Talking Movies

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

marv

Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

0

But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

atheb2

Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

Advertisements

August 22, 2014

Sin City 2

Comic-book writer and artist Frank Miller returns with a sequel nobody particularly wanted, except presumably himself and co-director Robert Rodriguez.

0

Hard-drinking hard-bitten hard man Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, so, just another Saturday night in Sin City… Supernaturally lucky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in town to take down unfriendly neighbourhood super-villain Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at his infamous poker game, assisted by lucky charm/hooker Marcie (Julia Garner). That doesn’t work out too well… Elsewhere Dwight (Josh Brolin, not Clive Owen), gets entangled with his seductive ex Ava (Eva Green) and her man-mountain muscle Manute (Dennis Haysbert, not Michael Clarke Duncan), and then another ex, Gail (Rosario Dawson), and her petite but equally terrifying muscle Miho (Jamie Chung, not Devon Aoki)… (Sheesh! Recasting is confusing!). And, in the final thread, stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) prepares to shoot Roark as revenge for the suicide of her protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis); who now observes proceedings as a ghost.

I dismissed 2005’s Sin City as grotesque, witless garbage that was not so much pseudo-noir as porno-noir. And, hilariously, the sequel isn’t nearly as bad largely because of its abandonment of grotesquerie for the proud adoption of my latter tag. There still is nasty business; involving fingers, eyeballs, and bone splinting with Christopher Lloyd (who, joy!, insists a character call him Doctor); but there’s less of an emphasis on sadistic cruelty. Instead the emphasis is on lingering on Eva Green’s tits long enough so that (to paraphrase David Mamet) half America could draw them from memory. Green should watch Angel Face to see an actual noir version of her character, because her constant nudity is at first unusual, then laughably stupid, before it becomes a game of stop-watch to see if she’s topless for more than 50% of her screen-time.

Miller has written two new stories for this film, ill-serving JGL whose character really has no plan, and whose entire storyline is basically pointless. And ‘new’ is a strong term, because, like the original, this is incredibly repetitive stuff. Chandler used to have Marlowe get worked over real good once a book, Miller seems to have his characters get worked over good once a chapter. The violence is rendered more abstract this time round by greater recourse to white silhouettes, but Miller’s addiction to ultra-violence as the solution to all of life’s problems remains intact. Boothe is terribly one-note as Roark, but he has nothing to work with – Chandler or Paretsky can be opened on any page to find a zinger, Miller’s dialogue is unremittingly clunky. Sin City was an event, but the visuals don’t dazzle, they just highlight the poverty of writing behind them.

Sin City 2 is a less sadistically violent but more gratuitously sexualised (Juno Temple I’m looking at you…) reprise of its predecessor. It passes the time, but caveat emptor.

2/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 7:25 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

Noah
Arriving in March is Darren Aronofsky’s soggy biblical epic starring Russell Crowe as Noah, and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s dad, the oldest man imaginable Methuselah. Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman round out the family, and Ray Winstone is the beastly villain of the piece. Aronofsky doesn’t lack chutzpah, he passed off horror flick Black Swan as a psychological drama in which Natalie Portman did all her own dancing after all, but this will undoubtedly sink without trace in its own CGI flood because it apparently tackles head-on the troublesome references to the Sons of God while somehow making Noah an ecological warrior – which neatly alienates its target audience.

300: Rise of an Empire

The ‘sequel’ to 300 finally trundles into cinemas 7 years and about three name changes later. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) urges the Greeks to unite in action against the invading army of Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), while Athenian Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads the Hellenic fleet against the Persian fleet (which we’re supposed to accept is) led by the Greek Artemisia (Eva Green). 300 is a fine film, if you regard it, following PG Wodehouse’s dictum, as a sort of musical comedy without the music. Zack Snyder took it deadly seriously… and has co-written this farrago of CGI, macho nonsense, Bush-era patriotic bombast, and deplorable history.

TRANSCENDENCE

The Raid 2: Berandal
March sees the return of super-cop Rama (Iko Uwais), as, picking up immediately after the events of the first film, he goes undercover in prison to befriend the convict son of a fearsome mob boss, in the hope of uncovering corruption in Jakarta’s police force. 2012’s The Raid was bafflingly over-praised (Gareth Evans’ script could’ve been for a film set in Detroit, and in the machete scene a villain clearly pulled a stroke to avoid disarming Rama), so this bloated sequel, running at nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, is a considerable worry. At least there’ll be some variety with subway fights, and car chases promised.

Transcendence
Nolan’s abrasive DP Wally Pfister makes the leap to the big chair in April with this sci-fi suspense thriller. Dr. Caster (Johnny Depp), a leading pioneer in the field of A.I., uploads himself into a computer upon an assassination attempt, soon gaining a thirst for omnipotence. Pfister has enlisted Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, as well as Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and the inimitable Clifton Collins Jr, and Jack Paglen’s script was on the Black List; so why is this a fear? Well, remember when Spielberg’s DP tried to be a director? And when was the last time Depp’s acting was bearable and not a quirkfest?

JamieFoxxElectroNonOfficial

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 2nd sees the return of the franchise we didn’t need rebooted… Aggravatingly Andrew Garfield as Spidey and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey are far better actors than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, but the material they were given felt inevitably over-familiar. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote the sequel, and, after Star Trek ‘2’, their Sleepy Hollow riffs so much on Supernatural it casts doubt on their confidence in their own original ideas, which is a double whammy as far as over-familiarity goes. And there’s too many villains… Electro (Jamie Foxx), Rhino (Paul Giamatti), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), and Norman Osborn(/Green Goblin too?) (Chris Cooper).

Boyhood
Richard Linklater and Michael Winterbottom as transatlantic parallels gains ground as it transpires they’ve both been pulling the same trick over the last decade. Linklater in Boyhood tells the life of a child (Ellar Salmon) from age six to age 18, following his relationship with his parents (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) before and after they divorce. Linklater has spent a few weeks every year since 2002 shooting portions of this film, so Salmon grows up and his parents lose their looks. Hawke has described it as “time-lapse photography of a human being”, but is it as good as Michael Chabon’s similar set of New Yorker stories following a boy’s adolescence?

jupiter-ascending-channing-tatum-mila-kunis-636-380

Edge of Tomorrow

Tastefully released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Tom Cruise plays a soldier, fighting in a world war against invading aliens, who finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way. So far, so Groundhog Day meets Source Code. On the plus side it’s directed by Doug Liman (SwingersMr & Mrs Smith), who needs to redeem himself for 2008’s Jumper, and it co-stars Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton. On the minus side three different screenwriters are credited (including Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth), and, given how ‘development’ works, there’s probably as many more uncredited.

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return in July, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The cast includes the unloveable Eddie Redmayne, but also the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton and the always watchable Sean Bean, and, oddly, a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Although with bits of Star Wars, Greek mythology, and apparently the comic-book Saga floating about, what isn’t an influence?

josh-brolin-dwight-sin-city2-driving-BW1-610x389

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

An unnecessary prequel to 2005’s horrid Sin City follows the story of Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) and his dangerous relationship with the seductive Ava Lord (Eva Green). Shot in 2012 but trapped in post-production hell the CGI-fest will finally be ready for August, we’re promised. Apparently this Frank Miller comic is bloodier than those utilised in the original, which seems barely possible, and original cast Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis and Jaime King return alongside newcomers Juno Temple and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But who cares? The original’s awesome trailer promised cartoon Chandler fun, and delivered gruesome, witless, sadistic, and misogynistic attempts at noir from Miller’s pen.

Guardians Of The Galaxy
Also in August, Marvel aim to prove that slapping their logo on anything really will sell tickets as many galaxies away Chris Pratt’s cocky pilot (in no way modelled on Han Solo) falls in with alien assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), warrior Drax The Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista), tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice uttering one line), and badass rodent Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice), going on the run with a powerful object with half the universe on their tail. Writer/director James Gunn (SlitherSuper) has form, and reunites with Michael Rooker as well casting Karen Gillan as a villain, but this silly CGI madness sounds beyond even him.

char5

Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: the rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the exciting Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and the poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor. This version is from slightly morbid director Thomas Vinterberg (FestenThe Hunt), in his first period outing, and, worryingly, he co-scripted this with David Nicholls of One Day fame; whose own tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

The Man from UNCLE

Probably a Christmas blockbuster this reboot of the 1960s show teams CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and his Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was very dryly done tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

MV5BNjI4NzMyODA3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTkxNTc4MDE@._V1_SY317_CR192,0,214,317_

Exodus

Another year, another Ridley Scott flick among my greatest cinematic fears… Thankfully Fassbender is not implicated in this disaster in waiting. Instead it is Christian Bale who steps into Charlton Heston’s sandals as the leader of the Israelites Moses in this Christmas blockbuster – don’t ask… Joel Edgerton is the Pharoah Rameses who will not let Moses’ people go, Aaron Paul is Joshua, and the ensemble includes Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Emun Elliott and John Turturro. But Tower Heist scribes Adam Cooper & Bill Collage are the chief writers, with Steve Zaillian rewriting for awards prestige, and Scott’s on an epic losing streak, so this looks well primed for CGI catastrophe…

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

July 28, 2010

Snyder’s Sensibility

Does Zack Snyder, director of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, have an identifiable and disturbing filmic sensibility or is it too early in his career to judge?

In a previous blog entry I wrote about misgivings regarding Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s epic comic Watchmen. These included the fact that Snyder’s Rorschach growled like Batman, rendering him heroic, whereas Moore gave Rorschach peculiar syntax to indicate his damaged state – this raised the worry that Snyder viewed Rorschach’s interior monologue as colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview rather than reprehensible ravings. More alarming was the linked problem of violence and visuals as, to masquerade as a blockbuster, Snyder had added violence, eliding Moore’s satirical point about the need for violent spectacle, and then reversing Moore’s intentions in Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s intentionally lame rescue of people from a fire, which made their subsequent sex even more pointedly pathetic, by filming it as slow-mo heroic firestorms followed by ‘Hallelujah’ scored sex…

One could argue Snyder was demonstrating that he had only one style of directing, slow-mo ultra-violence, but what if it was a sensibility that colours his approach to all material? Dawn of the Dead threw out what little social satire there was in Romero’s original movie, about survivors repulsing zombies from a shopping mall, and instead indulged in that easiest of cheap horror tricks, fast-running zombies, as well as oceans of gore and needlessly nasty moments like a zombie baby trying to eat someone seconds after being born from an infected mother. Dawn’s writer went on to write and direct the joyous Slither so the majority of the blame must lie with Snyder. 300, which may be the cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of Bush America, works wonderfully as a musical comedy without music so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast, but Snyder in all seriousness made an action movie about freedom, and the people I know who hate 300 are uniformly the ones who took it seriously, like Snyder, rather than comically.

I wrote previously on the dilemma of criticising bad films without encouraging more of the same. I have since seen the ultimate cut of Watchmen in such a manner as to avoid both such encouragement and the vengeance of the FBI. I’m aware Ultimate Watchmen is not the theatrical cut most people saw, but the interpolation of the animated Black Freighter storyline along with its sheer wide-screen nature makes it more considered than a cut running an hour shorter could be, which allows some interesting observations. It remains a curiosity rather than a good movie, as it hews so closely to the comic, but Snyder is more restrained than I would have thought possible and one can only have a small number of quibbles with his adaptation.

These quibbles though feed the idea that there is a distinctive Snyder Sensibility, as their presence in the shorter theatrical cut emphasises both that Snyder wanted to include them above all else, and that they are jarring wrong notes. The ‘Hallelujah’ sex scene is painfully funny, and unintentionally so, and misses the point on two levels of its source equivalent by being heroic (even down to the climaxing fire-burst from Archie) because the preceding fire rescue has been presented in a bombastic rather than cringe-inducing fashion, and by following the failed sex scene which fails to juxtapose TV commentary on Veidt’s athletics prowess with Nite Owl’s impotence – an omission that makes a nonsense of interpretations of the alley scene as necessary misdirection because of the superpowers displayed in the opening fight. By the alley scene I of course mean the infamous moment when Silk Spectre, an out of shape human devoid of superpowers, rips the bone straight out of a man’s arm in a spray of blood with her bare hands. To quote Dean Winchester – “What the Hell?!” The other quibbles are Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the blood seeping out from the toilet after Rorschach flushes Big Figure, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer.

Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off thereby ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him in agony when Moore slashes his throat for an instant death? Why replace water with blood and have Rorschach graphically kill the child murderer rather than Mad Max him? Snyder adds sadism to an already nasty story, makes explicit violence that was elided, and prioritises super slo-mo sex and violence over logic. This is a sensibility. He may grow out of this seeming love of sadism for its own sake – Ultimate Watchmen displays new maturity – but if not he may become the new Tim Burton…

December 14, 2009

On Not Watching the Watchmen

Zack Snyder directing Alan Moore’s Watchmen raises the intriguing question – can a right-wing director successfully helm the work of a left-wing writer? Moore doesn’t seem to think so, but then Watchmen is very unrepresentative of his work, perhaps he resents its veneration because it’s the closest he’s come to Frank Miller’s shtick. The quintessential Moore is really the impossibly clever allusive universe and absurdist comedy of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Greg Garrett noted that Moore’s Batman in The Killing Joke was more interested in rehabilitating criminals than any before or since and that the Joker was given a more sympathetic portrayal; hence Moore’s writing is distinctly left-wing, especially when one considers his nemesis Miller’s splenetic fury at that work: “I disagree with everything Moore did in that book….My Joker was more evil than troubled; Alan’s was more troubled than evil”. Watchmen’s author is a left wing lunatic (read some interviews with Moore – full of the right spirit, but barking), so it’s deluded to think it could be done justice by a man who produced a completely faithful adaptation of 300. Snyder’s film works wonderfully, as a comedy, so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast. The DVD extras confirm Snyder is a right-wing lunatic, because he in all seriousness put it together as a straight down the line action about freedom, not preposterous nonsense – a sort of musical comedy without music. Moore refused to be drawn on Snyder’s approach to Watchmen, pithily dismissing 300: “I didn’t particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase rather than reduce them: it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid”. Moore you see detests Miller for being a right-wing lunatic. Miller doesn’t do rehabilitation of criminals, or shades of grey, and as his career has progressed his obsession with whorish females and stylised violence has become ever more repetitive, distasteful and shallow, even as Moore’s work has become more playful, intelligent and optimistic. Miller and Snyder mesh in a way that Moore and Snyder patently do not, it is a question of worldview.

Rorschach was meant as a parody of Steve Ditko’s ridiculous early 1970s comics character Mr A, a vigilante who saw the world in strict black and white morality and delivered savage beatings to anyone who strayed. Moore was parodying this insane Manicheanism. An insistence on dividing the world into good or evil, not only denies political reality and the existence of ethical dilemmas it is also (as Ditko soon found out from falling sales) largely devoid of any artistic interest. Moore was not endorsing Mr A/Rorschach’s politics but if Snyder directed 300, which may in time be come to seen as the ultimate cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of the Bush zeitgeist, does he not believe in exactly what Moore mocked? Moore gave Rorschach peculiarly phrased dialogue, an aural equivalent would be rather high-pitched – hysterical and psychotic. Synder’s Rorschach growls like Batman, which renders him heroic rather than damaged. Does Snyder regard Rorschach’s interior monologue then not as reprehensible but merely colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview? Even Ditko when asked about Rorschach replied “Oh yes, he’s like Mr A, but insane”. Perhaps Snyder failed to realise that Nite Owl 2 is obviously Batman…

Moore’s comic is violent but the presentation downplays panels of violence in favour of panels of characters talking to each other indoors. Not exactly blockbuster visuals, so Synder amps up the violence. This elides Moore’s satirical point about the comic medium’s need for violent spectacle, which is even more pertinent to blockbusters. Nite Owl 2 and Silk Spectre’s rescue of people from a fire is intentionally seriously lame, making the sex afterwards even more pointedly pathetic and indicative of some heavy-duty psychosis on Nite Owl’s part. Why then film it with slow-mo heroic firestorms and Hallelujah scored sex? One could argue that Synder has only one style of directing – slow-mo ultra-violence – but when a co-writer/director hits so many wrong notes by applying a ‘previously winning formula’ it points more towards the politics of adaptation: it is possible to be faithful in replicating exact panels of a comic-book but miss the point, it’s called not getting irony.

But why deliberately not watch Watchmen? Here’s why:

CASEY: Snyder’s Watchmen will be rubbish.
LIBERAL: If you haven’t seen it, you can’t criticise it.
(Casey goes to cinema, resumes argument with Liberal)
CASEY: Fine I’ve seen it now and it is witless trash, but then I already knew that. Why the hell does Hollywood keep producing such dross?
(Enter a Hollywood producer)
DELANEY: We only make movies like Watchmen because they’re profitable. If people stopped going to them we wouldn’t make more. You’ve paid to see two of Snyder’s films now so blame yourself for his next one getting financed.
CASEY: Hang on a minute, so I can’t criticise the film without seeing it, but if I see it I just guarantee more of the same. (beat, turns to Liberal) Are you two working together?
LIBERAL: I have no comment on the matter…

And so I will have no part in encouraging Snyder.

May 30, 2008

How to Watch 300

So you want to watch 300 but you’re put off by the insane pumped up butch machismo you fear is all it has to offer? Fear not gentle reader for you can view it instead through the absurd prism of Michael Fassbender. Who is Fassbender you ask? How can I explain the man, the legend, the fun? Fassbender is the Irish actor who swam to New York to say “Sorry” in that famous Guinness ad. He then popped up in Sky One’s ‘British Buffy’ Hex as the Big Bad, fallen Angel Azazeal, where he enjoyed himself far too much for a man meant to be working for a living. In the trailer for 300 you will notice the inimitable Fassbender delivering the line “Well then, we shall fight in the shade” with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. When 300 wrapped the producer probably came over to Fassbender with his paycheque and was waved away with, “No, really, I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?”

You are doubtful. Can one man really have that much fun? Oh yeah. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… It’s not possible to overstate how gleeful the role of Stelios allows Fassbender to be. Stelios is the Spartan from the trailer that leaps over the Persian soldiers and lands right beside the camera. He jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Stelios delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner. Stelios is even one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Tom Wisdom’s Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre.

Fassbender gets to do one cool thing after another. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. This is the ultimate glee moment as in the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Who does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome? Fassbender. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender….If you’ve got into the spirit of things you should shout “I LOVE dying!” at this point. You will have no objective judgement of 300’s quality, but you will have enjoyed watching it far too much…

Blog at WordPress.com.