Monday, January 24, 2011

Kevin Smith and George Lucas: Bad Decisions and Power in Hollywood

(Due to the greater extent of the work needed on a real life project this past weekend, review delayed till late this week. Instead, enjoy the following)

Tell me if this sounds familiar: a filmmaker bursts onto the Hollywood scene, and is hailed with accolades, and proceeds to build himself an empire of loyal fans with whom he can rely on to spend money on his products. As time goes by, his actual interest in the making of films seems to wane, and he spends his time on other ventures. During this empire building, he seems to surround himself with an increasing number of yes men who merely reinforce his ideas about how to operate in filmmaking. When he does make a film, and both critics and audiences are critical, he lashes out at them, and knows that his loyal fan base will stick with him. And more than anything else, this filmmaker seems obsessed with filmmaker rights to the point that the audience is almost entirely ignored.

If you think I am describing George Lucas, you would be right. Except these days that narrative applies not just to Lucas, but also to one of his biggest fans: Kevin Smith.

Ok, the two on the surface seem hardly comparable. Lucas created Star Wars, the seemingly billion dollar a year generator for Lucas’ empire, while Smith created the series of Jay and Silent Bob films that play to a much, much smaller crowed. Lucas’ grasp extends to toys, games, films and television, while Smith dominates his little section of the Internet, Q and A sessions, and the occasional book. Yet put aside the scale of their empires (for now, at least), and their paths seem to run fairly parallel to one another.

Consider the past year for Kevin Smith since the release of, and negative reaction to, Cop Out. Since that time, Smith has pretty much stated he does not need to listen to critics, increasingly plays (and listens only) to his base, and now seems intent on burning as many bridges as possible with the Hollywood system following the premier of his latest film Red State with his auction stunt.

Oh, and he announced he is pretty much quitting filmmaking (or at least writing and directing) after his next film Hit Somebody.

Right. Sure Kevin. We will see when Clerks 3: Midlife Crisis is released, followed by Mallrats: The Reboot and Jay and Silent Bob Time Travel to 2011, wherein the duo attempt to stop Kevin Smith from making the biggest error in his career.

Here is the thing: as much as Smith might have a loyal fan base that loves to hear him talk, and as much as Smith may hate the Hollywood system, in large part Smith’s appeal as a personality steams from his tales that result from his interactions with the system. It is not just how Smith talks, but what he talks about, like that great Prince story. Or his seemingly volatile “relationship” with Tim Burton. Or the hell that was dealing with ABC during the production of Clerks: the Animated Series. Smith’s life is nothing less than a real life version of Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories” from Chappelle's Show.

To keep those stories fresh, Smith needs to keep making films. More to the point, he needs to keep dealing with Hollywood and the people that become the basis for his tales and his appeal. Without keeping this stock of stories fresh, that hardcore fan base will gradually dissolve. This is why the idea of Smith retiring is ludicrous. Besides which, Smith has made similar declarations in the past that have never held up, like the idea that Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back was the final film set in Smith’s “Jersey-verse.”

Still, Smith seems intent on burning his bridges with the industry. Which brings us back to George Lucas.

As I noted, Smith and Lucas at this point are rather similar except in terms of the scale of their operation. And while Smith seems intent on following every error made by Lucas when it comes to his films and the filmmaking process on his smaller scale, he needs to remember that the scale of George Lucas’s empire means he holds a great deal of power. If Lucas did what Smith has done, or even went as far as to punch a studio executive in the nose, moon every distributor personally, and even kicked a puppy for the hell of it, he would still be welcomed back with open arms if he announced new Star Wars projects.

Smith, do you really think Jay and Silent Bob have that kind of pull if you ever want, or more likely need to go back into the world of filmmaking?

As a film fan, I am the first to admit that most of the practices of the Hollywood industry are annoying, backwards, and destructive. And I would be lying if I did not admit that Smith’s self distribution approach of road showing a film is not something that I thought (or more accurately, daydreamed) about myself. Developing a reliable niche audience in this economy makes perfect sense. And it is always fascinating to hear filmmakers talk about their problems with the system.

But even the most vocal critics will admit you need to play the politics of the system to a point. Even George Lucas has done so, regardless of how poor his films may have turned out.

Keep it in mind Smith. It is in your best interests.

Friday, January 21, 2011

New Review Monday...and Really, Kevin Smith?

New review is delayed to Monday due to one or two work related things needing to take priority.

Meanwhile, try and wrap your head around this. Kevin Smith, I like you, but man that is a crazy risk to take if this film doesn't work. Careful man, careful.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spawn (Dippé 1997)

(NOTE: I will admit right now that this is less a review of the film Spawn and more or a discussion of Roger Ebert and his critical practice. Please keep in mind while reading)

Normally, I would not bother to ask my readers to read another critic’s review before reading my own (seeing as how most critics are better than myself). However, when the critic I am guiding you to is A) Roger Ebert, and B) he has written this review of Mark A.Z. Dippé’s 1997 film Spawn, I feel compelled to ask you all to read the work before launching into my own.

Now, allow me to be clear: I love Roger Ebert. He and Gene Siskel were among the first critics I ever bothered following, and I continue to do so in the case of Ebert. I respect his work without always agreeing with it, and even when I do disagree, he usually offers something to think about. Despite this respect however, there are two Roger Eberts that one might end up reading with any given review. The first, and most common, is the intelligent, well learned film scholar who can discuss and dissect a film with the best of them.

The other Ebert is the one who wrote the embarrassingly bad Spawn review I just asked you to read.

The review is not embarrassing because Roger Ebert liked the film: as bad as the film is, I have no beef with anyone enjoying it. Heck, I think the film so bad as to be brilliantly awful entertainment, what with Martin Sheen going off the deep end of “ham” with his performance, the bizarre turn from John Leguizamo, and Nicol Williamson ending his film career in the worst possible manner. No, what is embarrassing is the pains Ebert goes to try and justify his three and a half star review of the film, and his attempts to try and sound as if he has a working knowledge of the comic book medium. The review rings hollow, and highlights one of Ebert's downfalls in his critical practice.

Just take the first paragraph of Ebert’s review, that “Spawn is best seen as an experimental art film…[w]hat we have here are creators in several different areas doing their best to push the envelope. The subject is simply an excuse for their art--just as it always is with serious artists.” Putting aside the absurd notion that “serious artists” have little use for their subjects beyond using them as a pretext, Ebert basically asks the reader/potential viewer of Spawn to simply turn off their brain and admire the “pretty pictures.” And while I normally do not agree with such requests, I can at least respect the idea of someone admitting to doing so. They are at least being honest.

However, being Roger Ebert, respectable film critic 95% of the time, a request to "shut off your brain" would be, to say the least, odd. Or rather, odd to the audience he feels he is writing to. Hence, we get his dressed up version of the "turn off your brain" request, with reference to considering the film as an art film and to focus on the daring do of the special effects artists, who have apparently crafted a visual world that is, and I quote, "unforgettable."

Ok, fine, let us follow Ebert down this path for a moment and ignore everything except the visual effects, which includs computer animation, makeup, etc. Are they as boundary pushing as he claims? Is this world the filmmakers have created on the level of Metropolis and Blade Runner as he states? There is a simple answer to this:


This is not a “no” in the context of the fourteen years of effects work that have come since the film came out. This is a “no” that comes out of an awareness of what was capable at the time. This is a “no” that comes from a deep love of real special effects development, witnessed not only in Metropolis and Blade Runner as Ebert mentions, but from the following films that predate Spawn: Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902); King Kong (1933); Citizen Kane (1941); The Wolfman (1941); The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms (1953); 2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968); Star Wars (1977); Superman: The Movie (1978); An American Werewolf in London (1981); Tron (1982); The Thing (1982); The Dark Crystal (1982); The Terminator (1984); Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988); The Abyss (1989); Terminator 2 - Judgement Day (1991); and Jurassic Park (1992). This is a “no” on behalf of Georges Méliès, Linwood G. Dunn, Ray Harryhausen, Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Stan Winston, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Greg Nicotero, Robert Kurtzman, Jim Henson, and Rick Barker, among others, who I would not blame for feeling insulted by the suggestion that Spawn’s effects work are anywhere near their achievements, or builds upon them.

Not only is Spawn not a boundary pushing film in terms of special effects, the quality of its special effects are a massive step back from what was achievable at the time. While the design of the Spawn makeup in the film is fine (not great: fine), the minute the film decides to use digitally created effects, which is often, the whole film goes to hell (no pun intended). Take a look at the following captures from the film.

Now, remember in his review of the film, Ebert compared these images of hell to the work of Hieronymous Bosch, who painted in the late 1400s. Below is an example of Bosch’s work.

Does anything in the images from Spawn seem remotely worthy of Bosch’s work? The visions of hell in Spawn look about the quality of a Full Motion Video Game (FMVs) cut scene from the same era, which were often made with vastly less money and resources than available to the filmmakers of Spawn. Granted, the playback of such FMVs were in low resolution, but that was because of the computer limitations of the time.
Allow that to sink in for a moment folks: the special effects "wonders" that Ebert seems to love are on part with those in low resolution video game footage of the 1995-1999 era.

Of course, maybe Ebert was referring to the morphing effects in the film. The thing is, even if these were what Ebert was impressed by, Spawn A) did not pioneer the effect, as it appeared at least two years previous in the slightly-better-than-Spawn film Mortal Kombat (1995) (and yes, I am well aware that I am saying a Paul W.S. Anderson film is better than Spawn), and B) Mortal Kombat did these morphing effects far better, as did the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. And even the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

But I digress. The key point here is that in no way, shape or form can Spawn be considered for the value of its special effects as Ebert points towards, let alone be mentioned in the same breath as films that legitimately pushed forth the development of special effects. This bizarre-at-best attempt at giving a sense of “legitimacy” to his enjoyment of the film is the kind of deranged statement that would have killed the authority of any lesser critic. In the case of Ebert, this failed attempt at trying to give Spawn a historical and cinematic significance comes across as little more than an expression of class anxiety and vanity: he enjoyed a film he views as being trash, and therefore must justify it both to himself and his envisioned readership. This class bias becomes all the more apparent in the manner Ebert appraises the film's narrative, and what it tells us about how he envisions the comic book medium and its readers/creators.

Certainly, there is not much of value in the storyline of Spawn, and the film suffers from the same problem the comics of the character suffer from (at least the ones I read from early in the run): good ideas with no idea what to do with them. The film merely suffers from the added problem of following the same, lame ABC plotting used by every writer who has misread Joseph Campbell's work as a rule book for writing, and the film never bothers to delve into the psychology of its protagonist Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) the "spawn" of the title. Characters make idiotic decisions because the plot tells them to, and tries to get by on the assumed ignorance of the (1997) audience on several topics. For example, you would think that a top CIA agent might realize that destroying a computer monitor will do nothing to stop information from being sent over the Internet. Not in the universe of Spawn.

Given this shoddy writing, one would be able to forgive Ebert for being dismissive of the film's narrative. Indeed, his criticism that the story is rather a sentimental piece of work is completely correct. The problem though is that Ebert assumes that not only is the quality of storytelling in Spawn is the same quality of storytelling in comics, but that this quality is what comic book readers crave and writers strive for. What else can be taken away from such statements as " in comic books, and movies spawned by comic books...[w]hat matters is style, tone, and creative energy"?

The entire manner in which Ebert treats comic book creators, readers and the medium in general is filled with contempt, and his review Spawn is this contempt written loud, and in near complete ignorance of the medium, its history, and its capabilities. Which again, would be fine if he would admit as much. Instead, we get to witness Roger Ebert's laughable at best attempts at trying to sound as if he is some authority on the comic book medium ("origination story"? Please stop trying to class up our terminology) to his assumed audience: the "literate" types who do not read comic books. For Ebert, the comic book reader and writer is some alien life form, caught up in their own little world in which “real” art and “real” writers do not come into, and hence will not read his reviews. Again, I ask how is one to take a condescending statement such as "I am sure there will be some who get involved at the plot level..."? We know who you are talking about Roger. Or rather, who you think you are talking about

Yes, the comic book reader and writer are strange illiterate aliens to Mr. Ebert. Never mind the existence of Alan Moore, who’s philosophical ponderings were what interested Ebert so much in Watchmen (2009). Or J. Michael Straczynski, a long time writer of comics and animated television who also writes films such as Changeling (2008). Or Neil Gaiman, one of the greatest living fantasy writers working today across pretty much all media, whose defining work might just be his epic Sandman series. No, these aliens known as comic book fans and writers care not for narrative, but merely “style, tone, and creative energy.”


When you get right down to it, Ebert's review of Spawn is little more than the worst of Ebert's critical practices rolled into one review: written in ignorance, utilizing assumption and stereotypes over facts, and trying too hard to either justify his enjoyment of the film to either his assumed readership, or to himself. Probably both. It is a review that tries too hard, and had Ebert simply admitted to liking the film rather than reaching for flimsy reasons to justify that love, no one would have really cared.

There is no shame Mr. Ebert in admitting you loved a trashy movie, be it ironically or seriously.

There is no shame in your loving Spawn.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Read This

Best write up I have seen on Tron Legacy. So good that it kills any reason for me to write about the film myself.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Daybreakers (Spierig 2009/2010)

Is anything more annoying to genre film fans than seeing a good film fail to find the audience upon initial release? Actually, yes, there is, and that is seeing miserable excuses for genre cinema succeed with general audiences, thus ensure that crap continues to be produced instead of solid efforts.

Among the most annoying films to see fail last year was Daybreakers (Spierig 2009/2010 [while a 2009 film, it opened in North America in January of 2010]), a film which addresses a long asked question in horror film circles: if vampires did succeed in taking over the world and became the dominate species, how would they keep feeding themselves with a dwindling human population? This question drives the narrative of Daybreakers, a near future set film that deftly blends science fiction and horror in a manner that few films ever achieve.

Looking to answer the problem of the depleting blood supply in Daybreakers is Dr. Dalton (Ethan Hawke), chief scientist for a major corporation lead by Charles Bromley (Sam Neil). Dalton’s task is not imperative due survival reasons however, because the lack of blood does not kill a vampire. Rather the longer a vampire goes without blood, the more likely they are to transform into a mindless bestial form. Worse, the blood supplies are down to merely a few weeks worth left, meaning the bulk of the population is facing this animalistic existence.

Dalton’s personal motives for looking for a blood alternative is not driven by a desire to preserve vampire kind however, but rather to preserve humanity. He sympathizes with the remaining humans, and hopes his work will lead to the end of the human blood farming that has been undertaken to preserve most of the population. Dalton’s search for a blood alternative is completely altered however due to a chance meeting with a group of humans on the run, a meeting which leads him to ‘Elvis’ (Willem Dafoe), a one time vampire who has been miraculously cured without knowing quite how.

Elvis believes Dalton can unravel the mystery of the how the cure works before it is too late for the population of the world, but complicating the situation is Dalton’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a human hunter looking to help Bromley preserve vampire kind, regardless of whether or not a cure is in the best interests of both of the vampires and humans.

What separates Daybreakers from most other recent genre efforts is the level of detail that writers/directors Michael and Peter Spierig - the duo behind the heavily flawed but fun 2003 effort Undead - bring to the film. Like the best of science fiction film and literature, the brothers have crafted a full fledged world, packed with detail that, while not always necessary for the narrative, give a full sense of a living, breathing alternate reality. How can vampires function in daylight? Try interconnected underground tunnels, and cars that utilize video cameras as opposed to windows. How does a world full of vampires manage to keep their blood supplies from running out faster than they already are? Blood rationing, controlled by the government and private corporate interests. These are just the big questions that I am give the answers to; a good deal of the film’s joys come from discovering how the world of vampires works, and just how frighteningly close to our day to day existence it remains.

Perhaps more shocking however is the manner in which the filmmakers utilize the world they have created to deliver a rather subtle, and incredibly cleaver, allegory for the anxieties surrounding the uncontrolled consumption within Western society, particularly of fossil fuels such as oil. The film places great emphasis upon vehicles and road imagery in the film, with several significant events featuring cars prominently. The rationing and price increases of blood recall the fuel crisis of 1973, as does much of the imagery throughout the film. Dalton’s race for a “blood substitute” is a just subtle enough nod towards contemporary research and development of alternative energy sources. Read in this manner, the film’s presentation of the relationship between the militaristic human hunters and Bromley’s corporate power seems eerily similar to the conspiracy claims that oil supplies were the driving force behind most of the United States middle eastern involvement in the past decade, most notably the Iraq war.

It is not all politics though, as the filmmakers have fun playing with and subverting the typical tropes and imagery of the vampire film. While the 1998 mini-classic sci-fi/horror/superhero effort Blade first initiated the modern presentation of the vampire at the top of modern urban life, Daybreakers takes this concept to its limit, with the upper crust of vampire kind living in sterile consumerist paradise/hell. In contrast to this, the surviving humans have taken to the vampire hangouts of yesteryear, in isolated vineyards with gothic style housing. Clandestine meetings take place under the cover of day in the biggest car in the county (I have no shame. Really), and salvation may come with a vampire bite, though not in the manner you think.

As an Australian/American co-production, the film is peppered with talent from both countries. Hawke makes for an solid lead in Dalton, utilizing his almost minimalist approach to acting to great impact, while the Spierig brothers making excellent use of Hawke’s rather gaunt appearance. Dafoe manages to walk a fine line between caricature and character as ‘Elvis,’ while Claudia Karvan is sidelined by a somewhat underwritten role as Elvis’ right hand woman . Also suffering from slightness of writing is Dorman, though his performance is strong enough to make up for the somewhat sketch nature of his character.

The show stopper in the film however is Neil, a villain who could have come across as a rather typical corporate bad guy were it not for some better than expected writing, and Neil’s magnificent work. Bromley is a monster, but a rather understandable and sympathetic one. His actions within the film’s main plot are villainous, but a subplot involving Bromley’s daughter is rather touching, as we get to see him as a well meaning, but rather destructive father away from the film’s main narrrative concerns. While the subplot does involve a touch of coincidence, the manner in which it impacts Bromley’s overall character is rather understated and subtle, and the effort from both Neil and the filmmakers is much appreciated. Plus, (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) Neil is given the single best death scene of his entire career with this film, and it is one that would make George A. Romero smile (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT OVER).

Perhaps the most impressive element of the film however is the rather ambiguous note upon which the film concludes, tackling a question that most films of this type avoid addressing: even if one could find the solution to the worldwide problem, just how on Earth is any solution going to be disseminated effectively? Rather than using some plot contrivance to write themselves out of this corner, the filmmakers address the issue head on in a rather dark manner. It is an ending which provides hope, but it is a subdued hope, leaving the audience to grapple with several narrative and thematic questions that are not fully answered on purpose. It is a rather gutsy manner upon which to end the film, and it shows the level of ambition brought to the project by all involved.

There are minor flaws with Daybreakers, but they are just that, minor. With any luck, in ten years time the film will be remembered as one of the stronger, if not strongest, vampire films to come out of the current craze for undead fiction. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 3, 2011

RIP Pete Postlethwaite

Well, here is a tough one.

Actor Pete Postlethwaite has died at age 64. While not a household name, Postlethwaite, was a character actor of great talent who appeared in numerous films and television programs over the years. In 2010, he appeared in in no less than Inception, The Town, and Clash of the Titains. This is only the tip of the iceberg as far as his film work however; his credits also include The Usual Suspects, Romeo + Juliet, The Last of the Mohicans, Alien 3, Hamlet, and The Lost World: Jurrasic Park among others.

I always looked forward to seeing his work, and his death is quite a shock. I had no idea he was ill, let alone near death. May he rest in peace and God be with his family.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year, New Reviews, Coming Soon!

That's right! A whole new year is about to kick off here at the The Experience Cinematic! So get ready, it's coming!