitten and falls headlong for Aya, their budding romance in defiance of their respective brothers’ endeavours. Complicating matters is Michael (Jefferson Brown), a sleazy Wall Street broker who co-owns Oto with Kaz and who has his eye on Aya.

            Writer-director Duane Adler is no stranger to dance movies, having previously written Save the Last Dance, Step-Up, Make It Happen and The Way She Moves. These films are known for great dancing and simplistic, teen-friendly storylines. Make Your Move is consistent with those entries in Adler’s filmography in that respect. However, this Korean co-production (made with the involvement of S. M. Entertainment) deserves credit for upping the visibility of Asian talent in Hollywood without over-politicizing the matter.

            The film takes a while to get into gear, opening with a series of unwieldy exposition dumps. You’d think the makers of a dance movie would know the importance of showing and not telling. Some of the dialogue is also rather cringe-worthy. However, this reviewer has no complaints about the dance sequences, choreographed by Napoleon and Tabitha D’umo, Yako Miyamoto and Nick Gonzalez. These manage to be energetic and elegant when required and are enhanced by Gregory Middleton’s beautiful cinematography, the lighting and composition in a good number of shots pleasantly artful. There’s fire dancing and confetti raining down to justify the use of 3D; we saw the 2D version.

            Derek Hough, Dancing with the Stars pro and brother to Julianne, appears to want to follow in his sister’s footloose footsteps in pursuing a film career. He is very much a cookie cutter pretty boy and more acting lessons are in order, but his physicality and impressive footwork are definitely up to par. K-pop superstar BoA makes her Hollywood film debut here, busting a move, beating a drum (she is Beat of Angel after all) and looking great while at it. Her line delivery is stilted in parts and she has a tendency to sound whiny, but the effort she’s put in is evident and she’s able to muster a decent amount of chemistry with her co-star.

            Will Yun Lee, last seen as Harada in The Wolverine, has been working steadily in Hollywood, with stints on TV shows like Witchblade, Bionic Woman and Hawaii Five-0 as well as in films like Die Another Day and the Red Dawn remake. It’s nice to see him not playing a North Korean military figure and he does a good job as the concerned older brother and savvy business owner. The film touches on the practical concerns of running a club, grounding the story in some reality. Wesley Jonathan, whose previous dance movie experience comprises Steppin: The Movie and B-girl, generates adequate brotherly banter and tension with Hough as our Benvolio/Mercutio mashup analogue. Jefferson Brown chews the dance club scenery as a supremely slappable slimy corporate type, scoring “villain you love to hate” points.

            Make Your Move is corny and cheesy – at one point, BoA does a “dance of angst” – but it’s corny and cheesy in the honoured “nobody puts Baby in a corner” tradition. There’s an earnestness beneath the “star-crossed lovers, yo” story we’ve seen hundreds of times before and yes, while it is an excuse to string together a series of dance numbers, at least there’s a story to begin with here. There’s enough in Make Your Move to appeal to both the American and Asian markets (look out for K-pop star Jung Yunho’s cameo) and as far as silly romantic flicks go, you could do worse.

SUMMARY: If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief from the nightclub rafters, Make Your Move manages to be charming and visually engaging in spite of a plot that’s been used a thousand times since Billy Shakes popularized it with his obscure play.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong