Friday, April 1, 2011

71 Tweets (Runaway, 1984, Michael Crichton)

(Written for the 5th Annual White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Paul Clark at Silly Hats Only.)

1. How many best-selling authors are also pretty good directors? That's what always kills me about Crichton. I will assume he also had a 10 inch cock and his piss was literally a stream of gold.

I mean, studio suits let Norman Mailer and Stephen King direct films too. What the fuck was that about?

Did they really think sitting in a room all day with a typewriter is the same skill as managing a squadron of people and making a thousand decisions every minute?

(See also: Miller, Frank, THE SPIRIT. But no, don't.)

And yet, Crichton could do both. WESTWORLD, aside from an appalling media prologue, is a cold, controlled classic.

He may never have been a maestro (and maybe he knew that and that's why he went back to novels), but he knew where to put a camera.

He never, to my knowledge, embarrassed himself, though he may have come close with RUNAWAY, his feature from 1984.

The problem starts with the premise. Which is weird, because that's where Crichton shines, right?

An amusement park -- with real dinosaurs! An amusement park -- with super-realistic robots! An amusement park -- where Demi Moore sexually harasses you!

10. [But I kid. He really could find a good nut of a story and build something readable and marketable around it. No easy feat.]

But RUNAWAY: So it's just like our 1984. Except industrial robots are everywhere, building our skyscrapers, farming our food, making our dinners.

With the twist... that there is no twist. That's pretty much it.

When a robot goes haywire -- and regardless if it's a danger or not -- a special police division is brought in to put it down. Because that makes sense, right?

[Presumably, there are no unions in this world. That's the only thing I can think of. The robots done broke 'em up.]

Sure, when a robot somehow grabs a handgun with his claw and goes on a rampage, you're gonna need cop/robot specialist Tom Selleck.

But that's when we hit the next speed bump in this idea. Crichton doesn't want to repeat the simulacrums of WESTWORLD.

That's great, but the solution -- big clunky boxes that looked jury-rigged from Radio Shack parts -- doesn't inspire fear. Or interest. Or anything, really.

Seriously, they're never plausible as threats. Does a dry vac with a knife scare you?

[I'm reminded of the pool sweeper crawling out of the pool in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, a silly moment in an otherwise good film.]

20. [Maybe they needed to compete with the crawling and self-immolating Ouija board in PA 1.]

And the robots that are actually trying to kill people have been fucked with by villain Gene Simmons. So Crichton's usual theme -- TECHNOLOGY GONE AMOK -- is hamstringed.

Crichton's LOOKER had a gun that blacked you out for a couple seconds, and that shit was actually terrifying (see: the car chase).

This one has a gun with heat-seeking bullets, which means either a) the non-Selleck target is killed or b) Selleck jumps behind a lot of walls and tables. It's self-defeating.

[Also, the bullet POV shots just look like a guy running around with a camera at less than bullet speed.]

On the face of it, Simmons is a good villain. Simmons is creepier here than with his KISS makeup, and he reins in the performance, letting the stillness and the glower do the heavy lifting.

But it turns out there's no character there. Just a basic motivation (greed, I *think*). No connection to Selleck, no surprising human qualities, nothin'.

Crichton tries to make up for this with a brief, ridiculous scene where a psychic (a *psychic*!) says that Selleck and Simmons are "like brothers".

That are hardcore rationalist like Crichton brings in a motherfucking psychic says it all, really.

And while another of Crichton's strengths is his use of technical or jargon-studded dialogue (here, the cop-speak), good God help us when he's tackling "the media".

30. He never met an arrogant, ethically-challenged new reporter he didn't like to hit us over the head with.

[I used to fervently believe the WESTWORLD prologue, with its painfully broad "man on the street" reporter segment, was studio-mandated. I'm no longer sure.]

But the biggest mis-step, and what probably accounts for its box office failure (and what also makes the film kinda interesting) is Crichton's visual conception of his world.

Let me put it this way: the director that came to mind while watching RUNAWAY was Damon Packard.

Packard makes very low-budget films, usually horror or SF in nature, transforming banal, everyday materials into something transcendent. It's rinky dink, but that's the point.

[In REFLECTIONS OF EVIL, he turns the ride queues at Universal Studios into a haunted, CARNIVAL OF SOULS-esque limbo through sheer gusto.]

Crichton, probably unintentionally, ends up doing something similar, on a Hollywood budget. (So I guess the joke's on him.)

As I said before, the robots are pure Radio Shack. They really deflate interest in why you're presumably watching this (robots go crazy!).

Crichton wants a "The Future Is Now" setting, but the flat lighting and Vancouver locations kill any visual excitement.

[Filming in Vancouver is the Hollywood equivalent of going through your mom's old dresses to put on a show in the backyard.]

40. There are very few fiery explosions, but a lot -- a *lot* -- of cheapy-looking exploding sparks. Crichton turns it into a motif: the final shot has Selleck kissing the Love Interest under a shower of 'em.

I submit that the real RUNAWAY and a theoretical version made by talented, film-obsessed preteens would be virtually identical.

But it's not a complete wash. Crichton, ultimately, is too talented to let it be.

The most successful scene is when Selleck has to remove an unexploded bullet from his Partner/Love Interest's arm.

Crichton nails the combo of tension & humor here, and the way the drama deepens the characters' relationship.

[Basically, this is the sex scene, only with Selleck de-penetrating his Love Interest.]

Of course, is it any wonder that the most successful scene dovetails with the director's past as a med student? [Realizing: Crichton created the show ER as well.]

Then there's Selleck's fear of heights, which, because of Simmons' flimsiness, is the real antagonist.

More time is spent with Selleck, up in an elevator on top of an unfinished skyscraper, fighting off robot bugs, then the final confrontation with Simmons.

I love how Crichton holds the camera on Selleck's ascent for, by modern standards, a long time. Current hack directors would fuck this moment up.

50. He really lets the fear sink in as the elevator goes up, and Selleck gets the room to play this scene quietly, through his body.

There's also a nice camera move as Selleck crawls across the roof of the elevator to peer down. It's the little things.

You know, say what you want about his writing or his ideas, but the man truly understood was dramatic tension, and how to wring it.

The baby's alone in the house -- with a killer robot! There's a bullet in her -- that could explode any second! Your son's heading down the elevator -- where acid-spewing bugbots are waiting for him!

It's silly, of course. And it works every time, damn him.

Finally, let's take a moment to praise, yes praise, Mr. Tom Selleck. What a completely unearned bad rap this man gets.

I feel like he's treated like a Hasselhofian joke, and basically because he dared to sport a moustache.

Every time he appeared on Friends, Entertainment Weekly had to make some snark-ass comment. And he was probably the best of the regular guest stars.

Truth is, had Selleck's career happened in the 50s, we'd be talking about one of the classic matinee idols.

60. He splits the difference between Wayne-style machismo and Grant-style affinity for verbal comedy.

If you want to see a guy singlehandedly raise a film from "meh" to "worth a look", watch RUNAWAY.

Only a few scenes have Selleck dealing with talking robots, but each one is a small gem of conversational frustration. See: Verbal Comedy.

There's a real subtlety to his performance; rather than emote MY WIFE DIED I'M DEPRESSED, he wears the tragedy like a comfortable coat.

He engages every actor, from hysterical Kirstie Alley to glowering Simmons, with, for lack of a better word, aliveness. Presence. Thereness.

Best Selleck scene: putting his son to sleep, and how both break spontaneously into chuckles when talking about the Love Interest.

It probably started as a blooper, but Selleck's so in the moment he transforms it into something truthful and real. Even moreso than the robots and the real locations, he grounds the film in reality.

[Also, let's enjoy the irony of the man starring in a TECHNOLOGY RUNS AMOK film becoming the spokesperson for TECHNOLOGY CAN DO ANYTHING.]

Yet, while I enjoyed the film, what kills it for me is that, really, there is no big idea or theme here.

No real subtext, that I could find; this film is pure WYSIWYG.

70. Not unlike that unfinished skyscraper or those bony little bugbots, it's just an skeleton that never got fleshed out.

Oh boo hoo, JURASSIC PARK dollarz.

Monday, June 14, 2010

She Gave Me The Golamine Beads: Ishtar (1987, Elaine May)

(For the 4th Annual White Elephant Blogathon, hosted by Paul Clark at Silly Hats Only)

Not to make any excuses, but there's a reason the last entry in this blog was last year's White Elephant entry. In case you didn't know, I am now the father of not one, not two, but three kids. That's right, I now have a three year old and two eight month old babies, and things like blogs just aren't in the cards these days. So the following isn't quite the entry I want to write, but the only entry I'm capable of writing at this time.

So: Have people actually seen this film? Granted, it's not a hidden masterpiece, but the idea that this is some kind of comedy nadir is absolute rubbish, especially since Ashton Kutcher is still making movies. (May's MIKEY & NICKY is the hidden masterpiece, but that's an entry for a day that'll never come.) There's a number of theories as to how ISHTAR got its poisonous reputation (mostly dealing with star Warren Beatty's battles with the media), but it dovetails with my personal philosophy: everything that isn't the film -- the publicity, the gossip, the interviews with the cast and crew, hell, even the poster -- all of that is completely irrelevant. All that matters is the first frame, the last frame, and everything in between. Everything you need to understand (and if you wish, judge) a film is there, and all you have to do is look.

The following is less of a look then an extended glance -- it's not like I'm getting paid for this -- but I think there's enough there to suggest that there's much, much more to ISHTAR then as the punchline to an ignorant joke.

(Since ISHTAR is unavailable on DVD in America... er, what I'm saying is, pardon the crappy resolution and Swedish subtitles.)

Evolution of a song and a friendship. Through a series of cuts, we see the process by which they, paradoxically, create a truly awful song and come to gain respect for each other. "Shit, man, when you're on, you're on," says Hoffman about Beatty's terrible couplet. The first act is jumpy, jittery, a New York state of mind. Not only is a night of songwriting conveyed in a less than a minute through cuts, but this is actually part of an extended flashback. It feels very modern, and interestingly, this aspect completely disappears once the film relocates to the Middle East.

There's a Woody Allen quality to the first act, a bit like a late 70s Allen with the aggressive editing of an early 90s Allen. This is a particularly moody shot that wouldn't look out of place in INTERIORS or (if it was in black & white) MANHATTAN. Here, New York is associated with gloom, the dark, broken relationships and broken dreams. When the story moves to North Africa, the style changes -- the quick editing disappears and the colors brighten. Ishtar may be a dangerous place, but like its namesake, it's also a place of fertility -- rebirth.

(It should be noted that I'm still not sure if the fictional Ishtar is supposed to be a city or a country or what.)

Check out this great composition, like a widescreen Buster Keaton. Hoffman is planning to jump, and he's got a cops to the right and above him, and his parents to the left. Fitting that, at Hoffman's lowest point in the first act, the film's palette drops down to about three colors (blue, brown-grey, and black). (That red thing in Hoffman's hand is a pillow, and he'll get rid of that quickly.) Compare that to the multicolor of the market, below. Also compare it to the desert shots of the impending helicopters below, as well.

For a brief moment in Morocco, the two worst singer/songwriters in the world become stars. (See reaction below.) In a sense, it's a sham -- this audience is hungry for any entertainment, and any rendition of standards, delivered with gusto, is going to be received warmly. I think ISHTAR would win over most people if given a chance, and I think its secret weapon is its sweetness. Rogers and Clarke are dumbasses, and they're terrible singers and songwriters, but they're way too passionate about music to hate. They aren't in it for the money, they aren't con artists. They're deluded, sure, but who among us isn't? Point is, they're bringing joy to the audience, and themselves, and it's hard to dislike them.

And yet, there's a saltiness along with the sweet. These people aren't Moroccans. (Except for maybe that waiter.) Clearly there's a critique of imperialism (cultural and otherwise) going on here, with this audience having traveled thousands of miles to gobble up an entertainment they know by heart, and paying for the privilege. The film is overtly critical of American intervention in the Middle East, but for me, this is the moment that really works, where the film does two different things -- get us to empathize with Rogers & Clarke and critique what it is that they're doing -- at the same time.

Here's the introduction of Charles Grodin's character. Guess who he's works for. Go ahead, guess. That's right, he's a spook, and you can spot him a mile away. Smartly, in the very next scene, the film has the character come out and tells Hoffman's character that he works for the CIA. What's interesting is that in a movie about shifting and hidden identities (Rogers & Clarke are mistaken for tribesmen, Isabelle Adjani disguises herself as a boy, the talent agent becomes a peace broker, etc.), the two characters that are unambiguously static -- the CIA agent and the emir -- are the bad guys.

Hey look! It's Matt Frewer!

(Also, Fred Melamed is supposed to be in the film somewhere, but I don't think I'd recognize a 29 year old Sy Ableman.)

This is the reaction of an assassin after he accidentally shoots his own teammate. It's a brief shot, maybe a second long, but it's both funny, this spontaneous gesture of regret in (what I presume) is a hardened killer, and another indication of May's generosity towards her characters, even the unnamed ones.

I haven't seen A NEW LEAF or THE HEARTBREAK KID, but I wonder if May doesn't get enough credit as a composer of images. Along with that great composition for the suicide attempt, here's three stills from the big chase sequence. The various factions down on the street have just discovered that the rolled up rugs they think contain Hoffman and Beatty are empty, while the two are actually escaping above them.

May effectively splits the screen, a lower level and an upper level, and the action runs simultaneously. It must have been a bitch to pull off, but the effect is genuinely exciting.

A different angle, this time with the frame split horizontally, Hoffman and Beatty running across the roofs while commotion commences on the ground. This sequence alone reveals the sham that is the Michael Bay/Paul Greengrass run-and-gun style of cinematography.

A smaller action moment, but one that is just as effective. In a single take, Hoffman and Beatty see the American helicopters coming over the dunes to kill them, and they get ready to face them. This durational shot is the kind of thing that film can do that other art forms can't, and we lose something when we edit it down to half-percieved one-second images.

It's probably a stretch to correlate this horizontally-focused, limited-palette composition, one about impending death, with the suicide attempt earlier in the film. But to hell with it, consider it correlated.

"We didn't need a pencil!" Probably the emotional highlight of the film, and my favorite bit -- as certain death looms, they sing the song they composed earlier while dying of thirst in the desert, giddy at not having forgotten it. The friendship has been tested throughout the second act, with Hoffman thinking Beatty's a Communist spy and Beatty thinking Hoffman's an American one (that shifting identity thing again), but now that friendship has been renewed, strengthened.

Do they survive? Watch the film to find out.

I've only scratched the surface of May's (at this writing, final) film. I hope this post acts as a trail of golamine beads for some future writer, leaving a glowing trail out of the desert of neglect and towards the bright lights of critical re-evaluation.

Well, if golamine beads were real, that is.

Maybe I need a new metaphor.

Happy White Elephant Blogathon, everyone.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Little Piece in Me Will Die: Nightmare City (1980, Umberto Lenzi)

(For the 3rd Annual White Elephant Blog-a-Thon, hosted by Lucid Screeening.)

The effect of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead on Italian horror is well-known, and can't be overstated. A huge hit in Italy, Dead spawned a cottage industry of cheap knockoffs, the most famous being Lucio Fulci's Zombie (known in Italy as Zombie 2, an unofficial sequel to Romero's film, retitled Zombie). Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City is one of those cheap knockoffs, and it's only known because of Lenzi's participation in that other Italian cottage industry, the cannibal movie. I haven't seen Cannibal Ferox -- actual animal-killing doesn't interest me -- but based on the evidence here, it's probably monotonously paced, with only the meathooks of gore scenes (and the promise of more gore scenes) to keep eyelids from sagging.

The city in question is, based on the copious helicopter shots during the credits, somewhere in Europe, likely Italy. The story follows Dean Miller, or as Scott W. Black has dubbed him, Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller, as he covers the impending zombie holocaust, first as a member of the media, then as a increasingly-desperate survivor. There are other subplots -- the military's hilariously inept attempt to stop the zombies, the army general's wife's adventures in her own countryside villa, and a married couple who try to escape the chaos by, uh going camping. Again, the film's major fault is that nearly everything, from the attacks to the war room discussions to the "character development" scenes march to the same leaden beat. It's easy to miss the kind of bizarre touches you expect in a exploitation flick like this, such as the hero's tendency to throw things that explode for no good reason.

The film has only one good scene, and unfortunately, it's at the very beginning. Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller and his cameraman go to the airport to interview a Very Important Scientist arriving that day. When they get there, they witness the unscheduled landing of an unidentified plane. Sensibly, once the plane lands, the military surround it and await the passengers to disembark. Maybe it's just post-9/11 jitters, but there's definite tension in this sequence, and Lenzi does an good job building the suspense -- the confusion in the tower, the steady but nervous soldiers, the long, dead silence from the plane when no one answers when the army captain calls for them to open the door.

And then the door finally opens, and to Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller's surprise, it's the Very Important Scientist. He steps out, a little dazed, an odd look in his eyes... then pulls a knife from nowhere and stabs the army captain. And what immediately follows is the most dumbfounding sequence in all of zombie cinema, as a series of men in turtlenecks and leisure jackets, their heads lumps of black and red, file out of the plane clown car-style and attack the soldiers.
And when I say attack the soldiers, I mean with axes, knives, machetes, scythes, big sticks, and as if to say "hell, why not?", submachine guns. Fitting with the title, it's completely nightmarish, an incomprehensible burst of violence. The scene is downright Clowesian in its juxtaposition of ridiculous and brutal. (Unfortunately, the effect is undermined by the slightly puzzled look on Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller's face, as if he was witnessing a "funny" American Idol audition and not a terrifying massacre happening literally twenty feet away from him.) In the first ten minutes, Lenzi raises the stakes for his movie -- can he keep this level of intensity? Can he keep surprising us? Is this a forgotten and unheralded film that redefined the living dead movie underneath the noses of the Zomboscenti?

The answer to all of these, as always, is no, of course not, why would you even think that? The rest of the movie is a string of variations on that beginning, with diminishing returns. The zombies attack a hospital, everyone dies. They attack a TV studio that's broadcasting, live, some kind of Solid Gold-style show without a Dionne Warwick or pop music, and everybody dies. (Scott W. Black calls the TV show a "disco aerobics program", which is incredibly accurate and demonstrates how baffling it is.) Despite the zombies' ability to use weapons and tactics (such as turning off an elevator to trap their prey), there's absolutely no suspense in their onslaughts, just repetitions. Grab, slice, bite, eat, over and over again. If you see the zombies attack someone other than Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller, they're probably food.
By this time, the average reader is no doubt thinking, "Tactics? Guns? These aren't zombies". And the average reader would have a point. These aren't the usual zombie signifiers. On the other hand, Lenzi's undead drink blood, are indestructible save for head shots, and spawn more of themselves through the humans they kill. Regular zombies are mindless, and it's that mindlessness, along with their insurmountable numbers, that give them their metaphorical weight. Zombies that run, I would argue, are working on a different metaphorical level than their shambling predecessors, but zombies that move across the city, armed to the teeth, are no longer zombies. They're an army.

Is that what Lenzi and screenwriters Antonio Cesare Corti, Luis Maria Delgado and Piero Regnoli are getting at? The seventies and eighties were marked by Mafia violence -- is this their attempt to deal with Italy's inner turmoil via horror movie conventions? It feels possible. The violence comes from within the nation, albeit without warning, and the it corrupts, spreading from citizen. No institution is safe, not the media, not the government, not even the church. The last scene takes place in an empty amusement park, and even a place designed to make you forget your troubles is a deathtrap. For the filmmakers, Italy is killing itself, and for reasons that it can't even begin to understand.

There's a twist ending, hinted at not only in the title but also in some of the dialogue, but the real twist happened earlier, and was much more disorienting. Serious Television Reporter (tm) Dean Miller and his Doctor Wife hide out in a deserted lunch stand. The lunch stand is curiously decorated -- it's covered with what appear to be pictures cut out of magazines, shots of Elvis and Robert Redford (as the Sundance Kid) and the like. It appears to be some kind of American-themed eatery, which I suppose is something you might find in the Italian countryside, but it seemed odd nonetheless. After the requisite zombie attack, they leave the building, and I catch sight of a sign that reads "Hamburghers" (sic).
And it hits me. I'm in that Vertigo/Jaws tracking-backwards/zooming-in shot.

This isn't taking place in Italy. Oh my God. I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... America. The U.S. of A., all along. The disco aerobics program. The pictures of Elvis and Redford. The incompetent military. The scalpel-throwing doctor. The oh-so-symbolic amusement park. Dean Miller, for crying out loud. All American.

How did I miss it?

What does that say about me?

And the nightmare becomes reality....

Friday, February 6, 2009

Still Not A Player: Three Punishers

(Here's the last column I completed for my ComiXology column, The Watchman. It was scheduled to go up not long after the debut of Punisher: War Zone, which was, I don't know, December 7th or something, which accounts for the references to Twilight. Please enjoy responsibly. Also, try not to count the number of Simpsons references.)

Here’s all you need to know about Punisher: War Zone, the latest (and likely last) attempt to bring Frank Castle to the big screen: the Punisher punches a guy through the head. Let me be clear: he takes his fist and through sheer force, puts it through some poor schmoe’s face and out the other side. Actually, you need to know one other thing: that’s not even the most jaw-dropping bit of ultraviolence the flick has to offer. You may now sort yourselves into ticket buyers, wait-for-the-DVD renters and Twilight viewers as applicable.

Based on the box office returns, angsty, baseball-playing, abstinence-loving vampires have it all over vengeance-obsessed vigilantes. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The previous two Punishers made little impact (the first one, from 1989, was never released in American theaters), so there seemed little chance that this third swing would connect. Keith Phipps, in his Onion A.V. Club review, wondered why it was so hard to make a successful Punisher film — guy loses family, guy vows revenge, guy blows bad guys to smithereens, bada bing bada boom, right, Bart? But the conundrum of the Punisher is that he should work brilliantly on film and fail miserably in the comics, yet in practice it’s the complete opposite.

I never liked the Punisher. I hated him, actually, even when I was a pimply, nerdy teenager besotted with power fantasies, so it’s difficult for me to admit he ever worked well in comics at all. He just wasn’t interesting to me — when you read the monthly adventures of people who could fly or stretch or cast spells, a guy whose power was a working index finger lacked the necessary spark to separate me from my seventy-five cents. It didn’t help that his personality was as monochromatic as his costume, and since, unlike Spider-Man or the Hulk or Thor, he didn’t have an alternate identity (there’s no appreciable difference between Frank Castle and the Punisher), there’s no internal or external tension to the character. But more than that, he embarrassed me. Back in those ancient days of yore, when “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” think-pieces were just a twinkle in some editor’s eye, the Punisher was prima facie evidence that those four-color periodicals were trash, pornography of a sort, unserious at best and a danger at worst. In the 80s, Wolverine was the poster boy for dark antiheroes, of course, but he was always just one part of a bigger group, and it was that conflict between his rebellious cynicism and his teammates’ Utopian ideals that made him fascinating, and yes, tolerable. (Needless to say, I was no big fan of solo Wolverine stories.) Frank Castle, on the other hand was the promise of violence, but without any wit, charm or romanticism — just a grim, joyless slog. Between that and his obvious Marvel Universe problem — the absurdity of a guy with guns in a world teeming with Norse gods and planet-eating aliens — why would anyone take this character seriously, let alone read him every month?


The answer, I think, lies less in the content than the context. When he debuted in 1974 in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, he was a dim bulb with bad hair and a cool costume, a quickie comic book ripoff of Mack Bolan. Vowing to kill every criminal he could, he was, alas, easily manipulated into targeting Spidey by his partner, some no-name goon called the Jackal. (Hello, Frank? Your partner looks like a friggin’ demon. You’re shocked when he turns out to be the bad guy? Really?) Despite this ignominious beginning, the Punisher only grew in popularity until he exploded in the 80s, earning his own title. The reason, I think, was because the Punisher was of his time. By ‘74, Watergate was burning up the front pages, crime was rampant, gas prices were soaring, and the Vietnam War was still raging. The Summer of Love decayed into a winter of discontent, and naturally the culture pushed back, looking for someone or something to give voice to that intense (and decidedly white) anger at a world that seemed to be falling apart. America posed a question to itself, and got a bevy of answers in return: the Dirty Harry series, Death Wish (released only months after the Punisher’s debut) and in the comics, Frank Castle. The genius of the comic book system was that, despite the appearances of continuity, there are no real changes; you’re pretty much guaranteed the same thrill every time. As an expression of cathartic release, a rage against the revolving door prison system, a Punisher comic was the gift that kept on giving, month after month.

So it isn’t surprising that the Punisher, after a successful run in the conservative 80s, was at his lowest ebb in the go-go 90s, nor that he made a comeback this decade. (An unpopular war, governmental abuse of power, an energy crisis? If these trends continue….Ayyyyy!) And yet, this ability to rise to the national hum goes flaccid once the cameras roll. On the face of it, there’s no reason why that should be. The Punisher’s essential core is so potentially rich: Frank and his family, through complete chance, witness a mob hit, which results in their annihilation — except, through complete chance, Frank himself. He then becomes Death itself in order to exert some control over a random, unknowable universe that took everything away from him. (Another reason for his awkward fit in the comics — the Marvel Universe is a lot of things, but existential isn’t one of them.) That’s a great beginning for a film character, and once you strip out the superhero stuff, Frank Castle joins a long, storied history of heavily-armed justice-seeking cinematic protagonists.

That’s the problem, though, isn’t it? Frank is pretty much unique to the Marvel Universe; what differentiates the movie Frank from say, Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra?


2004’s The Punisher seemed primed for success, with a decent budget and solid character actors (Will Patton, Ben Foster and Thomas Jane as Frank), headlined by star John Travolta as villain Howard Saint. And it’s slickly made and reasonably diverting, stumbling only when ill-advisedly attempting to integrate a pair of bumpkins as comic relief and a down-on-her-luck waitress as a love interest. But as a Punisher movie, it’s like watching a series of studio notes, each missive hacking away at the character’s core. Thomas Jane is very much a capital-A Actor, on fire when playing big characters with accents (see: Stander), but when asked to play “normal”, he has all the charisma of a saltine cracker. (It’s telling that his best moment is undercover as a German arms dealer.) He’s fundamentally incapable of the kind of steely, reserved, iconic performance a character like this demands. Instead, Jane tries to bring a fully-dimensional portrait of anger and grief to the screen — he wants you to feel his pain — and the result is vaguely New Agey.

Even worse, Frank isn’t even a victim of bad luck, but is involved (albeit accidentally) in the death of Saint’s son. So Saint orders Frank’s entire extended family killed — not just his wife and kid, but parents, grandparents, cousins, their spouses, even kids with chicken pox. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t think their protagonist was capable of a a one-man war against his antagonist unless literally everyone connected to him was dead. (“Just the wife and kid? I could see him maybe sending a strongly-worded letter, but murder? Nah…”) It’s supposed to raise the stakes, but all it does is raise eyebrows in disbelief. Furthermore, you know something is really wrong when Frank — who’s never called the Punisher, so I won’t either — goes about a revenge that’s slow and methodical, involving Saint’s wife, his gay consigliere and (I’m not making this up) portable fire hydrants. The film feels small, wrapped up in itself, inconsequential.
It isn’t until the end, after Castle finally takes his bloody revenge (a satisfying set piece that echoes Taxi Driver in its brutality), and the faux-Morricone score swells, that director Jonathan Hensleigh tips his hand as to what he thinks he’s doing. It’s a Western, you see. The civilizing “good woman”, the complete lack of police presence, the working-joe-versus-the-rich-guy class struggle, it’s all there, just transplanted to modern day. It’s an interesting conceit, but the filmmakers were so intent on making Castle recognizably human, and his world recognizably “ours”, that the film ends up unrecognizable as the Punisher.


The newest Punisher doesn’t make that mistake. The very first thing Ray Stevenson’s Punisher does is bust into a mobster’s dinner party and kill everyone dead, so quickly and efficiently and gorily that I’m sure each special effect was only a frame away from giving the film an NC-17. The ridiculous brutality of the sequence is reminiscent of McBain’s attack on Mendoza’s party celebrating the invention of Swank (“Ten times more addictive than marijuana”). That’s fitting — director Lexi Alexander wants to take the grim, joyless slog and push it into absurdity. It’s a comedy with exploding bodies for punchlines.

It’s a risky strategy, one that relies on a viewer’s ironic detachment towards violence. This is a movie that asks you to laugh at a moment when the Punisher blows a man’s face off with a shotgun in a one-take, Michael Haneke-esque medium shot. If your sense of humor bends that direction, it works, in a Jackass, “can you believe that shit?” kind of way. The problem with the movie isn’t the violence or the tone — one could say this is the most faithful of adaptations, taking a lot from Garth Ennis’ Punisher series. The problem is that it leaves Frank Castle, he of the perpetual Judge Dredd frown, on the emotional sidelines of his own movie. The villains Jigsaw (Dominic West) and his brother Loony Bin Jim (the always welcome Doug Hutchison) have the most developed and touching relationship in the film. When Jim gets a look at his now-disfigured sibling, he says he looks beautiful, and he means it. Yes, he’s crazy — especially when he gleefully destroys any mirror, including the one in the police interrogation room, so Jigsaw doesn’t have to see himself — but it’s a craziness that’s wrapped up within his genuine love for his brother.

But even that isn’t explored, and there’s really nothing else there. The action scenes are only moderately chopped and screwed, thankfully, but the screenplay is frustratingly loose. (Frank is told that Jigsaw is going to go after the damsel in distress (Julie Benz), but decides to mete out horrible death to a trio of parkour enthusiasts first, for some reason.) And after awhile, even its gleefully shocking violence becomes a bit of a joyless slog in its own right. Near the end, the film comes briefly to life and marches to its own beat, giving us a bizarro scene where Jigsaw and Jim deliver a recruitment speech to the various racially-segregated gangs, Patton-style. It’s like something out of late 60s Brian De Palma dropped into the middle of an action flick. It burns bright, and it fades just as quickly.


The 1989 version didn’t even have a chance to burn, bright or otherwise. Relegated to the dust bin of cinematic history — not only had it never had a theatrical release in this country, it’s also currently out of print on VHS and DVD — it’s considered a bit of a joke, with everyone’s favorite Iron Curtain pugilist Dolph Lundgren assaying the role of Frank Castle, complete with dyed black hair and Pointillist stubble. (He looks like the end result of a Cillian Murphy/Sylvester Stallone teleportation accident.) Aesthetically, it’s inescapably 80s. The performances are deep and wide and tall, the dialogue amusingly blunt (“Holy shit, the Punisher!” exclaims a television reporter upon seeing a dead mobster with a tell-tale skull knife in his back.) The budget seems to have been just barely big enough to qualify for a feature film, and it’s no stranger to Andy Sidaris-level silliness, including but not limited to ninjas sliding down on wooden amusement park slides. The opening credits rip off Night Gallery, for crying out loud.

All of this colludes to hide the fact that it’s by far the best of the Punisher movies. Written by Boaz Yakin (who would later direct the terrific revenge tale, Fresh) and directed by Mark Goldblatt, The Punisher has the tightest screenplay of the bunch, the scenes snowballing in intensity over the slim running time, never slowing down for tedious, “ironic” church attendance (War Zone) or “humanizing” Thanksgiving dinners (the 2004). It also moves away from focusing on the Punisher’s POV — early on, we follow a tracking shot through the sewer (the Punisher’s base of operations) to the back of his head. But we can’t get in, which is the point. Instead, the film goes for a wider view of the action, putting us in the shoes of his ex-partner (Louis Gossett Jr.), his remaining enemy (Jeroen KrabbĂ©), and even his enemy’s only son (Brian Rooney). This kaleidoscopic approach gives the film a novelistic feel, as if the city itself was a character. In its own insane way, it kind of presages this summer’s The Dark Knight, in showing how a vigilante, if he does his job too well, ends up clearing the table for something worse to take its place. In this case, that’s the Yakuza, intent on eliminating the mob, anticipating the hysteria of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun.

However, what truly sets this adaptation apart from the others is that it starts with the most sensible premise regarding Frank Castle: he’s a monster. In the opening scene, he’s presented like the killer from a slasher movie, going after mobsters like they were horny teenagers, not just with guns but with knives and rope as well. We’re asked to root for him, of course — he’s the guy that’s going to save the day — but we’re never asked to admire him. Lundgren is no one’s idea of a master thespian, but his woodenness and monotone play to the character’s strengths. This Frank Castle is dead inside, a hollow man with a few fragmented memories of a happier life rolling around in his shell, with only a single word — revenge — animating his tall, lumbering frame. (He’s actually less like a slasher than a golem.) The film has the good sense to not underline it, but the story’s premise is unusually humanistic for this character: having killed 125 people in five years and still trying to scratch that impossible itch, the Punisher finds himself trying to save lives instead of taking them, by rescuing the mob’s children from an encroaching Yakuza — the very kids who will likely become his future enemies. It’s the only film to throw such a monkeywrench into the Punisher’s shuttered world, forcing him to really think about how he’s lived his life and how he plans to continue it. Or end it. All of the movie Punishers attempt suicide or suicide-by-proxy, but Lundgren’s attempt — after killing KrabbĂ©, he kneels before the man’s son and asks him to blow his brains out — is the only one that feels like it might actually happen. Goldblatt’s Punisher would never have won any awards, but it’s a fine movie, and in desperate need of critical rehabilitation.

The Punisher can never really have a happy ending. He has no endgame. There will always be crime and his family will always be dead. The best he can hope for is to die in battle, or else take his own life, if there really is a difference to him. And now that we appear to be entering an era where the watchwords are “change” and “hope”, qualities that have absolutely nothing to do with the Punisher, I suspect that Frank will have to go back into an undisclosed location for awhile. But after studying him so much lately, I can honestly say I don’t hate him anymore. He’s a fascinating character that deserves respect and artists to do him justice. I just don’t want to live in Punisher-friendly times, if I can help it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"The Watchman" Ends!

Well, that wasn't a bad run for my first time as a paid columnist. I mean, it could've been better, sure, but the fact that I was able to do it for approximately eight months and complete 17 articles (and one unpublished one) is, by my standards, quite the accomplishment. I figured when Laura arrived, I wasn't gonna get shit done, so, yay for me.

And I think some of those articles are darn good. I got a lot of kudos for my Dark Knight review, and I think the Iron Man and Hancock ones aren't too bad. I think the one I'm proudest of is my Tick retrospective, if only because I know just how much blood, sweat and pixels went into writing it. They aren't all good. The Wanted one is kinda lame -- I was hamstrung by my intense loathing of both the source material and the resulting film, and the Heroes one is (sorry, David) phoned in, which, admittedly, is more effort than the show's writers are putting into it. (Seriously, I stopped watching it about six episodes ago, mostly for time reasons, so I had my wife, who's keeping current, summarized what I missed. Five minutes later she was done, and I was still waiting to hear the cool parts.) But still, all of that was more writing than I had ever done since college.

So what happened?

I'll tell you what happened.

The fucking Spirit happened.

I went to the first showing Christmas day to get a head-start on the column, thinking I could get it out in two, maybe three days. Two hours later, I walked out of the theater, and even though I couldn't admit it to myself at the time, I knew I was done. It's not that the movie's bad -- oh, it's terrible, make no mistake -- it's that it wasn't bad in any interesting way. For nearly a day, I thought about it and thought about it, without putting a single word down, looking for something, anything to say about it that the average viewer of Frank Miller's directorial debut wouldn't find insultingly obvious.

And I couldn't think of anything.

This probably wouldn't be an issue for most reviewers. My problem was that my mandate was to write a column, not reviews, so I always tried to find something larger to write about, something beyond whether it was good or bad. (I'm not saying I always succeeded, I'm just sayin'.) But with The Spirit, there was nothing there but a list of the atrocities Miller committed against Will Eisner's seminal creation. It might've been good therapy, but it wasn't a column.

This wasn't what killed The Watchman for me. What killed it was when I realized that my experience with The Spirit was likely to be norm, and I'd just been very, very lucky until then.

Maybe I could've rolled with that, found a way to work through it, but The Watchman was supposed to be a side thing -- y'know, something to bring in some dough while I work on my art, man. But it began to take all my time, mostly because I feel if I'm gonna get paid for a piece of writing, then I damn well better put everything I got into it. That's an honorable attitude, I suppose, but an exhausting one too, and ultimately something had to give. I decided it was The Watchman. David Steinberger and Peter Jaffe were excellent to work for, and I have to thank them again for the opportunity. I hope they find someone who can take over the job, and maybe be the Johnny Carson to my Jack Paar.

Thing is, The Watchman wasn't the only casualty of my decision to focus on my writing. I'm giving up movies as well. Not completely, of course; I wouldn't miss the big screen adaptation of Watchmen for the world (my one regret is that I won't be writing about it for the column), and if I can find the time, I'll happily go to the theater. But the days of trying to cram down 200-300 movies a year (mostly to participate in the Muriel Awards) are over. These days, most of my free time will actually go towards books -- my ignorance of the classics makes me functionally illiterate, and since I plan on writing novels along with screenplays, that oversight needs to be corrected, posthaste.

So here's the new deal. Martin and I are coming along quite nicely with our screenplays and novels, and as a result, we've decided (foolishly?) to reactivate Spitball!, our old screenwriting blog. We're not doing the "let's write a screenplay together through a blog!" thing -- we finally realized that that was kinda retarded. Instead, it's going to be a general purpose blog about writing. Or something. We're still figuring it out. Go there and read up and find out for yourself.

The future of this blog is a bit hazy. I'm going to publish my last Watchman piece on Punisher: War Zone that never went up on ComiXology. (Thankfully so; I realized about a week ago that I made a huge error of attribution in it. Apparently, there being more than one director named Jonathan is very confusing to me.) The hipster part of me wants to turn it into a Tumblr-style blog, but then the smart part of me wonders what the hell difference that would make. I'll probably put some thoughts on Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie up here, and maybe some Muriel Awards stuff, but since I've decided that movies aren't really a part of my life anymore, I really don't know what's going to happen with it.

Uh, welcome back. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"The Watchman" Debuts!

(Well, it actually debuted two weeks ago a couple months ago, but I've been busy.)

In case you read this blog and don't follow me on Twitter (and if so -- who are you?), I've been hired on at the new comic book site Comixology to cover comic book-related movies, TV shows and DVDs.  It's called The Watchman, and I'm pretty damn excited about it -- not to mention it gives me an excuse to actually get out and see stuff in the theater for once, dammit.  

Here's what's gone up, and what's coming in the next couple months [UPDATED 7/27/08]:  

3/19 The Story of a Return (a look at Persepolis, the comic and the movie)

4/2 Slouching Towards Metropolis (The DTV Justice League: The New Frontier)

4/16 Joey, Do You Like Movies About Superheroes? (Superhero Movie and four-color comedy; this should've been on 4/2, but I fucked up.)

5/7  He's So Money (The Iron Man movie)

5/12 He Ain't Heavy, He's Racer X (Speed Racer; first-run movies are now going up immediately on the Monday after their debut.)

6/2 The Paperback DVD Supplement (The Fountain + Southland Tales)

6/16 Anger Management (The Incredible Hulk)

7/14 Feeling Bullish (Hellboy II: The Golden Army)

7/26 Windows on the World (The Dark Knight)

And of course, I'll be covering the other big superhero movies, like The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy II, and Hancock [UPDATE 7/27/08: Done, except for Hancock, which'll likely be posted when the DVD arrives.]  Also, near the end of the year, I'll have columns up covering the filmed work of Daniel Clowes, Frank Miller (keyed to The Spirit), and Alan Moore (keyed to Watchmen, natch).  

So please head over there and give 'em a read, and poke around the main site, too.  Tell 'em the Dingus sent ya.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Whitest Kid You Know

(Seen for the White Elephant Blog-a-Thon.)  

1.  10 Tracks of Wack:  Kickin' It Old Skool (2007, Harvey Glazer) is a painful, painful movie.  Not because it makes the easiest, laziest jokes every single time, or because it's full of stupid plot points, although it's that too.  No, it's painful because it revealed that I have something in common, deep down, with Jamie Kennedy.  

2.  There's nothing wrong with the premise.  Hell, I kinda like the premise.  1986:  12-year old Justin loves breakdancing and 12-year old Jen, and wants to win the big talent show with his crew but has to defeat his nemesis Kip in a dance-off.  He tries to seal the deal by doing a super-tricky move, and ends up falling off the stage and into a coma.  Twenty years later, he wakes up to find his parents in debt, his friends mired in mediocrity, and Jen betrothed to Kip.  Can he win the big dance contest with his out-of-shape friends, against a new generation of dancers, breaking to a new generation of music?  

3. It's hard to be a white, male, middle-class rap fan and not feel on some level that, as much as you might love the music, that you're always on the outside of it.  A slight inferiority complex.  Am I really getting it?  It's like there's an invisible circle around the music, and it's not impermeable, but it's damn uncomfortable to stay there.  To stay there is to be conscious of one's whiteness, and white people don't like to be reminded they're white.   In one of the funniest and truest moments in Office Space, Michael Bolton rocks the Geto Boys while driving to work, but turns it down when he passes a black man on the street.  Michael enters the circle and then quickly, quietly, exits.  

4.  You have a thirty-two year old protagonist who's just woken up from a coma, and the last thing he remembers is being twelve.  Do you a) show the moment when the protagonist realizes that he's now an adult, that his life has irrevocably changed, that his body has irrevocably changed?  Or b) blithely ignore that, cut from your bearded and groggy protagonist to your now clean-shaven and fully-recovered protagonist and go straight for the "MTV doesn't play videos anymore" joke?

5.  Jamie Kennedy is two years older than me.  He's made a film -- written and directed by others, yet it feels like an intensely personal project -- where the old triumph over the young.  In one scene, an old homeless man (filling in for Kennedy -- don't ask) literally pisses on some young black krumpers.  In the final battle, Kennedy has to out-dance a kid -- a kind of prodigy, cocksure in a way I don't remember kids being, real or cinematic, in the 80s.  He's of his time.  The kids I grew up with turned into the so-called Generation X, the first slackers.  To display that kind of confidence, that kind of arrogance -- it wouldn't happen.  But then, at that time, we were listening to Arrested fucking Development.  

6.  Why don't I keep up on rap music?  Why have I drifted so far from it?  1986:  Run D.M.C.  Beastie Boys, License to Ill.  Whodini, "Fugitive/Funky Beat".  That's where it starts for me.  That's where it started for a lot of white guys my age.  That's where the memories are.  It's easy to say that once it got all gangsta, we fell away from it, that we were only in it for the "fun", but we listened to N.W.A. too.  So that can't be it.  Is it simply because it's a young person's music, and we are no longer young?  Nobody in America wants to admit they're too old for anything, least of all self-proclaimed music fans.  

7.  I can't even get my head around the scene where Justin's friend Aki (Bobby Lee) refuses to get back into the crew and proceeds to lay out what is essentially the entire history of racist Asian caricature in film, only to take it all back.  

8.  Logically, your protagonist, having spent twenty years of his life in a hospital, will not have any clothes at home that fit him.  You're making a comedy, so you think it would be funny if he walked around in the kind of cheesy and iconic 80s outfits that people who lived in the 80s didn't actually wear.  (You'd be wrong -- it wouldn't be funny -- but that's not the point.)  Do you a) show your protagonist going to some kind of ironic, "Hot Topic"-style boutique, maybe spar with some emo sales clerk and actually buy his outfits?  Or b) just put him in whatever the fuck you want, a new outfit for each scene?

9.  Michael Rosenbaum, who plays Kip, the villain, is the secret hero of the piece.  He's a prick, yes, but he's an adult.  He responds to the prodigy's unearned swagger by spraying breath freshener in his mouth.  He's contemptuous of Justin and his manchild routine, as he rightfully should be.  That he's the only actor that appears to be alive to the possibilities of performance is probably not coincidental.  

10.  Do us aging white guys hold onto 1986 so hard because we feel rap moved away from us, or did rap move on because we held on so tightly to it?  Columbus sails here and "discovers" it, much to the bafflement of the Native Americans.  A signal that started in The Bronx finds its way, eight years later, to Modesto, CA and we claim it as our own.  Justin wins the contest, "our" music and culture winning over "theirs".  Stupid fucking white man.