Friday, September 9, 2011

Someone's Watching Me! (Carpenter 1978)

I think it is forgivable that whenever a TV movie comes up in conversation, the natural expectation is that the film is going to be trash. The TV movie in the early 1990s is synonymous with “cheap cash in on headline making crime,” while the television movie in the twenty-first century is synonymous with "the format where pseudo-stars’ careers go to die on either the Lifetime or Sy Fy Channels." As such, the notion that that a television film could be good, let alone as great as Duel (Spielberg 1971) is likely an alien one to most audiences.

John Carpenter’s single effort on the TV movie front, the 1978 film Someone’s Watching Me!, is not close to being in Duel’s league. It is, however, a darn fine film in its own right, and arguably one of the more thematically complex films in Carpenter’s body of work, despite a rather simple narrative. Leigh Michaels (Laura Hutton) is a woman who has just moved to L.A. looking to make a fresh start, taking a job as a director at a local television station and moving into a modern, high-tech apartment. She quickly finds herself the target of a peeping-tom-come-stalker, who makes repeated phone calls, sends odd gifts, and is seemingly able to mess with the electricity in her apartment. Without a clear, legally defined crime, the police are unable to offer much assistance, which results in Leigh to take the investigation into her own hands, assisted by a friendly co-worker (Carpenter regular Adrienne Barbeau) and new romantic partner (David Birney).

While the setup could have made for a decent, if low-rent thriller, Carpenter elevates the material by using the premise as a metaphor for the struggles of women entering and fighting for space and agency in a male dominated culture, by literally having Leigh fight for dominance over her home space. It is no mistake that the obstacles which Leigh runs into over the course of the film are associated with male figures, and half the fun of the film comes from watching Leigh both refuse and subvert the various roles she is expected to play by these men. Within this context, it is also no surprise that the identity of the stalker is of little value: he is important for what he represents, not who he is.

These feminist themes within the film become all the more relevant given that the film also is meta-commentary on the potentially abusive relationship between directors and their subjects. Within the opening scene of the film, we are shown our peeping tom tormenting another victim over the phone, and Carpenter’s writing and directing are carefully controlled so as to establish a the subtext of stalker-as-director, such as having the character makes “suggestions” as to what his victim should do for his gaze, and focusing his shots on the technology the criminal is using to watch and record his victim’s actions and reactions. The violent form of direction on the part of the stalker is contrasted throughout the film to Leigh’s lighter and more constructive approach, at not only her job, but also in her personal life. Her first encounter with Paul (Birney), for example, involves Leigh directly setting up their meeting, as she gently nudges Paul into the actions she wishes him to take by involving him in the situation rather than trying to dominate his choices of actions.

In terms of film making, Someone’s Watching Me! is overall a success, with Carpenter managing to wring out the most tension he can given the restrictions of the network television format. Originally written as a feature film, one can imagine there is a more extreme version of the film which originally existed on the page, which addressed the seedier elements of the story more directly. While the toning down of the content does not ruin the film, the tension in the film feels muted. Meanwhile, the technical restrictions of a twelve day television shoot do result in the film having a made for television feel about it despite Carpenter's attempts at a more cinematic look, making the film feel “safer” than was likely intended. However, Carpenter’s skill at composing striking frames is on full display, even though the reformatting of the film’s full frame image into a widescreen image for the DVD does tend to make some scenes feel claustrophobic when they should not.

The cast as a whole turn in solid performances, with Hutton being the stand out, making her character authoritative and powerful figure without falling into the trap of playing the character as too hardened. Barbeau is given little to do beyond playing the best friend role, while Birney likewise is left playing the concerned lover. However, the trio has good chemistry together, and it is a shame that Hutton and Birney never went on to appear in another Carpenter film.

Overall, Someone’s Watching Me! is a minor work from Carpenter, but a fun one with a strong cast and sharp writing. While a purchase of the film is a bit much unless you are a big fan of the film, are looking to complete a collection of Carpenter’s work, or have a nostalgic love of 1970s television programing, the film is worth a rental if you having nothing immediately pressing that you have to see. Or have Duel to watch. Because Duel is just plain amazing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Paranoia (Mitchelle 2011)

(NOTE - As a general rule, I don't watch the special features on a DVD prior to a review, and in the interest of producing a review in a timely fashion, I decided to stick to that rule here.)

I have to be honest: when I first saw the trailer for Ryan Mitchelle and Brad Jones’ 2011 DTV film Paranoia, I was a little concerned. From a technical standpoint, the film appeared to be rather impressive for a no-budget, shot on video production, and it appeared to hold the promise of an atmosphere reminiscent of a 1980s indie thriller. However, what little of the narrative was shown in the trailer seemed rather familiar. More importantly, from what was shown, it seemed to indicated the film may have a twist ending. Given this, plotting would be crucial for such an ending to work, and while Jones is a talented screenwriter with a gift for dialogue and character, the plotting of his films has occasionally gotten the best of him.

Thankfully, most of that worrying was for not, as Paranoia is a solid film which promises even greater things from the pairing of Mitchelle and Jones. While not perfect, nor quite the existential thriller that Mitchelle or Jones likely intended, Paranoia is a strong effort that manages to make the most of its limited resources, capturing the mood and of a seemingly unending bad night and the feeling of isolation that comes with it, even if the narrative does not entirely come together as it could have.
As Paranoia begins, Mark Bishop (Jones) is in the midst of coping with a divorce when an intruder enters his home. The encounter between the two ends with the intruder’s death. Unable to contact the police, feeling more than a little paranoid about how the event could be interpreted, and believing that the intruder may be the serial killer that has been attacking local residents, Bishop decides to dispose of the body himself, beginning a night of hell that will include multiple deaths and strange events Bishop cannot explain. Is he merely suffering from paranoia, or is there something else going on?

As I noted, Paranoia is not quite a thriller, and is better described as a horrific character study that flirts with black comedy from time to time. Anchored by yet another fine performance from Jones, the film is at its strongest during the second act, as Bishop travels about town as he attempts to get a grip on his situation. Episodic in nature, these sections of the film allow Jones to flex his acting chops as Bishop gradually falls apart given his insane situation, giving the film a flavour of Martin Scorsese’s 1985 dark comedy After Hours (though the films are entirely different in terms of tone and the levels of madness their respective protagonists must deal with). A particular highlight from this section of the film is a stop over at a restaurant where Bishop has an encounter with a waitress played by Jillian Zurawski. The scene ranges from dramatic to horrific to comic, and gives Zurawski a chance to show how far she has come as an actress from her early performances in Jones prior films and videos.

The film is less successful though when it attempts to address the questions of Bishop’s mental state and the reality of his situation. As expected, the answers to these questions come in the form of a twist, and I admit that I did not guess what the twist is. However, without getting into spoilers, the reason I did not guess the ending of the film is because it really is not possible to do so with the information provided prior to the big reveal. The ending does makes sense, and I understand what Jones and Mitchelle were attempting thematically, but within the context of the overall film, the answers are too literal, and the lack of set up early in the film allows the reveal scene to fall into the trap of being exposition heavy. It doesn’t negate the joys of the film, but the revelation is not the punch in the gut one would hope for.

As an overall production, Mitchelle fully delivers in his duties as director, cinematographer, and editor. While still hampered by a non-existent budget and working with some non-professional actors, he keeps the film focused, effectively developing the tone of the film and ensuring the performances from the less experienced cast are consistent. While still clearly shot on digital video, Mitchelle does manage to achieve a number of shots that have a film like feel, and his editing is solid, though he does tend to use the fade to black option a few too many times.

The hero of the film though is Michael “Skitch” Schiciano, whose musical score captures the feeling of a low key 1980s thriller without sounding like an imitation. Appropriately minimalist and meditative, the score manages to support the film throughout and never feels out of place when used. With any luck, Schiciano will return to participate in future endeavours from Mitchelle and Jones.
For fans of Jones and crew, Paranoia is a must see, one of the stronger shot on video efforts out in the market, and with any luck the film will not be their only effort in the DTV market. The film can be purchased directly from the filmmakers as a region free DVD, though the disc is in the NTSC format, so those using PAL should take note.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Return of the Evil Dead?

So, it seems we are getting another Evil Dead film, roughly twenty years after Bruce Campbell as Ash last battled the deadites. So its time to pull out the boomsticks, gas up the chainsaws, and start to celebrate, right?

Well, I wouldn’t be so fast, because from has been said, we are not getting a fourth entry in the Evil Dead series, but a full on remake, to be independently produced by Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert, and Bruce Campbell. The film is to be directed by Fede Alvarez, and will be, in Campbell’s words, “[s]cary as hell.” The production will apparently based in Michigan, and will begin soon.

Now, allow me to be clear: I wish Fede Alvarez all the luck in the world. If Raimi, Tapert and Campbell believe in this man, I see no reason at this time not too trust them. But I honestly feel like I need to ask this question:

Does anybody honestly want this film?

When I ask that question, I don’t mean “does anyone want Evil Dead 4?” There are plenty of people who want to see that film, enough people that Raimi, Campbell and Tarpert are pestered with questions about it every time they are interviewed. But when that question is asked, I think it is more than fair to say that the person asking the question wants to know if-and-when Raimi is going to direct another entry in the series that stars Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams, the bumbling idiot for a hero whose ongoing torture at the hands of the deadites has resulted in terror and laughter for over three films, several videogames, and numerous comics. I doubt that when the question has been asked of them, the interviewer has wanted to know if a remake was in the works that did not feature Campbell or Raimi in the key creative roles they have filled in the prior films.

The importance of the Raimi/Campbell partnership cannot be over estimated here, because when looking at the original Evil Dead, one thing that is clear is that the narrative of the film is not particularly compelling. The story, in which a group of college kids go out into the woods, inadvertently release demonic forces that proceed to possess and/or kill them one by one is a riff on the Night of the Living Dead, a film that has been drawn from time and again. More importantly, The Evil Dead is not a particularly well written riff either, with many paper thin characters delivering some questionable dialogue. This latter point is not helped by the questionable acting skills on the part of some cast members.

Yet the film works, and is a classic of the genre. Its success is primarily the result of the energetic direction of Raimi, who brings a sense of style and dread to the situation that a lesser director would never have captured, and from presence of star Campbell as Ash. While his performance is somewhat rough, Campbell manages to perfectly capture in the film just how much of an average guy Ash is, and more importantly, how much of a hero the character is not. While hardly the blowhard jackass of the films that would follow, Ash in the original film survives not because he is a hero, or smarter than any of the other characters, but through sheer dumb luck of being the most fun character to screw around with. It is Raimi's increasingly Loony Toons approach to torturing this character time and again that engaged audiences over three films, as he places Ash into increasingly horrific siutations, while at the same time encouraging audiences to feel less and less sympathy for the character.

So, without those two key elements, then what will make this impending Evil Dead remake a film of interest? There is no question that as a remake, it will have audiences curious to see it, but it is an audience whose reasons stem from their history with the prior films, who will come in with high expectations. Meeting those expectations will be uphill battle given the absence of the two people who made The Evil Dead, well, The Evil Dead. For some, this will be the breaking point for their acceptance of the film, regardless of whether or not the film turns out to be any good.

What makes the choice of the remake all the more baffling is that the people pushing this remake through are the very people behind the original film. This is not a remake we blame a greedy studio for, as the project appears to be the result of the cumulative efforts of Raimi, Campbell and Tapert This begs a simple question: just what does the trio hope to accomplish with this film? When George A. Romero wrote and produced a remake of The Night of the Living Dead in 1990, the reason was simple, if a little crass: to make back the money lost over the years due the copyright misunderstanding that put the original film in the public domain upon its original release. Raimi, Tapert and Campbell all appear to have maintained control over the rights to the series, though that does not rule out the financial motive altogether. Still, were that the case, selling off the rights to the studios who have been more than happy to remake everything under the sun would likely have been an easier way to make a buck rather than going the independent road.

Another hypothetical reason for the remake could be that with the trio being busy with other projects over the past decade, and/or they have all decided to move past Ash and the deadites, with hopes of ending the endless questions over further adventures of Ash through remaking the original film. Were this to be the case, it is a strategy that has ample amount of room to backfire, and worse, potentially tarnish the legacy of the original trilogy in the process. Again, a much simpler option would be to flat out tell fans that there will never be another Evil Dead film, because if the trio are tired of being asked about the series now, it will be nothing compared to wrathful complaints should the remake be rejected and hated.

As it stands, the remake seems to becoming regardless of whether or not anyone wants it. I hope for their own sakes, Raimi, Tapert and Campbell know what they are doing. More importantly, I hope Fede Alvarez knows what he is getting himself into. While Raimi and company might tarnish their past successes, a film that is anything less than great could kill Alvarez’s career before it even gets a chance to get going. Because if the film were to disappoint, even just slightly, he will likely be stuck with the unofficial title of being that guy who ruined the Evil Dead films, whether it is fair or not.

So good luck to the filmmakers of The New Evil Dead. You will need it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

RIP Peter Falk (1927-2011)

Once again, another great has left us. And frankly, you cannot get much greater than Peter Falk, one of the most wonderful actors to have ever walked the planet. It almost goes without saying that his most famous role was that of Columbo, the iconic television detective who made regular appearances on television for over three decades in a series of TV movies. For that character alone, Falk would be missed, but his work outside of Columbo is no less memorable: The In-Laws, A Woman Under the Influence, The Princess Bride, and, in a personal favourite, Wings of Desire, where Falk plays himself and we discover that he is a former angle on Earth. How many other actors get to claim that?

Falks passed away at the age of 83. May he rest in peace, God be with his family, and his fans remember his work.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Green Lantern (Campbell 2011)

The thing about origin stories is that they are only as compelling as their protagonist(s). Take X-Men - First Class (Vaughn 2011) from a few weeks ago: the film is filled with compelling characters, with flaws and passions that drive them in a time of social and political change. It is great stuff, and embraces its comic book mythology without letting it dominate the characters of the story.

Unfortunately for the Green Lantern comics, its protagonist is Hal Jordan, one of the blandest superheroes around. Devoid of depth and personality, Hal Jordan’s story is one of how a cocky hotshot pilot goes from being something of an insecure ass to having absolutely no personality at all. The comics supporting cast includes a love interest whose personality consists of being angry at almost all times, and a friend who was little more than a racisit stereotype in the earliest comics. Hal also happens to belong to a large intergalactic organization that polices the cosmos, filled with interesting characters that can thankfully be read in a title that does not feature Hal Jordon.

Sadly, film audiences are stuck with Jordan and his uninteresting supporting cast for the running length of Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (2011), a film in which the worst elements of the source material get to come out to play, which include, but are not limited to: endless speeches about will power; endless speeches about fear; Hal sitting around feeling sorry for himself; people standing around telling us that Hal can be/is a great Green Lantern; Hal failing to actually do anything to convince us he is all that impressive; interesting characters pushed to the margins so time can be wasted on Hal and his uninteresting love life; characters standing around talking about how great the Green Lantern Corps are; the Green Lantern Corps failing to be impressive; and so on.

Ok, as you have likely guessed, I am not all that taken with either the comic book version of Hal Jordan, nor the film adapted from the comics. While I in no way hate the Green Lantern concept and universe, I have always felt that mythology of the Green Lantern universe was interesting in spite of its lead character. The idea of an intergalactic police force with rings that can create whatever the user wills is a fantastic concept, and when Hal Jordan disappears into the background, as he has in the past, the comics have been all the better for it. However, for some reason that continues to escape me to this day, the hardcore fans of Green Lantern are taken with Jordan, and since 2003 there has been an all out attempt restore Jordan as not only the main protagonist of the title, but also to hard sell readers on how great of a character he is.

The Green Lantern film is, in some ways, the culmination of those efforts. A $200 million plus dollar effort to launch the Green Lantern as a film franchise, and quite possibly launch the whole of the DC universe on film, the film is tasked with both introducing Hal Jordan and introducing the larger mythology of the Green Lantern Corps to a broad audience. In theory, these two tasks should have complimented one another perfectly, with Hal’s journey into becoming a full blown member of Corps providing plenty of opportunity to show off the Corps and explore the larger mythology. For some baffling reason however, the filmmakers behind Green Lantern did not see this as the case, as the Corps and overall mythology is put to the side to allow plenty of time to focus on Hal and his uninteresting adventures on Earth.

The film starts off well enough, as we witness the release of the film's supposed villain, Parallax, a entity that feeds on fear. Parallax quickly attacks and mortally wounds Abin Sur, the Green Lantern whose sector happens to include Earth, the planet he escapes to. Upon crashing to Earth, Sur has his ring seek out a new recruit to replace him, and it selects Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a test pilot whose cocky ego has jeopardized the employment of hundreds of employees at Ferris Aircrafts. Handed the ring and the power battery to charge it with, Hal is quickly taken to Oa, home of the Lantern Corps and the Guardians, the ancient race of aliens who created the Corps, in order to receive training in how to operate the ring..

Till this point in the film, almost everything works. The opening scenes are energetic and set a sense of the scale we can assume the rest of the film will involve, and while Jordan as a character is still little more than a cookie cutter hero, Reynolds does manage to bring a bit of charm to the role. However, once on Oa, the film goes south quick: the film barrels through these scenes, as if the filmmakers were not interested in the Corps at all, or embarrassed by them. More likely, the visual effects required to pull of Oa and the other Corps members was far too expensive to include for extended periods of time, even with a $200 million dollar budget. Given how quick these scenes flyby, Hal’s “training” comes across as being little more than an afternoon workshop, one followed by Hal giving up and returning to Earth after a one scene encounter/smack down with Sinestro (Mark Strong). This quick lapse into self defeat on Jordan’s part does nothing to endear him to the audience, and one wishes that when Hal bolts, the rest of the film would be spent following Sinestro actually trying to deal with the crisis at hand. Sadly, this does not happen.

The film pretty much falls apart from this point on, as a pointless secondary plot involving a scientist (Peter Sarsgaard) becoming infected by Parallax is introduced in order that Hal has a traditional Earth based villain to face, and endless time is spent with Hal and his angst about whether to quit the Corps or not. Reynolds tries his best to make these scenes work, but his charm only goes so far in covering up how uninteresting Jordan and his situation is. This problem is only made worse through the inclusion of rather predictable scenes that drag the pace of the down, including the typical “superhero public debut” moment, and a clumsy scene where Hal admits to a personal flaw the audience figured out sixty minutes earlier in the film.

Even though we are stuck with Jordan for the rest of the film, the failure to establish the Corps as a group of impressive heroes earlier in the film has major ramifications in the second and third acts, particularly with regards to Parallax. In every scene with the Corps, all we ever is them doing is standing about listening to Sinestro give speeches, or receiving a beat down from Parallax. Since we never see the Corps as an effective peace keeping force, Parallax easily defeating various Green Lanterns has no impact as far as establishing him as a credible threat. (SPOILER) In turn, Hal’s inevitable defeat of Parallax has no impact because the Corps earlier in the film are built up as straw men to make Hal look good. It all comes across as lazy and false, and does nothing to sell a larger audience on the Corps as being an interesting group of characters worth following. (END SPOILERS).

So far, I have primarily slammed the film in terms of overall narrative, but that is because the failures in these areas make some other aspects of the film harder to evaluate. For example, many critics have slammed Blake Lively’s performance as Carol Ferris, but I am not sure that such criticism is deserved when the actress is given nothing to work with on page. Likewise, the visual effects work is fantastic, but its impact is limited given how hollow the rest of the film is. Campbell's work as director here seems unsure and unfocused; more often than not, he seems to be mimicking prior superhero films rather than bringing his own sense of style to the film.

At the end of the day, Green Lantern is a mediocre film, but one that is faithful to its source material. It simply fails to make the the core mythology of the comics interesting, and has likely killed any possible film franchise for the character. Should a second film ever go into production, hopefully Warner Brothers will learn from their mistakes and perform a soft reboot of the films, with one of the other Green Lanterns at center stage in a tale that ditches the typical tropes of the superhero films.

But I am not holding my breath.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (Berkley, Montgomery, and Oliva 2011)

Here are some potential alternate titles for Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, the latest in the series of DC DTV films:

“Green Lantern: Gee, Ain’t the Corps Great?”
“Green Lantern: Where Token Violence and Cursing Counts as Mature Storytelling”
“Green Lantern: Speeches! Glorious, Glorious Speeches!”

And so on, and so forth.

Yes, I have watched Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, and once again, I find myself playing the bad guy to the DC DTV films, a role I do no cherish, and one that I am frankly getting sick and tired of playing. At this point, I think it is a perquisite that all viewers of these films go in with incredibly low expectations, because that is about the only way to get through the mediocrity that has been primarily produced thus far.

Like the earlier Batman: Gotham Knight, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is an anthology film consisting of five tales, told by Hal Jordan (Nathan Fillion) to new recruit Arisia (Elisabeth Moss) in a wrap around story that involves the Green Lantern Corps facing a catastrophic threat, etc, etc. The stories include the tale of the first ever Green Lantern, one involving drill instructor Kilowog’s (Henry Rollins) own boot camp experience, Laira’s (Kelly Hu) first, and most personal, mission, the classic story of why Mogo does not socialize, and a tale about Hal Jordan’s predecessor, Abin Sur (Arnold Vosloo). Along the way, Arisia learns what it means to be a Green Lantern, hints about how to defeat the “catastrophic” threat to the universe are dropped, and numerous nods to comic lore are are made.

To be honest, this review is coming across as much angrier than the film really deserves, seeing as how it is not a terrible film. Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is a competent piece of filmmaking, well animated, directed, and acted, with a typically bland score that has come to mark these DTV efforts nearly every time out. But being a competent piece of work does not make the film any less mediocre, or make the viewing experience any less dull. At least if the film were terrible, it might have been memorable, which is more than can be said of the end result here.

As you might have guessed from my mock alternate titles, the film suffers from several major problems. First, the film is little more than characters standing around telling tales about how awesome the organization they are part of is, while didactically shoving down the audiences’ collective throat what it "means" to be a Green Lantern. And I do mean shoved, because the filmmakers, worried that you might have missed the moral/point of the story, make sure that somebody at some point gets to make a speech that will make everything all clear. Missed that willpower is the key to being a Green Lantern? Do not worry, Hal’s there to spell it out for you. Confused as to the reason Kilowog and his instructor Deegan are both hard asses? Deegan will make is all crystal clear, using his dying breath, no less. As someone who firmly believes in trusting the audience to piece things together for themselves, this storytelling tactic drives me up the wall, and is rather insulting given how simple these stories are.

In fact, the simplicity of the stories and the writing once again brings into question just who the hell these films are made for. Given the nature of the tales presented, it would appear that Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is aimed at a younger set of viewers, which would be fine. However, as I have noted time and again, the DC DTV films were sold on being aimed at an older fan base, featuring stories that were more mature than what could be done within the restrictions of films ostensibly aimed at a youth audience. Unfortunately, “mature” has proven time and again to be little more than a code word for gratuitous violence and cursing in the films, rather than in reference to mature storytelling, and this problem once again appears in Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, most notably with the inclusion of a rather grisly opening death scene.

While these problems plague the film overall, the two stories that have the most potential to be interesting suffer from additional problems. First, there is the adaptation of the Alan Moore penned story “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize,” a brilliant tale from the comics that is butchered in the translation to animation, thanks to a few, but key, creative choices. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) The original story is set up like a joke, involving a rather dim alien warrior in search of a fight with the famed Green Lantern Mogo. Landing on an alien world, the warrior spends years searching the seemingly empty world for sign of the Lantern, only to start mapping out the planet in hopes of finding some sort of clue he has missed. Once he completes his maps however, he discovers that the clearings of the planet form the Green Lantern crest, a discovery which makes him realize that Mogo is a living planet, one which he promptly flees.

While the structure of the story remains the same in the film, the filmmakers let the audience in way to early on the joke, spoiling the entire gag. Worse, in an attempt to liven the story up and make it a little more “cinematic” with grandiose explosions and visuals, the filmmakers take away from the story, whose joys were based on its simplicity and willingness to embrace the potential absurdity of just how varied the Corps membership can be. It is as if the filmmakers were afraid that the viewers would turn the film off if one of the stories happened to be a quieter piece of work, and it is a shame, as it ruins the entire mood of the original comic. (END SPOILERS).

On the plus side, at least “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” is an actual story, which is more than can be said for the final segment focusing on Abin Sur, which is little more than a cliché discussion on the topic of prophecy and fate that ultimately goes nowhere and contributes nothing to the final film. The whole piece rests on the viewers knowing just who Abin Sur and Sinestro are, rather than actually establishing what their relationship is, and as such, it holds no dramatic weight at all. This is all the more frustrating as the segment flirts with story ideas featured in another Alan Moore story, “Tygers” a bleak, nihilistic, and full-bodied tale about fear that, had it been adapted, would have made for a segment that actually embraces the supposed “mission statement” of the DC DTV films discussed earlier.

“Tygers,” (along with “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize”) are republished in Green Lantern: In Brightest Day, a trade paperback collecting Green Lantern stories from over four decades, and I highly recommend the book, particularly over a purchase or rental of Green Lantern: Emerald Knights. While hardly the worst of the DC DTV films, it is easily the most bland, which in a series of films that also includes Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, is saying something. With any luck, Green Lantern fans will get a much more satisfying film this Friday with the release of Martin Campbell’s live action film. Or maybe that film will be a spectacular failure.

Either way, it is bound to be more interesting than Green Lantern: Emerald Knights.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


This just became one of my most anticipated films of the year:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Moonraker (Gilbert 1979)

It is safe to say that the Broccoli family, co-owners and powers in charge of the James Bond franchise, have made some rather major missteps with their main cash cow over the years. These mistakes tend to involve the Bond films getting away from their roots as spy thrillers/action films, usually to the point where course corrective films which strip down the spectacle, villainous plots, and humour to reasonable levels are required. It is no mistake that the 2006 re-launch of the series, Casino Royale, followed the over-the-top insanity of Die Another Day (2002), or that the brilliant On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) followed the fun-but-goofy You Only Live Twice (1967). A camp, larger than life fantasy Bond is simply not sustainable.

However, no film in the series illustrates just how wrong a Bond film can go more than Moonraker (Gilbert 1979), a film that blatantly tried to cash in on the surprise success of the 1977 film Star Wars (Lucas). The film follows Bond (Roger Moore in his fourth outing) as he attempts to stop madman Drax (Michael Lonsdale) from destroying all life on Earth. Drax’s goal is to eventually repopulate the planet with select human specimens, who are being safely kept in a hidden space station. Thus, after globe trotting around the world as usual for two thirds of the film, Bond heads into space, along with American CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) to stop Drax and his mad plan.

If the idea of Bond in space sounds like a bad idea, it is. While Ian Fleming’s famous creation has always been a fantasy, it is a fantasy set within a heightened reality, a sexed-up world of international espionage and assassination. A Bond film that responded to mankind’s move into the stars during or immediately after the initial space race could have been made into a workable film, as long as the filmmakers understood that it was the geopolitical ramifications of going into space that would drive the story. Unfortunately, the new frontier of outer space in Moonraker serves as little more than a back drop for spectacle: American soldiers are shown battling Drax’s men with lasers in outer space itself, while Bond and Goodhead's journey to Drax's space station is reminiscent of the notoriously overlong reintroduction of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

The irony, however, is that in terms of visual spectacle and inventiveness, the space material is the best in the film. Director Lewis Gilbert, the special effects crew, and director of photography Jean Tournier clearly went the extra mile to make sure that these sequences were magnificent, and they are more than a match for the visuals featured in George Lucas’ space opera. The space based shoot out between Drax’s men and the US astronauts/military is simply spectacular, while the model work on both the space station and space ships is top of the line. However, as great as this material is, its inclusion in a Bond film is jarring, undercutting the impact that the spectacle would otherwise have. It would have simply been better had producer Albert Broccoli created his own space set film to capture the audience's desire for space adventures, rather than turn the Bond franchise into something it is not.

The side effect of all the effort seemingly being spent on the space material in the film is that the more typically Bond-ian elements are rather bland and uninspired. Everything leading up to the third act is pretty much by the book, with little in the way of inventive variation. The scenery looks beautiful, and the stunt work is professional, but none of it has any of the punch that it should have. The only sequence which stands out is one set during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, but its presence only serves to highlight how pedestrian the rest of the film is before it goes off the rails as an electric light show.

None of this is helped by star Moore, who by this point simply does not look like he gives a damn. More than any other of his Bond films, Moore seems to be playing the role for laughs, undermining even the minimal tension generated in the film. Worse, unlike Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, or Pierce Brosnan, Moore simply aged poorly, making it hard to continue buying him as a believable as 007. Naturally, Moore carried on playing Bond in a further three films after Moonraker.

There are one or two saving graces in the film, thankfully. While Lois Chiles is saddled with the worst name for a Bond girl prior to Denise Richards' Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough (1999), she manages to bring a level of class missing from most of the rest of the film in her role as Holly Goodhead. Desmond Llewelyn and Bernard Lee are as reliable as ever as Q and M respectively, while Lonsdale does make for a rather creepy villain. The same cannot be said of Richard Kiel's Jaws, who shows up to drag the threat level of the villains down a few levels, just as he did in the immediate predecessor to Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

The real saving grace of the film is the music of composer John Barry, who in Moonraker provides one of his best scores of the entire series. Entire scenes are carried by Barry's music alone, and once Bond and Goodhead launch into space, the score has a haunting beauty that is reminiscent to Barry's work in The Black Hole, also released in 1979.

Thankfully, Barry's score is available on disc apart from the film itself, allowing viewers to skip Moonraker all together. Hard core Bond fans will no doubt already have seen the film, or if not, will subject themselves to it regardless of any negative reaction to the film, including this review. For casual fans, pick up the score on itunes, crank it up, and read Fleming's original novel upon which Moonraker is barely based. It is a better use of your time, and will be a far more enjoyable experience.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Arthur 2: On the Rocks (Yorkin 1988)

Time for another confession: I watched Arthur 2: On the Rocks (Yorkin 1988) years before I saw the original Arthur (Gordon 1981).

Of course, there is a good reason for that: Arthur 2 On the Rocks used to play fairly frequently as the afternoon film on weekends, along with I Come in Peace, aka Dark Angel (Baxley 1990) and the Nightmare On Elm Street sequels for reason. Thus, used to I watch it when there was nothing else on when I was a teenager. The film had a few laughs, but it was nothing great, and I certainly was not motivated to see the original film based on the sequel. More importantly, I did not hate it as so many other people did.

Watching the film now in light of my love for the original Arthur however, as well after years of maturing as a film fan, and the level of hatred directed towards Arthur 2: On the Rocks is now understandable to me. The film is a mess of bad ideas, shoddy screenwriting, and sheer desperation on the part of star and producer Dudley Moore, who clearly was trying recapture his past success after the critical and financial failures of the films he did immediately preceding Arthur 2: On the Rocks.

The film is, however, fascinatingly bad. It is the product of a rather talented group of filmmakers, with Bud Yorkin, the filmmaker behind the criminally underrated Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), directing and Andy Breckman, creator of the television series Monk on writing duties. Most of the original cast is back, including John Gielgud, whose character Hobson (SPOILER) died in the original film (More on that later). Over their respective careers, these two have produced or worked on a number of screen gems, but with Arthur 2: On the Rocks, the best that they can do is produce a few chuckles and insult the intelligence of the audience.

Set seven years after the events original film, Arthur 2: On the Rocks finds Arthur (Moore) and Linda (Liza Minnelli) happily married, with Arthur still drinking and doing nothing with his life. Linda wants to have a child, but when she discovers that she cannot biologically have one, she convinces Arthur to go along with adopting a baby. However, just as the pair are getting ready to adopt, the Bach family business merges with the empire of Burt Johnson (Stephen Elliot), whose daughter Arthur left at the alter at the end of the previous film. Still angry at Arthur, Johnson forces Arthur’s family to cut him off from the fortune until he agrees to divorce Linda and marry his daughter Susan (Cynthia Sykes), who still desperately wants Arthur. Refusing, Arthur and Linda are forced into a working class existence, which Arthur struggles to cope with as he finds himself trying to take responsibility for once in his life.

While any sequel to Arthur would have been unnecessary, the idea of Arthur giving up the booze to try and be a responsible father actually could have made for a half decent film, giving Arthur a real reason to confront the reality of his life, if we had no choice but to see him try and overcome his alcoholism. A less interesting, but still a reasonable basis for a sequel would have been to watch Arthur straighten his life out and become a functioning member of the working class after the loss of his fortune. Together, these ideas might have even complimented each other. So the question simply is this: why do none of these ideas work in the finished film?

The answer lays with the idiotic and highly artificial Johnson revenge storyline that dominates the film. The original Arthur was a villain-less piece, with Arthur caught in a tough situation that forces him to make one simple choice in his life. By contrast, this sequel gives Arthur a threat he must overcome, and in the process it undermines the fact that the real problem facing Arthur is how he chooses to live his life. When Arthur gets a job, and then is promptly fired, it is not because his drinking makes him incapable of holding a job, but because Burt Johnson buys the store and demands Arthur be fired. When Arthur and Linda cannot stay at her father’s place, it is because the "new owner" wants them out of the apartment. This transformation of the Johnsons into outright villains does a disservice to the character of Arthur by giving him an easy scapegoat for his problems. Moreover, it reduces the Johnsons to cartoons instead of real human beings in a real world.

Not that anything outside the Johnson plotline closely resembles the real either. While the adoption storyline has potential, the adoption process as presented in the film bares no resemblance to how adoptions actually work, with Kathy Bates adoption agency representative acting as an oblivious fairy godmother figure to Arthur and Linda. Bate's character ignores several problems she discovers over the course of the film relating to Arthur and Linda, problems that would make most adoption agencies take a good hard look at these pontential parents. These problems include, but are not limited to: Arthur’s alcoholism (she merely takes him at his word that he is trying to improve); the fact that Arthur and Linda have lost everything; and that the apartment Arthur and Linda have moved into is a microscopic dump (which, by the way, Bate's character shows up at mere MINUTES after Arthur and Linda agree to rent it). Even more baffling is that the adoption agent endless claims that love is one all one really seems to need to raise a child, which, as any reasonable parent will note, is a statement completely ignorant of reality. The whole subplot comes across as an underdeveloped idea, and should have been exercised from the script entirely, or made the center piece of the film.

The biggest misstep with the film however is the manner in which Arthur’s drinking problem is finally addressed. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD). In the final third of the film, Arthur is actually visited by the ghost of Hobson (Gielgud), I kid you not, who acts as a Clarence-like figure to Arthur’s George Bailey, without the whole alternate timeline shtick. Here, Hobson tells Arthur he finally needs to get his act together and give up drinking, and Arthur does. Right there. No questions asked.

Just like that.

The many problems with the film I have already mentioned could be overlooked, but this no effort approach for addressing Arthur’s alcoholism, one of the key defining traits of the character, is not one of them. While having Arthur give up the bottle was a mistake in the 2011 remake of Arthur, that film at least made some attempt to show that Arthur giving up alcohol was not an easy task. Not much of an attempt mind you, but more of an attempt that “ghost tells Arthur to stop drinking, and he does.” Arthur’s battle with the bottle, while still not a good idea, at least would have provided a solid comedic and dramatic backbone for the film, and too see it tossed away frivolously here illustrates just how ill-conceived this whole venture is.

The shame of it all is that there are elements of the film I genuinely enjoy. While the film was clearly born out of Moore's need for a box office hit, he and Liza Minnelli are charming in the film, rising above the material they are working with. At points, the film does manage to get a few laughs, including a priceless scene in which Arthur is told to “just marry the bitch.” And during the all too brief time spent on Arthur looking for a job, the film manages to find a pulse that the rest of the film lacks. Fortunately or unfortunately, the filmmakers manage to sully even these good moments with an ending so schmaltzy that it makes the works of Frank Capra seem downright cynical.

Perhaps the final, lasting achievement of Arthur 2: On the Rocks is that it set the bar so low, there was nowhere for the 2011 remake to go but up. Sadly, for fans of the original film, this is likely not much of a consolation. Arthur 2: On the Rocks is now available on Blu-Ray in a double feature set with the original film, which means if you want the original Arthur, you are stuck with this sequel as well. It is best to think of Arthur 2: On the Rocks as an unwanted special feature, but if you are a die hard fan, chances are you will check it out anyway. For everyone else, stay away.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Calling Dr. Death (LeBorg 1943)

For the record, I never had any intention of turning reviews of Lon Chaney Jr./Universal Studio films into an ongoing series, much like I have never really had any specific plans for this site overall. But here I am again, this time looking at the film Calling Dr. Death (LeBorg 1943), and much like Man Made Monster (1941), Calling Dr. Death is not a particularly great film.

That said, the film is a significant departure from the Chaney Jr./Universal films previously reviewed on the site, with Calling Dr. Death being a mystery rather than a horror film. The film is based on the radio series Inner Sanctum Mysteries which ran from 1941-1952, featuring stories of murder, horror and suspense. Coincidentally enough, I listened to an episode of the series a month or two ago, and the program certainly has its charms, with a spooky-but-campy atmosphere, and some fun host banter to bookend the episode. Unfortunately, none of those charms are on display in Calling Dr. Death. The film is a straightforward mystery, directed by Reginald LeBorg in a perfunctory manner from a screenplay by Edward Dein.

The film concerns psychologist Dr. Mark Steel (Chaney Jr.), a man trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who is openly having affairs with other men while refusing Steel a divorce. Steel’s frustrations are only exacerbated by the romantic feelings shared between him and his nurse Stella (Patricia Morison), who is seemingly his only confidant. One weekend, Mark discovers his wife has taken off, and he heads out to find her. When he wakes up in his office Monday morning, he discovers that he has no memory of the weekend, and that his wife has been brutally murdered. While his wife’s lover is the prime suspect, Mark is convinced of the man’s innocence, because Steel is convinced that he himself is the murderer. With no evidence however, Steel sets about trying to solve the crime and save the man, even if it means revealing himself as the killer in the process.

There is nothing about Calling Dr. Death that is particularly interesting, including its failings, which are little more than the typical problems with most murder mysteries, from an easily deduced killer, to giant plot holes and lapses in logic. If the film has a problem that is particular to itself, it is the use of voice over to convey the “voices” in Mark’s head. Along with being overused, the voice over never successfully conveys the idea that Mark is suffering from any form of psychosis, as the bulk of it is little more than Mark moaning on about how pathetic he is. He may be slightly depressed, but there is never any indication from the voice over that Mark is truly suffering from any serious mental issues.

If there is anything fascinating in the film at all, it is mainly the work of star Lon Chaney Jr., who continues to astound me as I work my way through his films for having a star image that is completely defined by weakness. In every film I have watched Chaney Jr. in thus far, the characters he has played have been essentially powerless men, unable to take action and constantly at the mercy of others. As Mark Steel, we see Chaney Jr. playing the weakest character I have seen him take on yet, accomplishing little and being attacked from all sides. Unfortunately, this does not make for a particularly fascinating character, and since there is no doubt from the beginning as to whether or not Mark is or is not guilty, it is impossible to care about anything that happens over the course of the film.

Calling Dr. Death is only available as part of the “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” DVD collection from Universal, the remaining films of which I have yet to review. On its own, I cannot recommend the film as a worthwhile dip into the Universal catalogue, and as a start to the series, Calling Dr. Death does not hold out much promise for the rest of the films to come. Still, with five more films to go, we shall see if the “Inner Sanctum Mysteries” film series improves, and has any cinematic value as a whole.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Arthur (Winer 2011)

Coming away from the 2011 remake of the 1981 comedy classic Arthur, it has become clear to me that in Russell Brand, the filmmakers had the right star in which to accomplish this remake. The problem is that Arthur 2011 has been made at absolutely the wrong cultural moment.

The original Arthur from Steve Gordon is the story of wealthy drunk Arthur Bach who has to make a choice between maintaining his wealth by marrying a woman he does not love, or ending up in poverty by being with the woman he does love. While the overall narrative draws upon the long tradition of romantic fantasy, the strength of the film is the way in which the romantic desires of the characters are pitted against the harsh realities of their situations: Arthur (Dudley Moore) is an alcoholic pretty much lacking anything in the way of agency in his life; Linda (Liza Minnelli) is sweet and loving, but also rather naïve; Hobson (John Gielgud) is a man capable of love but also is far too entrenched in a sense of how class relations are supposed to work. The comedy, romance and drama all stem from the tension between the reality of the characters and the fantasy they desire. In turn, the audience is caught up in their own awareness of the reality of the situation and their own desire to see a fantasy play out.

In 2011 however, at least within the pandering Hollywood system, allowing the audience to merely observe the given characters of a film and make up their own mind about them is a rarity, particularly in a culture where parent groups want every film that features a cigarette to get an R rating, and every drunk be a villain. All characters must be clearly defined and morally judged, and the only way an alcoholic is allowed to be likeable is if he is gives up the bottle by the end of the film. As such, the only way Arthur (Winer 2011) is allowed to have its title character be an alcoholic for the bulk of the film is by fully embracing fantasy and do away with any sense of reality, thus safely marking a likable alcoholic as being as much a fantasy as the rest of the film.

The film boldly announces its complete shift away from reality in its opening scenes, as we witness Arthur (Russell Brand) getting decked out in a real Batman costume from 1995’s Batman Forever, loading the utility belt up with alcohol, and ending up in a police chase involving a fully functioning Batmobile. It is a fairly funny sequence, one of many in fact, but it only goes to show how much the filmmakers missed the point of the original film, or more likely how much fear over offending the potential audience guided the filmmaking process.

The flaws of the characters that were so central to the original have been greatly toned down or removed in this version of the story: Naomi (Greta Gerwig in the role equivalent to that of Linda in the original), is an idealized woman and overt role model; Hobson, played by Helen Mirren here, is less of a class snob and takes a more active role in defending Arthur as his fairy godmother with attitude; Susan, the sweet. Innocent, and minor character who just so happens to be the woman Arthur is being forced to marry in the original has been transformed into a vicious villainess played by Jennifer Garner. None of the performances given by the actors here are bad, and Helen Mirren manages to get some of the best laughs in the film with her take on Hobson. The problem is that rather than being given fully fleshed out characters, they have been given simplistic roles in a standard narrative.

The one actor to get something to play with real substance is Brand in the title role, and while the character arc Arthur undergoes is flawed, Brand’s actual performance does Dudley Moore justice while not being an imitation of Moore’s work. Brand manages to project the same level of sweet innocence that Moore did, but brings a higher level of confidence to the character that would have been out of place with Moore’s portrayal. Again, the writing never really gives Brand’s Arthur a moment to really risk alienating the audience quite Moore’s version, such as the infamous reaction to the tragic history of the prostitute he picks up at the start of the film, but there is no real reason to doubt that Brand could have pulled it off.

Of course, the lack of such a moment pretty much sums up the problems with this Arthur: it completely avoids taking risks like the original did, and that is a terrible shame. Brand is the right actor to take on this role, and he has everything it takes to be a leading man in a comedy, and potentially even drama. However, he needs the right material and direction to be able to really make that leap, and he is given neither in Arthur, unlike Dudley Moore who was at a similar turning point in his career when he stared in the original film. With any luck, Brand will not have to wait too long for that film to come.

On the plus side, Brand can at least rest well in the knowledge that his Arthur is a film better than Arthur 2: On the Rocks! (Yorkin 1988). As for the you the reader, make of that what you will.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

OK: Where Have I Been? And What Is Coming Up?

Ok, for the past little while, I have had multiple projects on my plate, and FINALLY after this upcoming weekend I will be able to spend time working on reviews for the site again! So starting next week, start expecting regular updates again.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

RIP Michael Gough (1917-2011)

Well, this is another tough one: Michael Gough has passed away at the age of 94.

While Gough had a long, long career, for the generation I was a part of, the man will always be known as the definitive Alfred Pennyworth from the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher's series of Batman film. While the latter two films in the series were far from stellar, Gough was always the highlight in the films, bringing a sense of class and respect that they did not always deserve. Gough also reprised the role in a 1989 BBC radio play, and a radio adaptation of the famed Knightfall storyline as well.

As I said though, Gough had a long and amazing career, ranging from Hammer's The Horror of Dracula, to appearances on the original series of Doctor Who in two separate roles. Notable highlights include the Julius Ceaser (1970), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and The Age of Innocence (1990).

God be with his family, and may he rest in peace.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Great Scenes and Sequences in Cinema - Twilight Zone: The Movie (Dante, Landis, Miller, and Spielberg 1983)

Hello everyone, and welcome to a new segment here at The Experience Cinematic, Great Scenes and Sequences in Cinema. Here, I will take selected scenes from overall films that I find are worthy of discussion and do just that. And to kick things off, the scene being discussed today is the opening of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

When I was a kid, about the age of five, one of the things I tended to do when I couldn’t sleep was to get up and try and convince my parents to let me watch what they were watching. Usually, I failed. However, one Saturday (I think it was a Saturday), I pushed my luck and won; I was going to be allowed to stay up and watch what my parents were going to watch. In this case, it was to be a late night airing of a film, one which was preceded by an interesting, if slightly creepy, advertisement. I wasn’t going to leave though, as I was curled up beside my mother and ready for anything this film called Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) could toss at me.

Four minutes later Dan Aykroyd turned into a monster, killed Albert Brooks, and I tore down the hallway to my bed as fast as possible. If it needs to be said, I didn’t sleep well that night.

However, that opening scene always stuck with me, and when the opportunity to tape the film off of “Space: The Imagination Station” came in the late 1990s, I took it and watched the film with glee several times. The film was one I eagerly anticipated on disc, and when it finally hit DVD, it was a day of release purchase, no questions asked. Sure, the film is flawed, and the production of the film is one of the most notorious in cinema history due to the horrific deaths of Vic Morrow and two children in a helicopter stunt gone wrong, but I love the film just the same.

The best element of the film though is that opening scene with Aykroyd and Brooks, a scene so strong that it almost sabotages the rest of the film. The scene is a perfectly executed jump scare, one of best ever put to film, but the scene has a much greater function than merely scaring the hell out of the audience. While Twilight Zone: The Movie is update or remake of the original show, the film is also a love letter to what Rod Serling created, examining the show’s place in American popular culture. It is a reminder about how the series examined the society it was part of, highlighting said society’s best and most negative attributes through Serling and crew’s imaginations. The opening scene of the film is a tightly constructed piece of meta fiction that directly comments on the series intent and power, while acting out itself a moral/political drama that would not have been out of place in the original series.

The scene (and the film overall) begins with the folk song “Midnight Special” performed here by Creedence Clearwater Revival, playing over shots of a highway at night in the middle of nowhere. Already the themes of the film are being set, with the song recalling America’s cultural past while the images remind us of the increasingly interconnected nature of America in the late 1970s/1980s. Said images finally give way to the image of a car wheel barrelling down the road to…somewhere, and finally to the two nameless occupants, singing along to CCR, engaged in their culture. Presumably, from the images we see, these two are friends. After all, why else would two men be driving in the middle of nowhere together, just singing along?

Soon, an all too familiar event for those who had cassette players happens: the tape is eaten, and the duo are left to talk to one another. Or not, as the case turns out to be, as the driver (Brooks) states that they already have talked to one another. The writing at this point is clever and subtle, as the nature of the relationship of the two is complicated when the passenger (Aykroyd) notes that he knows where the driver is from, but not the other way around, a point ignored by the driver. The driver instead begins to joke about by turning the lights on his vehicle off as he races down the road, much to the discomfort of the passenger who calls the practice unsafe, another point ignored by the driver as he kids about running over pedestrians.

As simple as the scene thus far is, some rather complex material is happening just below the surface. What we have is a tale of two men of seemingly similar backgrounds (a point only to be enhanced in the events to follow) but with two vastly different world views. The nameless driver is seemingly empowered in all ways - it is his car, he is driving, he decides how the conversation is going to go - and he treats this power as a joke. He could very well kill someone, but his self confidence is unshakeable as he heads into the darkness without direction. The passenger, quite possibly a hitchhiker, lives up to his position as being passive, out of control of what is going on. He is also more thoughtful and concerned about the driver’s behaviour.

The moment of dangerous driving gives way to the pair bantering back and forth about TV theme music, a topic suggested by the driver, until the conversation reaches its ultimate point, The Twilight Zone. The conversation from this point on turns into a complete geek fest, with the driver mixing up a Zone episode for an Outer Limits episode and claiming that he bought an additional pair of glasses after viewing the classic episode “Time Enough at Last.” While a seemingly innocent conversation, the driver’s unfounded conviction about which series a specific episode belongs to and the misunderstanding of “Time Enough At Last” points to a superficiality of the character, his own self-absorption. He “knows” the culture, but he does not understand it beyond how it may or may not apply directly to him. Just as his driving is solely for his own benefit. Just as he controls the conversation and games to his own benefit, not caring about the man in the seat beside him.

At this point, the passenger asks the same question of the driver that the driver asked him earlier: do you want to see something scary? The driver does, and the passenger illustrates the difference between himself and the driver by asking him to pull over before he will show him, an act of social responsibility and awareness. Once the car has stopped, the passenger indeed show the driver, and the audience, something scary, as he punishes the driver for his self absorption and lack of social consciousness, out in the middle of America.

Cue the iconic music; kick in Burgess Meredith’s narration.

As noted earlier, the scene serves a dual function. First, it is a reminder and commentary about the intent and importance of the original Twilight Zone series, with regards to its political, cultural and moral concerns, as brought to the show by creator Rod Serling. Second, while explicitly explaining the series, the scene itself plays out a type of morality play that would not have been out of place in the original series, were it to be expanded to fill a proper television spot. It is a complex scene, written and directed by John Landis, a scene which makes one wish that Landis had managed to come up with something half as clever in his full segment, which becomes lost in its grandiose attempts at political relevance.

The casting is also a vital reason that the scene works as well as it does. It is not merely that the casting of two stars primarily known at the time as comedians that adds to the creepy and unsettling tone of the scene, but just how average the pair are. Aykroyd and Brooks may have been major stars at the time, but at no point do they come across as such: they are just a couple of geeks cruising about and having the same nerdy conversations as anyone else. It is a tough quality to find in modern cinema, and one that makes me miss the style of American studio cinema of the 1980s all the more.

To be perfectly honest, I am willing to admit a nostalgic bias when it comes to Twilight Zone: The Movie, but that doesn’t change the brilliance of the film’s opening. If nothing else, I highly recommend the film for that sequence alone. And who knows? Maybe you’ll stick around for the return trip into the Twilight Zone…

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

All Star Superman (Liu 2011)

Given the tragic death of All Star Superman (Liu 2011) screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie on Tuesday, February 22 2011, the same day that All Star Superman was released, I considered not reviewing the film like I have the other DC Animated films. In circumstances such as death, the criticism of a person’s work, either positive or negative, can take on a different tone and be misconstrued. Out of respect for Mr. McDuffie, I figured it would be best to avoid such problems.

However, while watching the film last night, a story about facing life and death with strength and dignity, I changed my mind. While flawed, All Star Superman is the final work from the acclaimed writer of comics and animation, and as such deserves to be seen and discussed as much as his other work, not ignored out of a misplaced attempt of respect.

All Star Superman is based on a twelve issue comic series of the same name by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, which focuses upon the final days of Superman (James Denton) as he discovers he is dying from solar poisoning, resulting from a rescue mission near the sun caused by Lex Luthor (Anthony LaPaglia). With his time running out, Superman sets about getting his affairs in order, from finally addressing his relationship with Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks), making sure the world is protected one final time, and trying to save the soul of Lex Luthor.

While many people have referred to the original comic version of the story as a deconstruction of Superman and his mythos, such a description is not fitting. Morrison and Quitely’s comic tale is not interested in breaking down the Man of Steel and exploring the contradictions and instable meanings of the character. Rather, the comic was a love letter to Superman, a tale that explores why Superman endures and is as relevant as ever in popular culture, even when it seems like his time is done. The story takes everything about Superman, from the iconic to the downright goofy, and gives it a sense of power and weight that most comic creators could only ever dream of achieving. Most important however is how Morrison and Quitley bring out of the complexities of the character by embracing his deceptive simplicity and seemingly all powerful nature, rather than trying to mitigate it as many writers since John Byrne have done to varying degrees of success. At times, Morrison’s messianic take on Kal-El is a bit much, but that is about the only criticism that can be held against the comic.

The challenge in adapting the comic into a film is that the source material is epic in scope, episodic in structure, and dense in detail and ideas, carrying the reader from moments of sheer awe, such as the opening rescue of a ship flying into the sun, to touchingly human moments, such as Superman’s visit to Smallville. To do it justice in a single film is likely impossible, or at the very least would require the running length of one of the Lord of the Rings extended cuts. As such, adapting the material into a 76 minute long direct to video film did not inspire much confidence, even with Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie in charge. While their respective work on the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, Superman, the Animated Series Batman Beyond, Static Shock and Justice League television series have defined what the DC Universe is for me, the direct to video films have been a flawed bunch at best. While Batman: Under the Red Hood was fantastic, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse were simple dreadful.

Given this, you can imagine my surprise at how well All Star Superman works in the format. Now, the finished film is far from what an adaptation of the source material could be, given the proper running time and budget, and part of me wishes that Zack Snyder would make the shock announcement that his up coming Superman film is an adaptation of this material. Still, All Star Superman is better than the film has any right to be given the limitations the filmmakers faced, as it keeps the heart of the story and Quitley’s gorgeous artwork mostly intact.

The approach taken to adapting the material though is one which I have frequently noted as being one of my least favourite, the cut and past abridged tactic where key scenes and ideas are directly lifted in order to “maintain” as much of the story as possible, while much of the connecting material is dropped. The end result of such adaptations more often than not is a finished film which feels like it is missing huge chunks of story, while never allowing the material that remains to breath. This is certainly the case in All Star Superman, best illustrated in an inappropriately comic moment at the grave site of Jonathan Kent, where Martha Kent kneels down for what appears to be a respectful prayer, only to get right back up and carry on a conversation without missing a beat less than a second later. That said, the strength of McDuffie’s script is that it does manage to identify and keep the most important material from the comics in the film, never losing sight of what the story is about. Only once does the film seem to stray off course by keeping the “paranoid Lois” chapter, a story that worked wonderfully in the comic but seems out of place in this condensed version of the narrative. Simply skipping ahead to Superman giving Lois her birthday gift would have allowed the film to flesh out one or two other scenes to the film’s benefit.

The flaws in the film however are partly smoothed over by the excellent casting in the film, starting with James Denton’s Superman. While I have heard criticism of Denton’s work as being too calm and saintly, I believe that for this interpretation of the character it is entirely fitting. This is a story in which we see Superman at his best and most noble, and Denton manages to project this through his work. Hendricks’ Lois is easily the best animated Lois Lane since Dana Delany, bringing a greater sense of warmth to the character than is usually seen in other interpretations.

The scene stealer however is Anthony LaPaglia as Luthor. Morrison boiled Luthor down to his essence in this story, a man driven by his own ego and an inferiority complex that he tries to deny. LaPaglia captures the nature of the character perfectly, particularly towards the end of the film when he is required to deliver an emotion laden speech built entirely out of complex science terminology. With any luck, if Luthor appears in future DC animated films, LaPaglia will be allowed to reprise the role.

(One thing to do while watching: listen carefully for a surprise appearance by Michael Gough in a rather small and peculiar part.)

On the animation front, the work here is stellar as usual from this crew. Quitely’s artwork has been simplified down in order to better translate to animation, but little the awe and emotion captured in his work has been lost. Indeed, the animation crew seems to have gone above and beyond their usual efforts with this film, and while it never quite hits the level of a theatrical feature film, it comes close.

Unfortunately, for all of these positive points about the film, I think the word “close” is the defining term for the finished film. All Star Superman is a film always on the verge of hitting its true greatness, but never quite makes it all the way. It is a film which perfectly illustrates the constraints in which these films are produced, the constraints which hold back these filmmakers from making films that fully achieve their ambitions. Warner Brothers needs to give these people the resources they need to make a truely epic piece of superhero animation, because what they have here in All Star Superman is a good film, when it could have been great.

Still, if the DC Animated films are to continue as a series of DTV releases, perhaps it is time to find a Superman story that is brilliant, but manageable in the format of 76 minutes. A story that many fans would love to see.

A story like "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"…