Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Magic Shadows

I thought I’d borrow the title of the classic TV Ontario series for this installment, since Hollywood seems to be serving up a spate of SF during the fall/winter months at ye olde multiplexe that are worth looking at. While many people probably cringe with guilt when asked who is the first the TV movie host they remember, and they have to admit it’s Elvira (let’s hear it for hooker hair and goth underwear!), my own early cinematic education, courtesy of my folks’ antenna tower out in the country, came in weekly installments in the grandfatherly form of Elwe Yost. While good old Elwe was more inclined to screen Bogart-esque gangster films noire than days when the Earth stood still, once in a while he’d give us a treat. It was “Magic Shadows” that blew me away one evening with the 1930’s classic “King Kong” - and yes, months later, even the rather obscure sequel “Son of Kong”. (betcha didn’t see that one coming!)

He darted across the screen with twitches and jerks, rolling his eyes (Kong, that is, not Yost) as he put the boots to dinosaurs and swatted biplanes away from the zeppelin docks of the Empire State Building, all the while holding Alberta’s own Fay Wray close the way a 20-year-old frat boy at a bar on spring break clutches his beer at last call when he realizes all the women have left, and in so doing, that greatest of apes plunged into my imagination. It was one thing for directors to make cookie-cutter gangster flicks, but this! Harrihausen and the other geniuses behind that prince of the primeval jungle knew how to dream big! King Kong was one the movies I saw in my formative years that helped put the SF monkey on my back.

I’m hoping Peter Jackson’s remake will do justice to the original. Certainly Jackson’s proven with Lord Of The Rings that he can wrangle special effects without impinging on the story, so Kong will be no problem in the CG department, judging by the previews. Granted, the product of the special effects is central to this story, and Kong is nowhere near as weighty as the drama of LOTR, but I’m still a bit nervous. Hollywood’s track record isn’t great: colossal blunders with the big ape that come to mind are the 1970’s flop starring Jeff Bridges (which should in no way be taken as a strike against Bridges, who was great in “Tron” and “Starman”), and let’s not forget (try as we might) the lame duck of the 80’s: “King Kong Lives” starring Linda Hamilton (again, no insult to the lady, who punched her weight in “The Terminator” though she served as little more than wallpaper in “Mr. Destiny”) which was so bad it should have been prominently featured on the late, great Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 – right next to “Hercules Battles The Moon Men”. In fact, Hollywood has only redeemed itself on the ape front inadvertently with the Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode entitled “King Homer” (“Hey, Karl, do you know where we’re going?” “Ape Island.” “What’s there?” “Big Apes. I wish we were going to Candy Apple Island.” “Candy Apple Island? What’s there?” “Apes. But they’re not so big.”). Don’t let us down, Pete.

Also looking forward to “The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe”. Yet another trip down memory lane to the library of childhood. Again, based on the preview, the special effects look mighty sweet. Now let’s see if the director can walk the razor’s edge of keeping C.S. Lewis’ good story intact, while at the same time sparing us from the professor’s unrelenting Bible-thumping.

And, of course, if we’re going to talk magic and kid-oriented movies, we’ve gotta give the newest Harry Potter installment its due. Saw it this past weekend in IMAX – very nice. I think Newell did a superb job of stripping down Rowling’s 636 page tome to a 2-and-a-half hour movie while keeping the plot intact, and, more importantly, keeping the characters interesting and actually showing some development in them. And what an eye for detail! From the grit under Snape’s nails to the cereal boxes in the background during the breakfast scenes actually having names like “Pixie Puffs” that would be consistent within the world he’s creating, rather than just leaving the boxes blank or selling out and slipping in some corporate sponsorship from the likes of Kellogs. There’s also the debris in the great hall after the dance – the place actually looks like kids have been in there for hours partying it up (as opposed to most teen movies where the school gym looks surprisingly neat for a dance night). Granted, some of the credit for that has got to go to the costume and set designers, but Newell’s also got an eye for social details that enhance the reality. Look at the stairs in the background as Hermione takes Ron and Harry to task after the dance – there’s a trio of girls behind them with one sniffling away while the other two play mother hen. That’s bang-on. It’s a fundamental law of the universe that at any given teenage party there will be at least one girl who brings her emotional baggage (either due to a legitimate problem or in a well-calculated attempt to get attention) to the shin-dig and dumps it out onto the floor for all to see and for the other girls to pick up. Do we hear what particular problem they’re trying to solve in this scene? No. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the mere glimpse of them back there that provides that extra little bit of life that adds authenticity to the whole collage of “the dance” that Newell’s pasting together for us. Something we can all identify with, and something that underscores Hermione’s Breakfast Club-esque diatribe against the boys. Did the three problem girls have to be in the back of the shot for Hermione’s harangue to work? No, but it added another level of reality, and I think it shows Newell’s knowledge of, and respect of his audience (young and old).

Let’s also give credit to Brendan Gleeson for bringing Mad-Eye Moody to life as though Irish geneticists had managed to create a hybrid of Anthony Hopkins’ Abraham Van Helsing and Kurt Russell’s Snake Plisskin and raise it in Dublin under the tutelage of Merlin. Don’t know if that’s how J.K. Rowling intended him, but that’s how I’d imagined Moody when I read “The Goblet of Fire”.

Lastly, we’ll turn the way-back machine a notch or two and give a tip of the hat to the end-of-summer/early fall “Serenity”. Truly a “leaf upon the wind”. Good old Joss gave us a nice, straight-forward sci-fi story and western at the same time, and that’s no small feat. He even had the balls to kill off not one, but two main characters – and likeable ones at that, risking the wrath of the die-hard series fans. Looking forward to the DVD release and the hopeful inclusion of a fat package of extras.

You save the seats and I’ll grab the popcorn. See ya next time.
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