Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation (no colon, apparently) is a terrible film. I tell you this upfront so that any good thing I may have to say about it will be qualified by the knowledge that in the end Terminator Salvation is a terrible film. How terrible? Likely not the worst film ever made, and probably not the worst film of this year, but almost definitely a giant waste of $10. Luckily I saw it for free. Unfortunately, I still have the urge to call somebody to ask for my time back. The real conundrum is in figuring out whom to call.

The logical person to call would be director McG. If the auteur theory says anything about filmmaking it’s that anything good or bad about a film is always the responsibility of McG (or something to that effect.) When I really think about it, though, I’m not sure the auteur theory is entirely correct. McG may not be James Cameron, but with Terminator Salvation he seems to have a clear vision of what the post-Skynet future should look like. He also seems to have a good eye for blocking, as well as a keen sense of how to stage and pace an action sequence. And to top it off, there are some pretty spectacularly done long-takes. Being that this is an action film, McG’s direction is solid enough that the film should have at least been mildly decent. It’s not, and so we move on.

Christian Bale. I doubt I could get the man’s phone number, and the failures of the film may not rest on his shoulders, but I would at least like to call him up and ask him why he thought it would be a good idea for him to play the role of John Conner. More specifically, why he decided to turn down the role of Marcus Wright (arguably the main character) in order to take on a far less interesting character. Further, I might question his choice of playing John Conner as his own take on Batman-minus-the-gravelly-voice, and without any sense of irony as to the words coming out of his mouth. But then, I guess I can’t really fault Bale for saying the words written for him, no matter how seriously he may have been taking the whole thing. He is a serious actor, as we all know very well. Still, it’s a sad event to walk out of a movie and, for the first time ever, think that maybe Christian Bale isn’t such a great actor after all. Luckily for him he’s proved himself well enough in other films that I’m willing to forgive him for the dump he so graciously took all over Terminator Salvation.

If McG isn’t totally at fault, and Christian Bale seems marginally exempt, then I guess we have to look at the material they were working with. The screenplay, though I have not read its actually written pages, is unquestionable garbage. Oh my, I think we’ve found the culprit! I’m not sure who came up with the story for this latest entry in the Terminator franchise, but they clearly were not taking into account the fact that we already have a general idea of what happens in the timeline’s future. We know John Conner isn’t going to die. We know Kyle Reese’s life will be saved so he can be sent back in time and father John Conner. We know Skynet is big and all-powerful, but at some point it will be destroyed, though obviously not in this movie; the timeline dictates this. And most of all, we know that that damned little girl who doesn’t speak is never in any real danger of being killed because this movie is a PG-13 Summer action blockbuster, so there is absolutely no need for her to exist(!).

But I’m not done with you yet, John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris. Your script is some kind of minor disaster; an affliction of sorts upon the human race. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but that does not excuse the shoddy work that went into the writing of this film. Stanley Kubrick himself wouldn’t be able to pull much more than a polished turd from the wreckage that is the screenplay for Terminator Salvation.

The film begins in the year 2003, presumably before Skynet became self-aware (as seen, quite anachronistically, in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.) Though Skynet is not yet active, Cyberdyne Systems is already collecting dead bodies for some future project, but I’ll get to that later. One of the donors (or maybe the only donor?) is the pseudo-protagonist, Marcus Wright. Apparently he is some kind of killer about to be executed, and it seems as though the murders he is convicted of were some kind of mistake or accident or unfortunate occurrence. I guess the point of this set up is so that when he shows up, in a scene presumably meant to be a slight surprise, we know that he has a heart AND has a cause for which he seeks redemption. Oh boy, [SPOILER ALERT, but really who cares?] obviously he isn’t surviving this installment of the franchise. Luckily for the film, Sam Worthington, who is tasked with spewing the awfully contrived dialogue Marcus Wright is given to speak, is actually quite good in the film. He at least partially manages to imbue the film with some emotional resonance and philosophical meaning.

I guess it’s too bad that the big twist involving his character was given away in the trailer. And that makes “telephone call #4”. Warner Bros. Marketing Department, what the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you remember last year when you guys ran that extraordinary campaign for The Dark Knight that didn’t give away much plot, but made the movie look amazing? Or how about Watchmen? That film must have been damned impossible to sell to any sort of general audience, but you certainly managed to make it look way cool, and again, without giving away any plot. So what the hell happened?!? I hate that I’m once again talking about the trailer for a film, but in this case the trailer did a very serious disservice to my enjoyment of the film.

Okay; back to the screenplay. The plot is absolutely ridiculous. Let’s try and assemble this mess together:

• Skynet somehow knows all about Kyle Reese fathering John Conner.
• Instead of just telling one of its terminators or other machines to kill John Connor, Skynet decides to go after Klye Reese so that Conner will never be conceived.
• Oh, but wait! That’s not what happens. Instead of going after Reese, Skynet decides to get hold of Reese so that they can lure John Conner into Cyberdyne and kill him.
• To make matters more idiotic, Skynet turns Marcus Wright into some sort of hybrid robot human thing in order to infiltrate the Resistence so that he can somehow lead Connor right into Cyberdyne
• Futhermore, what was Cyberdyne doing collecting bodies in 2003 for a future project to be created by a Skynet, which at this point is not self-aware?

Did any of that make sense? No? What’s sad is that, when presented in the film, the plot is even more stupid and makes even less logical sense. There is no rhyme or reason for anything that happens in the film, and it’s mere existence only further muddles the already incomprehensible timeline of the Terminator series.

I would also like to make special mention of Moon Bloodgood. I don’t know who she is, but she sure is pretty. That doesn’t stop her from being one of the lamest additions to the film. Her character serves no purpose and her entire arc is insanely cliché. I think it was the scene in which she is nearly raped by a group of men in some rest stop that really sent me over the edge into completely disliking the film.

Recap: Terminator Salvation. Terrible film.

Detailed Recap: Terminator Salvation. Terrible film. Some good action sequences; still a terrible film. It’s a waste of your time and money. If you do go see it, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Now who has the writers’ phone numbers?

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Thursday, April 09, 2009


Trailers are easily the bane of the film world. Whether it’s their uncanny ability to oversell the action or comedy in a film, or feature all the best jokes or stunts, or even give away massive spoilers, trailers often seem to exist solely to ruin the movie-watching experience. The most unfortunate case is when a trailer simply sells a film as something it’s not. In almost every instance of this it is due to a bad marketing department trying to make a unique gem into a marketable feast for the masses. It rarely works, and often alienates most of the audience who ate it up. One of my favourite examples is the 2006, Vince Vaughn / Jennifer Aniston comedy, The Break-Up; the film was sold as some sort of silly romantic comedy, when it was actually a very funny and poignant film examining the pains of hard break-ups. The latest film to be given a massive screwing by its trailer is Greg Mottola’s Adventureland.

The film featured unremarkable trailers selling the film as another Superbad rip-off, only this time by the guy who actually directed Superbad. Don’t get me wrong - I love Superbad – but comparing it to Superbad really does Adventureland a disservice. Adventureland is unlike Superbad in every way, except maybe its rustic-hued shooting style. The storylines are totally different, the cast is mostly completely different, and the tone is exceptionally different. Yes, it’s a comedy, but only barely.

I really can’t stand the term “dramedy” as a name for genre or category of film. It seems to assume that life’s dramas are somehow removed from everything else, and that to add humour to a realistically dramatic situation somehow means it isn’t still dramatic. Life in many ways is a comedy, albeit an occasionally tragic one, but ultimately there is humour to be found everywhere and in most every situation. Adventureland is one of the few films that seem to genuinely recognize that. It is a funny film much of the time, and there are some creatively inspired gags and lines, but the film is also quite serious. It’s a comedy unafraid to throw in vast expanses of darkness or touching contemplation; it’s also a quite, emotional film that takes pleasure in throwing in scenes funny enough to stand alongside the best scenes from any of the recent great comedies.

Adventureland is about James Brennan, a college graduate with an impressive set of life goals as a journalist and an acceptance to Columbia for grad-school. Unfortunately life kicks into gear and James’ father is demoted at work and the family is forced to take a severe income drop. The family moves to Pittsburgh and James must take the only summer job he’s actually qualified for: a games operator at Adventureland, the local amusement park. It’s about as crappy a job as there is, but there James meets Emily. He begins to fall for her almost immediately, and they soon enter into a relationship. Unfortunately things aren’t too rosy for the couple. James must deal with his family’s dwindling financial resources, a crappy job he doesn’t want, and his insecurities about sex and relationships, while Emily has a sad secret just waiting to reveal itself.

As you can see, the film is a comedy, but the plot itself is quite serious in nature. What surprised me most about the film was Mottola’s deft handling of tone. It would be very easy to make the film overly comedic without letting the more serious moments play out. The film could also have been way too serious all the time, with the comic timing falling flat and gags feeling stale. Mottola manages to weave together the light and dark in a uniquely realistic and relatable way. When a movie that has more than one gag involving erections is also deeply affecting you know the director knows what he’s doing. It really shouldn’t be too surprising considering Mottola is a veteran of the Apatow-produced sitcom, Undeclared. That TV show, while skewing far more to the funny, also managed to be emotional and tender.

The acting is also top-notch. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart play the leads, and do so effectively and with great chemistry. Eisenberg, in particular, brings to his role some great touches; he plays his character as bright and ambitions, but severely insecure. The cast is also filled with a delightful selection of characters. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader bring the funny as the managers of Adventureland. Margarita Levieva is quite inspired as the hot girl at work. But the best secondary characters are Martin Starr as the eccentrically nerdy Joel, Matt Bush as James’ former childhood friend, Frigo, and Ryan Reynolds as Mike Connell, the cool older maintenance guy who supposedly got to play with Lou Reed.

Adventureland also happens to be a period film. It takes place in the distant past of 1987. I’m not exactly sure how necessary the time-period is to the film, but I found it added a nice character to the atmosphere of the film. It’s also a great excuse to play some awesome music, and some cheesy music as well. A common thread involving a grating loop of songs played over the park’s intercom is hilarious (and something I totally related to, being a former employee of Canada’s Wonderland.) And really, any time a film gets to play the song Rock Me Amadeus is a good time, and trust me when I say there is more than one time.

Adventureland takes all the fun of the crappy job genre, and mixes it with the heartfelt and realistic emotions surrounding financial straits and relationships. If you are looking for the next Superbad you’ve found the wrong place, and I’m sorry you were misled. If you can handle in its place a funny and poignant film about the trials of life then Adventureland is perfect. Instantly quotable and deeply touching, Adventureland is easily my favourite movie of the year so far, and now I simply cannot wait for what Greg Mottola does next.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009


Nicolas Cage in a new sci-fi action-thriller could only mean disaster. That was the mindset accompanying me as I walked into the theatre to watch Knowing. Imagine my surprise when I found myself totally gripped by the premise and the story. It shouldn’t have been that surprising though: the ever-ambitious filmmaker, Alex Proyas, who was responsible for both The Crow and Dark City, directed Knowing. And for all that one may tear Knowing down, nobody can deny Proyas’ ambition. It’s a disaster film built on a unique premise that attempts to explore themes of determinism, religious faith, and the scientifically inexplicable.

Knowing stars Nicolas Cage as John Koestler, a professor at MIT. At a ceremony at his son’s school a fifty year-old time capsule is pulled out of the ground. Each student is given an envelope from the capsule. While most students get drawings in their envelopes, John’s son, Caleb, receives a piece of paper with a nearly endless series of numbers scrawled all over it. John soon discovers that the numbers are actually dates, death tolls and coordinates of every major disaster over the last fifty years, including several that have yet to happen. The film follows John as he tries to prevent the disasters and save the world from destruction prophesized by the final string of numbers.

Allow me to get the problems of the film out of the way first. The acting, across the board, is horrendous. Nicolas Cage has rarely been less convincing, and Rose Byrne, one of my favourite actresses, has been left to screaming incessantly and being a general pox on the film. The supporting players are mostly just as terrible, and that makes it very difficult for the film to sell its premise and larger themes. There are also instances of poor effects work; low budget and big CG effects do not go well together. Lastly, there is a serious structural problem in the writing of the film: the narrative focus is placed on Cage’s character, but the focus of the plot is on his son. It’s a problem that becomes more apparent after the ending of the film and calls into question the purpose of all that occurred throughout the film, including the entire point of deciphering the numbers.

But even with these major issues threatening to completely derail it, the film succeeds. Knowing is incredibly tense and the premise and unraveling of the plot is amazingly engaging. The direction, particularly of the disaster sequences, is mostly stellar. A scene in which John witnesses a plane crash is remarkably effective: in a single take we see a plane crash and all the accompanying horrors, including people being burned alive, with John completely powerless to stop the seemingly inevitable. Another sequence in a subway station is equally thrilling. Proyas clearly understands how to put together a great action sequence.

Proyas also understands pacing and tone. Knowing is a film that never really lets up, and there is always a sense of underlying dread leading to the brilliant ending of the film. The finale of the film is spectacular and goes a long way in developing the complex themes that are toyed with during the rest of the film. I can see it turning a lot of the audience off of the film, but I think the ending takes the film to a whole other level, and is appropriate both for the story as well as the larger themes of the film.

There is a lot not to like in Knowing. In many ways the film is complete mess, and in some ways (the acting) a minor disaster, but in the end I think there is a lot to like in the film. It is smart and tense and fascinating, and ultimately it’s really entertaining. That’s a lot more than can be said of a lot of recent action or sci-fi films, and on some level the sheer ambition of the film must be commended. Would I call Knowing a great film? Not at all. But there certainly is greatness buried somewhere inside it, and if you can’t find that you’ll at least be kept very entertained for two hours. Let’s just hope Nicolas Cage stays as far away from Alex Proyas’ next film as possible.

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Friday, March 13, 2009


Horror films rarely interest me. They generally aren’t scary, and rarely do they offer even a glimmer of originality. Of course, this only means that when a horror movie is scary and original it becomes a breath of fresh air like few others can. The “zombie” genre seems to provide the most room for inventiveness, even though the premise itself is extremely one-note. Dawn of the Dead, The Evil Dead, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead work within the confines of the “zombie movie” to offer great social satire, new and effective thrills, and even deep emotional investment. Another film can now be added to that list: Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool.

Pontypool takes place in the town of the same name in Southern Ontario. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has recently started working as the host of the morning news show at the town’s local radio station. It’s implied that Grant was fired or let go from most of his other, bigger hosting gigs at bigger stations. After getting a hint of his abrasive personality and on-air antics it’s quite clear why he appears so worn and down on his luck.

It’s Valentines Day and Grant arrives at work, and within minutes is already getting on the nerves of his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and warming to the young Afghanistan veteran and technical assistant, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly.)

Nearly the entirety of the film takes place inside the radio station and limited to the three characters, as well as the traffic reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts) over the phone. The film quietly builds up the characters and the dark, but dryly hurmourous tone for the first 10 or 15 minutes, at which point everything begins to descend into hell. An ambiguously frightening call from Ken, describing horrific events involving rioting, explosions and hints of cannibalism, is the catalyst for horror.

The film’s first two acts deal mostly with the three characters in the radio station attempting to get a grasp on the situation happening in the town right outside their doors. Live phone call after live phone call serve to expand the scope of the terror. Chanting and babbling people, and phone interviews with the BBC inquiring about the possible involvement of separatist French-Canadian military forces, make the puzzling events outside seem ever more frantic, difficult to piece together, and hysteric.

McDonald’s choice to limit his location to one, and his characters to only three or four at a time, is inspired. In the dark radio station the horror of not knowing or understanding the events outside transforms into an unbelievably intense feeling of claustrophobia.

It’s all elevated to the nth degree by Stephen McHattie and his extraordinary voice. He is cool and his voice is deep and soothing, but he uses these qualities to disturb the peace. His voice isn’t scary, but its calmness and is extremely unsettling when pared with the terrible events unfolding. At a certain point it starts to become apparent to Grant that it may be him and his talking that is causing the carnage. Whether this is true is never quite cleared up, but that doesn’t matter. McHattie’s face when the realization dawns on him is both heartbreaking and terrifying. His acting carries the entire film, and even its slight missteps are overcome by McHattie’s bravura performance.

Those missteps are few, but they mostly occur in the final act. A new character is introduced to act as both comic relief and exposition. The character doesn’t fit in with the tone of the movie up to that point and tends to be more distracting than anything else. Because of this fault, the film’s ability to sell the cause of the apparent viral outbreak in the town is limited. It simply becomes more difficult to take the high-concept explanation seriously. Luckily McHattie is there to sell it however much he can.

When Pontypool is over the experience is difficult to let go. The film ends up being an exercise in tense, claustrophobic storytelling, as well as offering an ambiguous premise to decipher and some interesting themes on the nature of language for the audience to chew on during the drive home. The way McDonald allows most of the horror to take place off screen only increases the effectiveness. When you can’t see what is going on every sounds and every single image becomes intense and frightening. Pontypool turns the zombie film on its ear just as 28 Days Later did several years ago. It is a great horror film in an era populated by terrible slasher film remakes, and if you take any sort of liking to good horror then I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009


There is really only one way I can approach Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the seminal graphic novel, Watchmen. Others might be able to view the film on its own terms, or as a piece removed from its source material, but I cannot. I’m a fan of the graphic novel, and I am relatively familiar with most of its ins and outs. This fact on its own shouldn’t stop me from being able to divorce the film from the book, but what does stop me is that aside from some ample story compression and a few alterations to certain scenes and plot points, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is as literal an adaptation of its source as possible. Fortunately and unfortunately for the film, literal adaptation is a double-edged sword.

I’ll start by discussing the points of the film that I really enjoyed.

Number one on that list is Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach. Rorschach is a masked hero of highly suspect moral character, but his outlook and extreme commitment to his own principles anchors the film for the audience. For the most part, he is the film’s narrator, and he is also the only protagonist who is continuously actively involved in unraveling the plot of the film; and in a certain way he becomes the proxy through which one can enter the story. For that reason alone, it is vital that the actor portraying Rorschach nails it. Jackie Earl Haley does more than simply nail the role: he captures the character in a way true to the comic while also infusing him with a level of emotion that the comic was unable to achieve. The final scene that Rorschach spends on screen in the film possesses both an intensity and power that sells the entire character. In fact, it isn’t even the scene: it’s the final close up on Haley’s face. In that single shot Haley conveys the distraught emotional climax of the story, and manages to be the counterpoint to the horrors abound. Between Watchmen and Little Children, Haley has cemented himself as one of the more able and powerful actors working today.

Displaying the same calibre of performance is Haley’s Little Children co-star, Patrick Wilson, here playing Dan Dreiberg, the second Nite Owl. This performance does not require the intensity of Haley’s; in fact, the opposite is true. Wilson plays a man who has given up on his past as a masked vigilante. His character is quiet and Wilson’s portrayal is even quieter. Behind every expression or reaction is buried a longing for freedom of character; his is a character who keeps his innermost thoughts silent, but by reading his face, we know exactly what he is truly feeling at any given moment. This, again, is something that the comic book could not achieve. The film brings it to the forefront through the simplicity of the actor’s expression. Between Rorschach and Dreiberg lies the true footing of the story, and the fact that both of the actors portraying these characters are so good is a godsend: the film would likely have fallen apart on the shoulders of lesser actors.

I should also comment on Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake, The Comedian. I was a little worried about his performance from pre-release clips and trailers, but Morgan shines. Morgan is an actor who has been around Hollywood and television, almost exclusively playing slightly rough-edged, but great, warm and funny guys. Here, his character is, in simple terms, disgusting. As The Comedian, he has to portray all that is morally bankrupt about human nature and the world. Morgan fits the bill as The Comedian perfectly. He is cold and terrible, but he also demonstrates a range of emotion that only a man who so willfully chooses to see only the cruel joke of modern life can exhibit. He is steadfast while also being crushed and broken, and its yet another performance that gets the character exactly on the nose. The other actors are generally quite good, with a special nod to Billy Crudup’s stoic take on Dr. Manhattan.

Next: the visuals. The film is stunning; did anybody expect different? Almost every shot is beautifully composed to replicate sequences, scenes and individual panels of the comic. It’s a technique that worked well for Snyder in 300, and it works even better here. It goes a long way to aid the impression that Watchmen really is the graphic novel-come-to-life. It also helps the world of Watchmen feel wholly created and visually unique. This isn’t our world; it is an alternate history, and the visual style helps to detach our perception of the reality of the film from that of our own. The film could have attempted a grittier, more realistic style, akin to the treatment Christopher Nolan gave Gotham City in The Dark Knight, but that might not have suited the distance in perspective the story requires. Watchmen shouldn’t look as though it takes place in the real world; it needs, instead, to feel somewhat familiar, yet darkly estranged. New York City in Watchmen is a bastardization of even the worst that city experienced in the 70s and 80s.

The narrative, however, is where the film’s construction gets iffy: Zack Snyder knew that there was no way he’d be able to put together an adaptation that stayed true to the themes and storyline of the comic while also changing a majority of its elements. Making major alterations would be a monumental task, which would risk alienating fans of the book as well as potentially resulting in a film that just wasn’t very good. Instead, he opted to stick as close to the graphic novel as possible. The film is actually so close to the book that I would say at least seventy-five percent of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the comic. The only major departure from the book is the ending, which I’ll get to later. On one hand I applaud Snyder for not assuming he could rewrite Watchmen to be better than the source, but on the other hand, I wonder what those who haven’t read the book will think of the film.

The plot of the film is dense, more so than the comic due to the large amount of compression that had to be done. The storytelling structure is all over the map in terms of time periods and flashbacks; piecing together the back-story of how the world came to be this way may also pose a problem to those unfamiliar with the source material. Aspects of this alternate history, which are given pages upon pages of explanation in the book, are only explained here in quick shots or light dialogue, and I can’t help but think that the uninitiated will have a hard time following along. That said, Snyder attempts to give a cursory account of the history of the masked vigilantes leading up to the present 1985 in a relatively lengthy opening sequence set to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan. I have read some comments that the opening sequence is the best part of the film. I disagree with that sentiment, but I agree that it is extremely efficient and effective; without a word spoken, any audience should be able to glean a basic understanding of the Watchmen universe. It might not quite be the best part of the film, but it might be the best-directed sequence.

I’d like to make special mention of Snyder’s editing. Snyder has been derided for his use of slow motion during fight scenes, and even I was dreading seeing that style being used in Watchmen. I’m still not entirely sold on it, but I can say that I’ll take Snyder’s slow motion over any of the close-up shots and rapid editing common in today’s action films. Watchmen’s action scenes play well, and there’s always a strong sense of spatial and physical location. Finally, we have a movie with action that manages to be decipherable: I can actually tell who’s punching whom!

There is one issue with the action that I think might lead to confusion among those who don’t know much about the book. The masked heroes display extraordinary skill and strength in combat that is far increased from the book. It makes the action scenes cooler, but also may lead one to believe that these characters possess some level of superhuman ability. It’s not a big complaint, but it’s noticeable enough to be singled out.

Ultimately, the action scenes only comprise a tiny part of the running time. Most of Watchmen is made up of dialogue scenes with very reasonable choices of shots and edits throughout. Pacing is lively, but enough time is given for lingering looks and other emotional punctuation. On the whole, the film works very well from an editing perspective, and without hesitation, I can say that even though at 2 hours and 45 minutes the film feels its length, yet never drags

There are more concerns to be found with the film’s narrative, though. The film sticks almost exclusively to the structure of the book, and in some cases this works better than others. One problem is a lack of narrative drive. That’s not to say that the plot is episodic or unfocused; the plot moves forward, but generally at the novel’s pace and order. There are many scenes and story points unrelated to the mask-killer storyline, and it often gets to a point where we forget the underlying mystery to the film. The film must also deal with the book’s lack of climactic setup during its first two acts. In some ways, Snyder and his screenwriter try to correct this issue by foreshadowing more overtly throughout, as well as chopping up the villain’s expository ‘evil plan speech’ from the last act and spreading the parts as far as the film’s first twenty minutes.

While Snyder was faithful (to a fault), he did change the ending. You may have heard of the giant squid from the novel: That squid is gone, its function replaced by a similarly destructive power relating to one of the main characters. This keeps the themes present in the novel’s ending alive and well in the film while also creating a deeper story and character connection. When the ending happens, it no longer feels completely out-of-left-field as it did - at least upon first reading - in the novel. It’s actually commendable that Snyder was willing to endure fan outrage to make sure the film worked as best as it could, and better for virgin audiences than the squid ever could be; It makes me wish that Snyder had taken a few more chances and changed other things in the film to make the mystery of the mask-killer more effective.

One other minor complaint is regarding Malin Akerman, who plays Laurie Juspeczyk, also known as Silk Spectre II. She isn’t terrible by any means, but she doesn’t add much depth to her character. Similar to Evan Rachel Wood in The Wrestler, her character gains more depth from the other actors around her and their reactions to her than from Akerman herself. I say it’s a minor complaint, because in the end her character still works. But when you’ve got Haley and Wilson knocking it out of the park it would have been nice to see the same from Akerman; especially considering she is the lone female lead.

One area where the faithfulness pays off is Snyder’s insistence on making the film for a hard R-rating. All the intensity and, in some cases, graphic nature of the violence remains in the film. The nudity is there, and in all the same places as the book, and when I say nudity, I mean both female and male. If you‘re looking for a film with many shots of a glowing blue penis, then Watchmen is the film for you. It all goes into helping the film display the extremes in reality as on display in the story. When one character attempts to rape a woman, it is just as violent and horrifying as it should be. There is no holding back in Watchmen, and I think that goes a long way to selling everything that happens as well as the themes and ideas that are being examined.

I suppose that’s the best thing about Watchmen: It’s a film that captures its source almost too faithfully, and it slightly suffers because of that, but it’s also a deep film that sustains much of the narrative and thematic complexity and density as the Alan Moore masterwork. It is unwavering in its tone and it earns its place as one of the most visually enticing comic book films yet. It’s also entertaining and never gives up its pace during the long run time.

I do somewhat question the necessity of the film considering how literal an adaptation it is. I guess there are several answers to my own question is that if you want the whole and proper Watchmen experience, the book is out there for you to read. If you have already read the book and would simply like to relive the story, its characters, and its themes in a shorter and less in-depth manner, the film is an excellent alternative. If you haven’t read the book and don’t intend to I believe the film provides a more than adequate alternative and may actually inspire people to pick up the novel. The film, in my opinion, is solid in its own right and, in that sense, is a success.

It may not be the best possible adaptation of Watchmen, but having heard enough about previous attempts to make the film, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is probably the best version any fan could have hoped for. In fact, any fan should be pleased with the results of this comic book-come-to-life on the big screen, and I only hope that those who aren’t fans can appreciate it too.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Disney Animation Marathon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Not many films can be considered timeless. The Wizard of Oz is often considered timeless, as are films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark or Casablanca. These are all films that have not only stood the test of time as great works of art and entertainment, but films that also seem to transcend the time period in which they were made; Raiders was made in the 80s, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an 80s film, and it would probably shock a good portion of the population to learn that this year is the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. With this, the start of the Disney Animation Marathon, I believe that I have found the single most timeless film ever made. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a work of imagination as well as artistic and technical achievement that is still impressive today; the themes and storytelling are so simple and iconic that it can be difficult to comprehend that the film was released as long ago as 1937.

Watching Snow White, it is clear that the film was not made yesterday. Elements of the animation do seem less polished than current animated fare, and the soundtrack and voice work are typical of the era in which they were produced, but even these potentially dated qualities are superseded by the gorgeous artwork and the universally relevant story and action. It is hard to imagine a child - or any other person for that matter - who would not be won over by the film within minutes. This is a film that can be watched alongside modern animated masterpieces such as Wall-E or Coraline and it fit in with them naturally.

Snow White is a simple film, but analyzing it is a daunting task. There are an astonishing number of aspects that can be explored deeply, and likely all of them are deserving of time. Having watched the film twice in the space of a few days and for the first time in nearly a decade, I was overcome by many potential topics of discussion. First and foremost, I was awestruck by the level of quality and detail in the animation and background as well as the numerous special effects that went into making the world of Snow White enticing, believable, and an overall immersive experience. I was also fascinated by the simplicity of the storytelling employed by Disney in order to weave a universally appealing tale. In the same vein, I noted the interestingly simplified character work at play in the film, which allows the film to never be bogged down by extraneous character development. Finally, I was quite impressed by the dark imagery present throughout the film. In my opinion, it was these qualities in the film that made it stand out as both a great family oriented film and a masterful work of art.

From the opening frames of animation after the initial image of the Snow White storybook, we are immediately pulled into the world Disney has created. We see a shot of a mildly lit and somewhat sinister castle. The shot pulls in as though through the scenery in a manner that seems based in the reality of camera motion, but at the same time, it provides a style unique only to animation. In order to create a cohesive visual world with realistic movement and the illusion of three-dimensional depth, Disney developed the multi-plane camera; each cel of animation could be placed on a separate layer (each with its own adjustable distance from the camera), allowing the camera to appear to move through foliage and in front of objects. This depth adds a crucial element of believability to the film and it is no wonder that the same or similar techniques have been used in almost all traditionally animated films since that time.

The multi-plane technique is only one of the beauties of the film though: the backgrounds, which are hand painted in a detailed watercolour style, add extraordinarily to the visual style of the film. More than any animated film before, and most since, Snow White is an experience tantamount to stepping into a picturesque illustration.

Here is a clip from the famous Heigh-Ho musical number:

Everything - from character to shadow to background and effects - is striking. Also striking is how, in some shots, the environment appears to almost be back-lit, silhouetting the characters in a manner almost as beautiful and certainly as iconic as similarly styled shots in Gone With the Wind.

The characters are animated using a number of techniques. The humans are mostly done using a combination of hand animation and rotoscoping to give a realistic feel to their movements. The dwarfs in the film are clearly animated without any help from rotoscoping or other such techniques; they are expressive and each possess their own unique characterized animation that serves to show how much work a character animator has to do. For each character to not only look different but have both unique facial expressions and movement is a testament to the quality team that Walt Disney put together for his first animated feature.

One element I found particularly interesting was the animation of water as well as other similar distortion effects. I’m not actually sure how these effects were accomplished, but in almost every case, the distortion and reflection is done seamlessly. Here is an example of Snow White singing into a well. Notice how the ripples are animated and the distortions created by them appear realistic and flawless:

As you can see, Disney intended to create a wholly believable world, and that meant no detail (or expense) was spared; even the water looks absolutely perfect in the film.

The story of Snow White is, of course, taken from the famous Brothers Grimm tale. Little about the actual story has been changed from the basic elements of the original. Just as the Grimm tale was simple and effective, Snow White is too. I’m not going to go through the plot of the film; if you don’t know the story I’d have to call your childhood into question. What interests me is that Walt chose not to play around with the outline or simplicity of the original story. Snow White is first and foremost a fairy tale: the morals are easily understandable and the protagonist and antagonist are both clearly defined. There are no grey areas in a fairy tale and there are none in Disney’s film. The film starts off by setting up the Evil Queen and her motivations and then proceeds to a scene completely juxtaposed in tone in which we are introduced to Snow White through a song. Joss Whedon has spoken about the song at the beginning of Snow White and many other similar musicals in which the motivations and wishes of the main character are set up simply, effectively and memorably. The film continues to alternate between extended songs and set pieces involving Snow White, the dwarfs, and the Queen. This dichotomy of tones and actions means that the film never loses its playful nature while simultaneously maintaining the ever-present threat of the Queen.

One of the few plot points of the original story that was changed for the film is the ending. In the original tale, while the dwarfs are carrying Snow White’s coffin, they trip over some bushes, causing a piece of the poison apple to dislodge from Snow White’s throat and she is revived. Walt Disney opted to pilfer the ending from the Sleeping Beauty tale. This was a fantastic idea as it makes the ending all the more satisfying. How could you not love an ending in which “love’s first kiss” saves the day?

Of course, this would later cause trouble for Disney when he finally decided to make his own animated version of Sleeping Beauty. Luckily the ending in that film works equally as well, but we’ll get there later in the marathon.

Along with its simple story, Snow White has equally simple characters. Snow White represents all that is good and enviable in the world. She is beautiful, naïve, child-like, bubbly, and compassionate. There is nothing about her not to like (except perhaps the actress’ shrill voice) and she does not seem to change at all through the film. The evil Queen is also obviously very simple; she is evil and represents the ill sin of envy. The prince is almost not worth mentioning. Yet somehow, these characters need no more depth than what they are given. The audience doesn’t want to see Snow White grow as a person: she’s already perfect! Nobody wants to see the Queen learn from her mistakes. That would be boring. Instead we can’t help but want to see her defeated and hopefully punished for her wicked ways. The dwarfs are essentially all caricatures of their names: Sleepy is sleepy, Grumpy is grumpy, Dopey is dopey, etc. The only way they develop at all is that they are taught by Snow White to be neat and hygienic in a story tactic that seems aimed at making cleaning the house and washing your hands seem way more fun than in reality. Another funny thing about the dwarfs that I noted was how their being shown as working in the mines collecting jewels must have been a way to extol the virtues of a hard day’s labour during the Depression era. (Also, with the amount of precut and shining gems and diamonds they dig out of that mine, how do the dwarfs not live like kings?)

There is, actually, one character that shows growth over the course of the film: Grumpy.

Grumpy goes from being, well, grumpy, to nearly falling in love with Snow White. It’s not much development, but it adds a nice little subplot and it shows that only the most soulless, vile people are immune to Snow White's charm.

Snow White is a bright and cheery film, perfectly suitable for children, but do not make any mistake: it is also an incredibly dark film at times. The Queen is frightening even to me today. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see her as a child. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had soiled my pants. Just take a look at this scene (and is it just me or is it not reminiscent of a certain set of shots seen only a few years later in Citizen Kane?):

That cackle is absolutely terrifying.

There are many scenes, mostly, but not exclusively, revolving around the Queen, which are very dark tonally and visually. This is an area where Snow White truly excels over most other children’s films, particularly those made today. The film is unapologetically dark, sinister and scary, but this makes it an incredibly exciting and effective film. There is a constant sense of danger; at any moment, the Queen could snap her fingers and everyone on screen would be killed in a bloody massacre. Many films today seem to be too politically correct to try and scare children. It is amazing that, as early as 1937, there were films that had no trouble striking fear into the hearts of its audience in order to make the final confrontation and emotional payoff far more successful.

Snow White is a film full of darkness, whimsy, striking artwork, imaginative songs and even more imaginative characters. There are fabulous effects and beautifully realized animals and flora. It’s a film that’s not afraid to be surreal at one time and funny at another. Take the famous forest sequence, for instance:

This sequence is the perfect example of how the film uses beautifully fluid animation, special effects, abstract style, terrifying imagery, effective music, and even a little lighthearted comedy at the end, all adding up to one action-packed, scary, exciting and fun experience.

And that seems to be the true strength of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: It’s a brilliant piece of animation that can easily be enjoyed by anyone and at any age, and that’s why it’s quite possibly the most timeless of any film ever made; it provides for a wealth of entertainment, while never forsaking artistry or technical craft. It is jam-packed with memorable songs and memorable characters and at its heart it is a simple story that translates universally worldwide. The fact that this was one of the very first animated features ever produced makes its achievements infinitely more impressive. My highest compliment is probably that having seen it twice in less than a week, I cannot wait to watch it again. If that isn’t the sign of a masterpiece, then I’m not sure what is.

As an addendum, I’d like to share the Top 5 Lessons that can be learned from Snow White:
5. Don’t be envious. It’s evil.
4. Being beautiful and naïve is irresistible.
3. Wash your hands before you eat.
2. Clean your house on a regular basis.
1. Never, under any circumstances, should you ever eat anything given to you by an ugly old woman. Never. Just don’t do it!

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Most action movies, and in fact most mainstream movies, act as vehicles to test out Murphy’s Law, which loosely states: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The idea is to have everything go wrong and then have a hero come in to fix everything. It makes sense because if things didn’t go wrong then there would be no conflict needing resolution and we’d have no movies. Liam Neeson’s new movie, Taken, really runs with Murphy’s Law. It does more that that, actually. Taken sees Murphy, raises him and then proceeds to kick his ass.

Taken stars Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent and general badass. Mills has moved to LA in order to live near his daughter, Kim. She is living with her mother, played by Famke Janssen, who is now married to a ridiculously rich man named Stuart, played by Xander Berkley. Mills is constantly one-upped in wild fashion by the other father in Kim’s life: Bryan buys his daughter a karaoke machine for her birthday while Stuart buys her a horse. He buys her a horse. This is that kind of movie.

In between this introduction and the main plot of the movie Mills gets to play security guard for a famous pop star. Usually nothing serious happens at these shows, but given this is a movie, and given Murphy’s Law, it cannot be that simple. It leads to a nice bout of kick-assery in which Mills saves the day and wins the respect of the young starlet. It’s also a nice indication of where this movie is headed in terms of the action element.

In trying to rebuild his strained relationship with his daughter Bryan agrees to allow her to travel to Paris with her stock blonde friend (here named Amanda.) He gives Kim explicit instructions on calling him when she lands and every night before she goes to sleep in an effort to make sure she will be safe. Of course, again, this is a movie: Kim will not be safe. Murphy simply cannot be denied. When Bryan finally reaches her on the phone in Paris she is already at an apartment and soon begins to witness Amanda being taken by kidnappers. This is where the film really takes off. Bryan, in his amazingly stern voice, gives her instructions to go hide under a bed. Once there we are treated to one of the most suspenseful single minutes I’ve sat through in a theatre. The scene is in the trailer, but it is still extremely effective in the film. He tells Kim point-blank that she will be taken and that he will be coming to rescue her. And when Bryan Mills, ex-CIA, says he’s going to rescue his daughter he damn well means it.

It all leads to a film in which Liam Neeson uses his CIA training, know-how and contacts to expose a nasty ring of Albanian human trafficking, while also killing, maiming and destroying just about everything in his path. Allow me to be frank: there is nothing particularly intelligent about this film. It is mindless entertainment, but nothing really beats well-made mindless entertainment. The action is great here. It’s shot in that shaky-cam Bourne style, but like the better sequences in the Bourne movies the action is still exciting and provides a nice adrenaline rush. There’s also something extremely satisfying in seeing Liam Neeson killing everyone involved in this horrible crime. It’s the kind of criminality that is so vile and putrid that I doubt the audience would have any qualms about the way Bryan Mills serves justice to those who take part in it.

Liam Neeson is really the piece of the puzzle holding this film together. He brings a collected calm and cool, with a serious level of anger buried under the surface. I would actually love to see the Bryan Mills character in more films, though the plot of this one isn’t necessarily open for a sequel. Pierre Morel who was also responsible for the equally adrenaline-pumping District B13 directs the film, and he directs it with confidence and style. Except for the excess of setting up the plot at the beginning of the film there is little other than forward momentum once the main plot gets rolling. Nothing distracts Mills from his mission, and nothing in the film distracts the audience from it either. The film was also produced and co-written by director Luc Besson. Besson is best known for directing La Femme Nikita and Léon, as well as writing the Transporter series of movies. Taken seems to find some middle ground between those two extremes. It has a lot of the gritty realism of Nikita and Léon, while never having shame in its ridiculous over-the-top nature also seen in The Transporter.

The truth is, this film is nowhere near as smart as the Bourne series to which it has been endlessly compared. Luckily it’s made well enough and features a fantastic performance from its action hero lead. From beginning to end I had fun with Taken and that’s really all I could ask from it. It also proves that Liam Neeson, who was at one point up for a role as the new James Bond, easily has more chops for that kind of character than Daniel Craig. And now I’m left to imagine how much better Quatum of Solace might have been if Neeson had been the star. We’ll never know, but at least we have Taken, which provides a much needed thrill-ride for this dull movie season.

The ball's in your court, Murphy.

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