Archive for the 'film' Category

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I actually enjoyed the first Transformers movie quite a bit. I think the sequel may be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It fails on every conceivable level. People will tell you it’s just a big dumb glorious action movie. Those people are wrong. There are half-hour stretches in which NOTHING HAPPENS, as though the writers were stumped about what to do next, and left to go think of something — but LEFT THE MOVIE RUNNING while they did so. At no point in the making of this film was the question “why?” ever asked, by anyone. Nothing matters, nothing makes sense, and not even the explosions are interesting. Not sexy, not funny, not thrilling. And did I mention three hours long? Please, go watch Armageddon or Die Hard 4 or something. Save your money.

That was the most surprising part — that the movie would fail so completely at even being an entertaining summer action flick. Other, ancillary frustrations:

  • The pervasive neocon ideology. Aside from the military boosterism (expected from Michael Bay), there is literally a scene where the White House spokesman yells at Optimus Prime and over the course of the argument, the terms “planet Earth” and “United States” are thoroughly conflated. Because they’re the same thing, you see.
  • Transformers, the franchise, was designed to sell toys. The TV shows and comics understood this, and made the most of it — they clearly diagrammed who was who, gave all the transformers distinct personalities, and made you fall in love with them, so that you would want to own them. After watching Revenge of the Fallen I can’t even visualize more than three or four of the 30+ featured transformers, let alone name them or describe their personalities. What are kids supposed to do? “Thanks, mom! It’s… Sideswipe? Remember him from that half a frame he was in during that one explosion scene?” You couldn’t follow this with a scorecard.
  • The “twins” are every bit as bad as you’ve heard.
  • One of the “themes” of the film (if there are any, there are like twelve, all stillborn like a litter of malnourished puppies) is that being an Autobot or a Decepticon is not an inborn characteristic (like race) but a choice (like religion). At least two characters, the biggest and the smallest, are shown to switch sides and become “good guys.” This adds a horrific angle to the already-disturbing scene near the beginning, where the US military-Autobot alliance is shown hunting down a fugitive Decepticon (who is never shown doing anything wrong) and killing it in cold blood.
  • I can’t emphasize enough how incoherent the screenplay is. You know how there were twelve Superman scripts floating around Hollywood, all wildly incongruous, before they eventually picked Superman Returns? This is like they took a dozen Transformers 2 screenplays, put them in a Large Screenplay Collider, and fired them at each other at a considerable fraction of lightspeed. Then they picked up the pieces and filmed the result. You can almost make out the remains of Jon Peters’ giant robotic spider. For more on Michael Bay’s ecstatic transcendence of logic, see Rob Bricken at Topless Robot:
  • What follows is the most spectacular part of the movie, as Sam and Mikaela try to run the several miles back to the military camp during a massive Decepticon attack where the military has dropped Optimus Prime’s corpse.
    Why is that awesome? They could drive back in one of the Autobots and be there in a minute or two.
    They don’t do that.
    What?
    They walk.

EDIT: And another thing!

I want this guy to pop out at the end of every scene of every movie and explain how we are supposed to feel about what just happened. Just like he does in Transformers: Revenge of the Large Screenplay Collider.

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Have you ever been struck by lightning? It hurts.

My brother pointed out something today that I had never thought of but fully agree with.

We already had a fantastic film adaptation of Watchmen. It was called Magnolia.

Shadows in the fog: WATCHMEN

Like everyone else remotely connected with comics, I’ve been considering the Watchmen film all week. My reactions to it (in the aftermath of a Wednesday night advance screening, thanks to some very kind local connections) are kind of strewn around the internet, largely on my Twitter feed, but also commenting on posts by Sean Collins and Pádraig Ó Méalóid.

[Edited to add: for the sake of preservation, here are those comments:

  • leighwalton accepts that Zach Snyder probably made the best movie he could 1:18 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton do I just love movies less than most people? Guess I don’t see why a pretty-good WATCHMEN film is so fulfilling (aside from book sales bump) 11:42 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton for my personal take, I’m somewhere between Walter Chaw (http://is.gd/m3og) and Tasha Robinson (http://is.gd/m3oG) 11:54 PM Mar 5th from web
  • leighwalton “he would ejaculate only energy”: I’m not sure how to feel, seeing Roger Ebert encounter WATCHMEN for the first time http://is.gd/lVIJ 8:53 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert is working SO HARD to reconstruct the graphic novel from the movie – seriously, dude, it’s a $20 book. DC will send you a free copy. 9:03 PM Mar 6th from web
  • leighwalton Ebert:300 was empty. but WMEN, “maybe it’s the material, maybe it’s a growing discernment on Snyder’s part, but there’s substance here” ARGH 9:06 PM Mar 6th from web

reply to Pádraig:

Aside from some big-picture considerations (e.g. the tone wandered all over the place), I was frustrated by a lot of stilted line-readings. Oddly enough, a lot of the unconvincing lines were actually Moore’s — in WATCHMEN as in much of his writing, he often leans upon a line to carry double or triple meanings, so of course it’s going to sound unnatural if you take it “straight.”

It was most obvious to me during the Chapter III scenes — did the screenwriters really not understand why the TV man says “that’s certainly dark enough for my purposes”? Or that when Laurie says “shadows in the fog” she is hidden behind the steam from a teakettle? Without that double meaning, it’s an idiotic line (especially delivered by Malin Akerman, but let’s not go there). Snyder kept holding these long interpersonal scenes, which are not his forte — look, man, you’re an MTV-style director; make an MTV-style film! The book shows you how to do it! Cut rapidly between scenes, with lines bleeding over from one to the next! If you’re going to use the book as storyboard, friggin’ do it!

Your point about wasting time with the opening fight scene when so many important things were left out is right on. Why the hell was there so much emphasis on the Gunga Diner (and its Pink Floydian floating elephant blimp)? It’s a pun that Moore and Gibbons tossed off in a single panel, and it’s not even particularly relevant thematically. Meanwhile, where was the Gordian Knot Lock Company? Veidt’s decision makes less sense without the model of Alexander’s legend. Why include Bubastis at all? And why, in God’s name, change “I did it thirty-five minutes ago”?

It’s certainly a better film than most crews would have made. But I guess it’s just good enough to fall into the uncanny valley where we take its virtues for granted and see only its flaws.

Reply to Sean:

I thought it was cold when it needed to be flashy (no alternating jump-cuts between scenes? did they READ the book?) and flashy when it needed to be cold (fight in Blake’s penthouse, fight in Antarctica, bone-protrusions).]

The task of writing a full review of the film is daunting, and I’m afraid the perfect may be the enemy of the good in this case.

watchmen-1227-veidt

What it ultimately boils down to, where I’m sitting right now, is that Snyder et al adapted Watchmen more or less exactly as they would have adapted Kraven’s Last Hunt or Emerald Twilight or Secret Wars II. “Here’s a great comic book story, and we’ll bring it to life on the big screen.” But Watchmen is fundamentally unlike those other stories — there’s a reason Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo put it on their 100 Novels list (as you’ve heard ad nauseam), but declined to include Crisis on Infinite Earths. Spelling out what sets Watchmen apart could take a year, but broadly it’s 1) the self-conscious ambivalence of its thematic approach and 2) the Byzantine grandeur of its storytelling. Both are missing in Snyder’s film.

This is Watchmen without the irony and without the technique, which is still pretty fun, but it’s not the Watchmen that I read anymore.

Why I don’t yet despair for Watchmen

As Sean T. Collins notes, there’s a new Watchmen trailer, with actual dialogue and everything. Among the fan complaints that are piling up, here and elsewhere, involve Rorschach’s “growl” (basically lifted from Christian Bale’s awful awful Batman voice), cliché action-movie lines, changing the Minutemen/Crimebusters name to the Watchmen, and of course the unceasing slo-mo — plus earlier anxiety about the costumes.

The use of the name “Watchmen” on-camera (which never happens in the book) is sensible. The proliferation of lame team names throughout the story might work within the book’s purpose (underscoring Hollis Mason’s point that the first generation of heroes were total amateurs with no idea what they were doing), but would be unnecessarily confusing in a film. It smacks of “oh by the way, which one’s Pink?”, but if that’s the worst that happens, this will be the best adapted epic since LOTR.

The reason I’m hesitant to piss on this movie is that, as I’ve said before, I largely agree with Snyder’s stated position, that Watchmen as an act of deconstruction must superficially resemble its targets as much as possible.

Rorschach was a parody of certain sociopathic tendencies that were just starting to creep in to superheroes in the 80s; as the post-Watchmen era grew to emulate him more and more, he’s only grown more relevant.

So in that sense, the latex nipples and dumbass tough-guy growl are inevitable. In order for the deconstruction to work, it’s got to make use of the tropes that are on viewers’ minds.

The part that makes me nervous is that Snyder doesn’t have the detachment that Moore and Gibbons had when creating the thing — they loved superheroes enough to bring them accurately to life, but they had no illusions about the genre’s fundamentally childish nature and dangeous implications. Snyder is a clever fan, but he’s still a fan. He genuinely thinks it’s cool to watch a costumed badass do a stunt in slo-mo. What remains to be seen is whether (amidst hideous amounts of pressure from studios, fans, etc) he can have his cake and eat it too.

what the world needs now is Dark Superman

I totally called this:

Like the recent Batman sequel — which has become the highest-grossing film of the year thus far — Mr. Robinov wants his next pack of superhero movies to be bathed in the same brooding tone as “The Dark Knight.” Creatively, he sees exploring the evil side to characters as the key to unlocking some of Warner Bros.’ DC properties. “We’re going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it,” he says. That goes for the company’s Superman franchise as well.

If Dark Knight has already convinced the suits that “darker=better,” Watchmen is going to seal the deal.

Oh goody. Now, far be it from me to begrudge anyone his or her own personal “aha” moment:

Snyder remembers screening some Watchmen footage for an unnamed studio executive. Afterward, Snyder says, the exec turned to him and said, ”This makes Superman look stupid.”

To get grumpy about the mass audience discovering something that hip comic fans discovered years ago would just be elitism, and as tempting as it is, I recognize that it’s not fair.

What I’m honestly not looking forward to is the deluge of misguided imitations of the Dark Knight/Watchmen vibe, as the broader entertainment industry tries to digest this pill that the comics industry first swallowed 20 years ago and is finally, gradually, starting to metabolize. Sure, some of the influence will be good — we’re not likely to see Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze again — but as the AV Club put it, “the immediate impact of Watchmen was a wave of violent, ugly, and stupid superhero comics.” We’re about to see that unfold all over again, writ large.

Hopefully it won’t last too long and the next big Hollywood trend will arrive soon. Cowboy musicals or something.

“All bad art is the result of good intentions”

Wilde (1997)
dir: Brian Gilbert

Stephen Fry is a treasure and it’s a privilege to see him perform in any circumstances.

To see him portray Oscar Wilde, an even greater genius and one of Fry’s personal heroes, should have been a delightful experience. Unfortunately, the result is disappointingly lifeless and generic.

I think the primary fact crippling this production was the filmmakers’ goal of presenting Wilde as 1) an ordinary man to whom we can all relate and 2) a tragic hero of gay liberation. Undoubtedly both of these elements are present in Wilde’s story, but the emphasis on his ordinariness in this production ultimately left him uninteresting, a passive character in his own life story, often at a loss as to what to say or do. Oscar Wilde was many things, but he was never uninteresting and never at a loss for words. The humanizing of a genius only works if we are shown the genius, at least a little bit — which this team has either forgotten, or deliberately declined, to do. Wilde’s conversational wit, his outlandish manner and costume, his ideas about interior decorating, his unprecedented celebrity, and most of all his writing, are all mentioned but barely shown. Fry has said “it’s very important that we don’t see him as this sort of peacock, this kind of posing, prancing queen,” and screenwriter Julian Mitchell mentions not wanting to pack the script with Wilde’s “greatest hits,” which is fair enough, but we’re left with no sense of scale, and no reason to care about him at all.

It’s typical that the film poster, featuring Fry as Wilde in this outrageous suit striding through the grumpy barristers, has been digitally altered to make the suit a supersaturated pink. With several openly gay folks involved in the production, one clear goal of the film was to reach contemporary gay audiences and connect Wilde to “the contemporary gay experience.” But on the other hand, he doesn’t wear anything so shocking in the film itself — the suit in that scene is actually a modest pale tan, and the scene isn’t particularly outrageous at all. The filmmakers are stuck with either cliché or ordinariness, both of which seem rather treasonous in a film about Wilde, of all people.

Fry is a captivating critic and speaker with a deep understanding of Wilde (see podcast #3) — indeed, watching him in the making-of featurettes and interviews is more fun than the film itself. That he as Wilde is so often forced to keep quiet and stare thoughtfully off-camera is a great waste. Young Jude Law is appropriately angelic in appearance and infantile in behavior.

The score, like the film itself, is too easy — standard Hollywood melodrama.

Oscar Wilde was certainly a man who loved men, but if that’s all he had been, we would not remember him today. That’s essentially all we’re shown here, and the result is forgettable. It’s not the film Oscar would have made.

about those Watchmen costumes…

or: How Smart Is Zack Snyder?

A) really dumb?

We’ve approached each character individually regarding the design of their costume. In most cases, we have remained very close to the graphic novel. Although in some cases, we’ve made adjustments. I think Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have probably been changed the most from the original designs. We felt these changes were necessary because we live in a comic-book cinema world where costumes have been fetishized to a huge degree. The costumes, as they’re drawn, might not be accessible to many of today’s audiences. I also felt that audiences might not appreciate the naiveté of the original costumes. So, there has been some effort to give them a slightly more… I would say modern look — and not modern in the sense of 2007, but modern in terms of the superhero aesthetic. It was also important to me that they appealed to my own taste as a moviegoer.

NIPPLES!
NIPPLES!

or B) kind of clever?

Lastly and possibly most important, I wanted to be sure that they comment directly on many of today’s modern masked vigilantes — who shall remain nameless…

NIPPLES!
NIPPLES!

I think that for me, it’s about adapting that great work into a movie, but it’s also certainly about making a film that does hopefully to the cinematic superhero genre, what the book did to the comic book world. It’s my hope and my intent to shine a light on the current state of superhero movies and what they mean to pop culture, and what they mean to people who enjoy them, and comic book fans.

SPIKES! DONGS!
SPIKES! DONGS!

As in most contemporary superhero movies, the costumes are grotesque fetish objects — more or less suits of sex armor — which combine a ten-year-old boy’s ideas about both sex and industrial design, then turn everything up to 11. Do they make me want to vomit? Yes. Is it the appropriate look for a film adaptation of Watchmen — which is fundamentally be an act of deconstruction and cultural commentary?

…Maybe?

This gets at a bigger question: how can anyone possibly make a film of Watchmen when the entirety of geek pop culture has been killing itself trying to be Watchmen for twenty years? Comics, television, and movies have been relentlessly pursuing the decadent, cartoonish (and frankly idiotic) “realism” that [they thought] they found in late-80s comics (Watchmen, Dark Knight, Miracleman) ever since. Some segments of superhero comics are still stuck in the 90s, but quite a lot of them have finally shoved off and found a new aesthetic to play in.

Unfortunately, just as comics are starting to finish digesting 1986 and escape from the era of X-treme,* the rest of the world is playing catch-up. Frank Miller and Zack Snyder have brought the world of pop culture back into Miller’s brain circa 1995, and if you liked it the first time, you’ll LOVE it now that your co-workers can quote Sin City at you!

*[of course, the most interesting recent work in comics was never influenced by 1986 to begin with.]

I think Snyder is a really smart guy who knows what he’s doing. I think a lot of viewers will pick up on the metatextual nature of Watchmen (both film and comic). But I worry that, like Fight Club before it, the Watchmen phenomenon (and it will be a phenomenon) will simultaneously celebrate that which it criticizes, and a lot of dudes are going to come out of the theater totally pumped about what they just saw, brah. A mass-market version of comic fans’ response to Watchmen the comic.

And we’ll be in for a whole ‘nother plague of copycats. Except this outbreak won’t be limited to the world of superhero comics. You thought Pointy Batman was bad? Wait till we get Chain-Smoking Wife-Beating Indiana Jones and Lion-O‘s Stress-Induced Erectile Dysfunction.

EDIT: How appropriate that these should come out the same week as Michael Chabon’s essay about the impossibility of reproducing a hand-drawn costume in the real world.


Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.