Wednesday, March 11, 2009

#128: Hell in the Pacific


Hell in the Pacific
Directed by John Boorman
Written by Alexander Jacobs and Eric Bercovici (story by Reuben Bercovitch)
Released December 18, 1968

All you really need to know: Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin, together.

If you must know more, Marvin and Mifune play -- respectively -- a marooned American pilot and Japanese naval captain. As the movie begins, the two men awaken post-battle on a deserted island and must decide whether to kill their enemy or work with him to survive.

A movie plot really can't get much more simple than: 2 enemies stranded on a desert island.

The movie itself is pretty primal. Amidst some beautiful scenes of nature, there is very little spoken between the two characters (obviously, there is no shared language), and the first act plays out like a bit of real life "Tom and Jerry," with Marvin and Mifune tricking and chasing each other like cartoon characters.

It's not too much of a leap to see the basis of the movie itself as a sort of two-man play about culture and war. Here we have two men representing two very different worlds fighting over a finite amount of space and natural resources. What little communication they do have is violent or threatening, even though both men possess things the other needs to survive.

Of course, the literal translation in which two men from two warring factions see beyond what they've been taught and find the humanity inside of his enemy is just as powerful.

Hell in the Pacific may require a little patience from a viewer who is looking for a more gimmicky storyline. It brings to mind a movie like Cast Away, where you might spend 4 or 5 minutes just watching a character build a fire. For those willing to give Boorman time to set up his premise, you will be rewarded. Mifune and Marvin (both of whom actually fought on opposing sides in World War II) give believable transformations as their characters gradually begin to bond and work together. It's fun two watch these two very physical presences come clashing repeatedly into each other on this little stretch of beach.

One of the most interesting and effective choices made by Boorman in the making of Hell in the Pacific was the decision to not use subtitles, leaving most of the audience (whether Japanese or English-speaking) in the dark about the other character's thoughts, while essentially giving both audiences the same experience.

Boorman and the film's writers hide the movie's ultimate message -- that sometimes it may just be too late to begin treating each other like human beings -- in a shocking, abrupt climax that I obviously will refrain from spoiling for you here. Seeing the progress these characters have made, you may find the ending frustrating, but I doubt it's anything less than intentional.

For more on Hell in the Pacific:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Buy the DVD

The trailer for Hell in the Pacific:


Monday, March 9, 2009

#127: The Steel Helmet

(Image by Eric Skillman)

The Steel Helmet
Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller
Released February 2, 1951

"If you die, I'll kill ya!"

The Steel Helmet, one of director Samuel Fuller's earliest films, was made on a shoestring budget over the course of 10 days. It's a little firecracker of a movie, bravely facing issues of violence, war and -- most importantly -- race, nearly a decade before the birth of the Civil Rights movement.

Remarkably, it's a Korean War film that was made and released a mere half year into the United States' war with Korea. This is no piece of pro-war propaganda; in fact, Fuller was subsequently investigated by the FBI (under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover) for possible Communist sympathies.

One of the primary reasons for Hoover's interest was the mention in Fuller's screenplay of the United States' practice of internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I'm sure his ire was also drawn from the complex questions about the dilemma of race in America through passages of dialog like the following exchange between a Korean P.O.W. and the African American medic tending to his wounds:

P.O.W.: I just don't understand you. You can't eat with them unless there's a war. Even then, it's difficult. Isn't that so?

Medic: That's right.

P.O.W.: You pay for ticket, but you even have to sit in the back of a public bus. Isn't that so?

Medic: That's right. One hundred years ago I couldn't even ride a bus. At least now I can sit in the back. Maybe in fifty years, I'll sit in the middle. Someday even up front. There's some things you just can't rush, buster.

If you ask me, that's pretty frigging progressive for a movie from 1951.

Of course, none of this progressive thinking would matter if there wasn't a good movie from which to hang all of these interesting ideas. The Steel Helmet does not fail to deliver with brutal action, humor and even touching friendship in its 83 minute running time.

I love a great entrance in a movie, and few introductions can top Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack crawling across the battlefield with his hands tied behind his back. He is aided by a young South Korean boy who has been orphaned by the conflict. The movie has barely begun before the race issue is breached, with Sgt. Zack barking at the boy, "You look more like a dog face than a gook!"

With the young boy refusing to leave his side, Zack nicknames him Short Round (yes, Indiana Jones fans) and they're off. Soon Zack stumbles into a platoon of survivors from other battles who bribe him into joining them. It's basically The Bad News Bears by way of the second half of Full Metal Jacket.

I'm not sure what compelled me to watch The Steel Helmet... perhaps the cool black and white photo of Evans on the DVD cover, grimacing in reaction to what turns out to be a crushing revelation. Having seen the movie, I feel lucky to have given it a shot. It's a powerful, groundbreaking and ballsy "independent" film with a great performance from Evans.

For more on The Steel Helmet:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.

Holy shit! Tarantino, Scorcese, Jim Jarmusch and Samuel Fuller talk about The Steel Helmet. If this doesn't sell you on the film, I give up:

Watchmen redux:

I realize that my review of Watchmen was already verbose, but as any true nerd knows, you don't just review something like a movie made from the Bible of comic book geeks -- you furiously dissect and redissect it. And then your girlfriend leaves you.

Recently I shared an email exchange with two friends that I felt touched on a few more areas that I wanted to hit. I guess you could consider this the "DVD commentary" for my previous post.

SPOILERS AHEAD. You've been warned.

Matt writes, after catching the movie in NYC last night:

Way-too serious. Not a whiff of satire. And absolutely no reason to care about any of it.

It felt like the movie achieved the perfect mimicry of the text that Synder was questing for, but at the expense of surrendering any real narrative tension. It only proves the subtlety of moviemaking: you can capture every frame of the comic and recreate every utterance, but still fail to tell the story.

Not to get carried away with the meta-criticism, but I honestly felt like I too was experiencing the world as Dr. Manhattan. As the plot plodded along faithfully (however truncated) with the text, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was just watching the preordained future unfold and going through the motions.

I respond:

I was conflicted because there's some interesting shit there, especially for a "superhero" movie.

Then I remember the hilariously bad sex scene in the sky (wow, completely inappropriate use of "Hallelujah") or the exclusion of the side characters that give the original book any sense of humanity, and I get angry again.

The squid thing is pissing me off waaaay more then I ever thought it would. When I had heard it had been changed, I was relieved because I thought that would be the audience killer. But now that I saw what they did instead, it's a fucking travesty that they cut it. I mean, you curb nuclear destruction by blowing up the 5 or 6 biggest cities in the world and pinning the blame on the very much American Dr. Manhattan? And this will stop war... how?

Besides, anyone who complains about a faked alien invasion after sitting through 2 hours and 30 minutes of THAT movie is just being ridiculous.

Brian, in his reply, knocks it out of the park:

I posit the following query as a representation of my movie going experience.

You're hanging out with a guy you've met on a couple of other occasions (lets call him Kaz). You're not sure how you feel about this dude. He's kind of a wearout, but he was sorta cool at least one other time you hung out. As it turns out, he is a huge Watchmen fan, and in fact won't stop talking about the legend behind the series. You've never read it, but have heard the story and think it sounds like something you might be into.

Upon hearing of your interest, Kaz becomes very serious to a point where you think he's fucking with you. Kaz stands in front of you and proceeds to read the entire book aloud in an austere and flat voice, while paying almost creepy reverence to any scene of violence.

Several hours later, when Kaz reaches the last panel, he closes the book, puts it back in its plastic dust cover and places it back on a stand in his shrine. In the meantime, you are looking for the shoe you kicked off at one point and wondering how a couple of beers with this guy turned into 3am. As you're gathering your things and your head, Kaz turns to you and says, "so now you understand."

What is your response?

Friday, March 6, 2009

#126: Watchmen


Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse (based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons)
Released March 6, 2009

I tried going in with my expectations low. I tried to leave the comic books out of my mind completely. I gave Zack Snyder my full attention, with my guard down. I really did.

While I'm a huge fan of the Watchmen comics (and the eventual "graphic novel" spawned from the 12 issue series), I can't say I'm one of the people who obsessed over them for the past two decades. While I grew up a comic book reader, I didn't read Watchmen until about 5 or 6 years ago, when I lived in Chicago and had a friend who ran a major comic book store out there. My buddy Eric, sympathetic to my poverty, would loan me piles of books to read in my infinite free time. The very first thing I had to read was Alan Moore's dark, satirical and groundbreaking work about a group of very flawed, very human (except one) masked crimefighters.

While the book was called "unfilmable" by its creator (and thousands of others), I always saw it as something that would make for an incredible miniseries. Director Terry Gilliam agreed when he decided to shelve his attempt at making the film in the late 1980s, saying the only way he could attempt it would be a minimum 5 hour series.

Snyder's Watchmen clocks in at under three hours, and considering his simplified version of the story, that running time could have easily been trimmed.

While I appreciate that Snyder remained faithful to a lot of the elements of the book, I think the movie suffers for that in certain ways. First and foremost, the movie should be able to stand on its own and make sense to anyone who has never read so much as a plot synopsis. I think it fails at this, and then goes on to fail the true fans of the book, as well.

For those who have never read the book, this part of the review is just for you:

Don't you think a movie that takes place in an alternate reality where masked vigilantes have been banned from America, a country that -- under the continued leadership of Richard Nixon, in his 5th term after winning the Vietnam war (with the help of the only true "super man" around) -- teeters on the edge of nuclear destruction, should seem kind of nutty, edgy and (in a nod to Gilliam) Brazil-ian?

At the very least, it should be fun. Now, when I say "fun," I don't mean it should be a barrel of laughs or an action packed rollercoaster ride. I just mean "entertaining." "Interesting." "Worth investing my 3 hours."

Watchmen is a god damn bore. I wouldn't have a problem with how talky the film gets if the "action" scenes that offset this dialogue weren't so generic and lifeless. One of Snyder's few directorial tricks has been his disappointing abuse of slow motion photography, especially during fight scenes. While this may have worked in 300 (a movie so in love with violence that it is basically pornography), it winds up making the movie drag more than the slow scenes. If given the choice between listening to hammy dialogue that moves the plot forward or lame fight scenes where a room full of faceless antagonists takes on a hero who is obviously going to beat every one of them with a single punch, I'll take dialogue, please.

Most of the performances barely register, and even some of the decent ones are hindered by the movie's insanely melodramatic tone (you've got Tricky Dick Nixon driving the United States to the brink of extinction... HAVE SOME FUN WITH IT and get fucking nutty) or just plain bad make-up (Nixon looks like shit, Carla Gugino looks even worse).

The only exception is Jackie Earl Haley's take on Rorshach, the scene stealing psychopath whose refusal to give up crime fighting is the engine that propels all the other characters to react. Haley is so good, riveting and believable in the role that you'll catch yourself wondering if he's acting in an entirely different movie. Seriously, Haley is once again killer in another role that proves that this Bad News Bear had been criminally ignored for far too long by Hollywood. Few actors are good enough to make a character this insane so sympathetic. There's a scene where Rorshach gets shouted at by his friend Dan Drieberg/the Nite Owl that is one of the most touching, humane moments in the entire brutal movie. There's a scene near the end, where Rorshach and Dr. Manhattan share a final moment, that will make you realize just how much of this entire film has been carried on Haley's shoulders.

For the non-believers, I can only hope this movie inspires you to check out the book, if only to answer the question, "What was the big deal about making this movie?"

Now, for the fans of the book, the rest of my review:

Look, fellow geeks. I understand how much you want this movie to be great. God forbid someone make an actually decent movie out of the work of Alan Moore, an incredibly talented writer who has been dealt nothing but shit from Hollywood (in the form of turds like From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is easily one of the worst movies ever made).

Snyder should be given some credit for keeping so much of the source material intact. I mean, who would have thought that a studio would allow -- for example -- Dr. Manhattan to actually walk around completely nude?

For me, the biggest weakness of the movie is the fact that it plays things so straight. I understand why you would cut the Tales from the Black Freighter story-within-a-story, but that story is a huge chunk of the brilliance of the book. What's going on in that comic informs so much of the many subplots in the story. Plus, the Minutemen have been reduced to a few photos in the opening credits. It's like taking the footnotes out of a David Foster Wallace book. It may help tell the main story better, but you sure lose the heart.

And what's up with Bubastis in this movie? Why even have the cat in the movie if you're going to change the ending and not even discuss the genetic engineering that lead to the finale of the book? There's no mention of where this crazy lynx comes from. . . it's like it's just there to please us geeks.

Originally, I could also understand why the "giant squid" was cut. But now that I have sat through this unforgiveably boring adaptation, I have to say that this thing was screaming for an ending like the giant squid. Even if you alienate some of your audience, it would have made for an infinitely more memorable ending than the one we've got here. Kudos to Snyder for at least having the balls to kill a few million people, but turning the smartest man on Earth into a lame ass mad bomber? Snore.

The more I think about the squid, though, the more I'm bothered by it not being there. Moore could not have created a more poignant and accidentally pertinent metaphor for our current times than his squid that destroys New York. Ozymandias decides to distract the superpowers from their nuclear war and unite them against a "common enemy" by creating a false alien attack on a major city. Any 9/11 conspiracy theorist would shit their bed with the conclusions one could draw!

I can already hear angry fanboys sharpening their knives for their next attack. I wanted this movie to be great just as much as any of you guys. The book is biting, incisive and like nothing I had ever read. It creates its own world, parallel to ours but with just enough creative licensce to seem like another universe. It's serious, but it doesn't take itself too seriously (see, I don't know, the giant fucking squid for further proof). The movie, for me, does not maintain this vibe at all, creating a world that seems much like ours, just a lot more oppressive and with much more rain.

Shit, when I see trailers online, I still get excited to see the movie. It's like I wanted this so much that I feel like it could still be good, regardless of my knowledge of the truth.

I have read a few blurbs that mention Snyder may assemble a full Director's Cut version of Watchmen that brings back in deleted scenes and the Tales from the Black Freighter story. I'd be willing to scrap this review and give that version a second chance.

As it stands now, Snyder's movie (to paraphrase the book) is just a bunch of photographs of lifeless stars.

For more on Watchmen:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Visit the official movie site
- Learn more about the comic books. Your time would be much better spent reading those. Hell, even reading the Wiki entry about the books is much more entertaining than the movie.

The Watchmen trailer: