Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fast and Furious

“Fast and Furious” has everything a growing boy needs, fast cars, hot women and enough fiery crashes to fill out the rest of the movie. The original cast is back with Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor having moved up in the world to the FBI and forced to return to undercover street racing alongside Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto.

Audiences have come to have certain expectations of the “Fast and the Furious” films. Bone rattling races, barely clothed and incredibly beautiful women and a plot that revolves around getting from A to B while being shot at, blown up and launched around corners only the greatest of Hollywood magic cars could ever hope to achieve. The fourth in the franchise, “Fast and Furious” delivers in spades, and it even manages a noble effort at an at least tacitly plausible plot and almost tender moments between the characters. There even manages to be a fair bit of humor mixed in to what is predominantly a massive, high octane thrill ride.

Director Justin Lin thrusts all the flaming nitrous onto the audience with in-your-face camera style that never lets up. The laws of physics are placed on hold for chase scenes that defy all logic and corkscrew across the screen, on the ground and in the air with energy and enough psychosis to give even the most daredevil drives pause. Very much a guy movie with its hordes of beautiful women, “Fast and Furious’ is even more a car movie, with hydraulics, fuel injection systems, supped up engines and some of the most beautiful cars and hippest automotive humor. Even those with a layman’s appreciation of cars will find themselves swept up in talk of wheels and gears and the tightest turns you’d never attempt even in your wildest dreams.

What the franchise is not known for is plot, but even in that area the film is not a bust. Whereas certain of “Fast and Furious’s” predecessors opted to have little if any plot, the film makes a valiant effort even as the audience experiences the rush of crashes that no one could ever survive in real life. With holes to spare certainly, it still manages to follow a logical and plausible series of events across the story. What gaps exist are passable and set against all that is beautiful in “Fast and Furious,” cars, women, scenery, and thus easily forgiven.

The film is everything you expect it to be and nothing you don’t. Fast and beautifully shot, the returning cast makes for a nice piece of nostalgia even as all that is old is blown up and all that is new is blown up right after it. Perhaps not the best of films for female audiences, garden variety males will get their hearts content, their dream garage with their dream muscle car and their dream girl wiping it down with her shirt. Strap yourself in and feel the power under the hood, you don’t have to think about it, you just have to buckle up, keep your eyes on the road and let the road take you wherever it will go, you’ll definitely have plenty of shiny things to look at along the way.

There is nothing wrong with Fast and Furious, despite all that can always go wrong, nothing did this time around. Apparently, Hollywood still has a little nitrous left in it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


What is it with Nicholas Cage and really, really weird movies? Snake Eyes, 8MM, The Wicker Man, The Weather Man and now, director Alex Proyas’ Knowing. A solid premise, in the film a time capsule buried in the ground for 50 years accurately predicts every major disaster in that time and even a few that haven’t happened yet. Naturally, the kid who gets this particular snippet out of all the pretty pictures the 9 years olds in 1959 drew is the son of a brilliant MIT astrophysics professor, one John Koestler, played by Nicholas Cage. Chaos, bedlam and the pretty, pretty special effects of far too much CGI ensue. Of course, good premises do not a movie make.

Knowing takes its sweat time setting up the story. In fact, it takes far too much time setting up the story. And then it sets up the story some more. Then a few seconds of dazzling special effects followed by yet more middling story telling that manages neither to get out of its own way nor satisfy the need to actually understand what in the name of Nick Cage’s hairline is going on.

The film is a lot like a football game where the two teams fight for every inch of Astroturf, with no air game and a handful of accidental first downs. And when they finally mange to get the ball in the end zone, the referees call a time out to ascertain the legality of the play and spend 30 minutes deliberating.

A critic’s nightmare, the incredibly strange plot almost single-handedly ruins the film. And what do people hate more than almost anything in bad film reviews? When the critics spoils the plot. Suffice it to say Knowing is like no other disaster flick or precognitive mystery. Proyas spends precious minutes explaining the science of the sun without any interpersonal extrapolation of the stars up above. Science on top of science dazzles and amazes at the wonderful mathematical world we live in and then Proyas starts throwing curve balls, or more accurately, lobbying the ball blind and allowing a plot that could be a heart pounding mystery to instead become something straight out of a sci-fi nut’s bible. I wish I could explain more but unfortunately, to do so would make worse an already terrible story line.

In a phone conference, Proyas described the film as not a true disaster flick but instead as a “spiritual quest,” he said, a generational story focusing on the father-son bond. To fulfill that quest, the film is chalked full of supposedly tender moments and numerous references to biblical myth, prophecy and a good deal of questions of free will. In theory such musing is all well and good but in practice, the film is simply too long. Scenes that should be half as long if they weren’t cut out entirely drag on forever, often ruining what shock and awe or universality the film’s sparse good moments manage to achieve.

Whereas other films tend to glamorize disaster, Proyas said his aim was to make the film’s disasters “as visceral and as real and as unsettling as possible.” Proyas was aiming to capture some of the stunning power of the opening beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. He failed. The disasters of the film are few and far between and last for a matter of seconds. As visually appealing as the CG flames are, they are clearly computer generated and thus instantly disconnect audiences from the quest they’re supposedly on.

Proyas describes the film as a “suspense thriller. And suspense, you know, drives the movie forward,” he said. Unfortunately for Proyas, very little of the film manages to achieve actual suspense while the bulk manages only to be strange, drawn out and confusing.

Proyas hopes audiences will realize Knowing “was about the cycle of life,” he said, what is passed down to each new generation. The film itself has little chance of surviving that transition. The few plot elements that should have been made the focal point for the movie were instead brushed aside for lots of frightened glances and nonsense.

Knowing is a reminder that the best of trailers can hide the worst of movies. While I've never put much stock in Nicholas Cage I do enjoy some of his movies. This is not one of them and in fact goes to show that it's a bad idea to put faith in Hollywood because even the best of ideas can go horribly wrong when you decide to have a left field deuce ex machina drive the endgame.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Watchmen: Reflections

In case you didn’t read my review of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, I loved the movie and in case you didn’t see the film, go, now, do not pass go and certainly, do not collect 200 dollars. A work of sheer brilliance on its own, perhaps even more importantly, the film is the most faithful adaptation ever conceived and quite probably the most faithful adaptation that could possibly be made. If any literary work truly deserves such dedication and respect, it is Alan Moore’s masterpiece, a Hugo Award winner, Time Magazine top 100 works of the 20th century and generally acknowledged as the greatest graphic novel ever written, and by all accounts, Zack Snyder agrees. In a phone conference with Snyder, the fanboy devotion he has to the original work was apparent in every question answered and every personal anecdote.

Snyder describes himself as a giant fan of Moore, having read “Watchmen” in college in the late 80s, shortly after the graphic novel came out in 1985. Snyder’s very first question upon taking the job to direct Watchmen; When do I get to talk to Moore? The answer to that, unfortunately, was never, as Moore had asked not to be contacted by the filmmakers, a fact that in true fanboy fashion, in Snyder’s words, deeply bummed him out.

Of course, Snyder is more than just a fan and he was also able to reflect on Watchmen as a filmmaker. Without Moore’s input, he “had to founder through my own experiences,” he said. It was a reality that perhaps lead to a “truer experience” in creating the film, one that was based off a fan’s reaction, an audience member telling a story with none of the prejudice or destructively obsessive filmmaking one might have in a film Moore himself was involved in making.

According to Snyder, Warner Brothers approached him to direct the film because of his record making movies based off of comics that includes directing Frank Miller’s 300. “Zack likes comic books,” he said, and the studio had a comic book to be filmed.

Originally apprehensive about adapting what has been called an unfilmable film, Snyder eventually decided that “I wanna do this,” he said. The need to make the movie came in large part due to Snyder’s dedication to the original work, especially when he read the script Warner Brothers showed him. While not as important to those who aren’t fans of Moore’s work, those who are might be incensed to learn that the original script called for a PG-13 rating (the movie is correctly rated R for nudity and explicit violence).

Incomprehensibly, the script had called for a movie that could be sequeled, and if you know anything about Watchmen, you know that it is not a story that can or at least should be sequeled, serialized or otherwise tainted. Set in modern times, it called for Doctor Manhattan going not to Vietnam but to Iraq, a big, sexy, high octane blasphemy against everything a masterpiece like Moore’s work deserves. Snyder “couldn’t let it happen that way,” he said.

Snyder persevered to make the film in order to prevent Watchmen “from becoming a superhero movie,” he said. Watchmen, Snyder said, is anything but a formulaic superhero movie but instead something transcendent of its genre and medium.

Of course, superheroes have powers and fight, Watchmen being no exception. Watchmen is an incredibly violent movie, but not violence for the sake of violence, according to Snyder. The violence is far more personal than Snyder’s other works like 300. Watchmen’s violence is “very specific to provoke thought,” he said.

The violence is so extreme because Snyder wanted to fulfill the graphic novel’s promise to see the superhero genre, movie or graphic novel, “broken down at every level,” he said. The style of previous superhero movies targeted towards kids that portray superhero stories as easy and pain free was something Snyder wanted to smash “as hard as I could.”

When it came to the adaptation, there were a few “big thematic things that I wanted to get at,” Snyder said, in transferring Moore’s words and artist Dave Gibbons’ images to the screen. For the most stalwart of Moore’s fans who disagree with Snyder’s decision to change the infamous ending of the graphic novel, Snyder explained a need to simplify the story. Remaining perfectly faithful to the ending would have meant far more detail than Snyder had time to show, causing him to “lose a lot of character.”

Of course, Watchmen the movie is not nor should it be the same thing as “Watchmen” the graphic novel. For Snyder, the most obvious difference is the real feel of the characters. While Snyder described what happened to Rorschach in the graphic novel as not particularly emotional, the movie makes that moment and many others “no longer philosophy,” he said, but instead as powerful moments with very real characters.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


In 1985, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” deconstructed and analyzed superheroes, setting a new bar that has never been subsequently surpassed and laying the groundwork for the last two and a half decades of comic books. Now, Zack Snyder has managed to tap into that power, deftly adapting the genius that is “Watchmen” into a movie as brilliantly stylized as it is thematically relevant in a time where costumed heroes are inundating the silver screen. Brilliant as it is, no such thing as a perfect adaptation exists, a rule to which Watchmen is no exception. To the uninitiated, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a stroke of genius; to the initiated, it remains a work of genius, but one with by my count, seven major deviations from Alan Moore’s vision.

Never before or since have superheroes, masked vigilantes or crime fighters been looked at as in Watchmen, the graphic novel or the movie. Few if any other comic books or comic book films are as violent, as gritty, or as sexually explicit. No other work manages to be as deeply thought out or reflective on its genre or the society that spawned it, revealing the world we live in for all its failings. Virtually any subsequent comic book you see with those elements was almost certainly inspired by “Watchmen.”

While all comic books try to tie in superheroes to our reality to a greater or lesser degree, Watchmen picks out various moments in history starting in the thirties and inserts these men and women of skill, power and more often than not, psychosis and personality disorders into the forces of history. Such events include the Cold War, JFK’s assassination, U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Watergate, and the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.

Each of the so-called Watchmen is a deeply flawed individual far more a product of the cold and dreary world around them than they are a shaper of it. The story starts with the murder of The Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who somehow manages to make a cold blooded murderer empathetic. Investigating his death is the only truly active crime fighter of the story, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, a wonderfully psychotic and powerfully compelling sociopath with no compunctions against fighting cops or killing criminals.

Much of the film is told in flashbacks as each of the characters reflects on their relationship with The Comedian. Patrick Wilson plays the Batman-like Nite Owl. The film’s resident super-genius is Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt, a man who has used his past as the costumed hero Ozymandias to amass a vast personal fortune, and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre, a woman emblematic of the over-sexualization and loose morality of 1980s America. Unlike most such movies, only one character in all of Watchmen actually has any superpowers, Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan, a glowing blue god-like being who can see the future and manipulate matter on a molecular level.

Together, the Watchmen weave a story that cannot be confused for The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, or any other superhero film. Snyder brings his unique style of brilliant musical overlays and compellingly stylized slow motion choreography to an impossibly layered story and manages to be largely faithful to the original without confusing viewers. The opening montage wraps audiences in a cocoon of this alternate universe, surrounding them with the notion of costumed heroes in our reality, altering our history and changing our relationship to the universe.

Compelling as the fight scenes are, Watchmen is not an action story nor even in the truest sense a drama. It is an exploration, a whirlwind of energy and emotion. It is the accumulated magic and mayhem of men in masks, fighting the good fight, gallivanting around for their own aggrandizement or just trying to find where men who dress up in tights and set out to fight crime actually fit into the larger world.

For the record, I own a signed copy of the graphic novel, one I obtained from the living legend himself, in person. I am a geek and a fan. Like the vast majority of my brethren, I hail “Watchmen” as the greatest graphic novel of all time and Alan Moore as the greatest comic book writer ever and on the short list of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Moore is an entity unto himself, a genius of vast artistic vision whose abilities have made him a social recluse. As normal as he may speak, there is an unidentifiable inner energy to the man that belies a deep rooted anger at Hollywood for what he sees as perversions of his work. Moore has vowed never to watch a single movie based off his work, lambasting Hollywood and telling anyone who will listen that every single adaptation of his graphic novels is sheer and utter garbage.

Some of the adaptations of Moore’s work have in fact been atrocious as he claims, namely The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Most adaptations of his work however, have taken liberties while remaining essentially true to Moore’s vision, whether he acknowledges it or not.

When it comes to Watchmen itself, Moore and his most devoted fans will see in the liberties taken by Zack Snyder a sacrilege. Those who have not read the graphic novel or those who understand that a perfect adaptation to screen from any form is impossible will see in Watchmen one of the closest adaptations humanly possible, a vision that could have come only from a deeply rooted fan like Snyder. I truthfully do not think anyone else could have done a better job with Watchmen. In terms of loyal fans of comicdom with acting chops sufficient for a project of this magnitude, Snyder is at the very top of the list.

Close as Watchmen is to its source material, the liberties taken do run a high risk of alienating fans of the graphic novel. The important part is to remember that any adaptation is going to involve some level of artistic license and realize how much Snyder got right instead of how much he changed. There can be no doubt that there is far more of the former than there is of the latter. The moral ambiguity, gritty and sexual undertones, gruesome violence and a more real feel for superheroes than any other story is all there. Zack Snyder truly does watch the watchmen, finding in it a film that is compelling, energetic and incredibly fun even as it is deeply reflective and intellectual.

For its energy and its largely faithful adherence to its source material, I adamantly endorse Watchmen as a beacon that once in a while at least, Hollywood can still turn brilliant source material into a brilliant movie.