Archive for the ‘Dinosaurs’ Category

In my piece on Hugo, I struggled with this word “masterpiece.” How would you know if you saw a masterpiece? How many viewings would it take before you were sure? In my lifetime, I’ve had the suspicion that a movie I just watched could be considered a masterpiece. Sometimes time and the critical consensus bore my hunches out. Other times I’ve been wrong.

Critical consensus is currently riding high on The Tree Of Life, the latest film written and directed by Terrence Malick. I’ve seen the “masterpiece” terminology being thrown around fairly generously. Is there such a thing as an instant masterpiece? Or is time passing a deciding factor on what is or isn’t ultimately a masterpiece?

I’ve never been one for simple labels anyway. Let’s just say The Tree Of Life has a better-than-average shot at going the distance, and move along from there.

Terrence Malick has one of the most confounding film careers of any major director working. He made two movies that we can safely refer to as masterpieces, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days Of Heaven, then didn’t release another movie until 1998, with The Thin Red Line, his largest-scale film to date, starring almost every actor you’ve ever heard of. The reason why no one rushes to saddle this wonderful movie with that “M” word is because Malick’s original cut ran more than five hours and I don’t think anybody feels like they’ve seen the movie entirely the way Malick intended. It sure doesn’t feel like the work of somebody who’d been dozing off for twenty years though.  It’s pretty damn accomplished, regardless of the truncated form it arrived in. I happen to love it. I feel the same way about Malick’s fourth feature, 2005’s The New World, which seems to have been received similarly by the intelligentsia: highly regarded, yet with strangely muted adoration considering how much uncommon beauty is on display. The Tree Of Life, finally, has been greeted with the kind of fanfare that Malick’s work deserves — clearly he doesn’t seem to need the attention (he’s pretty much the reverse of a Kardashian), but his movies most certainly demand to be seen by the widest possible audience. In my opinion, art like this makes the whole world better.

One thing people seem to have trouble doing is describing the plot of The Tree Of Life. That’s because there isn’t really one. The film is told in a non-linear style, which is to say it jumps around in time. In describing the movie, it’s easiest to start with Sean Penn’s character, Jack O’Brien. As a grown, Penn-ishly grizzled man, Jack reflects on his childhood, spent with his father (played by Brad Pitt), his mother (played by Jessica Chastain), and his two brothers, one of whom doesn’t make it to adulthood. Dad is a strict and sometimes intimidating disciplinarian, and Mom is warmer and more sympathetic, even playful when Dad isn’t around. It’s not that Dad’s a bad guy, not at all, but it was a different time. In Roger Ebert’s review, which you really should read (after this one), he talks about how true to detail this story is, set as it is in the American Midwest, mainly during the 1950s. Ebert rightly calls attention to the fact that Pitt and Chastain’s characters are never given first names. They’re just Mr. and Mrs., mother and father. That’s how kids perceive adults. My niece is four, and she’s at a point where she knows her mom and dad and uncle have first names, and she knows what they are, but she treats them like secret identities — it’s “Mommy” and “Daddy” always, she’s not about to run around calling Spider-Man and Batman “Peter Parker” and “Bruce Wayne.” Malick’s movie is full of this kind of emotional truth, a specific universality, which I think helps to make sense of the film’s so-called extravagances.

The Tree Of Life doesn’t just jump between Jack O’Brien’s childhood and adulthood — it goes all the way back to the beginning of time. This movie shows you the birth of the earth, the progression of life on the planet. As you may have heard, there are dinosaurs in it. I don’t want to talk about theme and meaning too in-depth, until I’m sure we’ve all seen the movie, but personally I felt that the dinosaur scenes made perfect sense, tonally speaking. Let’s just say there are slight parallels between how the dinosaurs behave and how some of the human behavior we see later can be interpreted. It’s not a literal comparison, but an emotional one. In my opinion. As the early stages of the film progress, the story centers around the O’Brien household in Texas. There is a direct line between the emphasis on a pure state of nature, from those “Big Bang” scenes, to the way the O’Brien kids explore and enjoy their environment. Malick is able to evoke a tangible sense of place — the grass, the wind, the water. Your own specific childhood may not have resembled this one, but the senses are universal. I’m willing to bet actual money that if you just allow this movie to sweep you up, there are moments in it that will feel as real to you as your own memories do.

This is why I look at Terrence Malick as one of the few filmmakers I can think of off-hand who can also rightfully be called a poet. I’d argue that David Lynch is one also, but his films are nightmarish where Malick’s are dreamier. What Malick is able to do, more than almost any other filmmaker alive or dead, is to use imagery as both mood and theme. He’s also fascinated by the spiritual beauty of the natural world, and manages to work with some of the world’s greatest cinematographers in order to bring the most lucid, evocative, and stirring of images to screen. Here he is reunited with his DP from The New World, Emmanuel Lubezki, and together (with cast and crew) they have brought us some images that grab your soul by the collar and draw your eyes forward, tenderly though, not violently. Most movies are lucky to conjure up one or two indelible images — The Tree Of Life provides you with something like two hundred.

The Tree Of Life is a strange and beautiful symphony that flutters by in a short two-and-a-half-hour running time. Two and a half hours isn’t short, but it felt that way to me. Honestly it reminded me as much of my own memories as it does of any movie I could name. Which I think is the key to understanding it, and that’s a notion borne out by the movie’s unusual title. The “tree of life”, as the Bible tells it, was the tree in the garden of Eden upon which fruit grew that granted everlasting life to those who ate from it. When Adam and Eve were cast out from Eden, they could no longer eat from the tree, and they became mortal. Believe it or not, this brings us back to movies.

One thing that movies and memories have in common is that both create a sense of immortality. Nothing, not even the earth itself, is immortal, but as long as we’re alive, our memories feel immortal. All of us will be gone one day, and our memories with us, but as long as we live, we’re able to revisit any era of our lives, in any order. Movies don’t last forever either — prints can be lost or burned — but more than anything they encourage this feeling of immortality. Just look at the stars of this movie — Sean Penn looks every minute of his age in this movie, yet we can pop out the DVD and put in Fast Times At Ridgemont High and see him at twenty again. That’s a kind of immortality. Brad Pitt looks sort of ageless in this movie, but then again you can see crow’s feet beginning to form, and this is an actor that many of us have grown up with. He’ll always be Floyd from True Romance, and he’ll just as always be Mr. O’Brien from The Tree Of Life. That’s a kind of immortality. Jessica Chastain has a kind of delicate beauty in this movie that no human being can maintain forever, but as long as this movie exists she’ll always look this way. That’s a kind of immortality. I’m not sure if I’m expressing my point clearly enough, but I hope it’s getting through: These people, these characters, they’re immortal in a way, even though that’s technically impossible.

Watching The Tree Of Life reminds me of those brief moments in my memory, the ones where I remember telling myself specifically, “Remember this” — these are moments that I can remember as clearly as a freeze frame on a movie screen. In college, dancing with a pretty girl in a crowded basement to music I didn’t particularly like, having a blast. In Hawaii, sitting alone at the side of a highway overlooking a beach at 7 in the morning, feeling calm as I ever have felt. Sitting on a filthy curb in Silver Lake (pre-gentrification), near a laundromat, having just gotten off the phone with a girl who mattered, knowing that, after all, there’d be no me and her, feeling like there isn’t much hope. In the hospital the day my niece was born, cradling a new life in my arms, realizing I had an official responsibility towards her and welcoming the idea, thinking “Of course there’s always hope, you idiot.”

I guess that’s why I love movies so much. They take specific memories, whether those are real or invented, and make them feel like universal truths. That’s a special thing. It’s a special movie that can make such an important realization feel so clear. The Tree Of Life provides illumination, in an era of great uncertainty. That’s not just good entertainment. That’s almost holy.

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More, always, here.

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The Creature From The Black Lagoon is the last of the major Universal monsters.  Creature From The Black Lagoon was released in 1954, over twenty years after Universal introduced Frankenstein’s Monster, his Bride, the Mummy, the Invisble Man, and Count Dracula, and over ten years later than the Wolf Man (longer if you count the Werewolf Of London).  The Creature, or the Gill-man as he’s often called, is the only Universal Monster to have arrived after World War II.  As such, he has a much different, maybe weirder thematic significance than any of the others.

Frankenstein is the Promethean myth, about the things man isn’t meant to mess with.  The Bride Of Frankenstein is about bad dates.  Dracula, like all vampires, is about lust and corruption.  The Mummy is about lost love and how creepy it can get.  The Invisible Man is absolute power corrupting absolutely.  The Wolf Man is about rage.  I can keep going with this stuff (and I have).  Zombies are about our fear of death.  King Kong is about the way that chicks dig jerks.  Godzilla is about post-war atomic anxiety.  And so on.  But back up for a minute — that last one’s gotta be important somehow.

Godzilla, released in 1954, is widely acknowledged to be a film that reflects a nation’s very understandable reaction to the atomic bomb.  Godzilla is literally about how American nuclear testing created this horrible (eventually lovable) mutant monster.  One of Japan’s most iconic film characters was inspired, in a way, by Japan’s greatest tragedy.  But check this out:  Look at Godzilla.

Now look at the Gill-man.

I’m not saying they’re identical twins or anything, but ya think there’s a distant family relationship there?

Released into theaters the same year.   Both reptilian (or amphibious).  Both up from out of the aquatic depths.  Both angry.

There are as many differences as similarities, but it is interesting to note that the Creature, like Godzilla and unlike most other famous monsters mentioned thus far, has origins more rooted in science than the supernatural.  Specifically, Creature From The Black Lagoon (the movie) begins at the Big Bang!  As a narrator intones “In the beginning…” a explosion appears on screen, many times over.  This movie is based in science, explaining quite literally that when the earth was created, all sorts of creatures developed — while still allowing for the fact that an earth covered in water surely has some creatures as yet unseen.  The humans in this movie are on an ichthyological expedition down the Amazon, searching out rumors of a creature which bridges the evolutionary gap between land and sea.  They’re expecting to find fossils, however, not a six-foot-tall Gill-man with a yen for the lead scientist’s girlfriend.  Yup, somehow this cold-blooded fish on two legs gets all kinds of warm-blooded when he’s horny, so much so that he’s willing to kill.

The Creature could never be a truly American film legend without violence and awkward sexuality.

Creature From The Black Lagoon is a fairly direct story, owing more to Beauty & The Beast or King Kong than to any ancient legend (a la vampires, werewolves, or zombies).    Dr. David Reed brings along his girlfriend Kay, and for the first segment of the movie her main purpose is to smile and look terrific in short shorts and a one-piece.   Concurrently, the Gill-man is making the standard monster-movie roll-out — first he appears only as a webbed hand, retracting back into the lagoon.  Later, he assaults some local guides in their tent, in a scene which must have been far scarier in 1954 (these guys have comically oversized Prince Valiant hairdos that detract majorly from the suspense).  The Gill-man appears in full in a shock cameo, where the two lead male characters first venture into the lagoon.  For the first half of the movie though, he’s mainly been observing the expedition from a distance.  Things really change once Kay goes for a swim, and this still-remarkable scene happens:

The “underwater ballet” scene is weird, magical, ominous, bizarre, and eerie all at once.  It plays like a love scene, even though the Gill-man is essentially an underwater stalker.  We have to cut him some slack on his method, though — I mean, this is the first time he’s even seen a woman.  And imagine if the first woman you ever saw was Julie Adams!

Julie Adams may never have become a huge movie star, but maybe all some actors and actresses ever get is one iconic movie, and if that’s the case, then she sure shines brightly here.  Looking like a 1950s Jennifer Connelly, with an irresistible smile and an expert way with that wardrobe, Julie Adams is the thing most people remember about this movie, directly after the iconic make-up design of the Gill-man.  Nearly sixty years later, I guarantee Julie Adams is still inspiring crushes every time a young fella (or gal) sees this movie.  I’m not advocating the way the  Gill-man chooses to handle his crush, mind you — I’m just saying I can understand.

More back-and-forth ensues between the Gill-man and the expedition, but the movie’s end run begins when the Gill-man abducts Kay, and her human admirers have to rescue her from the deranged beast.  Unlike Ann Darrow and King Kong, there isn’t as much romantic chemistry between Kay and the Gill-man.  Maybe it’s because the Gill-man isn’t as tall.  (Chicks dig a tall guy.)  Eventually, of course, the human beings win out, shooting down the Gill-man and leaving him to the depths of the lagoon.  Since they never retrieved the body, the door was left wide open for sequels, and those of course happened.  Creature From The Black Lagoon was a huge success, owing much of its appeal to having been released in 3-D.  The first sequel, Revenge Of The Creature, is most notable for being the first screen role for one Clinton Eastwood Jr. (I’ve seen the movie but I don’t remember much of it besides Clint’s cameo), and the second sequel (which I haven’t seen) is best known for having the Gill-man wear clothes.

Now I kind of want to see that!

The Gill-man is actually one of the most influential screen monsters in history, having made semi-official appearances in movies like The Monster Squad (where Stan Winston’s make-up design had a bit in common with Winston’s own creation of the Predator), and unofficial appearances in movies like the Hellboy films.   According to Wikipedia, failed remakes have been mounted several times over the last thirty years, including attempts by John Landis, John Carpenter, Ivan Reitman, and Peter Jackson.  Newer productions continue to be set up and dismissed all the time — it seems inevitable that it will happen, but personally I’m not clamoring for it.  The Gill-man is my favorite old-school monster, next to the Wolf Man, and I kind of like the way he currently wanders the wilderness of all of our imaginations.

I love the Gill-man for all sorts of reasons.  I love the look of the character.  I love his roots in science, pseudo- as it may be.  I love the fact that he’s a horny bastard, and it makes him cranky.  And there’s one more thing:  If he has atomic origins, in a way he’s a son of Einstein.  And between that and the name, I have some hunches about his heritage.  I mean, I went to Hebrew school with at least three kids with the surname Gilman.  “Gill-man” is less refined, but it still looks mighty Hebraic from where I’m standing.  I’m gonna go with it.  I mean, there are plenty of Christianity-laden vampires and demons out there for the goyim to enjoy; couldn’t just this one monster share some heritage with us Jewish kids?

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Yesterday was Ray Harryhausen’s 90th birthday. Isn’t it way nicer to celebrate a legend’s birth, rather than waiting too long and having to cover the opposite?

 

 

Ray Harryhausen is an anomaly in film history – he’s a special effects auteur. How many actors can you name off the top of your head? At least a hundred, right? How many directors? A few dozen? Now try and name someone who works in movies who isn’t an actor or a director. Not so easy, right? (Well it is for me, but I’m a huge nerd for this stuff.)

 

 

If you’re a movie fan, Ray Harryhausen is a hero to people who are heroes to you. Directors as different as Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, and John Landis see him as an inspiration and a mentor. (Here’s a terrific piece Landis recently wrote on the subject.) The reason why all these great artists love him so much is that Harryhausen was creating amazing effects back when CGI was just a jumble in someone’s alphabet soup.

 

 

Listing all of Ray Harryhausen’s creations would take a long time and also would just make me smile. I have a book full of pictures and stories about the production of his many movie creatures (this one), which I will no doubt be looking at again over the weekend.

 

 

 

 

Harryhausen made statues come to life and go to war. He made gods of myth look real (and generally, angry.) He conjured up beasts that once lived, like dinosaurs, and beasts that never will, one hopes. He brought a tactile grace to movie monsters that all the new technology in the world still struggles to recapture.

 

 

Best of all, Ray Harryhausen did the Skeleton Fight in Jason & The Argonauts. This is quite simply one of my favorite things I have ever seen, and it hasn’t lost its luster after a few hundred VHS replays, DVD spins, and YouTube clicks. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most miraculous feats of effects work ever to be seen in a movie. It’s weird and creepy and funny and it doesn’t benefit one bit from me throwing words at it to describe it, so better you just watch and enjoy…

 

 

 

 

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