Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

The popular comic book superhero Captain America had his debut in March 1941 courtesy of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby who created him as a patriotic symbol in response to the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II. Like any enduring comic book icon, Cap has undergone all kinds of changes over the years but as had few cinematic incarnations. He first appeared on film in a 1944 serial and then in a 1990 film that was so ill-conceived that it was released direct to home video in North America. One problem with the character is that his costume does not translate well to a live-action film. It didn’t help that at the time of the 1990 version, Marvel Comics, which owned the character, had little interest in cinematic adaptations of its titles until X-Men (2000) proved to be a surprise hit.

Since then, they’ve had a spotty track record with their properties. The Blade and Iron Man series were very successful but both Daredevil (2003) and Ghost Rider (2007) were box office and critical failures respectively. Part of the problem is the talent attached to these films. Getting the right director and cast that understand the characters and the worlds they inhabit is crucial and explains why the first two X-Men films were so good. For Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the powers that be wisely hired Joe Johnston to direct. Since it was decided that the film be set during World War II who better to recapture that old school action/adventure vibe then the man who helmed The Rocketeer (1991) and Hidalgo (2004)? For the pivotal role of Captain America, Chris Evans was cast. He already had experience with superhero films playing the Human Torch in the awful Fantastic Four films and, as a result, was understandably reluctant to take on another comic book adaptation. The question remained, how would such an earnest, idealistic character translate in our cynical times and would movie-going audiences be able to relate to him? Judging by its opening weekend box office haul, quite well indeed.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a skinny weakling who just wants to do his part for his country during wartime but he’s wracked with too many health problems to join the army. So, he volunteers for a risky top-secret experimental program known as Project Rebirth run by Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones at his crusty, ornery best) and Peggy Carter (charmingly played by Hayley Atwell). Rogers may not be physically strong but he’s brave, determined and willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and playboy inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) conduct the actual procedure that transforms Rogers into the perfect physical specimen, a Super Soldier complete with superior strength and agility.

Instead of putting him on the front lines where he wants to be, Rogers dons a corny costume (that pokes fun at previous cinematic incarnations), dubbed Captain America, and ordered to sell war bonds to the American public in a lame dog and pony show. While entertaining American troops in Italy, he hears that his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has been captured by Hydra, a research wing of the Nazis who are so ambitious that they split from the Germans for playing it too safe. With Peggy and Stark’s help, Rogers disobeys orders to rescue his friend and 400 prisoners of war. Meanwhile, Hydra leaders Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) have discovered the Tesseract, a cosmic cube endowed with powerful magical energy that they harness so that it can be used to not only win the war but also take over the world. Schmidt was the first recipient of the Super Soldier formula and it transformed him into the Red Skull, a hideous-looking evil genius.

Hugo Weaving brings a suitably creepy menace to the role of the power hungry Red Skull aided in large part by the impressive and appropriately garish makeup job. Hayley Atwell is downright delightful as the brassy dame Peggy Carter who is more than capable of taking care of herself. The chemistry between her character and Rogers is nicely realized with snappy, slyly flirty dialogue reminiscent of a Howard Hawks film. The screenplay, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, does a nice job of developing their relationship over time, keeping their romance simmering just under the surface for most of the film until its tragic conclusion that carries a surprising emotional resonance because we’ve become invested in them. After all kinds of supporting roles over the years, Chris Evans finally gets to prove that he has the chops to carry a big budget blockbuster. He brings a no-nonsense charisma to the role and conveys Cap’s idealism without coming across as forced or phony.

Joe Johnston brings the same old school Classic Hollywood vibe he brought to The Rocketeer complete with a refreshing lack of cynicism and irony as he delivers a straightforward action/adventure tale. And like with that previous film, he includes all sorts of nice comic book touches, like the introduction of the Howling Commandos, a ragtag group of soldiers that fought alongside Nick Fury in the comics and fight with Cap in the film. In particular, the actors who play Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and Gabe Jones (Derek Luke) bear an uncanny resemblance to their comic book counterparts right down to how they look and act. Unlike Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Sucker Punch), who imposes too much of his personal style, Johnston understands that the film’s style should service the story – anything else is a distraction. He even employs Snyder’s trademark “speed-ramping” technique but in a way that fits seamlessly with the action sequences, which are exciting and expertly choreographed, devoid of schizophrenic editing. You always know who is fighting whom and where. Captain America may not reinvent wheel in terms of the comic book superhero genre but it doesn’t have to. It is a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie with nothing else on its mind but to tell an entertaining story.




Wednesday, July 27, 2011

DVD of the Week: Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

It isn’t easy successfully blending comedy with horror. Aside from a few notable exceptions (like Re-Animator, Evil Dead II, Braindead, and Slither), most efforts tend to have too many laughs and not enough scares so that the end result has only the superficial trappings of the horror genre. Based loosely on the popular Italian comic book of the same name, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011) attempts to achieve just the right mix. However, this independent film was given a limited theatrical release and promptly tanked at the box office while also getting savaged by what few critics actually saw it. On the plus side, this certainly bodes well for Dylan Dog’s future cult film status.


Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh) is a New Orleans-based private investigator who specializes in paranormal cases. However, he has since retired from investigating things that go bump in the night and has shifted his focus to cheating spouses with the help of his assistant Marcus Adams (Sam Huntington). When her father is killed by what appears to be a werewolf, Elizabeth Ryan (Anita Briem) contacts Dylan who tells her that he’s not interested in the case. That is, until Marcus is brutally murdered in their office and this compels Dylan to investigate the Ryan murder. He finds the culprit and the implications could result in a war between werewolves, led by Gabriel (a sorely underused Peter Stormare), and vampires, led by Vargas (a suave Taye Diggs) who peddles vampire blood to humans and plans to ascend to the top of the food chain.

There are amusing touches sprinkled throughout the film, like the local morgue run by two zombies, or the support group for the living dead, or the body shop for zombies, a place where they can get replacement parts (which reminded me of the after-life waiting room in Beetlejuice). There is also the occasional funny bit of dialogue, like when Dylan informs Marcus that he’s a zombie: “The good news is that the condition is … uh, manageable.” However, the film needed more of these moments.

I enjoyed Brandon Routh in Superman Returns (2006) and always felt he got a raw deal from critics and audiences. He is quite good as Dylan, bringing a fair amount of charm and charisma to the role. He acts as our guide through the world of the film, telling us how things work and what’s going on via voiceover narration in the tried and true tradition of the detective genre. He also plays well off of Sam Huntington (the two actually appeared together in Superman Returns) and displays some decent comic timing, especially once Marcus becomes a zombie and Dylan helps him adjust to his new status. Routh seems like a nice enough guy and deserves a better film to be built around him. Sadly, he has zero chemistry with Anita Briem, his character’s love interest. She lacks the charisma to pull off the role, especially the plot twist her character undergoes late in the film. Every time she appears on screen the air seems to go out of the film, which is not good.

I haven’t read the comic book Dylan Dog is based on so I can’t say how faithful it is to its source material (reviews claim that it isn’t) but it is missing that spark, that special something that made films, like Hellboy (and its sequel) so good. At times, Dylan Dog resembles an episode of Angel or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (actually, David Boreanaz would’ve made a good Dylan Dog) and Joss Whedon’s influence casts a long shadow over this film. It’s easy to see why – with those two shows he managed to consistently balance comedy and horror while also paying tribute to many films and television programs of the genre. Unfortunately, Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer’s screenplay is nowhere near as good and so Dylan Dog comes off as a pale imitation. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments – it just needed more of them. At times, it feels like the filmmakers are trying too hard to appeal to both a mainstream audience and the horror film faithful. This lack of commitment gives the film an uneven tone as it’s caught between two worlds. Dylan Dog isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t a particularly great one either and one wonders what could have been if it had someone like James Gunn (Slither) or Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep) behind the camera – someone who maybe could’ve instilled that special something it needed or given it that edge to make it great instead of merely resemble the pilot for a failed T.V. show.

Special Features:

None.

 



Friday, July 22, 2011

Ruby in Paradise

No other filmmaker other than Charles Burnett, John Sayles or Mike Leigh excels at telling stories about real people like Victor Nunez. He has been called the working man’s auteur and with one exception, his films capture the essence of Florida culture in a refreshingly understated way that is increasingly rare at time when big budget blockbusters and quirky independent films reside at polar ends of the spectrum with very little in-between. His films are populated by protagonists that are outsiders reinventing themselves in Florida. Nunez has said that he is fascinated by “people who have somehow strayed from the world, and they’re trying to decide whether or not they’ll be able to get back in again.” This is evident in the conflicted reporter torn between two sides in A Flash of Green (1984), the grandfather protecting his family from dangerous criminals in Ulee’s Gold (1997) and this is certainly true of Ruby in Paradise (1993), which chronicles a young woman’s journey from an abusive relationship in Tennessee to her new life working in a souvenir shop in Panama City.


Right from the opening scene Nunez eschews convention when he avoids the clichéd break-up scene by muting the sound of Ruby Lee Gissing (Ashley Judd) leaving her rural home and irate boyfriend (husband?) behind so that we only hear the Sam Phillips song “Raised on Promises” playing over the soundtrack as she arrives in Florida at dawn. Nunez captures this moment by showing Ruby in silhouette, which coupled with the music, makes for a very atmospheric introduction to the film’s protagonist. She awakes in a motel to the sounds of an Indian woman singing a traditional song while carrying some towels to her family. Ruby starts a diary, which allows us access to her innermost thoughts, feelings and musings on life. She’s a young woman trying to figure out who she is and what she wants out of life.

Unfortunately, Ruby arrives during the offseason and work is scarce. However, she finds work at a local souvenir shop when she convinces its owner Mildred Chambers (Dorothy Lyman) to hire her. As she gets acquainted with her new surroundings, Nunez uses this opportunity to immerse us in the sights and sounds of Panama City. There are nice shots of Ruby and one of her co-workers Rochelle Bridges (Allison Dean) walking the deserted streets with the stores shuttered for the season. Nunez wisely lets the impossibly beautiful setting speak for itself as we witness stunning sunsets over the ocean.

Rochelle is a young woman like Ruby trying to get by. She goes to business school when she’s not working and has a boyfriend in Atlanta whom she hopes to marry some day. Mildred’s son, Ricky (Bentley Mitchum), is a good-looking troublemaker who takes a shine to Ruby. He has a contentious relationship with his mother who warns Ruby not to get involved with him, which she does anyway, slipping back into a cycle of men who are no good for her. The crucial difference being that she is no longer suffocated by her surroundings, told what to think and is allowed to make her own decisions, even if they aren’t the right ones. Her relationship with Ricky represents her past, which is why eventually cutting him loose symbolically puts the past behind her. As she says at one point, he is “a 100% of something I would like to forget.”

Ruby meets a nice guy named Mike McCaslin (Todd Field) who runs a nursery where she buys a plant for her new place. They start dating and she finds him to be everything that Ricky isn’t. Mike listens to her, makes her feel good and gives her breathing room. He helps her break out of the cycle of bad relationships with domineering men. Todd Field brings an easy-going affability to the role of Mike and is not afraid to show the character’s faults. He is cynical, looks down on people who enjoy mainstream popcorn movies (and yet is fascinated by a T.V. evangelist) and discourages Ruby from going back to school. Mike is definitely a glass-half-empty kind of person. He doesn’t buy into the materialism of our culture. He leads a lo-fi life. His job is growing things from the earth and selling them.

Ruby in Paradise is filled with all kinds of character-defining moments that are little pieces of a bigger puzzle. For example, Nunez paints Mildred the way you would assess someone in real life. At first, we only see as a strict boss at work but later in the film she takes Ruby on a business trip to a trade show in Tampa and the two women get to know each other. We get the impression that perhaps Mildred even sees some of herself in Ruby and, in turn, the young woman sees her boss in a new light. This sequence humanizes Mildred and helps us understand her character better. Nunez obviously has affection for these characters and this makes us care about them as well.

There is plenty of local color in this film, like the next-door neighbor Ruby observes frequently – an old man who fishes daily off a nearby pier. There is the teenage girl next door who lives with her abusive boyfriend, which also acts as warning for Ruby that if she’s not careful she could so easily slip back into old habits. Ruby in Paradise is filled with blue-collar folks and Nunez actually shows them at work, which is a nice touch. He shows the little details of everyday life that enriches these people and pulls you into their lives because it makes you think about your own. These characters flesh out the world that Ruby inhabits.

Victor Nunez had always been fascinated by Panama City. As a child, he vacationed regularly there with his family. As an adult, he became intrigued by the life experiences of the people who worked year round in coffee shops and motels. This led to the genesis of Ruby in Paradise. After completing A Flash of Green, a few years passed and he made notes about his initial ideas concerning the challenges women faced: “How do we define who we are, now in this time?” He wanted his protagonist Ruby to try and figure this out during the course of the film. He spent a year working on the screenplay drawing inspiration from several literary sources: William Faulkner’s The Bear for the character of Mike; the structure of The Odyssey but with a woman instead of a man going through a series of trials; and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen as a model for depicting a woman’s dilemma. For the look of the film, Nunez was inspired by Italian neo-realism cinema where character, place and story are “inexplicably linked.” He spent years trying to get Ruby in Paradise made and was rejected numerous times by financiers who read the script and felt it wasn’t “American enough. It was not hot enough. It was not cool enough or urban enough.” It got so bad that he began questioning his abilities as a filmmaker and felt like an outsider in the film business. He finally decided to make Ruby regardless of the budget and financing suddenly fell into place when his great aunt passed away, leaving him what was left of her trust. In addition, he was also able to borrow money. The final budget was a lean $750 to $800,000.

Nunez went to Los Angeles for ten days to cast Ruby in Paradise. According to the filmmaker, the casting director was pushing a very accomplished young actress but she didn’t feel right to him. He saw three actresses who were very good but were “a little too much Tennessee Williams and not enough Tennessee. Their experience of the South was from doing Williams, not from living in the north of Florida.” He met with Ashley Judd who had grown up in various places in the South with only a few television credits and had been modeling in Japan. She came in late, did the interview, came back 30 minutes later and gave him a CD of the Judds (her sister and mother’s country music band) so that he would know which sister she was. Judd had read the script and “felt passionately moved by it. And for some reason or another had an instantaneous and deep understanding of the material.” Nunez realized that she had “minimal acting experience but exuded a ‘hungry’ quality that was right on.”

To get a feel for the role, Judd drove the back roads from Tennessee to Florida, observing the people she encountered along the way. Principal photography lasted six weeks with a day and a half in Tampa and two days of pick-ups. To save time, money and get the exact shots he wanted, Nunez operated the camera himself, something that he has done for his entire career. “When you make low-budget films, you live in the ‘good enough’ mode by and large. And if you’re lucky, you’re moving fast enough and everything is flowing well enough that ‘good enough’ is what you need.”

Ruby in Paradise received largely positive notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Ruby in Paradise is a breathtaking movie about a young woman who opens the book of her life to a fresh page, and begins to write.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Nunez's empathy and affection for women are reflected here in both his fine writing and his obvious respect for his heroine.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Edward Guthmann gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Judd, in her first film, gives a subtle, delicate performance.” The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm wrote, “The whole film is very well played, very well set and directed with a sharp eye for detail. And if it tells its story in a way which may suggest that 114 minutes ought to have been about 100, those who like it may not mind hanging around for a few minutes longer. Of all the American independent movies this year, Ruby In Paradise is one of the strongest because, for all its meandering style, it seems to know exactly what such a life as Ruby's is about.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “With a girlish face that contrasts hauntingly with her steady, mature speaking voice, Ms. Judd projects a seductive radiance that becomes the film's inner core. She gives substance to the film's slow, reflective manner and to its suggestion that Ruby's journey of self-exploration may truly lead to some greater serenity.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Judd, though, looks like a screen rarity – projecting intelligence and beauty without even seeming to try.”

However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and felt that it was “tentative-and more than a little plodding. Instead of following through on the relationships, Nunez allows Ruby in Paradise to get bogged down in his heroine's economic woes” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen wrote, “For all its sensitivity, Ruby In Paradise combines the art-film's fear of melodrama with the pedant's fear of the cliché – life, alas, admits of both.”

Judd’s performance, like the film itself, is wonderfully understated. While she is naturally beautiful, her hair and makeup are very natural. Ruby is a very stripped-down version of a human being as represented by how she dresses and where she lives. This is her foundation that will allow her to grow. Nunez allows the character moments of quiet contemplation as Ruby watches the world and enjoys the simplicity of life. She is not a perfect character. She makes mistakes, like getting involved with Ricky, but she learns from them. She often looks haunted, like she’s never fully in the moment, slightly detached from what she’s doing, like at work doing menial tasks. Judd suggests that Ruby is thinking about something else. Judd disappears completely into the role as she delivers an intelligent performance of an independent woman. Done early in her career (it was only her fourth role and first lead in a feature film), Ruby in Paradise was the breakout role for the actress who went on to bigger films and a variety of parts but nothing quite as good as this one.

While Ruby in Paradise launched Judd’s career it sadly did not do the same for Nunez despite winning the Grand Jury Prize (along with Bryan Singer’s Public Access) at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. He did go on to make his most high profile film to date, Ulee’s Gold, which revitalized Peter Fonda’s career but then didn’t make another film until the little-seen crime film Coastlines (2002) with Josh Brolin and Timothy Olyphant. Nunez doesn’t make dynamic-sounding films that dazzle financiers, hence the lengthy lulls between projects, which is a shame because he is a rare breed of filmmaker. One that finds the poetry in the everyday lives of people just trying to get by as best they can.

 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

MGM MOD DVD of the Week: Johnny Cool

Johnny Cool (1963) is a curious cinematic oddity, an offbeat footnote in Rat Pack lore. Produced by Peter Lawford and featuring fellow Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr. (who also sings the swingin’ theme song), Joey Bishop, and Henry Silva as the title character, the film was based on John McPartland’s novel The Kingdom of Johnny Cool. It was directed by William Asher, best known for the American International Pictures Beach Party series of teen comedies often starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. He was also married to actress Elizabeth Montgomery at the time, which may explain her presence in Johnny Cool.

The film is a character study of sorts about a cold-hearted assassin who grew up as a bandit named Salvatore Giordano (Henry Silva) in Sicily during World War II. As a boy, he watched helplessly as his mother was gunned down by Nazi soldiers. Then, many years later, we see him get gunned down by Italian government soldiers – only his death was faked by a big-time Mafioso in Rome. He sends the newly dubbed Johnny Cool to the United States to kill all of the people who betrayed him. The crime boss reinvents Johnny completely: how he dresses, acts, talks, and so on. He also transforms the man into an efficient killing machine.

Johnny is tasked to bring down rival crime boss Vincenzo Santangelo played with suave menace by Telly Savalas. While impressing New York City mobsters, Johnny catches the eye of a high-end socialite named Darien Guinness (Elizabeth Montgomery) but he rebuffs her advances initially: “You don’t really care if you know me or not, do you?” she says, to which he replies, “Honey, I’m not buying.” She counters, “You couldn’t!” while he tells her, “Then it’s easy. Just forget it.” Undaunted, she pursues him and they begin a love affair.

Known mostly for playing villains and countless supporting roles, it’s great to see Henry Silva as the protagonist in a film for a change. Based on his work in Johnny Cool, it’s a shame he didn’t get more opportunities to do so. Silva carries himself with a cool confidence and looseness befitting the Rat Pack vibe of the film. He plays Johnny as a tough customer not above walking into a Mob-controlled racket and robbing them of their money while joking about it. Silva looks like he’s having a blast in this role.

For fans of Bewitched, this film may come as something of a surprise as we see Elizabeth Montgomery in a rare dramatic role, which she pulls off quite convincingly. Of particular note is the harrowing scene where she’s beaten by a pair of overzealous police detectives (one played by Joe Turkel no less). She also has a nice scene with Silva where Darien bares her soul to Johnny.

Johnny Cool’s tale of single-minded vengeance features the systematic takedown of a crime syndicate with several audacious assassinations: one target is shot and killed in a crowded train station; another is killed in his swimming pool with a briefcase bomb; and Johnny dispatches another one in his office posing as a window washer. His mission is reminiscent of Lee Marvin’s in Point Blank (1967) only without the artsy experimentation. William Asher employs strictly meat and potatoes filmmaking much like what John Flynn would do later with The Outfit (1973) and ends on a surprisingly nihilistic note as Johnny is betrayed and doomed to a nasty fate worthy of a noir protagonist.

 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Watchmen: Ultimate Cut

To say the Watchmen film (2009) had a long and checkered production history is a massive understatement. Originally a 12-issue mini-series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons that was released in 1986, it was a revisionist superhero story about a mysterious assassin killing off costumed superheroes but this is merely a springboard for a brilliant dissection of the genre and comics in general by manipulating symbols and icons. It also addressed the fear of nuclear annihilation that was so prevalent in the 1980’s. The series was a critical and commercial success despite Moore and Gibbons’ intentions for it to act as an epitaph to the superhero genre and ended up revitalizing superhero comics and spawned numerous rip-offs. It wouldn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling.


In 1989, just after he finished making The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam was approached to direct a film version of Watchmen by producer Joel Silver. Sam Hamm (Batman) wrote the screenplay, which by all accounts was awful. So, Gilliam discarded this draft and wrote his own with Charles McKeown (his screenwriting partner on Munchausen). Gilliam felt that the mini-series was unfilmable as a traditional two-hour film. The biggest problem lay in the financing. According to Gilliam, Silver said that he had secured a $40 million budget but in actuality he only had about $24-25 million. In 1996, after the success of 12 Monkeys, Gilliam was asked again and turned it down.

Nothing happened with the project for many years until it was announced that screenwriter David Hayter (X-Men) had signed a seven figure deal to adapt Watchmen for the big screen and possibly even direct it for Universal. Larry Gordon, who had long held the rights to Watchmen was going to produce the film. Originally, Hayter pitched Watchmen as a mini-series for HBO but the cost would have been an estimated $100 million. His way to condense the mini-series into a two-hour film was to break down the story points into their main components.

Filming was to being in Prague sometime in 2004; however, the option was picked up in April 2004 with Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) being named as the director for Revolution Studios. By July, the project had moved over to Paramount when the deal fell through with Revolution. However, by early November 2004, Aronofsky was off the project due to scheduling conflicts with pre-production on The Fountain (2006). Paramount’s insistence on getting Watchmen out in theaters by summer of 2006 forced them to find another director fast. In late November of 2004, they picked Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) to direct using Hayter’s script. It did not take long for problems to arise when in April 2005 Paramount was looking to cut the film’s budget by 20% while Greengrass was immersed in pre-production at Pinewood Studios in London, England. One of the reasons cited was the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the British pound. However, the studio put the project in the dreaded turnaround (i.e. development hell) in June of the same year because of change of studio heads and the new one felt that the budget for such a risky project was too high.

Finally, in 2005, the film’s producers took the project to Warner Bros. and approached Zack Snyder to direct as they were impressed with his work on 300 (2007), a stylish adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. Screenwriter Alex Tse was hired and he took elements from Hayter’s drafts while maintaining the Cold War setting of the comic book. The resulting film polarized critics and was a modest commercial success. Taking his cue from Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Sin City (2005), Snyder set out to make a visually faithful adaptation, often recreating certain panels exactly as they were presented in the comic book but ran into trouble when he deviated with his own preoccupations and stylistic flourishes. The end result is a film that is at times brilliantly faithful and also deeply flawed – a mixed bag but also an admirable attempt at an impossible task. The Ultimate Edition version, which fused the director’s cut with the animated short film, Tales of the Black Freighter (a comic book that runs throughout Watchmen, often commenting on the action), is the most complete version of Snyder’s take on the material.

Set during the mid-‘80s amid the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States, Watchmen begins with two police detectives investigating the mysterious murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose alter ego is the costumed superhero known as the Comedian, an amoral mixture of Nick Fury and G. Gordon Liddy. Another costumed vigilante by the name of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) – imagine Travis Bickle mixed with Sam Spade – decides to conduct his own investigation and realizes that the Comedian's death is only a small fragment of a much larger puzzle. He proceeds to notify the surviving members of the superhero team he belonged to: Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wlison) a.k.a. Nite Owl, a Batman-esque crusader now retired; Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) a.k.a. Silk Spectre, a beautiful woman pushed into the business by her famous mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), the original Silk Spectre; Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) a.k.a. Ozymandias, a billionaire businessman and considered by many to be the smartest man on the planet; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), an omnipotent being capable of manipulating matter on a cellular level. As Rorschach’s investigation progresses it appears that someone is trying to eliminate all of his former team members but to what end?

The first indication that director Zach Snyder imposes his trademark style occurs in the prologue when the Comedian is killed by a mysterious assailant. Not only does he drag out the fight, but he also unnecessarily employs his slow motion/speed up technique. However, Snyder makes up for it with a superbly executed opening credits sequence that introduces this world and its alternate history timeline (i.e. the Comedian assassinates President Kennedy on the grassy knoll) while also including all kinds of visual Easter eggs for fans of the comic book (like showing how minor character Dollar Bill died). As a result, there is something for newbies and fans alike.

For everything Snyder gets right – the look and feel of the film, which features some truly astounding production design that completely immerses you in this world – he maddeningly gets other things wrong when he adds bits to scenes that have no purpose except to add a little more action for our ADD culture, like in the scene where Rorschach is discovered by two police officers as he’s searching the Comedian’s apartment. The masked vigilante subdues one of them and disappears before the other can collar him. Why? To show what a badass he is? This is unnecessary as actor Jackie Earle Haley’s excellent performance does that for him.

Another nice addition is the integration of an animated rendition of The Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic book within the graphic novel about the sole survivor (voiced by Gerard Butler) of a shipwreck who desperately tries to make it back home to his family before the pirate ship of book’s title does. Snyder nails the nightmarish Tales from the Crypt vibe of the comic while also restoring the newsstand scenes between the vendor and the kid reading the book, which fleshes out this alternate world.

Snyder makes some blunders with a few of the musical cues, like using “Ride of the Valkyries” in the sequence where Dr. Manhattan slaughters Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The director is obviously paying homage to the famous use of the song in Apocalypse Now (1979) but it is unnecessary and too on the nose. However, the most glaring miscue is using “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen instead of “You’re My Thrill” as it was in the graphic novel. Do we really need this song played yet again in a film? This song and all versions of it need to be retired from cinema indefinitely.

For the most part the casting is spot on. Patrick Wilson put on weight to portray the slightly out of shape Dan Dreiberg and with his retro haircut and defeated posture certainly looks the part. Wilson gives Dreiberg a slightly sad, pathetic vibe, which suits the character. Billy Crudup nails the eerie detachment of Dr. Manhattan, a god-like being bored with humanity. The actor adopts a neutral tone akin to that of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Perhaps the best realized and most faithfully recreated portion of the graphic novel is Dr. Manhattan’s tragic backstory, which also attempts to present his worldview: he perceives the past, present and future simultaneously. Crudup does a nice job of showing the transition of Manhattan from a mild-mannered scientist to omnipotent super being with some eerily uncanny recreations of panels from the graphic novel. We see how Manhattan’s ability to manipulate matter on a cellular level radically changes the course of world history (for example, the U.S. wins the Vietnam War with his help). According to Moore, his aim with Manhattan was to show that he “does not perceive time the same way we do. We have a character who’s post-Einsteinian, who seems to accept that all time is happening at once. Past, present and future. And to him, the past is still there, and the future is there, right now.”

Thankfully, the flashbacks depicting the Comedian’s backstory don’t shy away from his amoral behavior: trying to rape the original Silk Spectre and killing a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a fantastic job conveying his character’s skewed worldview: how everything is part of a big, dark joke that only the Comedian gets. In his own way, he realizes that what costumed superheroes do – fighting crime – is ultimately meaningless in the face of nuclear annihilation. The darker and more chaotic things get the more he likes it. Morgan is also able to dig deeper during his tearful late night visitation with an old foe, giving us tantalizing hints at a much, darker and larger scheme at work – the knowledge of which got him killed in the first place.

Easily the strongest performance comes courtesy of Jackie Earle Haley as the sociopathic Rorschach. The most important thing he does is get the voice right. Everyone has their own idea of what he should sound like and Haley got it. Not only does he look great in the costume but also out of it during the portion of the film where he’s unmasked and in prison. The actor is even more chilling as he recounts to a psychiatrist how he became Rorschach and the incident that transformed him permanently into his costumed alter ego. This section of Watchmen offers a glimpse into his disturbing worldview in what is easily the darkest, most bleak part of the film, much like the graphic novel. But again, Snyder imposes his style unnecessarily, adding his own gory flourishes to Rorschach’s showdown with a kidnapper. It is excessive and clumsily executed like something out of a cheap B-horror film whereas the graphic novel was much more horrifying because it left the criminal’s fate to your imagination. Snyder is too busy making Rorschach look cool and failing to realize that in the graphic novel Moore and Gibbons were deconstructing the romantic costumed superhero myth and exploring what motivates someone to dress up and fight crime and how this might warp them. Rorschach wasn’t meant to be a cool character but a depressing, frightening one. His backstory was where, according to Moore, “we actually go for the heart of darkness, we go to the very center of this black, depressing sort of pre-nuclear worldview.”

The most significant miscasting of the film is actress Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter. While the attractive actress looks the part, she lacks the acting chops required for the role. Known mostly for romantic comedies, Akerman looks lost in the role, which is unfortunate as it’s the most pivotal part and arguably the most complicated character in the book. Laurie’s relationship with Dan is the emotional center of the story and this is diluted in the film by the casting of Akerman. Carla Gugino, who ironically plays her mother in the film, would’ve actually been better in the role – or, maybe Jennifer Garner who demonstrated a capacity for action and drama in the J.J. Abrams television show Alias.

Another glaring miscast role is that of Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt. The actor doesn’t look like the character or really act like him either. He’s a little too smug and too over-confident in his portrayal whereas in the graphic novel Veidt was subtly condescending to those around him, coming across as almost distracted, the reasons for which become apparent later on. Snyder has said that he didn’t want to cast recognizable movie stars in the major roles but for Veidt, a celebrity in his own right and by his own making, this would’ve been a wise move. I always thought that Jude Law would’ve been a good choice as he looks the part and showed the capacity to play unlikable characters in films like The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Plus, while doing press for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Law admitted to being a huge fan of the graphic novel and probably would’ve been willing to take a pay cut.

Watchmen perfectly summarizes Snyder’s limitations as a filmmaker. He slavishly recreates panels and sequences from the graphic novel without demonstrating any understanding of what they mean. For example, the climactic scene where Laurie convinces Dr. Manhattan to come back to Earth, that there is more to the universe than random molecules colliding with one another is handled all wrong. In the graphic novel, we find out that Sally loved the Comedian, even after he tried to rape her. The fact that she could feel for a person who committed such a horrible act goes against all logic and that Laurie was the product of their act of love is what convinces the Manhattan to renew his interest in humanity. The film waters this down completely and Sally says that she made a mistake being with the Comedian that one time but that she loves Laurie anyway. Whereas, the graphic novel is a thought-provoking look at human nature and our fascination with costumed superheroes, the film dilutes and tries to make it palatable for a mainstream audience while still trying to appeal to fans of the source material. This schizophrenic attitude is arguably one of the biggest flaws of the film.

Watchmen is a flawed mess of a film – one that gets many things right but also gets a lot of things wrong – but a fascinating one nonetheless. If I’m being overly critical on Snyder it’s only because I love the source material so much that seeing it brought to life in a film was at once exhilarating and depressing. One has to give Snyder credit for making it at all, for using his clout to make sure it was R rated and keeping it set during the ‘80s – two things he went to the mat for with the studio. He made the best possible film one could with the limitations of a feature film format. Ideally, the graphic novel could only truly be done justice in a mini-series format aired on a cable channel like HBO, which would free the filmmakers of the constraints of network television. Watchmen asks many questions but perhaps as Dave Gibbons points out, it really asks the big question: "Who makes the world? Who is responsible for the way the world is? And a lot of it is planned, but a lot of it is just sheer chance. There are patterns, the pattern that we perceive, but there are patterns going on underneath it. And that’s what we tried to show. With these sub, almost subliminal patterns that go through things, echoes, repeating shapes, motifs turning up in unexpected places." Is the world made of patterns or is it sheer coincidence? The graphic novel expertly examines these questions and offers an entertaining story as well. The film? Not so much.

 








Tuesday, July 12, 2011

DVD of the Week: Insidious

Every so often a low budget horror film comes out and against all odds strikes a chord with mainstream audiences to become a breakout success. This happened with Halloween (1978), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Paranormal Activity (2007). These films were interested in nothing more than playing on our most basic, primal fears and scaring the crap out of us. The latest horror film to do this is Insidious (2010), a modestly budgeted ($1.5 million) effort from the folks that brought us Saw (2004) and Paranormal Activity. It has gone on to become a bonafide commercial hit ($87 million). More importantly, it flies in the face of the gore-obsessed torture porn sub-genre to deliver good ol’ fashion things-that-go-bump-in-the-night scares that audiences are clearly hungry for. This is even more impressive when you consider that the two men who are the creative driving force behind Insidious are also responsible for the Saw franchise.


The Lambert family has recently moved into their new home and is in the process of unpacking and getting acclimatized to their new surroundings. Josh (Patrick Wilson), the father, is a busy high school teacher, which leaves Renai (Rose Byrne), the mother, at home to unpack and take care of their baby girl. Unusual little things start to happen, like a door moving on its own. While exploring the attic, one the Lambert boys, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), encounters something. He falls and hits his head causing a nasty bump.

The next morning, Josh tries to wake the boy and finds him in a coma. A doctor tells him and Renai that there is no detectable brain damage and he can’t explain what has happened to their child. Three months later and Dalton is still in a coma but he’s allowed to be at home with his mother taking care of him. One day, Renai hears a strange voice on the baby monitor and rushes up to investigate but of course nothing is there but her child. Soon more weird things happen: a loud knocking on the front door, the image of a strange woman appears in the baby’s bedroom window, the once locked front door is now wide open, and so on.

These things put all kinds of stress on the Lamberts and they decide that their house must be haunted so they move to another place but strange things continue to happen which leads them to contact Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye), a friend of Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) who is an expert in paranormal activity. She tells them that it isn’t the house that is haunted – it is their child, Dalton. The frequency and intensity of the scares gradually increases as the true nature of what ails Dalton is revealed and Elise gives the Lamberts the lowdown on what’s happening.

Director James Wan is very effective at establishing an unsettling mood right from the film’s spooky prologue. Taking a page out of the film’s producer, Oren Peli’s book (Paranormal Activity), he employs all sorts of tried and true jolts: doors slamming shut on their own, inhuman shadows, mischievous ghosts, and so on. The visuals are enhanced with a creepy soundscape complete with moody sound effects and an atmospheric score by Joseph Bishara. Known for gory films like Saw and Death Sentence (2007), Wan demonstrates refreshing restraint with Insidious.

Wan and long-time screenwriting partner Leigh Whannell have created a compelling and efficient scare engine that plays on some of our simplest fears – that someone close to us is in a dangerous situation that we don’t understand. Insidious doesn’t try to reinvent the demonic possession film but instead mashes it up with the haunted house sub-genre and a side order of astral projection thrown in for good measure. The end result is an entertaining film that resides somewhere between the flashy style of Drag Me to Hell (2009) and the unsettling, white knuckle scare tactics of Paranormal Activity with engaging characters that you grow to care about over time.

Special Features:

“Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar” features director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell talking about how they first came up with the notion of astral projection, which they hadn’t seen much in film and place it in a haunted house setting. Whannell wanted to make sure that the audience got to know and identify with the Lambert family so that they would care about what happens to them later on. He and Wan come across as intelligent and eloquent with a good knowledge of the horror genre and its conventions.

“On Set with Insidious” takes a look at the making of the film with plenty of on set footage as we see Wan working with the cast and crew. We see how one of the film’s stunts is performed and an alternate take of a scene. This extra provides some nice insights into filming.

Insidious Entities” takes a look at the ghosts and demons that appear in the film. Wan and Whannell talk about their distinctive look and where the inspiration for some of them came from and why.

 


Friday, July 8, 2011

Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn

The jury is still out on whether the current trend of 3-D films is merely a fad or here to stay. The debate continues to rage on but people should remember that we went through this in the early to mid-1980’s with the likes of Friday the 13th Part III (1982), Jaws 3-D (1983), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (1983) among several others. Included in this crop of films was Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983), a Road Warrior (1981) rip-off directed by Charles Band, the B-movie mogul behind Empire Pictures and later Full Moon Features. He had first tested the 3-D waters with the science fiction horror film Parasite (1982) but Metalstorm was a much more ambitious undertaking with a significantly larger budget, utilizing state-of-the-art 3-D technology, and a major Hollywood studio willing to distribute it in more theaters than any of his previous efforts had enjoyed. Bolstered by this, Band got a little too ambitious for his own good, planning merchandise tie-ins and even envisioning a trilogy of films. Metalstorm was released and almost immediately savaged by critics and ignored by audiences thereby relegating it to cult film status. To be fair, it’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination but it does have its moments.


We meet Dogen (Jeffrey Byron), a space ranger traveling through the desolate wastelands of the planet Lemuria. In fact, Band wastes the first four minutes just showing the protagonist driving around before we finally get some action as a flying craft of some sort attacks our hero. The purpose of this sequence is to show what a badass Dogen is and one can’t help but notice the startling similarities in what Jeffrey Byron is wearing with Mel Gibson’s black leather outfit in Mad Max (1979), right down to sporting the same cool, unshaven look.

A prospector and his young daughter Dhyana (Kelly Preston) are working in an abandoned mine in Nomad territory and find a big crystal that appears to be very valuable. However, they run afoul of Baal (R. David Smith) and his minions. He is the half-cyborg son of Jared-Syn (Michael Preston), an intergalactic criminal with supernatural abilities. Baal has this cool mechanical arm that extends (in 3-D this looked rather impressive) and shoots out funky green liquid that causes the victim to hallucinate a bizarre dream-state where they encounter Jared-Syn. He possesses a powerful red crystal that kills them upon contact. Fortunately, Dhyana manages to hide but her father isn’t so lucky.

Dogen encounters Dhyana and informs her that a treaty has been broken and Jared-Syn is inciting the Nomads to do his bidding. Band even attempts to orchestrate a poignant moment when she mourns the loss of her father. It is Dogen’s mission to hunt down and stop both Syn and Baal. With her father dead, Dhyana joins Dogen on his mission. However, when she is kidnapped by Syn (and conveniently teleported away), Dogen seeks out Rhodes (Tim Thomerson), an ex-ranger now a grizzled, washed-up alcoholic, as a guide to the Lost City – the bad guy’s lair.

The cast does their best with the clichéd dialogue and manage to sell all the mythology exposition stuff with a straight face. Jeffrey Byron plays the Mad Max-esque Dogen like the lone gunslinger archetype he’s obviously based on. The actor has the look and intensity of a young William Petersen just not with the same acting chops – a bland carbon copy but to be fair he’s not given much to work with. A young, pre-John Travolta Kelly Preston is the beautiful and independently-minded love interest who is kidnapped early on by Jared-Syn and then disappears for most of the film only to pop up towards the end as a damsel in distress. Baal is definitely the coolest character in the film with his mechanical arm and cyborg appearance. He even sports a distorted, metallic-sounding voice which made quite an impression on me at the young age I first saw the film. The always watchable Tim Thomerson has fun playing the burnt-out ex-soldier who claims not to give a damn about anything but when it comes down to it, steps up to help out our hero. At times, Rhodes also provides a much-needed comic relief. Also of note is a pre-Night Court Richard Moll who shows up as the leader of the Cyclops and who challenges Dogen to gladiatorial combat at one point during the film.

For a low-budget film such as Metalstorm, the production values are surprisingly decent with attention paid to the costumes and cool prosthetic makeup effects of the Cyclop nomads. The hallucination sequences are definitely the strongest parts of the film and have a nightmarish quality to them enhanced by Richard Band’s otherworldly music. The special effects actually hold up pretty well because they were done practically with optics and models, giving them a realness even if sometimes they look a little cheesy but given the small budget it is not surprisingly while also becoming part of the film’s charm.

Producer/director Charles Band originally conceived of Metalstorm as a low-budget follow-up to his previous 3-D film Parasite. However, he got excited about the story and decided to expand its scope and budget to $2.5 million, which seems like peanuts but was a big chunk of change for someone like Band. This necessitated more crew members to be brought on board forcing Band and the film’s screenwriter and co-producer Alan J. Adler to give up their salaries in lieu of deferments. This also allowed them more creative control: “If the majors financed this thing, a car full of guys in suits could drive up with some crazy idea, and we would have to do it,” Adler said in an interview with Cinefantastique magazine.

Adler originally saw the film as a western with “a lot of American Indian mythology.” He read everything he could find in the library and wrote a treatment, basing the setting and time on many of his ideas of the legend of Atlantis.” He set out to write as little dialogue as possible because “3-D is a dynamic visual medium, and dialogue seems to stop the action,” which may explain the end result.

Principal photography took place in the Simi Valley and the Vasquez Rock formations outside of Los Angeles over seven weeks. Adler was on the set every day, standing next to Band, making suggestions while the director re-wrote scenes. Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg remembers that initially the production had a 3-D consultant, “but we got rid of him because he was such a pain in the neck.” Apparently, the consultant wanted Band and Ahlberg to follow the “standard” 3-D rules: long cuts, static cameras and an avoidance of high-contrast scenes. The two men ignored them all and were still able to achieve the results they wanted. However, shooting in 3-D required extreme precision. For example, some shots required multiple cameras and extra care was required for the composition and calibration of convergence in each camera. Ahlberg also had to be aware of how a sequence might be edited while he was filming it. He had to compose the picture so that the audience looked at what they were supposed to, “because if they look at the wrong things they definitely get eye pain.” He tried to have a continuity of convergence so as to avoid this unfortunate side effect. Although, he ultimately found 3-D “so boring, so uninteresting.”

Makeup Effects Labs did the film’s makeup effects, including the creation of Baal. All of the character’s appliances and props took five hours each day to apply. There were seven appliances for the face and skull, which resembled surgically-implanted metal but was actually latex foam painted in silver pigments. Baal was played by accomplished mime R. David Smith who was born without a left arm, perfect for the pneumatically-operated mechanical arm that shoots a green hallucinatory liquid. Three versions of the arm were built: one that extended, one that was rigged to be torn off, and one that shot the green liquid.

Metalstorm’s visual effects included rotoscope animation and complex blue-screen composites that combined up to five elements in a single shot. For example, there was a model of a vehicle flying through the air, going through a background of a shot of a canyon while at the same time there might be a live-action shot of an actor in a vehicle shooting rotoscoped lasers. The challenge came with the 3-D and the precise positioning required of different elements within the frame at any one moment. A lot of the effects work required rotoscope animation for lasers, glowing energy crystals and the climactic hyperspace tunnel. It took a lot of time to achieve them and as a result three different animation crews were brought in during post-production.

After principal photography ended, editor Brad Arensman assembled a 3-D demo reel for film buyers at the Cannes Film Festival with Charles Band and actor Jeffrey Byron accompanying the footage. Band returned to L.A. and screened the reel for several domestic distributors. Universal Pictures took an interest as their executives were worried about the financial prospects of Jaws 3-D. They saw Metalstorm as an inexpensive follow-up that could be screened in theaters that had already altered their projection equipment for Jaws 3-D. However, they wanted Metalstorm to come out three weeks after Jaws opened which left Band and his crew less than two months to shoot some much-needed pick-up shots, finish the optical and to cut, loop, score and mix the film. Weeks before the release, Band had high hopes that his film would be a big hit. Adler began working on a script for a sequel and even envisioned a trilogy. Despite almost recouping their budget over the opening weekend, grosses dropped off quickly. Band was candid about his shortcomings as a director. He spent too much time shooting the dream sequences and a few others and then found he only had half a day to shoot other scenes and raced through them due to the short shooting schedule. The result was a wildly uneven film.

When it was released in theaters, Metalstorm was barely reviewed and those critics that did, hated it. In his review for The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote, “No contradiction is forthcoming here. Metalstorm is a slow-moving, thoroughly derivative movie that makes little use of the possibilities of 3-D.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold concurred: “Metalstorm recalls movies such as Robot Monster. While more elaborate, it also exudes the aroma of something desperately hustled onto celluloid one afternoon on location with limited stock and non-pros in the leads.” Finally, in his review for the Globe and Mail, Matthew Fraser wrote, “But the amateurish direction, hilariously silly dialogue, and inadvertently fatuous character delineation in Metalstorm make a comparison to the old Flash Gordon series just as appropriate.”

Metalstorm is basically a futuristic western with motorized vehicles standing in for horses and with gunslinger-type characters and shoot-outs in frontier-type towns. Band’s film was one of many at the time that tried to capitalize on the success of The Road Warrior right down to the casting of Michael Preston as Jared-Syn (he was also in The Road Warrior) but he gets little to do except for the hallucination sequences and the final showdown. Like most films that came after, Metalstorm was a pale imitation so it tried to also fuse elements of sorcery and dystopia science fiction onto the story in an attempt to make it somewhat different. It is never a dull film – Band’s B-action movie instincts are good – but it’s not an extraordinary one either. The action sequences are certainly lively and nicely orchestrated with the requisite slow motion shots of vehicular carnage. It’s just that one can’t help but feel we’ve seen this all before and done better.