Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Watchmen (2009)

Starring Jackie Earl Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Cruddup, Matthew Goode, Jeffery Dean Morgan
Directed by Zack Snyder
Action/Adventure/Science Fiction
Rated R: Strong Graphic Violence, Language, Sexuality and Nudity
Based on the graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons


I can't think of a movie more polarizing for comic book fans than this one. This is likely because of the complexity of the source material, widely considered to be the magnum opus of the comic book medium that was so complex that it has been called "unfilmable", and some might legitimately argue that this is still true.

Taking place in an alternative 1986, this film depicts costumed vigilantes as people who have helped shape the face of history and culture in America, but have since been outlawed, and now one of the older heroes has been murdered and the investigation leads to the revelation of a greater conspiracy set against the apocalyptic tension between the US and the USSR.


The dialogue felt very scripted and stilted, likely because of dense adaptation and the exuberant amount of exposition that needed to be laid out so that is understandable. The scenes with Laurie (Malin Ackerman), especially those with her mother (Carla Gugino) were absolutely terrible, thankfully her screen time is relatively brief. The violence is considerably bloody and lovingly shows bones breaking and human fillets whenever possible. The street fight at the beginning is easily the goriest, with Adrian’s assassination attempt near the middle coming in for a close second. By the time we get to the prison fight, we’re all but immune to the buckets of blood they show us in the sawing scene. To his credit Snyder reverses our expectations by cleverly staging Rorschach’s last kill occur off screen, using the swinging door as a tool for building tension and concealing what I imagine would be the bloodiest scene in the whole film, making it much more effective and scary.

The scenes with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Cruddup) are easily the best part of the film. For all those complaining about Dr. Manhattan’s lack of attire, please do us all a favor and grow up. His back-story does have to most weight and depth to it, especially when you realize how horrible the directions he was pushed into ultimately were. I sight the “Ride of Valekyries” scene in Vietnam as another example of just how terrifying the scope of this character can be amidst the tone of triumph and victory that is the intent of the scene itself.

Being unable to relate to others seems to be a theme of this film specifically. As the world's smartest man Adrian cannot relate to anyone but Rameses, Rorschach’s sociopath behavior alienates everyone close to him, Manhattan’s lack of humanity, and Laurie claims that she doesn't know anyone but other superheroes. I don't know wether this was an intended theme of the original work, and I had to wonder if this was Snyder's weakness when it came to working with actors over visuals that was unintentionally constructing this theme.

I find it ironic that for as heavy handed as things got in the original source material, things managed to be even less subtle in the movie, likely because of the medium’s reductive nature. The child murder had to be absolute so that Rorscharh’s action in killing the killer could be justified and could still be seen as heroic next to the "villain"; Ozymandis. Ozymandis's sympathy with the auidence is somewhat hampered by his diminished screen time and the forgiveness he asks from his pet CG tiger rather than for the millions he has just killed.
Altogether, even though I knew the story back and forth from the book and the previous viewing I can still say that it is very engaging. Saying it’s the fastest two hours and a half of your life is no exaggeration. While it has its faults but I still say as a film adaptation has done more good that harm done to its legacy.

Zack Snyder is a very visually oriented director and you could tell that this was a real passion project for him. The production design captures the look of the comic quite strongly, and the effects are complimentary in their workmanship quality, but the feelings I experience while reading the graphic novel are absent in this film. It is the best adaptation I think we could have gotten. No adaptation of this story could ever be as ground breaking as the original, but it tries more so to be a small representation than an avant-garde piece, just aiming to wrap everything up in a neat package. It was designed to satisfy those who were familiar with the source material, and on that level it works. The film contains a lot of the elements from the original, but the spirit and scope are absent due to the sheer abundance of the project.

Final Score:

3 1/2 out of 5. As good as it could have been.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Treasure Planet (2002)

Voices of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, David Hyde Pierce, Emma Thompson, Martin Short
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Adventure/ Science Fiction
Rated PG: Action Peril
Adapted from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson


The last time I spoke an animated film from Walt Disney Pictures, I spoke of “The Black Cauldron”, a horrible mess filled with wasted opportunities and that was best buried by the sands of time. In order to make up for that wreck of a film, I will now review another animated Disney that has largely gone unnoticed and deserves far more attention and better recognition.

What went wrong with this movie simply boils down to marketing. It was coming off the heels of the perplexingly popular "Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones" and was released a mere week before the latest installments of two other juggernaut frachises; Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. A film like this with such an eye-rolling premise didn’t stand a chance. The movie caved under the competition and the low income was deemed responsible for the eventually shutting down of Disney’s hand drawn animation studios. So when Disney was looking to revive the medium with “The Princess and the Frog”, they got these two directors again. Wait what? Well, actually it does make such given how Ron Clements and John Musker were responsible for the animation renaissance, making movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”, the later of which we shall see a substantial influence especially with the rebellious orphan male hero with his sidekicks, flying around an exploding cave of gold on his flying board.


The film shares the same writers as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and continues the blend of maritime action and humor, particular when it comes to the characters. Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once again playing a teenager from outer space) is portrayed as moody teen with a lot of potential but no direction. He is taken under the wing of a rough old cyborg sailor named John Silver (Brian Murray), who teaches him the ropes, even giving him “The Destiny Speech”. (Unlike “Astro Boy”, the word “destiny” is never used in the speech, and is used to effectively guide Jim out of his funk and spark a change in his character for the better. Also the corniness of the trope is referenced by another character.) Doctor Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), is our primary comic relief, frequently stumbleing over his tongue, especially in the presence of the beautiful, yet stern Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson). The two remaining characters of note are the two “Disney sidekick” characters intended to become breakout stars and help sell toys; the shape shifting Morph, and the bipolar robot B.E.N. (Martin Short) These two are feel reminiscent of the various sidekicks from “Aladdin”. Morph’s faux-English and ability to fall into trouble is much like that of Abu, while B.E.N. spontaneous outbursts feel like leftovers from The Genie, and may have been less irritating had they come from the mouth of Robin Williams. Together, they’re off in search of riches and adventure IN SPACE!!!!


The surrogate father-son relationship between Jim and Silver is at the forefront of the film and is easily its strongest part, and reminds me of why this makes for a better adaptation than say “Muppet Treasure Island”, where there is a similar mix of the classic story with various anachronisms and several strange creatures. In that film, the relationship between Jim and Silver was mismatched by the child actors low key performance and Tim Curry as Silver being his usual over-the-top self, so that they only thing left to focus on is the weirdos in the background. Here the weirdos in the background serve as flavoring for the story and help establish the world they inhabit.

The setting of “Treasure Planet” is a rather unique one. The film employs and mixture of both traditional hand drawn animation and three dimensional computer animation. Anything made of skin or having an organic feel is done traditionally, while anything mechanical is rendered by computer animation. This creates an incredibly interesting effect on John Silver, who is half man and half machine. The environment of the film seems to have taken this same approach, mixing the book’s original setting during the Second Industrial Revolution with more contemporary science fiction, effectively combining Steam Punk with Cyber Punk creating what I shall dub as “Solar Punk”. The look of the film borrows heavily from the style of artist, N.C. Wyeth who illustrated the original “Treasure Island”. As an illustrator myself, this is going to gain it some extra points in my book. This also makes for serving some engaging sight gags to further one of the film’s themes that “Not everything is what it seems”, such as moments we see what appear to be quaint wooden building, only to get closer and see that they are made out of rivets and gears. Despite being close to a decade old, the computer animatied portions still hold up well, and being a Disney film, the traditional animation is second to none

Action Packed, Astoundingly Animated, Humorous, and ultimately moving (Kudos to the music by James Newton Howard) This one is a winner.

Final Score:

4 out of 5. Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Starring Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer
Directed by Zack Snyder
Horror/Zombie Apocalypse
Rated R: Violence, Gore, Language, Some Sensuality


The film begins as we slowly begin to see the zombie apocalypse develop and get a first person reaction from Ann (Sarah Polley) and well as a montage to let us know this is a worldwide event. Our entourage of characters are able find shelter at the local shopping mall. There are some hostilities with the people already at the mall, but this is smoothed over rather quickly for the sake of narrative convenience. They wait around, do some things, and then before you know it, they escape from the mall and make their way out into a very bleak world.


We don’t get so much of a protagonist or lead characters so much as we see some people who spend more time onscreen than others. In the original film had only four lead characters and got to know them and see them change with the situations, and because we knew them, there was some considerable tension as to whether or not they would live or die. In the remake we have at the height of the head count, seventeen characters, none of which we get to know beyond which of them is good with a gun, which one of them can stitch up injuries and which one of them is the jerk that’ll most likely abandon the group and get eaten by karma zombies. By the end I couldn’t even remember half of their character’s names.

With that being said there are some interesting ideas that are tossed around during the course of this movie. One subplot involves Ving Rhames using signboards to communicate with “Andy”, a guy who has secured himself on the roof of a gun store across the street. “He may as well be on the moon.” Ving says. It’s a rather chilling line at that, knowing that because of the undead army between them, he cannot help this man in need. The two men develop a friendship through the exchange of information and display emotional reactions to relaying of bad news. In my opinion, it’s the best part of the movie. There is also a rather gruesome scene involving a pregnant woman giving birth to a zombie baby that ranks as shocking on the emotional scale.

Despite the fact that the movie starts by focusing on Ann and reaction to the surrounding chaos she isn’t a leader or a real protagonist. As a nurse she just slaps on Band-Aids, while the other women are either elderly, in labor, or putting out so that we can see some truly pointless sex scenes. The duty of “group leader” shifts between Ving Rhames’ police officer character and “Michael” (Jack of all trades, master of none!) to handle all the dangerous situations, as that is the duty of men. I can’t help but remember “Night of the Living Dead” and the original “Dawn of the Dead” and how revolutionary it was that the black guy was in charge and could help get the survivors organized. In the very beginning we see Ann looked down upon by a doctor concerned only with his tee time because of her position as a nurse. This film could have been about Ann using her field experience as a medic to step up and lead, to show that theres more to her than what people give her credit for or what people see and feels like a missed moment of opportunity.

There are a handful of montage sequences, but none of them capture the feelings that the montages of the original did of the escapist fantasy of a shopping spree or of the futility and boredom of living in such an isolated and comfortable existence. There really isn’t any social commentary or message in this movie like there was in the original. So much of the film is just waiting around for something exciting to happen.

The zombies in this movie (curiously enough they are never called “zombies” at any point in the remake) are fast and furious, raging and raving as they crave for human flesh, much like those infected by the Rage virus in “28 Days Later”. These zombies look and feel more like wild animals than people with the way they ran, growled and were covered in blood. It really didn’t register in my mind that they were once people and it diminished both the threat of attack and the fear of what they represented.

While I respect the remake for trying out some new ideas rather than trying to carbon copy the original, ultimately it doesn’t go far enough to establish itself as something unique or different. The characters just hang around the mall waiting for something exciting to happen and I felt very much the same way watching the film itself.

Final Score:

3 out of 5. Typical. Falls short of what it could have been.

(Embedded trailer unavailable)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, Tom Savini
Directed by George A. Romero
Horror/ Zombie Apocalypse
Rated R: Violence


The film opens on a chaotic news studio reporting the events of the zombie apocalypse as it happens. The mood is tense and the situation appears hopeless as we see scientists debating in circles about the current crisis having no definitive answer to the problem.

Our leads, recognizing the danger, manage to escape in a helicopter with the intent of going to Canada. Along the way they land on the roof of a shopping mall, where find supplies, food and shelter and decide to stay. We stick with these four for the whole movie and get to know them and see them change through the situations that they’re up against. Much like “War of the Worlds”, they are able to enjoy the comforts of home, but this soon becomes a theme of the film rather than a derailment. After they work to establish a perimeter defense the comfort they’ve achieved has been earned, but later through a series of montages we discover the futility of their daily living. The isolation is slowly driving them mad despite having all the treasures of the world. Despite some dark turns the film ends on a hopeful note with the remaining survivors escaping from the infested mall and into an unknown, but seemingly hopeful future.


The zombies (they are only referred to as zombies only once towards the end) in this movie are slow and lumbering with silver painted skin and blank expressions devoid of any element of emotion or humanity, and yet they are all dressed up like they were going about to go somewhere and had lives, jobs and purpose before they suddenly died. These zombies are “blanks”; they look human, but have been wiped clean of anything that made them people. Their appearance serves as a haunting mirror of what our survivors stand to lose. It felt almost as if their soul had been wiped away and left behind nothing but the empty shell and is a terrifying concept to even consider.

There is a certain wish fulfillment fantasy when we see our character run through the mall on a shopping spree which helps give the horrific scenario some levity. Not to mention the choice of soundtrack; muzak, providing ironic and happy, chipper tones over the scenes of carnage.

I was shocked in the end by a number of the deaths and violence in the action scenes, a testament to the quality of the characters even if the makeup and gore effects do seem a bit dated by our modern standards.

Final Score:

5 out of 5. Genius.