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Why Do Special Effects Seem Less Special Lately?

Why Do Special Effects Seem Less Special Lately? (photo)

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Den of Geek publsihed a piece Tuesday entitled “The Numbing Ubiquity of Computer Graphics.” Its thesis is one that I’ve personally held for a while: that the better and more widespread computer generated effects get the less interesting they become. As Ryan Lambie writes:

“Twenty or 30 years ago, even the tiniest glimpse of a computer-generated effect had an almost magical air of futuristic novelty about it… And yet, since the advent of a holy trinity of groundbreaking movies in the 90s, namely, ‘Terminator 2,’ ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Matrix,’ it has become increasingly difficult to get particularly worked up about special effects of any kind. Audiences may have cooed and gasped over the imagery of ‘Avatar’ and ‘Inception,’ but we’ve now become so numbed by such visual flights of fancy, whether they’re in films or adverts, that they appear to be set to a side almost as quickly as we’ve seen them.”

In other words, the story of special effects in movies is the story of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman”: escalation. Advancements in technology can reap huge benefits for filmmakers and for studios, but as we see in “The Dark Knight,” escalation always comes at a price. The shelf life for an effect’s impact keeps growing shorter and shorter and even as filmmakers face competition from others trying to outdo them, they always need to be prepared to outdo themselves as well.

This pressure exposes one of the biggest flaws in modern Hollywood’s filmmaking model, which is built around a steady supply of franchises and sequels. But escalation doesn’t sit well with sequels, since sequels are, by their nature, more of the same, and more of the same in the realm of special effects is simply not good enough. So while directors of sequels need to satiate returning audience’s desire to re-experience what they loved about a first film, they also need to show them something they’ve never seen before. Accomplishing both simultaneously is nearly impossible. If they don’t do the former they’re told they forgot what made the first film great and if they fail at the latter, they’re told they made something too much like the first film. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

Take, for example, this year’s “Iron Man 2.” The first “Iron Man” was a surprise hit for two reasons in my opinion: 1)Robert Downey Jr. at his charismatic best and 2)Iron Man looked cool. Both of these reasons carried with them an element of surprise: after years of problems with the law, many people had forgotten Downey’s charms, and the character of Iron Man was one a lot of people were unfamiliar with, and director Jon Favreau made meeting him a fun, visually stimulating experience. But a lot of the first “Iron Man” is simply the pleasure of Downey goofing off in his lab with the armor, and impressing us with the effects’ ability to convince that he can fly. For the second film, Favreau had to top himself. And talk about escalation: “Iron Man 2” had more armored heroes, more armored villains, more non-armored heroes, and more supporting characters. What worked so well in the first film was basically untenable in a sequel (and will be even harder to recreate a third time, perhaps part of the reason Favreau just decided not to direct “Iron Man 3.”

Lambie does see an upside and that’s the availability of previously prohibitively expensive equipment and software to independent filmmakers:

“The fact that it’s now comparatively cheap to create CG effects means that new filmmakers can let their imaginations run riot on a tiny budget. For evidence, look no further than Gareth Edwards’ ‘Monsters,’ a film created with little more than two professional actors, one Sony camera and a copy of 3DSMax. As Edwards put it in a recent interview, ‘You can go into a shop now and buy a laptop that’s faster than the computers they used to make ‘Jurassic Park.””

He has a point, but this can be a double-edged sword for filmmakers too. As I wrote last week “Monsters” is a remarkable technical achievement, but as Lambie points out, there are two new remarkable technical achievements in multiplexes every Friday. That’s not enough anymore. Lambie hopes that CGI’s decreasing emotional returns will force directors to reinvest themselves in storytelling. It’s a nice thought, but it feels like a pipe dream. We’ve already seen how lowering the bar to entry is encouraging more and more people to make their own films, and more and more special effects artists like Edwards and The Brothers Strause from “Skyline” are taking the reigns of their own productions. Democratization can be thrilling and maddening: more good voices, and more bad ones too.

The future I hope to see is one populated by filmmakers like David Fincher, who can use CGI as shock and awe (see the opening sequence of “Fight Club”) or as spy tactic (see the taxi cab sequence in “Zodiac,” or rather try to see it because the effects are so perfect you have no idea you’re looking at a soundstage instead of a street corner). To my mind Fincher’s current work is the best example we currently have for Lambie’s vision: a director who uses computer images as just another tool in his toolbox, no more or less important than composition, framing, mise-en-scène, costumes, or lighting. When a director like Fincher integrates digital magic into his films, he does so so seamlessly we stop looking for the seams at all and return our focus where it belongs: back to the film itself. The effect of that process can be quite special in its own right.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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