Monday, March 30, 2009

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Watchmen

Been meaning to do this one for a while, and perhaps I should have done so before Warner Bros. and/or Paramount started taking it down wherever it popped up. Whatever, it's worth seeing (though Not Safe For Work):

Since one of the things that was cut from the film version of WATCHMEN was Hollis Mason's memoir "Under The Hood", which details the heyday of the costumed crimefighters, it's good that the information is conveyed in such a creative fashion. A fun sequence done by a firm called Yu+Co which conveys how these characters have subtly altered history (the twist on the famous V-J day photograph, for example), and though the song choice is a little on the nose, the use of a protest anthem does bring in the political element of the story as well. Also, it's a good song (though I suspect it's the reason the lawyers are so adamant about taking down a video that would have been good publicity otherwise.)

This one might get taken down, so see it while you can.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Comics Page #20: Dan Dare

Link to Dan Dare Oversized HC at Amazon
Many people reading this may not be familiar with Dan Dare; though the British space opera hero has been an iconic figure in UK comics for over half a century, for some reason he remains mostly unknown in the United States. Now, I’ve actually read some vintage Dan Dare material and may actually tackle that at some point, but recently I decided to take a look at a recent take on the character by writer Garth Ennis and artist Gary Erskine. When I first heard Ennis was tackling this project, I was not confident; thanks to titles like THE BOYS and PREACHER he’s earned a reputation as a shock artist who does cynical “mature” titles. I gave him too little credit, as he’s a devoted fan of Dan Dare and wrote the new series as a straightforward update, and it’s a damn fine job. The collection I bought, an oversized “collector’s edition”, may not have been the ideal purchase, but this series from the now-defunct Virgin Comics is something to seek out.

Dan Dare (yes, that’s his actual name) used to be the pilot of Earth’s space fleet, but now lives in retirement in a holographic England-that-was on a remote asteroid, while the modern world, led by a strong but strangely amnesiac United Kingdom, moves on around him. (The US and China blew each other up at some point in the past, though this doesn’t affect the plot much.) However, the UK government has figured out that Dan Dare’s old enemy, the alien mastermind known as the Mekon, is alive and well and planning an attack on civilized space, and the Prime Minister has no sooner contacted Dare than the unprepared fleet is attacked by the Mekon’s warships. Dare and a couple of old friends- scientist and PM advisor Jocelyn Peabody, and old soldier Digby- are quickly called upon to help battle the invasion and protect human and alien alike from the Mekon’s monstrous horde.

That’s as far as I got, since this collector’s edition only contains the first three issues of the six issue series. It keeps the price low, I’ll grant you, but it ends abruptly and since Virgin is no longer in the comics game (owing to a number of factors, but the name may not have helped) we’re not going to get a second such edition, so you’re better off looking for the Omnibus Hardcover. The secondary market can be such a pain sometimes.

Anyway, the comic. What struck me at first was that this is not actually a reboot. Dan (still with the bizarre eyebrows) had all of his old adventures, it’s just that the world has changed around him. Erskine pencils the book in a style that’s modern but still close enough to the old Eagle comics that when we get a splash page flashing back to the good old days, the juxtaposition doesn’t seem completely outrageous. The art’s pretty brilliant, and one thing I will say in favor of this prestige format is that it shows it off to fine advantage. The cover art is good, but for the fact that Dan appears to have more ammo pouches than a Rob Liefeld creation. Still not sure about that.

In addition to the fine art, we have a plot that moves at a good pace and throws out some surprises without going very far afield. There’s more to the invasion than just a bunch of aliens appearing out of nowhere, and Dare has to lead a military that hasn’t been prepared to do battle with giant green monsters roaming the Martian surface. There’s some attempt at social commentary here, with Dare representing the forgotten spirit of Great Britain, and at times Ennis goes a little overboard- the Prime Minister doesn’t even know about the Battle of Britain, which Dare’s grandfather fought in, and remember, this is a country where students are currently taught the importance of events that happened over 900 years ago as a major part of their history. In fact I’m not entirely clear why Britain is supposed to be suffering this identity crisis- as the book makes clear, they’re the survivor of a war that destroyed the two leading superpowers, so you’d imagine they’d be feeling particularly smug about themselves and trying to export their culture all over what’s left of the world. That said, there’s a nice panel showing the London skyline, with the old monuments still there but overshadowed by giant glass structures out of Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD.

Again, the whole thing cuts off early and I need to read the whole arc at some point, but it’s a good three issues. Virgin Comics may be done with, but hopefully this revival of the Dare franchise won’t fall by the wayside. It’s a good continuation point for the character, and a good jumping-on point for people unfamiliar with him. I’ll be putting the Omnibus link in the sidebar so you can get the full story, and unless the ending is spectacularly bad it’s worth the investment. It’s good to have Dan Dare back, even for those of us who didn’t know he was gone.

Grade: B+

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fling on DVD

Fling DVD cover and Amazon link
Just as a heads up, the movie FLING, directed by John Stewart Muller (friend of the blogger) and co-edited by Ben Waters (brother of the blogger), is now on DVD. I did a not-quite-review of the movie back here, suffice it to say I recommend it (and need to get around purchasing a copy myself.) As always, you can purchase it via the image above. Enjoy.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Short Film Report: Nemesis

Recently I received an e-mail from Stian Hafstad, an aspiring filmmaker who wanted to point me towards his student project, a sort of superhero comedy called “Nemesis”. It’s on Youtube, so I’ll be putting it up for you to look at as well. Below the cut, my thoughts.

As familiar as the subject matter is these days, “Nemesis” takes an interesting approach. The humor is straightforward and low-key, light enough not to undermine what story and characterization there is. The basic concept, of a hero and nemesis “battling” each other for the sole purpose of awakening whatever power lies within them, is fascinating, and though the film isn’t long enough to explore all the implications, it still feels like a complete story.

The acting is good throughout, and though I actually watched the low-quality version I still thought it came off as very polished and professional. (Apparently it’s been through a couple of drafts.) The cinematography is sharp and the music selections are well placed. I also have to give kudos to the translation done for the subtitles; I didn’t spot any grammatical errors or idiomatic issues.

There’s not much else I can say about the project, so if you haven’t given it a watch already I recommend you do so. A fun little movie that’s worth 10 minutes of your time.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Random Movie Report #62: Let The Right One In

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN cover and Amazon link
I don’t see a lot of contemporary horror films. I blame how they’re promoted- the ads are loud, ugly, repeated endlessly, and all look the same, so by the time the film hits theaters I usually have no interest in sitting through 90 minutes of poorly cleaned walls, blue-green filters, and the whimpering of female victims. I’m sure I’ll discover the good ones eventually. So when I say that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a while, understand that mine is not the most informed judgment on the matter. Still, I think I feel confident in saying that this is a terrific movie. It’s a vampire film, of sorts, and also a pre-adolescent love story, but in a grim and twisted way that, rest assured, is as different from TWILIGHT as you can possibly imagine.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a 12 year old boy living in a Swedish apartment complex when some new neighbors drop in. One is a girl his age, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who first warns him that they can’t be friends. He never sees her at school, or anywhere during the day. Brutal murders start taking place, and the film makes no real pretense at hiding things- Eli is a vampire, and her apparent father is actually a Renfield-like servant who tries to collect blood for her on his own. He eventually reaches too far and is caught, but Eli is capable of finding victims on her own. Not that this bothers Oskar too much; as far as he knows she’s a girl who kind of likes him, and he has some especially vicious bullies at school to worry about. On top of which, he’s not quite right himself- he carries a knife, collects newspaper clippings of death and murder, and practices stabbing on a tree. So even when he does start to piece together the “vampire” element, it’s not a major impediment to their friendship.

It may have something to do with the film’s origins as a novel (adapted by its writer, just as with STALKER), but one of the best things about LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is that it’s not trapped by the need to be a horror movie. It manages good shocks when they’re called for (with a nice use of long shots), but doesn’t insist that they come at the expense of character or story. Oskar, as mentioned, is not the standard average-in-every-respect protagonist even if you take out his age; there’s something wrong with him from the start, and something wrong with the whole environment, from the unmonitored bullying to the fact that we appear to be trapped in the late Seventies all over again. (I’m still not clear on whether this is a period piece or whether Sweden still looks like this.)

The film has a low-key, matter of fact approach for most of its running time; what we see of the vampire attacks is fairly brutal and bloody, but the brutality isn’t overemphasized. The visuals are quite creative, and though they tend to be vaguely monochromatic, I’m not as annoyed by that as usual as it’s not the product of excessive filtering so much as it being Sweden in the dead of winter.

Because this is a story of not-quite-teenage angst as much as it is a horror film, the focus is really on the lead characters. Both Hedebrant and Leandersson are convincingly understated, but the tension in their “relationship”- vaguely sexual but not yet formed- is palpable. (There is one shot that’s more than a little uncomfortable, though.) It’s in the balance between the story’s supernatural elements and its mundane ones that the film establishes its power, and the emphasis on character is also welcome.

LET THE RIGHT ONE in is a breath of fresh air. Though bits and pieces of it could use improvement- I actually got confused at one point as to which characters were Oskar’s parents- the film offers frequent surprises and is less focused on being as scary as it can possibly be than on simply telling a story. It delivers scares but isn’t single-minded about it. I don’t want to say that this film points the way forward for the horror genre, since as I said, I’m not quite qualified to do so. But it’s encouraging.

Screenplay by John Ajvide Lindqvist based on his novel
Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Grade: A

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Random Movie Report #61: Stalker

Amazon link to Stalker on DVD
As a brief personal note, if you didn’t see the Twitter sidebar or my self-promotion on various fora, I have just sent a script to the BBC Writersroom program- which, incidentally, budding writers should look into because it’s cool. Anyway, any good vibes on your part would be appreciated. Thanks.

I consider Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS to be, possibly, the best science fiction film ever made. (Yes, my tastes normally run towards spaceship battles and weird monsters, but hey, I’ve got layers.) So STALKER was a film I had to see, and surprisingly it gives SOLARIS a run for its money. It has many of the qualities one expects from Tarkovsky; it’s beautiful, dense, spiritual, slow, sometimes hard to pay attention to, but ultimately profound and moving. It has both the bizarreness and the vivid reality of a dream, and sticks with you in a similar way. As science fiction, it’s both wonderfully speculative and maddeningly enigmatic.

The film takes place in an unspecified but exceedingly grim, vaguely authoritarian future. Years ago, a strange object fell to Earth creating a huge explosion which mutated the land around it into something called “The Zone”. Within the Zone, there is a room which is said to grant the wishes of those who enter it. The government has closed off the Zone, and uses lethal force on those trying to enter it. The nameless protagonist (Aleksandr Kaidonovsky) is a stalker, a man who is paid to lead people through the Zone to the room where wishes are granted. On his latest trip, he takes along a cynical writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) and an aging scientist (Nikolai Grinko), and the three manage to break past the border security and take a small train car to the middle of the Zone. There the real challenge begins, because according to the stalker, the Zone is a treacherous place, laced with traps to claim the lives of the unwary. The room cannot be reached by a straight line; the journey takes the men through a tangled wilderness and shattered ruins, and they are haunted by unseen forces and their own conflicts and doubts. Others have made this trip before, but many come away unhappy, and some end up dead.

A certain ambiguity hangs over everything in this film. We don’t see people claimed by the traps, and the writer and scientist must take the stalker’s claim that they’re there on faith. And, indeed, there’s no proof that the room does anything. The inherent uncertainty of the quest leads to strained relations between the three characters, as does the uncertainty of their motivations. The writer first says he wants inspiration, but backs away from that claim. The scientist seems to want to study the Zone. At the same time, the tension and dread of the place is palpable, through slow establishing shots of the twisted yet verdant landscape. (Most of the picture was shot in and around an abandoned chemical plant, a choice that creates some staggering visuals but is thought to have contributed to the untimely deaths of many of the cast and crew. So, we probably won’t be seeing that location used again.)

As with many other Tarkovsky films, there’s a heavy element of spirituality and religion snuck into the picture past the Soviet censors. The characters must take a journey of faith, navigating a treacherous path and believing what the stalker says about the environment around them, in order to obtain whatever they want. At times the stalker seems almost like a Christ figure leading people on the difficult road to salvation, but he’s soon given plenty of flaws. The film dodges any one specific allegory just enough to not be heavy handed, though the fact that the pilgrims are an artist who doesn’t know what he wants and a scientist who wants to demystify the Zone is just a bit leading.

Of course, there are other elements as well. As in SOLARIS we have a place that seems to be alive and responsive to the people who enter it, thus exploring it becomes a matter of exploring oneself. The characters are forced to ask themselves what they really want, and whether they can risk it coming true. The conflict in the film is primarily psychological, and the way the three main characters work on each other’s nerves is quite powerful. There’s even the occasional moment of black humor, and a strange element of fantasy- the film starts in sepia-toned black and white, but like THE WIZARD OF OZ switches to color when we enter the Zone.

The making of this movie was apparently a more epic undertaking than most. Apart from the whole “toxic set” situation (and really, the environment here is unlike anything I’ve seen in my waking life), the cast and crew effectively had to shoot the whole thing twice, after a lab error ruined the original negatives, and a new D.P. had to be brought in to boot. It’s remarkable that the film looks pretty polished regardless, though I expect the strain of the production helped make the actors seem authentically strung-out.

So what’s the overall effect? Well, it borders on transcendent. The film is slow, oddly structured, and seems to have an overly long denouement. It’s intense despite taking its time; the power of the Zone and the desperation of the questing trio burn into one’s head over time. And then, at the very end, there are two scenes (one involving the quite good Alisa Frejndlikh as the stalker’s wife) which are entirely surprising, and which make us see the entire picture in a new light. Though not without its flaws, STALKER is a unique movie with a unique impact on its viewer- sure, I’ve been comparing it to the two other Tarkovsky films I’ve seen as an attempt to contextualize it, but at the end of the day it’s its own thing. STALKER is a grueling and beautiful experience that’s well worth putting yourself through.

Screenplay by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky from their novel “The Roadside Picnic”
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

Grade: A

Sunday, March 08, 2009

In Theaters: Watchmen

Watchmen poster from
The film version of WATCHMEN is gaining reactions ranging from “revelation” to “overblown crap”, which puts me in a comfortable albeit less-than-scintillating position as someone who thinks it was pretty good. I read and loved the original comic miniseries turned graphic novel, was aware that author Alan Moore is opposed to adaptations of his work but is in no legal position to contest them (though his name is removed from the credits), knew about what I will enigmatically call the “squid situation”, etc.

To be sure, director Zack Snyder is still a little green to be taking on one of the most complex and subtly designed works in the comics medium, and some of the delicate nuance is lost in the translation. But the story is preserved, and reasonably well told. It’s a strong (albeit occasionally episodic) plotline mixed with workmanlike dedication and fidelity, an above average drama about costumed heroes and their very human failings.

The film is set in an alternate mid-80s, one where the US, with superhuman assistance, won Vietnam, kept Nixon in office for over a decade, and is now at the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets. It begins with the murder of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a semiretired masked crimefighter working for the CIA. The half-sane vigilante Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley) is convinced that a killer is targeting “masks”, the heroes or superheroes driven into retirement when the government outlawed their activities. He alerts the other members of his old crimefighting team that they may be next. Dan Dreiberg, once the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), is a modest and geeky retiree; Adrian Veidt, aka. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), aka. “The World’s Smartest Man”, is a corporate tycoon working on clean energy; Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a formerly-human entity who can rearrange matter with a thought and is increasingly detached from mankind (as evidenced by his near-constant nudism); Laurie Jupiter, alias the Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), inherited the role from her mother (Carla Gugino) and is doing her best to enjoy retirement and try to maintain a relationship with Dr. Manhattan. For the most part they all write off Rorshach as paranoid, which he is, but for once he’s on to something, and the film combines several flashbacks to reveal the multiple grim secrets of all their respective pasts and how they may tie into a conspiracy that threatens their lives, all while nuclear armageddon looms ever nearer.

When WATCHMEN was first published it was a brutal deconstruction of a genre whose tropes comic readers had taken for granted. It’s actually hard to appreciate just how radical it was since superhero comics have appropriated as much of the gritty, mature-audiences surface as they can without undermining established corporate icons. But audiences who haven’t read the book will still probably be shocked by the brutal violence, attempted rapes, moral ambiguity, and bizarre sexual fetishism on display.

Fortunately, Snyder’s not just interested in the shock aspect- this is a mostly faithful adaptation of the comic (with most concessions being for time) which incorporates the political and personal elements of the narrative as well as the metafictional. There’s something slightly dystopic about the America of this film, unhumbled by defeat or scandal, with a twisted status quo maintained for decades by powerful men. And as much as the story is about revealing the dark secrets behind our idols, there’s also a tint of nostalgia to it- everyone, even people without reason to, remembers better days. Even though not all of the thematic complexity of the book could possibly be retained in a film adaptation, enough of it is here to make the story absorbing.

Film adaptations of popular or cult media always seem to come across as “the big prize” for fans, even if they end up disappointed in the results. There’s something about the way film brings characters to a larger-than form of life, and superheroes, defined as they are by voiceless text and colorful uniforms, are particularly interesting to see fleshed out in such a way. WATCHMEN’s characters already have more depth than most superheroes out there, but finally putting actors behind the masks has some interesting results. The acting is variable- Matthew Goode has a weird European accent (which can’t be his native British) that comes and goes for no good reason, and Malin Ackerman is mostly nondescript, but Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Harley are both pretty damn close to what you’d expect the characters to look and sound like, and Morgan is utterly brilliant. Providing the voice and motion reference for Dr. Manhattan (though, ladies, it’s not ALL him if you know what I mean), Crudup is sometimes too distant even for an emotionally distant character, but occasionally his approach works brilliantly.

As faithful as the adaptation is, Snyder does miss the mark occasionally. The action in this film is very stylized and often shown in loving slow-motion closeup. It’s a welcome change from the jittery over-cut style of action that’s popular at present (and that Snyder himself fell prey to in his DAWN OF THE DEAD remake), and at times works to demonstrate how powerful and well-trained the heroes are, but through overuse it becomes distancing (particularly in the Comedian’s murder, which isn’t half as brutal as it should be.) Snyder clearly knows how to choreograph an action scene, now if he could just do it at normal speed. Similarly, though the visuals are impressive as a whole, it doesn’t seem quite like they’ve decided between gritty realism and a more overt “comic book” feel; the actor playing Nixon has a distractingly phallic nosepiece (obvious joke, but c’mon), and some scenes have an overly posed and stiff quality, as though the film is going out of its way to replicate images from the comic instead of letting them occur on their own. The music incorporates a lot of very good songs put in interesting places, but we also get the unbelievably overused “Hallelujah” (at least the Leonard Cohen version this time) and a horrendous cover of “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance that seems designed to drive people out of the theater as soon as the end credits start.

Overall, the feeling is that the film should be slightly more affecting than it is. There’s a bit less atmosphere, less intimacy than there should be. It’s an uneven experience; the romance between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre is as charming and sweet as it was in the comic, but the climax has a few too many conventional superhero moments. And the screenplay is perhaps too reverent when it comes to the original’s dialogue- a lot of great lines are retained, but so are a lot of lines that really only work on the page and not when spoken.

To make the best possible film version of WATCHMEN would, ironically, probably require much more butchery of the original work, reshaping it into specifically filmic at the expense of fidelity. The filmmakers here obviously didn’t want to risk that, so what we get is a more literal translation, and something is inevitably lost between media. That said, it’s still well above the average for a superhero film, giving us strong characters, a complex story, and some remarkable visuals. Snyder may not be the visionary Warner Bros. is claiming in advertising, but he’s done right by the book and created a unique cinematic experience. It’ll do.

From the graphic novel by Alan Moore (not credited) and Dave Gibbons
Screenplay by Alex Tse and David Hayter
Directed by Zack Snyder

Grade: B+