A Journey through Worlds of Wonders: Three Films by Karel Zeman

At the very least since I first watched Star Wars recorded off ITV onto a Betamax video tape, I’ve had a keen interest in special effects, and in films that use special effects to create unique and different worlds and beings. In this respect, though, the last twenty years or so have been something of a disillusionment: while CGI visual effects have become more and more realistic and indistinguishable from reality, they only rarely recapture one of the things I enjoyed most as a kid. See, the kind of special effects I’ve enjoyed most were never about verisimilitude, at least not first and foremost. A fantastic world is made believable and engaging by the imagination going into it more than by the number of pixels and shaders. And sure, I prefer a well-made green screen effect providing the illusion that those kids on broomsticks can really fly to a bad green screen effect aiming for the same thing and failing, but the special effects that stick most in my mind are the ones that transport me to a different, more interesting world – and that can be achieved by miniature spaceships suspended on threads you can make out if you look closely.

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Look at the size of those eyebrows!

It’s dangerous to go back to the things you enjoyed as a kid after decades, because chances are that you’ll want to tear out your eyes and lobotomise yourself rather than know that, boy, did you have crap taste when you were young!

Going back and watching the ’50s version of 20’000 Leagues Under the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. There’s still a lot in the film that works: many of the special effects, if not up to scratch nowadays, still have a certain realism, so that the film still looks pretty damn good. This is helped by the underwater scenes and the colour art direction which won an Academy Award. (Makes you wonder what other Academy Awards they gave back then – Best Racist Caricature in a Motion Picture? Best Gratuitous Use of a ‘Funny’ Seal Sidekick? Best Repeated Underwater Performance of Toccata & Fugue As Bach Never Wrote It?) The film’s atmosphere is still cool, and the kid in me still thinks it’d be fun to be on the Nautilus, at least if that Nemo guy stays off the organ playing for a few hours.

At the same time, I never noticed just how clunky the dialogues and much of the acting were. Not that I expect Dostoevsky from a Jules Vernes adventure movie, nor did I think, “This film could do with more Lee Strasberg-type performances…” But at times you wonder whether Richard Fleischer ever bothered  to direct his cast. I know that Peter Lorre can do better, as can Kirk Douglas… and James Mason mainly works due to his eyebrows and his snobbish British accent, which makes lines like “I am not what is called a civilized man, Professor.” quite funny – you expect him to follow this with, “Now let us have a snifter of brandy and read some Shakespeare, shall we?”

And the trained seal and that insufferable “Whale of a Tale” song are evil, I tells ya! Eeevil!

P.S.: Speaking of Captain Nemo, perhaps I should take a day or two to write a blog entry on Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Very little Nemo in that one, though… Shame.

The League, back when things were happy (in a dysfunctional way)