Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Beautiful and Fantastic

Highly taken for granted nowadays is the modern magic of CGI. So many movies have it that you'd be hard-pressed to find a set without a green screen. Movies like "Beowulf" and "Spider-man 3" have, in my opinion, abused the wonder of computer graphics; they've used CGI with supreme frivolity, a kind of reckless abandon that irritates the hell out of me, because they're computer generated images without novelty. They're not savored, and they're not appreciated. Audiences expect them the way they expect salt in their soup, and then in the end, they're not even impressed.

But there are some movies that, amidst all the animation and "talking" tennis balls, actually do impress. These are the movies that use computer generated images to dazzle, to enlighten. They do not use CGI simply because they can. I've been thinking, and these movies, while they may not all be Oscar babies or even three-star reviews, really understand the subtle importance of CGI in this new generation of film making.

1) "The Brothers Grimm" (2005) Really, really, don't underestimate this film. It may have splatted on the Tomato-meter, but the movie, as a visual work of art, is just gorgeous. The computer graphics are so copious, yet so subtle. They come in all shapes, all sizes, from perfectly executed wolves to a faceless boy and a woman that shatters, quite literally, as glass. Each moment of "The Brothers Grimm" has its own personality. It's wondrous, heartbreaking, dark, unmatched in its creativity. All of these are only natural for Terry Gilliam, however, whose latest project, "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," has been indefinitely trapped in the struggle to replace Heath Ledger.
2) "Sleepy Hollow" (1999) Tim Burton is, of course, the master. Perhaps the CGI in "Sleepy Hollow" isn't quite as central as it is in some of the other movies listed here, but it is admirable nonetheless. I am, of course, most strongly referring to the creation of the Tree of the Dead. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't seen the movie, you should, but not only for Johnny Depp and all of his funky head contraptions . You should see it for the Tree of the Dead. See it for the devil-spawned Headless Horse man and all the tiny, little, subdued ways that Tim Burton can make us cringe.
3) "Transformers" (2007) Okay. Not so subtle. But still. "Transformers" has somehow struck that previously unreachable note between abuse and full-fledged mastery. It manages to make full use of computer generated images without feeling superficial. Perhaps its is because the sheer gravity of the computer effects in "Transformers" has the potential to literally blow our minds. It overloads us again and again, and yet it never feels unnatural. It's weird. So weird that I didn't find the whole thing excessive. But I didn't. I found it to be brilliant. There were moments during "Transformers" when I'd feel neck shivers, trembling hands, sweaty palms, breathless. The merit of it is just unbelievable. I especially enjoyed the scene with the unsuspecting parents. Hilarious.
4) "The Golden Compass" (2007) I remember reading somewhere in some review by some critic that the depiction of the characters' daemons in this movie was distracting. Well, that person is a philistine. If there was anything in "The Golden Compass" that I enjoyed more than the deep and dark and frolicking daemons, it was that bad-ass armored bear brawl. How about it when the jaw goes flying? Have you seen anything like it? I haven't. Perhaps that's because the CGI comes cool, silvery, and majestic, and it maintains this sort of feeling throughout. I really enjoyed "The Golden Compass," and I hope that its international success manages to greenlight production on "The Subtle Knife."
5) "Jurassic Park" (1993) So, I know that it's old school and all, but it doesn't matter how old you are now or how old you were when you first saw this movie. You were terrified during the kitchen scene. You were. You know you were. It probably has a lot to do with the writing and the flawless, Spielbergian directing, but it also has a lot to do with those velociraptors. This movie has often been haled as the sole pioneering spirit for computer generated imagery. It lacks nothing. And since this very scene, I can rarely look at stainless steel kitchen appliances without smelling the breath of the raptors.

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