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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

‘Idol’ judges starting to crack up
Bad singers driving them over the edge

Nick Ut / AP
Randy Jackson, Simon Cowell, and Paula Abdul are loosening up in their jobs as "American Idol" judges.

By Andy Dehnart
MSNBC contributor

The "American Idol" judges sometimes look bored, like they'd rather be cutting grass with a nail clipper than drinking out of Coca-Cola cups and shattering dreams.

When she's not making insipidly positive comments or clapping as if her fingers were broken, Paula Abdul looks alternately bored or uncomfortable. When he's not bluntly criticizing a contestant's weight or lack of talent with a barrage of superlatives, Simon Cowell appears frustrated with the producers for wasting his time. And frequent swing voter Randy Jackson alternates between the two extremes.

As a result, the judges' comments are, mostly, predictable. For even the most reprehensible, obnoxious singers, Paula has some kind of contrived praise. Simon throws out the word "dreadful" almost as much as Randy addresses contestants with, "Dawg, you did your thing." Collectively, the three judges overuse meaningless words that stand in for detailed critiques; last season's was "pitchy," whereas "American Idol 4"'s word is shaping up to be "affected," a label applied to those performers who appear to lack originality as they mimic more accomplished performers.

But not in St. Louis. During their second "American Idol 4" stop, the judges completely lost it.

During these first few weeks, viewers see a carefully edited collection of the worst singers, with a few of the best thrown in just to keep the series vaguely focused. But the 32 people from St. Louis who made it to Hollywood weren't shown except for brief flashes. And those who never had a chance of making it to Hollywood were pushed to the front of the pack by producers to create some entertaining television.

Usually, we know what to expect from this, and St. Louis included plenty of familiar footage. After a contestant named Aa'shia sang for the three judges, Simon Cowell compared her voice to one under the influence of helium sucked from a balloon. Randy was more blunt: "Like the Chipmunks, almost." And what did Paula have to add? "She's different, she's unique. I like her."

While the judges did slip into their familiar grooves in St. Louis, they quickly derailed. The blank stare was the name of their game in DC, but here, they giggled uncontrollably throughout many of the auditions, and sometimes just broke down.

Paula spent much of her energy attempting to conceal her laughter. When one contestant said, "I really sound like Brian McKnight," Paula choked on her water and nearly sprayed it all over the table.

Joining the rat race
But the night's crowning moment came during a 16-year-old contestant's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Stifling laughter throughout the song, the three judges were clearly aghast. After Simon said her performance "was, honestly, excruciatingly awful," it appeared to be yet another 1-2-3 dismissal, with Simon being brutal, Paula complimenting something totally irrelevant ("Your toenails look so nice, sweetheart!"), and Randy flipping a coin to see if he was feeling it or not.

But then Paula offered some unusual career advice. "Have you heard of voiceover work?" Randy started chiming in with ideas: "Cartoons, animation. Doing voices. 'Rugrats,' or dogs, or whatever."

Simon couldn't believe this. "So Jessica … is going to walk out of here and the advice you've given to her is that you can do a voiceover for a rat. Charming. Charming. I mean, great advice."

Sorry, Jessica. Spinning around in her chair, her knee pulled up to her chest, her eyes rolling, Paula said, earnestly, "Do you know how hard it is to get an agent and get commercials for that? It's great."

Visibly upset, and totally ignored by the judges, Jessica turned and walked out of the room, but Paula didn't even flinch. "Do you know how hard it is to get a rat job?"

As Randy said "thank you" to Jessica through his laughter, Simon high-fived a still-spinning Paula and, through hysterical laughter, said, "You actually carried that on!"

"Do you know how hard it is to be a rat? Oh, God," Paula said.

Whatever happened during those few minutes, these weren't the judges we're used to seeing. And compared to the first two hours and its parade of blank stare-inducing contestants, this was a welcome change.

Even though the judges don't show up until the final days of an audition, their days must be grueling, especially when faced with the more delusional singers who producers push through as ratings bait for the first few weeks of the season. Maybe the judges had just been pushed past their breaking point. Or maybe they've learned to break through their "characters" and let us see what they really think about the process.

Simon says
Two and a half years ago, the United States was introduced to "American Idol" via clips of judge Simon Cowell telling awful singers how truly horrible they were. His scathing insults quickly became legendary, and a phenomenon was born, with Simon at the helm.

Still, the "American Idol" audience seems to resent any criticism, constructive or not. The series premiere included a massive group of auditioners in Washington, DC, screaming, "Simon, you suck." And every time Simon Cowell opens his mouth during the semifinal and final rounds, the crowd tends to boo him.

It's an odd relationship, particularly since Simon often is the only rational, honest voice, but it’s a relationship Simon cultivates by being pretentious and offensive. He's also frequently caustic toward his fellow judges.

But in St. Louis, we saw that the three are all really on the same page, and they know that this part of the competition, at least, is a big joke — one in which they play a central role. They did their best to pretend otherwise, but their efforts failed.

After a montage of glass-shattering singing, the show cut to a clip of Simon looking dejected. "I don't like music anymore," he said.

He might hate music, but he, Paula, and Randy clearly love their jobs.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Mr. Potato Head Goes to the Dark Side
Associated Press

PAWTUCKET, R.I. - A spud on the dark side. That's how toy maker Hasbro Inc. is promoting its latest Mr. Potato Head figure, Darth Tater.

The toy spud will be available next month, ahead of the May release of "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," the latest installment in that film series.

Darth Tater will come with a light saber, cape and helmet, in addition to the regular Mr. Potato Head accessories such as eyes, mouth and nose.

The Pawtucket-based toy maker says children will be able to "have all kinds of mix n' match, Mr. Potato Head fun with this wacky spud dressed as the infamous `Star Wars' villain, Darth Vader."

The toy will retail for $7.99.

"Star Wars: Episode III," starring Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, will open in theaters nationwide on May 19.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Jackson: Remaking 'King Kong' Is a Dream

Director Peter Jackson's first attempt to remake "King Kong" featured an Empire State Building constructed out of cardboard and a Manhattan skyline painted on an old bedsheet. It was an amateur effort, but Jackson was only 13 at the time. He has a bigger budget now, at 43.

Jackson, who directed "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, said remaking "King Kong" has been a lifelong obsession.

The $150 million remake now in production is a respectful tribute to the 1933 original.

Jackson approached Fay Wray, who played Ann in the first film, about making a cameo, but she died before it was possible.

"Obviously, there's a lot of criticism and apprehension about remaking any film, and it has the potential for pitfalls that are greater than 'The Lord of the Rings,'" he told the Los Angeles Times during a short break on the "King Kong" set. "But it's a dream come true. That's the reality of it."

The 10 Worst Snack Foods
By Jonny Bowden, M.A., C.N.S.

Enter any convenience store in the United States and you'll quickly spot an array of so-called foods that could have come straight off the request list on Lil' Bow Wow's concert rider (I did not make this up. The young rapper's contract states that he must have the following foods backstage: Twizzlers, Doritos, Sprite, Starbursts, Hawaiian Punch and orange soda). But hey, Bow Wow's no worse than Britney, Christina or any teen in any mall anywhere in America. Or their parents.

Snack food in America seems to become more horrible with every passing year. Here's my list of the worst snack foods of all time. (But be forewarned: This list could become outdated the minute the food industry introduces yet another must-have concoction of sugar, chemicals, coloring and grease to add pounds to your waistline while adding nothing to your nutrition.)

1. French Fries
Don't be reassured by the fact that McDonald's is changing its cooking oil. French fries are still starchy white potatoes cooked in hot fat and flavored with chemicals and sugar. Possibly the worst snack food on the planet.
2. Donuts
Fried bread. Need I say more? And if that wasn't bad enough, add a sugary cream filling and a glaze of more sugar on top. Any questions?

3. Chips (Potato or Corn)
These are really just a packaged version of French fries (see #1). However, you can do damage control on this one by switching to baked blue corn chips, available in health food stores. It's still not real food, but it beats the 7-Eleven version any day.

4. Soda
And sorry, this includes the diet kind. Absolutely nothing of any value here, and a whole lot of chemicals to boot.

5. Cupcakes and Snack Cakes
The creamy filling is fake whipped cream, and the rest of it is sugar, flour and flavoring. You've gotta be kidding.

6. Candy Bars
You might squeeze a gram or two of protein out of the nuts in some of them, but by and large they're a sugar orgy and a nutrition nightmare. Again, you can move slightly up the food chain by switching to one of the "energy" bars. Most are just candy bars disguised as health food but they often have 1/3 less calories, quite a bit more protein and a bit less fat. Don't confuse them with real food though.

7. Pork Rinds
Fried pork skin. Not a good thing!

8. Fat-Free Cookies
These are even more insidious because they pretend to be healthy. Remember, fat-free doesn't equal calorie free. Betcha can't eat just one!

9. Crackers
Trans-fats anyone? Most crackers are loaded with 'em. Read your labels carefully to find the few that aren't.

10. Pretzels
Surprise, surprise. Remember, just because something doesn't have fat doesn't make it good. This is just white flour, water and sugar masquerading as a healthy snack. Fuggedaboutit.

Runner up: Those creamy, carmelly, coconutty coffee mocha-latte-frappe drinks that are taking over the universe. I love my Starbucks too, but 20 ounces of caffeine, sugar, whipped cream and milk taken once or twice a day does not a lean waistline make!

And yes, the calories you drink count.

Monday, January 17, 2005

New Movie Rules
To kick off the new year, we propose eight ways to pump life back into the movies

By Jim Emerson
Special to MSN Entertainment

A person's appetite for American movies these days generally depends on one's ability to stomach the same old recipes over and over again: stock characters spooned into syrupy generic formulas, like globs of expired canned fruit plopped into tarnished copper Jell-O molds, and garnished with the blandest and most tasteless clichés (which would be the iceberg lettuce of this particular metaphorical dish).

It was ten years ago that Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, sick to death of the slick, technical professionalism that seemed to be polishing the very life out of the cinema, responded to a perceived crisis in filmmaking with their radically ascetic Dogme '95 manifesto. It was their attempt to stimulate creativity in themselves and their fellow filmmakers by proposing an inspired, perverse, and only partly facetious list of restrictions they dubbed their aesthetic "Vow of Chastity." Among the rules were prohibitions against the use of artificial lighting, dolly shots or tripods ("the camera must be hand-held"), studio sets, optical effects or post-recorded music and dialog, directorial credits, and (my favorite):

The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

OK, Dogme '95 didn't (arguably) result in any out-and-out masterpieces, but the efforts (and, most of all, the discussions) it provoked were at least uncommon and interesting. Also, the certified films included acclaimed works such as "The Celebration" and "The Idiots," directed by Vinterberg and von Trier, respectively. (No possessive "auteur" credits here!) Their hearts were in the right place, even if their hand-held cameras weren't always.

In 2004, despite record revenues, movie ticket sales continued to decline. People really are tiring of the same old formulas, I'm just sure of it. If you've seen any movies since the late 1970s, I'm sure you'll be plenty familiar with the sins outlined below; they've become so commonplace it's easier to think of the exceptions than the countless mediocre movies that still employ them without a second thought. Those all tend to run together in the memory.

So, it's about time for a tenth anniversary update of the Dogme "Vows of Chastity." I'm proposing another set of drastic measures to pump some more life into the tired and anemic American movie. If these were to be listed as cinematic "deadly sins" they would virtually all fall under "sloth" (sometimes masquerading as "greed"), since most stem from laziness.

So, let's throw a few obstacles in the way and see if that gets filmmakers to thinking "outside the box-office." Consider the following as Commandments handed down from the Movie God on top of the Paramount mountain or, if you prefer something a little less presumptuous, suggestions for filmmakers' New Year's resolutions.

1. No strategic nudity, male or female

It seems so odd to hear people talk about "full frontal nudity" because, well, if somebody is nude, doesn't that mean his or her full front is nude, too? The movies are notorious at playing Austin Powers peek-a-boo games with pubic regions (especially male ones). The best nude scenes (like the sex between married couple Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now," or the argument between a bottomless Julianne Moore and her husband Matthew Modine in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts") work precisely because they convey a sense of real-world intimacy. Unless the characters are "never-nudes" -- a condition suffered by David Cross's character Tobias on "Arrested Development" but not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association -- intimacy does not involve obsessive-compulsive shielding of the privates from the person with whom you're supposedly intimate.

The obligatory sex scenes in most American movies are just silly. People do not have hot, passionate, spontaneous, music-accompanied montage sex under ideally colorful lighting conditions and then primly pose there in bed with the sheets perfectly positioned over their breasts and/or genitals. And they especially don't get out of bed with their underwear miraculously back on. Even jaded couples who have dull, brief, routine sex in the pitch dark don't do this -- unless they're really shy and/or repressed, in which case it can be a telling way of expressing their characters. (Another favorite authentic movie moment: Lily Tomlin retrieving her panties which have gotten entangled in Keith Carradine's toes at the foot of the bed in Altman's "Nashville," while he's already on the phone trying to set up his next tryst.)

So, directors, get real and remember: human genitalia are like nature's shiny bicycles. Don't hide them away: Show 'em off!

2. No fake, sanitized violence

With half the TV shows in prime time devoted to forensics and autopsies, you'd think the days when movie victims got shot and immediately keeled over clutching their chests, or got bonked on the head with a crowbar and instantly passed out, only to wake up rubbing the backs of their necks whenever it's convenient, would be over. But you would be wrong. The "problem" with violence in film and television (as our Guardians of Morality insist on putting it) is not just that there's too much of it (and it's not only numbing but boring), but that it's too easy, too sanitized.

Alfred Hitchcock devoted a whole scene to this idea in 1966's "Torn Curtain," where Paul Newman wrestles with a Russian agent for what seems like an eternity, just to show how difficult and messy it really can be to kill a person. And the late Sam Fuller (who, unfortunately, didn't live to see the first half-hour of "Saving Private Ryan") lamented when making his (newly restored) WW II masterpiece, "The Big Red One," that no studio would ever let him show what the grotesque and gory horrors of combat were really like because the audience couldn't take it -- and if people saw the truth then no sane person would want to take the risk of going to war unless it was truly a last resort. Hey, wait a minute. Do you suppose if...? Naaaaaah.

The top-grossing movie of 2004 (in every sense of the word) was a two-hour splatter film about a man who gets shackled, beaten, whipped, flayed, flogged, sliced, prodded, poked, pricked, dragged and marched up a steep hill carrying a very heavy chunk of timber, and is then nailed to it. A lot of attention was paid to the product placement (Jesus) in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- but not everyone bought what Mel was selling, or how he was selling it. Mel, a "schismatic" Catholic, said in countless publicity interviews that he wanted to show what the suffering of Jesus was "really like," based on literal fidelity to the scriptures. But some doctors (of medicine -- and divinity) and scholars were dismayed by the movie's anatomical and historical inaccuracies (we won't get into the gory details here).

Oh, and one more thing: Unless you are a Messiah, once you're dead you have to stay dead. No more belated revelations that the apparently deceased was actually wearing a bulletproof vest, or suddenly came out of that previously irreversible coma. I don't care if you're somebody's beloved LAPD partner or E.T. -- death is death, and should never be used as a cheat.

3. No expository dialog

What makes so many American movies so unbearably tedious is that they seem to be targeted at that hopelessly insecure person sitting behind you who keeps asking "Who's that?" "What's she doing now?" "Why did he say that?" "Where are they?" And so, the screenplay makes sure that at any given point in the film the audience knows exactly what's going on, is reminded of what just happened (usually with a line or two of extraneous dialog), and is told what to expect next. I'm not talking about "plot twists," which have been reduced to gimmicks in which the film deliberately withholds information and then suddenly shoves it in your face -- the equivalent of the false "boo" shot in horror movies, where it's not the killer it's just the cat jumping or knocking something over. And I'm not talking about the "true character" reveal, where the good guy turns out to be bad, or the bad guy turns out to be good (although the end of "Mystic River," where Laura Linney's character suddenly turns into Lady Macbeth, is a laughably botched version of handling this kind of "revelation.")

I'm talking about never allowing the audience to really wonder about what they're seeing or why they're seeing it. The formula is: This is what is about to happen; this is what happens; this is what just happened. Over and over and over again. It's as dull as those movies that insist on showing somebody dialing an entire phone number (especially on a rotary phone -- see "First Monday in October" for a particularly egregious example), or that, for no reason whatsoever, show a person leaving one address, walking to the car, getting into the car, starting it, driving, parking, and walking up to the door of another address. A simple cut would probably tell us that the character got from one place to another because, well, there he is!

If I could think of some recent examples off the top of my head I'd include them, but deathless dialog such as this is everywhere and not, shall we say, terribly memorable. So stop, already. No information should be included in a screenplay that informs the audience of something obvious the characters themselves already know. Like: "You're my wife! We've been married for eight years and lived together for seven before that!" Or: "I have this corner office because I founded this multi-national widget-manufacturing corporation during the Ford administration!" Or: "Honey, your half-sister Edith is coming over and she's bringing that adopted Chinese kid of hers, Mulan, as well as her biological son, Bruce, from her first marriage." You know. The number one rule of filmmaking is and always has been: "Show -- don't tell." If your screenplay and your actors aren't good enough to communicate this kind of information in the ways the characters interact, then you probably shouldn't be making a movie with them in the first place. If the audience doesn't immediately know that Edith is somebody's half-sister, they ought to be able to figure it out by the time it becomes important to the story. And if it isn't important to the story, or the characters' interactions, then maybe it doesn't need to be in the movie.

4. No drug deals

The ubiquitous drug-deal is a narcotic itself. Once I see the suitcases full of baking soda (or is that baby laxative?) or the stacks of Monopoly money, my eyes autonomically roll up in their sockets. These scenes are as tedious as the small-talk you're supposed to make with your friendly neighborhood dealer when he wants you to "hang out" with him (a situation lampooned on HBO's often-brilliant "Mr. Show with Bob and David" in the '90s). Drug deal scenes have become to movies what airline food jokes are to stand-up comedy: so lame, so hacky, they're beneath contempt. In a recent New Yorker cartoon a man asked: "Couldn't we talk about a drug deal gone terribly, terribly right for a change?" I rest my case.

5. Characters must have jobs that pay for their possessions

Characters must not have unlimited leisure time to spend on the plot. They must go to work. And their wages must be sufficient to justify how they live -- their houses or apartments, cars or clothes, the vacations they take or the hotels and restaurants they frequent. Just about everybody in America, except for those who receive large tax cuts, has to work for a living. And there is a wealth of comic and dramatic material in the workplace (well, lots of workplaces) that has barely begun to be explored by American filmmakers.

The Brits made brilliant comedy out of the BBC series "The Office"; and the French, especially director Laurent Cantet (born in Germany), have found gripping drama in blue-collar ("Human Resources") and white-collar ("Time Out") settings. With the exception of the well-observed Mike Judge comedy "Office Space," American workplace movies tend to be otherworldly Cinderella fables ("The Secret of My Success," "Working Girl"), equally old-fashioned fantasy/satires ("The Hudsucker Proxy," "Down with Love") or horror pictures ("The Firm," "The Devil's Advocate"). The Devil goes by many corporate names but there is a lot to be said about the absurdities, frustrations, delusions, guilt, rationalizations, illusory rewards, and soul-strangling restrictions that just a regular old job can inflict on a person.

Americans are always talking about their "family lives" (or "home lives"), their "social lives," their "love lives" (or "sex lives"), their "intellectual lives," their "spiritual lives," and, yes, their "work lives" -- as if everybody is really, really good at compartmentalizing all their activities into discrete blocs of time worthy of being considered lives of their own. But what do most people do when they're not at work? They shop, watch TV, surf the web. Some still listen to a thing called "music." We need more movies that address not only people's work lives, but what I like to call their "consumer lives."

Advertising is omnipresent (especially in movie theaters -- not just before the features, or in the trailers, but all the product placement that subsidizes the bloated movies themselves), but, except for "Fight Club," few recent films (since the money-cynical post-Depression screwball comedies like "Holiday" and "Christmas in July," and the values-questioning anti-corporation-man pictures of the 1950s and 1960s, like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," "A Face in the Crowd," and "The Arrangement") have had the guts, or the teeth, to bite the hands that feed them -- to show, and satirize, how advertising affects people; how it creates phony problems and then offers a consumer-based solution (Got ring-around-the-collar? You need Wisk!); and how it primarily works to reinforce good feelings (they call it "customer satisfaction") about purchases you've already made.

So, now that "Sex and the City" is off the air, let's see more movies about how fundamentally important shopping is to the average American's sense of identity, status, and self-esteem. Not to exalt it, but to examine it. Because in Western civilization, you are what you buy -- and if you don't buy, you don't exist.

6. No exaggerated life-death conflicts

This is a corollary to the Dogme '95 vow cited above: "The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)." The world is full of dramatic and comic conflicts. But studio development executives invariably insist on "upping the stakes" for the main characters, at which point the most unlikely life-threatening weapons or chases (vehicular or otherwise) are stubbornly shoehorned into the story. I call this the "Fatal Attraction" syndrome, after a film with a re-shot ultra-violent ending that spawned so many bloody imitators. It's not enough for an "unsympathetic," even threatening, character to be, say, justly or unjustly wronged, or resentful, or a bully, or even crazy -- he or she must eventually become homicidal. Other films, like the otherwise terrific "People I Know" starring Al Pacino as a New York publicist, are diminished by the unnecessary inclusion of a superfluous murder in a story that was otherwise quite convincing without one.

I once co-wrote a fairly successful play at The Groundlings in Los Angeles, "Mea's Big Apology," a comedy about a meek character (her name was Mea Culpa, played by her creator Julia Sweeney) whose world was shattered when she received a promotion at the accounting office where she worked and didn't know how to handle it. Missing the comedic point of the enterprise by several nautical miles (that Mea had huge emotional reactions to the smallest of everyday occurrences), one studio development exec suggested that, in the movie version, she could perhaps foil a terrorist hijacking of a jetliner.

You see the problem.

Guns and bombs and swords and knives and flying daggers may indeed be necessary for certain types of films (say, Samurai epics or movies about the occupation of Iraq). But as long as the characters feel the stakes are high, the audience will relate. After all, how many days a week do you honestly feel someone is likely to kill you? On purpose? Isn't it bad enough that they just wish you were dead?

7. No sports or games of any kind

This falls under the umbrella of "superficial action" as described in Dogme '95. There is a whole lot of sports on television. Entire channels are devoted to it, in its multifarious forms. Go watch it, if that's what you like. "The human drama of athletic competition" (as they used to say on "ABC's Wide World of Sports") is a contrived and artificial concept that should not be further milked in feature film format -- especially in any picture that ends with a Big Game/Contest of any sort (whether it's a physical sport or gambling or chess or a beauty pageant; the exploding heads duel that concludes David Cronenberg's "Scanners" is an acceptable exception ) or -- lord help us -- the dreaded getting-into-shape montage. You may recall that 2004's "Team America: World Police" featured just such training montage, set to the lyrics:

The hour is approaching, just give it your best
You got to reach your prime
That's when you need to put yourself to the test
And show us a passage of time
Were gonna need a montage, montage
Oh it takes a montage, montage...
Even "Rocky" had a montage, montage...

Really. Anyone who displays the colossal lack of imagination to employ such a montage (montage) after satire as blatant as this is flagrantly displaying contempt for the audience and deserves to be strapped into a chair with his eyes propped open, as in "A Clockwork Orange," and forced to watch that damned "Rocky" fanfare montage for eternity, or at least what seems like one. In other words, more than once.

8. No CGI unless it's used to make something more convincing, not less

Most of the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) we see in movies today -- including the most expensive and supposedly sophisticated uses -- is just awful. You don't believe it for a second. In the old days (yeah, way back in the '60s and '70s), filmmakers used things like matte paintings (on glass) and miniatures to make things look real. In other words, if they were good, you weren't supposed to notice them. If you thought "Wow -- good effect," that meant it was bad, because it momentarily distracted you from the world of the movie itself. That cliff Redford and Newman jumped off of in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"? It was painted, and they (or their stunt doubles) were jumping off a platform. The Himalayas in John Huston's "The Man Who Would Be King"? Mostly matte paintings (and, yes, not always seamless, but they didn't spoil the illusion). Likewise, the effects in "2001: A Space Odyssey" looked like real NASA footage; and although "Superman" was a comic-book movie, he really did look (most of the time) like he was flying through space.

Whatever else you want to say about the "Spider-man" movies, Spidey never honestly looks like he's swingin' on a thread; he's weightless and two-dimensional. And, yes, he's a comic-book character, but if this is the best CGI can do, by all means go back to the old optical methods. "Spider-man" director Sam Raimi had more convincing special effects in "The Evil Dead," where they consisted of little more than a camera stuck on a two-by-four and a can of creamed corn. Go back and look at Buster Keaton's "The General" or "Our Hospitality" or "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and you'll see how breathtaking stunts rooted in real-world physical reality can be. Or watch the opening of Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and you'll experience a sense of awe, and a sense of place, that few movies offer any more. Because Herzog's camera lets you know you're right there in a remote, fantastic, but absolutely real place on Planet Earth. (Of course, Herzog is both a genuine visionary and a genuine madman, which helps.)

In general, CGI should be used to make the dangerous or improbable look possible, not to show off a 3-D rendering program to make the impossible look cheap and sterile. Use it to erase safety wires during dangerous stunts. Or to put real, snow-peaked mountains in the background of a scene that's really shot in a California meadow in spring. Or use it to illustrate the inside of a character's head -- like when Edward Norton's apartment turns into an Ikea catalog in David Fincher's "Fight Club," or when Jim Carrey's memories are being sucked out from under him in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"; or when we actually see what a bullet does entering the human body in David O. Russell's "Three Kings" But don't use CGI effects just because you can -- like the camera-flying-through-the-coffee-pot-handle shot in Fincher's "Panic Room," which is there for no good reason at all. It's not even funny because it's too easy.

Filmmakers who make a solemn vow to abide by the rules outlined above will be earn a Certificate of Purification that can be proudly displayed at the start of their movies. Or, really, anywhere in their movies they'd like to put it.