Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Fly Boys

When I was in my late teens, I was interested in WWI air combat. I read several biographies of fliers and I could recognize most planes. Given that, I'm in a much better position to appreciate Fly Boys than most critics.

It's really good.

During the early years of the war, several Americans joined the French Army to help against the Germans, partly to repay the help the French gave America during the Revolutionary War. They formed the Lafayette Escadrille, the best known flight group in the war (with Richthofen's Flying Circus a close second).

While the characters in the movie are fictional, the general events are real. Lafayette Escadrille really existed, they did live in a chateau, and they did have a lion as mascot (later they acquired a second lion).

This is not an anti-war movie nor is it a pro-war movie. It is just a war movie. WWI was a bloody war and the war in the air had a high fatality rate. This is reflected in the movie. Every mission has deaths. They are not grizzly, Private Ryan deaths but neither are they glossed over.

The characters are believable. We follow a group as they go from recruits to trainees. We see them shocked after their first taste of combat and we see the survivors become toughened veterans.

The movie also has a side-romance which is the most believable war romance I can remember. At the beginning, neither party can speak the other's language so we watch as they struggle with the language barrier. Also, the woman is just an ordinary woman. She is not a countess or a resistance leader or anything. She is just a French woman caring for a farm and a couple of kids.

I do have a few quibbles. The Germans are all flying red Fokker tri-planes (except for the Black Falcon's black tri-plane). The tri-pane was not that common and there was only one all-red one which was flown by Richthofen himself (except he got most of his kills flying a red Albatross). Also, you clearly see the bullets flying through the air in a straight line. I've seen footage of tracer rounds from WWII and the bullets' path was not anywhere near as straight. I am sure that in both cases, this was a decision by the director to make it easier for the audience to follow the movie.

The trenches and the front in general are also absent except for two scenes, one short and one extended. This was probably a financial decision.

Unfortunately, the movie opened to poor reviews. Critics are not ready to embrace a movie that does not have a strong anti-war message. While this one plays up the uselessness of that war, it is not a message that can be applied to other wars. Too bad because this is one of the best World War One movies made.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The New Trek

Paramont announced that they are going to upgrade the original Star Trek. All shots of models will be replaced with CGI. Scenes set on other planets will have some atmospheric effects digitally added.

So what should we make of this?

I haven't heard much of a reaction yet but I haven't been looking, either. Maybe no one cares any longer.

When the show was originally shot they used the best available effects that they could afford. The writers knew the limitations of the day and the scripts were written with these in mind. For example, the transporter was used because it was more expensive to film a shuttle.

But time marches on and many of the effects now look cheesy. The space station in Trouble With Tribbles is especially bad and sometimes you can see stars through the Enterprise where they didn't mask it properly.

Will new effects improve the show? Probably not. Will they ruin the original Trek? It doesn't matter. A look at history shows why.

In the mid-1990s, George Lucas announced that he was going to upgrade the original Star Wars movies. Most of the changes were limited to the first one. Recently he announced that the original versions are going to be released on DVD.

In the early 1980s, a process called colorization was developed. This let technicians add colors to movies filmed in black and white. There was an uproar. Some directors from the days of black and white made effective use of it and it offended modern purists that their work could be diluted. Of course, many directors simply filmed and had no clue how to use black and white to advance the movie. These movies often look muddy and are helped by colorization.

The first few colorized movies released looked pretty good. They were done in pastels so no one would confuse them with bright Technicolor. As more colorized movies were released it was obvious that leas and less time was spent on the process. The later movies had a very limited pallet - usually brown and either blue or green.

I haven't seen a colorized movie in years. They served their purpose which was to get people to watch old black and white movies, at least a few more times. Now, the black and white versions are back in circulation and the colorized ones are moldering in a vault somewhere.

Come to think of it, New Coke did the same thing at the same time.

This is what will happen with the new Star Trek. The new version will be released with great fanfare but a few years from now the only version seen will be the original.

Friday, September 15, 2006

George Reeves

With last week's release of Hollywoodland, there has been some attention on the career of George Reeves. The story says that he killed himself because he was type-cast and could no longer get work. Is that true? At a remove of fifty years, it is hard to say but there are some problems with that.

First, Reeves was never that popular an actor. I saw one biography list him as just good enough to star in B-grade movies or have bit-parts in A-grade movies. He did not support himself solely as an actor. He also dug septic tanks and wrestled. In fact he took the Superman role because it was the first steady acting job he had landed in a while.

The problem with him moving on wasn't so much that he was identified with the role. It was that he was identified as a TV actor at all. In Hollywood at the time, TV actors were second-class citizens. It was rare for an actor to make the leap from TV to movies and a movie actor who had done TV was on his way down.

It was also a transition period in acting. Reeves was an old-style actor as opposed to the newer method-actors.

Reeves must have know all of this so his lack of success in landing follow-up roles should not have been a surprise. It is possible that he had been fooling himself but there was more to it than simple type-casting.

In a related issue, I saw one reviewer take a swipe at Reeves' acting ability based on Superman.
The movie stops short of asking whether Reeves was much of an actor. He certainly wasn't much in his most famous role, playing Superman and Clark Kent with exactly the same voice and swagger. It took Christopher Reeve to show how well the parts could be played by taking them seriously.

This is unfair for several reasons. It is always unfair comparing a performance on a TV series to a movie. TV shows are under pressure to get the scene shot and move on. Movies can take much longer to get a scene right. This was especially true of the Superman TV show which was often shooting multiple episodes at once, doing as many as scenes from three different episodes in a single day. The characters normally wore the same clothes in every scene to simplify continuity.

More important, the producers decided that, since Clark Kent would be on-screen more than Superman, he had to be like able. They chose to have both characters acted the same. Smallville made a similar choice, making Clark a football star instead of an equipment manager.

When Christopher Reeve was filming Superman, Clark was given a much smaller role. He is role is mainly as a foil for Lois. Superman has more screen time.

The producers of the TV show made a wise choice. The George Reeves version of Clark Kent is someone you would like to work with. His Superman struck just the right tone. The Chris Reeve Superman was always just a little too good to be true. It is enough to rescue Lois. He didn't really need to tell her how safe flying normally is.

Superman returns is little more than someone else doing a Christopher Reeve impression. It has no new insights.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

60s TV

Lara Parker from the 1960s soap opera, Dark Shadows, was in town a couple of weeks ago and I got to see her. During a Q&A session she was asked about the popularity of the show. She replied that she was sure that every adult watching it was watching for the camp value.

I don't think so. Granted the show has a lot of camp when viewed today. The same is true with Star Trek which turned 40 last week. This was not true when the shows were new.

Dark Shadows is best compared with a stage production and it comes off well. It was one of the first shows to make extensive use of blue screen and other photographic tricks. As with a stage production, the viewer has to suspend disbelief and just not notice that someone moved a tombstone or that sunsets in Maine always look the same.

During the same Q&A session she gave a different opinion of the appeal of the show. Jonathan Frid who played Barnabas had a great deal of trouble learning lines quickly. This was made worse because he was in more episodes than anyone else. During filming, Frid often stumbled over lines and always seemed in a near-panic. On film (tape) this gave the character a nervous tension that you could feel. The same thing happened with other actors to some extent. (Note, I have seen Frid performing live, using rehearsed material and he is a riveting actor.)

Parker also pointed out that the show lifted plotlines from the classics. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dorian Grey, the Lottery, and a Lovecraftian thing all appeared in some form or another. The show also gave a major twist that most of these monsters were sympathetic. You wanted them to survive, not die.

As for Star Trek, it has not aged all that well. Since it is nearly the only show from its generation to still play regularly it is easy to forget how typical most of its weak points were. Everyone overacted on TV, not just Shatner. The fight choreography was done by people who usually did westerns (the staple of TV at the time).

At the time, people seldom died on TV shows. Star Trek was a pioneer in showing that space can be dangerous but they couldn't kill off stars so it usually fell to the extras in red security uniforms to take one for the show.

What made Star Trek unusual was how seriously it took science fiction. Lost in Space premiered the same week but within a couple of months it had gone from a serious show to a campy parody of one.

It was also unusual in taking on issues of the day. Sometime this was heavy-handed and embarrassing (the white/black and the black/white aliens) but more often it was enlightening. It also showed a positive future that was still recognizable. The United Nations grew into the Federation of Planets which was effective, possibly because it had its own fleet of starships. The Cold War was echoed by friction with the Klingons and the Romulans.

Also, unlike the later versions of Trek, Kirk spent most of his time saving people from outside threats. There was more at stake in the average episode of the original series than later ones.

Still, when watching TV's first inter-racial kiss, I find myself wondering if Shatner is about to knock Nichols's wig off.