Tag Archives: Hollywood

CAPSULE: 9 (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Shane Acker

FEATURING: Voices of ,

PLOT:  Nine robotic ragdolls fight killer machines in a post-human, post-apocalyptic world.

Still from 9 (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: 9 is a visually thrilling movie set in a unique, humanless universe; with a more careful and detailed exploration of that world, the flick could have struck a mildly weird chord.  As it is, the movie is mostly concerned with looking gorgeous (which it does) and providing the kiddies with rambunctious action sequences than it is in digging deep into the mysteries of its fascinating milieu.

COMMENTS:  People constantly, and rightfully, complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality in plots; by the time a screenwriter’s fresh idea makes its way through the suit mill, strong and unique flavors have been ground out of it, replaced with formula salt. Sloppy, rote plotting, climaxing in a well-worn and obvious moral, is so omnipresent in Hollywood product that it seldom raises a critical eyebrow. That is, until something as visually inventive as 9 appears on the screen, when suddenly the relative poverty of imagination of the typical adventure script is thrown into stark relief. 9 is set in a brilliantly realized earth-tone post-apocalypse dominated by bombed-out buildings littered with ruined bric-a-brack. The animation is obviously influenced by Tim Burton disciple Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), but in its brooding darkness and danger it brings to mind a more fluid and rational-minded version of or the Brothers Quay. Flashbacks of the man vs. machine war that wiped out humanity look like a 1940s propaganda film attacked by H.G. Wells’ Martians (they’re even in glorious black and white).

Such a visually inventive world promises, and deserves, to be the backdrop for an equally imaginative story, and here is where 9 falls apart. The characters (known only by number) are quickly and archetypically sketched, but that’s not a major problem; it’s satisfying enough to know that 1 is a fatally conservative leader, 6 is a visionary artist, 7 is a brash warrior, and so on down the line. The major problem is that there is little sense to the burlap doll’s very existence; they fight nightmarish robotic cats and an all-seeing globe which is capable (for some reason) of sucking out their little souls, but it seems like they should be solving the riddle of their existence. They do so, but when they get the answer, it’s a major letdown. The biggest plot problem isn’t that the Scientist created both the nine ragdolls and the beast that dogs them; it’s that, in an epic fit of absentmindedness, he imbued the same gizmo with the power both to activate the apocalypse and provide the last hope of humanity. It’s a bizarre and confusing plan (and for once, I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it’s based on some awfully hokey metaphysics that invokes the idea that if you create a device that shoots souls into the sky, it will eventually rain life-giving amoebas. The truth is, the nine exist in a script that needs menacing robots for them to fight with broken pocketknife blades as big as broadswords; therefore, these evil machines exist, and for no other convincing reason. The script isn’t interested in fleshing out this world or resolving these paradoxes, but only in getting us to the next action sequence or comforting cliche as quickly as possible. In the end, that leaves us with a film that, perhaps unfairly, disappoints us, because it has so much imaginative potential. We may be more forgiving towards Hollywood fare that aims no higher than to provide us with eighty minutes of eye candy and an injection of vicarious adrenaline, and squarely hits its mark.

Acker’s film is an Internet success story. Birthed as an eleven minute short film, 9 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2005, but it was YouTube viewings that created the huge advance buzz for the feature version. The short contained no dialogue—only electronica, metallic battle sounds, and weird ambient noise—and also reveals none of the unsatisfactory backstory. It was far more mysterious, and a more impressive artistic achievement. When Tim Burton decided to adopt the film and serve as producer (by slapping his ticket-selling name on it), the project’s Hollywood credibility went through the roof—and the story was ground into the Hollywood scriptwriting gears.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Probably the strangest animated feature to appear since Coraline… [it has] the feeling of a perversely fascinating ballet mécanique—a movie that literally expends with humans in the way that Hollywood blockbusters have been figuratively doing for years.”–Scott Foundas, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

AKA Bram Stoker’s Dracula

fourstar

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, , Tom Waits

PLOT:  Vlad Dracula, a defender of Christendom against invading Muslims, curses God and becomes undead when his beloved bride throws herself from the castle walls due to false reports of his death sent by Turkish spies; centuries later, he plots to seduce his love’s reincarnation in Victorian London.

Still from Dracula (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Coppola’s take on the Dracula myth is dreamy, glossy, and visually experimental for a blockbuster, but too mainstream to be truly weird.

COMMENTS:  Coppola had a chance to make one of the classic Dracula films; in the end, he made not a classic, but he did make the most visually advanced and beautiful vampire movie of our times.  The early reels are taken up with crisp visual experiments, such as when the Transylvanian countryside outside Johnathan Harker’s carriage turns blood red while Dracula’s eyes appear superimposed in the sky.  Another trick Coppola employs—making the Count’s shadow move independently of its host, displaying his hostile intent while its host blathers on about business matters—has become iconic.  The best sequence the director invents is Harker’s encounter with Dracula’s three beautiful undead brides, a scene that moves effortlessly from dreamy eroticism to outright surreal horror when the temptresses reveal their true nature (one of the bloodsucking succubi was played by soon-to-be-famous, ethereal beauty Monica Belluci).  The scene of an enticing vampiress scuttling on the masonry like a startled spider is pleasantly jolting, and the entire picture in fact swings back and forth between the sexual and the diabolical with a natural ease.  Coppola displays great discipline in the film, making the film stylish, sexy and horrifying in audience-pleasing measures.  The various camera tricks, the shadow plays, the grandiose sets and costumes, the boldly unreal colors, the switches between film stock, never draw too much attention to themselves, but always work in service of creating an operatic hyperreality, a world that’s strange and exaggerated, but cinematically familiar.

What prevents the movie from being a classic is the uneven ensemble acting.  The good Continue reading CAPSULE: DRACULA (1992)

28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

“You’ve seen all kinds of movies, but you’ve never seen anything like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is wonderfully weird. It’s fabulously freaky… The story is strange… the scenery is smashing… the cast is completely crazy!”–ad copy from the extended 3 minute trailer

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, ,

PLOT: In this musical, Brad and Janet, a very square, newly engaged couple, get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere in a rainstorm and seek shelter in a nearby castle. Inside, they find the building populated by a strange assortment of characters dominated by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transylvania.” Frank-N-Furter has created a blond bodybuilder named “Rocky Horror” for his own erotic enjoyment, and when the cast starts bedding each other jealousy rules the day—until a rival scientist in a wheelchair complicates matters even further when he arrives looking for his murdered son.

Still from Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was an adaptation of writer/actor Richard O’Brien’s hit stage show that began in London in 1973. The show also played Los Angeles with Tim Curry starring with a mostly American cast, including singer Meat Loaf as Eddie. The play opened on Broadway shortly before the film version debuted and was a flop, closing after a mere forty-five performances.
  • Fox Studios wanted to cast popular musicians of the day in the main roles (including Mick Jagger as Frank-N-Furter), but the producers accepted a lower budget in order to keep the cast from the stage production mostly intact. Meat Loaf had recorded a top 100 single years before, but would not become a major rock star until 1977 with the release of “A Bat Out of Hell”.
  • The film bombed on release, but gradually found cult audience through midnight screenings. As early as 1976 audiences had begun shouting their own dialogue back at the screen. This gradually developed into the unprecedented Rocky Horror audience participation ritual, where the audience is not only an active part of the movie experience, but the main attraction. Fans come to screenings dressed as their favorite characters, speak their own scripted counterpoint dialogue to the screen (being particularly rude to Barry Bostwick’s Brad) and bring along props (e.g., water pistols to simulate the rainstorm). In the more elaborate productions, amateur actors appear on a stage in front of the screen, dancing and pantomiming the lines during the musical numbers.
  • Rocky Horror has shown continuously in theaters since 1975, making it the longest running theatrical release of all time. The film has taken in almost $140 million in receipts, making it the 215th highest grossing film of all time (unadjusted for inflation).
  • MTV Networks has announced plans to remake the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: No question; Tim Curry in full femme makeup and black leather and satin drag, dressed to make glam-era David Bowie look as macho as an NFL defensive lineman by comparison. The image will never leave your mind; for some, it will haunt your nightmares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a rock n’ roll musical inspired by old sci-fi and horror B-movies about an alien transvestite. From the moment Richard O’Brien conceived the idea, there was no doubt that it would be weird; the only question was whether he could mold it into something that was even mildly watchable.

Original trailer for The Rocky Horror Picture Show

COMMENTS:  Because we’re interested in weird movies here, not in weird sociological Continue reading 28. THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

CAPSULE: WATCHMEN (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING:, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan

PLOT: As the film opens in an alternate past in 1985, Richard Nixon has been re-elected to a fifth presidential term as the Cold War rages on, costumed superheroes are integrated into the national security defense framework, the nuclear Doomsday Clock has ticked forward to five minutes to midnight, and ex-Watchman “the Comedian” has just been thrown through the window of his Manhattan high rise.

watchmen

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Watchmen is about as weird as big-budget major studio releases will ever be allowed to get, which weirdness explains why Watchmen was released as a Spring rather than a Summer blockbuster.  All the oddness, however, resides in the scenario.  Once the rules of this alternate universe are laid out—superheroes are real, they have tawdry affairs and abuse their power in bursts of sociopathic violence—Watchmen goes about its business with strict action-movie realism.

COMMENTS: The brilliant montage over the opening credits is a distillation of “all-too-human” vignettes in which we see four decades of masked avengers interact on a fictionalized American history stage, to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” A costumed moth-man is dragged off to an insane asylum, and a glowing blue man in a three piece suit shakes hands with a grateful JFK, and Andy Warhol paints pop portraits of caped crusaders. The opening captures what is good about Watchmen: the setting is so original that the film relocates you into its own peculiar universe, which is what escapist entertainment is supposed to do.  And this one has just enough of a veneer of philosophical and political depth (“who watches the Watchmen?”) to give adults an intellectual justification to sit back and enjoy a comic book on film.  The flawed superheroes are briefly sketched, but their slightly twisted archetypes capture our interest.  The noirish Rorschach has an inflexible vigilante code of justice and ever-shifting inkblot mask; atomic superman Dr. Manhattan deploys his colossal blue CGI penis as unashamedly as he does his godlike power to create special effects, all the while suffering existential detachment as his contemplation of quantum realities alienates him from human ones. The script weights the amount of time devoted to each of the intertwining stories and backstories well, supplying a rich context without becoming confusing.  The film’s nihilism ultimately appears as little more than a tonal choice, much like a decision to film in black and white instead of Technicolor. The setting is absorbing enough to make most overlook the films more than occasional gaffes, from the excessively visceral, bone-cracking and blood-spurting violence meant to deglamorize the heroes to a laughably glamorous moonlight lovemaking scene in a hovering owlcraft.

From the standpoint of someone who hasn’t read the beloved comic book graphic novel from which the movie was adapted, it’s amusing to observe Internet kvetching over the movie’s supposedly superhuman power to drain the source work of it’s magic.  Even reviews by professional critics often devolve into column-length comparisons of the literate merits of the original to the relatively pedestrian film version.   But, coming to the film not expecting it to have the intellectual depth and characterization of a novel, I found the movie Watchmen to be an excellent advertisement for the source material.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Watchmen’ is… going to be the ultimate tough sell: there will be those who view the film as a bewildering mishmash of underexplored themes, thinly sketched characters and noisy, excessive violence… And yet, there’s something admirable about the entire enterprise: its ungainly size, its unrelenting weirdness, its willful, challenging intensity.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ADAPTATION (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze

FEATURING: , , Chris Columbus

PLOTAdaptation tells two stories: in one, a “New Yorker” journalist (Meryl Streep) becomes obsessed with the subject of her nonfiction book, a trashy but passionate collector of orchids (Chris Cooper); in the other, a depressed screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt her book “The Orchid Thief” into a movie, while fending off his chipper and vapid twin brother (also played by Cage), himself an ersatz screenwriter.

adaptation

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEAdaptation is a metamovie, the filmed equivalent of metafiction (a literary style where the real subject of the work is not the ostensible plot, but the process of creating of the work itself).  In Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) inserts a fictionalized version of himself into the script, writing and rewriting the story as the movie progresses.  Adaptation may appear unusual, and even weird to those who aren’t used to this kind of recursive style, but it’s a purely intellectual exercise about the creative process, and the mysteries presented in the movie have a purely logical explanation when considered in their literary context.

COMMENTSAdaptation sports perhaps the smartest script written in this young millennium, a story which twists and turns back upon itself with sly wit and playful intelligence.  (The screenplay was nominated by the Academy for “Best Adapted Screenplay”; maybe it would have won if it had been properly nominated in the “Best Original Screenplay” category).  In addition, the acting by the three principals—toothless and trashy Chris Cooper as the orchid thief, Meryl Streep as a jaded, intellectual journalist drained of passion, and Nick Cage as the twins, Charlie and Donald Kaufman—shows three veterans at the very peak of their games.   All three were nominated for Oscars, and Cooper won for “Best Supporting Actor.”   As good as Cooper was, it’s Cage’s magical performance as the writer paralyzed by artistic ambition and self-doubt, and also as his clueless doppelganger with a maddening Midas touch, that carries the film.  This is easily Cage’s best performance in an uneven career.

Despite the superlative script and performances, Adaptation falls just short of being an unqualified classic.  The problem is that the secondary plot—despite such welcome spectacles as Meryl Streep trying to imitate a dial tone while tripping balls—pales beside the more intriguing internal struggle of poor Charlie Kaufman.  When Streep and Cooper are on screen, we are always anxious to get back to Cage throwing barbs at himself.  Adaptation is geared towards a specialized audience—mainly writers, movie reviewers and other highly creative types—but will also appeal to fanatical film fans and industry insiders and would-be insiders who want to have a good wicked laugh at the cutthroat compromises required to bring a screenplay to life in Hollywood.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an occasionally maddening and sometimes brilliant motion picture that varies between being insightfully sharp and insufferably self-indulgent…  I can’t imagine Adaptation having much mainstream appeal, but, for those who look for something genuinely off-the-wall in a motion picture, this will unquestionably strike a nerve.”  -James Berardinelli, Reel Views