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by Bill Gibron

16 Feb 2009


Outcasts rarely have a bully pulpit from which to preach. For the most part, those so afar from the maddening crowd are meant to stay there. Yet I find myself in the unique position of being one of those outsiders with a regular gig to spew my own specific point of view. This past weekend, I reviewed Friday the 13th 2009, the remake/reimagining/revamp of the moldy old ‘80s slasher epic. In said article, I stated that the film was a reverential and relentless exercise in horror from a man - director Marcus Nispel - who really understands the core concepts of fear on film. Awarding four out of five stars, I claimed this recent version of the Voorhees story was a “classic” and went on to tackle more imposing problems - like Confessions of a Shopaholic. As you can imagine, the hate has since been hot and heavy.

Over at Rotten Tomatoes, that collection of overall critical consensus, I am currently only one of 34 writers who enjoyed this post-millennial update. The rest of the 117 opinions - meaning 83 negatives for those of you who are math challenged - range from minor dismissal to outright rage. The overall feeling was that, as a scary movie, Friday the 13th 2009 was not very much of the former and barely the latter. Many complained about the failure of the film to match the merit of the original, while the standard anti-terror bias appears in spades. Naturally, I stand by my version of the facts. I enjoyed the movie from the moment it started and loved how Nispel maintained a serious, no nonsense tone throughout. Like the Dawn of the Dead remake, the Texas Chainsaw redux (also by Nispel), and Rob Zombie’s tale of the hallowed Halloween, Friday the 13th is a new kind of modern macabre masterwork.

So the question is begged - how come I am so outside the majority view on this film - nay, the SUPER majority perception of this motion picture? Am I really that out of step, or is there something far more sinister and conspiratorial going on. Granted, I guarantee I see more horror movies per year than the average mainstream critic. Looking over the 300+ titles I took on for 2007-8, a good 17% (or about 50) followed the typical genre format. Some were wide release theatrical experiences - Quarantine, The Eye, The Strangers, etc. Others were independent efforts from unknown quantities, while more than a few - [REC] , Let the Right One In - were amazing foreign fare. But the sad fact is that, for every great experience in fear and dread, I spent many a night bored out of my skull. Let’s face it - most horror films suck and suck hard.

This creates a sense of expected anticipation. As I have written about before, the very hit and miss nature of the category creates a kind of unfair if pragmatically warranted predetermination for critics. Most fright flicks are going to be bad, just as most so-called comedies are going to be lacking in the laugh department. Drama is more or less universal. What sends the shivers up your spine, or the jollies through your belly is a totally personal and subjective experience. Oddly enough, it’s a lot like pornography. Some people won’t even recognize XXX material as valid. It’s a stance very similar to how some audiences view horror. As an emotional experience, being terrified is not considered pleasant or positive. For them, Jason and his haunted hockey mask might as well be Jenna Jameson and her lewd, loose virtues. 

And it’s not just among the masses. Most mainstream critics HATE horror films. I know from anecdotal experience. For them, a scary movie is the cinematic equivalent of a hair in your soup, a green-tinged potato chip in your bag of Ruffles, or a squawking brat at a public/press screening. They are things to be avoided, and if forced to confront them, superficially considered and then quickly cast aside. Since the genre doesn’t have the greatest track record for consistent success, such a belief is simple workaday shorthand. It’s an easy way to approach a review - expect the worst and be nonplused when your hunch is correct. After a while, the 400 to 600 words write themselves.

Now many have accused me of suffering from something quite the opposite. Since I see so many horror films, and find so many of them lacking, I apparently appear to latch onto the first thing that doesn’t absolutely disappoint. That would explain my love of the aforementioned remakes. But the truth is that, because of such a vast perspective, I believe I have a keener eye than most on what works and what doesn’t. A critic who sees two or three fright flicks a year has little to base their opinion on - especially the print person who doesn’t seek out and pay for the latest movie macabre when a studio doesn’t stand up and offer a free screening. The reciprocal nature of the treatment and the title is something the studio can blame itself for. If they really believed in a project, they’d put all bad word of mouth jitters aside and preview all of their movies, no matter the genre.

Fans are just as bad. Instead of broadening their scope and seeing more than one kind of horror offering, you’ve got your zombie-philes, your vampire addicts and your ghost geeks. There are audiences who would never ever favor a foreign fright film and visa versa. There are even those who dismiss the classic works of the past for being too tame and cinematically lightweight. Once again, such narrow-minded viewpoints can’t offer a truly considered response. Instead, it has to be viewed like those with an already established anti-horror bias - their opinion is tainted by a tendency toward only appreciating one kind of dread. Naturally, a response could be made that a person proficient in slasher would be the best critic for this latest installment in the slice and dice dynamic. But without a wider view of everything the genre has to offer, any such statement would still be suspect.

Marcus Nispel has made an excellent example of the type. He doesn’t offer up some goofy tongue-in-cheek charade or pretend to appreciate the seriousness of the subject. His Jason is brutal and animalistic and his treatment of the narrative is inventive and iconic. In essence, he delivered exactly what was expected. He doesn’t turn Jason into an abused child looking for an FBI profile to fill out (as Zombie showed with Michael Myers) or an extension of George Romero’s social commentary. Instead, he views the genre basics, breaks out the viciousness, and goes directly for the throat. Those who find this over the top or offensive haven’t seen many horror films. The Hostel series (again, some very potent motion pictures) is far more cruel and craven. Besides, Nispel needs to stay within Sean Cunningham’s original hack and slash objective. Had he turned this into some exploration of Jason’s psyche, the devoted would be chomping at the Inter-nation bit.

Perhaps this is more of a mea culpa than anything else. I truly enjoyed Friday the 13th 2009 and have since paid to see it again. I await the arrival of the Unrated DVD, knowing that Nispel does not disappoint when it comes to digital packaging and added content. I do admit that my overexposure to crappy horror might make me more susceptible to something borderline good/bad, but I don’t think that applies here. I can see and argue the artistic qualities that Nispel brings to all his projects and the overall effectiveness of the film itself. If the original movie was merely 80 minutes of waiting until the wonderfully whacked out Betsy Palmer shows up to wreck her own brand of batshit vengeance, so be it. This movie is all bad-ass Betsy from beginning to end.

So brand me a crackhead or someone capable of only clouded critical judgment. Wonder out loud what it means that you agree with me on certain films but not on this particular bit of slasher superiority. Granted, Friday the 13th 2009 is not Suspiria, or The Exorcist, or Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. No, it’s a serviceable scary film with a bite and a bravura that’s rare within the industry. Hate the movie all you want, but deconstructing the messenger because they disagree with your disapproval seems silly. This is all opinion after all, not assertion. There is a difference. History will bear out who is right and who is obviously influenced by their own particular point of view. For now, I’ll play the outcast. It’s not so bad - especially when you know you’ll probably be proven right somewhere down the line.

by Bill Gibron

15 Feb 2009


John Gulager’s rise from wannabe filmmaker to creator of the fright-astic Feast series was only partially documented on the cinema-based reality series Project Greenlight. As part of the DVD release of his latest effort, Feast III: The Happy Finish (from Genius Products, The Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme label) we are treated to a short PR piece which explains Gulager’s twenty year rise to ‘overnight sensation’ status. As the son of Hollywood staple Clu, the 50-something has seen his fortunes go from pretender to player, all thanks to the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck series. Oddly enough, for feeling so beneath the process, Gulager is probably one of the most success of the all the Greenlight alumni. Now, some four years after his initial achievement, he’s back with another installment of his monster movie series. While not bad, the third time here is definitely not the charm.

After watching Honey Pie buy it in the middle of the street, and seeing both undersized heroes Thunder and Lightning fail in their quest to get the junkie out of the police station, the rest of the first Feast‘s survivors decide to take matters into their own grue-slicked hands. So what if the Bartender is still sporting a horrible neck wound or that car salesman Greg has a pipe sticking through his skull. Biker Queen, Tat Girl, Slasher, and Secrets are still going to try to get the guns, load up on ammunition, and blast their way out of town. Sadly, a couple of cockeyed action men - Shitkicker and Jean Claude Seagal - make such a simple idea quite complicated. Eventually, a handicapped prophet named Short Bus Gus comes along to show them the path to righteousness…and escape. He seems skilled at controlling the monsters. Unfortunately, his power doesn’t extend to the mutants living beneath the city.

To call Feast III a sequel to the whacked out wonders of the gore-drenched Feast II would be an intellectual exercise of limited results. In essence, if Gulager and crew had been able to make a two and a half hour epic out of the first revisit to the monsters on the rampage material, there would be no need for this clever continuation. The story picks up right as the last one ended, with some of the characters we saw die off then back to accent their blood soaked demise. As the players move from location to location, Gulager introduces us to some of the most unlucky heroes in the history of the genre. One minute they’re making some massive stand against the beasties. The next, an accident has their brains splashed all over the walls.

A lot of Feast III tries to be so unconventional. Gulager gets a lot of mileage out of dialogue that reeks with Scream style self-referentialism, and there’s irony in abundance during many of the shock showdowns. However, there’s little this time to match the merry mayhem of seeing a baby splattered by a group of horny Hellspawn. There’s no denying that, after a while, the story starts to waver as well. We grow tired of conversations that sound like band religious epiphanies - or on the other hand, sloppy pre-barroom brawling. The start/stop approach to the action is irritating and the long passages of crawling around lose their allure. By the time the remaining survivors head underground and start battling with some mutants, Gulager is resorting to strobe-light, stop motion cinematography to capture the clash.

It’s as if the entire Feast III series symbolically runs out of steam. We still enjoy the wrap-up (including the WTF ending involving an unseen “force”) and the Mexican troubadour singing over the credits is a hoot. But the first two Feasts were so fun, so anarchic and overloaded with arterial spray that too see it come to a somewhat sputtering halt feels unfulfilling. Of course, the splatter is still present, heads and torsos ripped apart and leaking their vital goodness, and no one can top Gulager in his Sam Raimi/Peter Jackson-inspired desire to push the limits of such sluice. There’s a memorable moment with a decapitated heroine, a hungry fiend, and a bout of bad gas that has to be scene to be believed. In many ways, this series is a geeky gorehound’s dream come true. This time around, it’s the story that suffers. 

As part of the direct-to-DVD release, Gulager steps up to offer yet another clever commentary. He is joined by Producer Michael Leahy and writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. Together, this group gives the film a good going over, laughing at lapses in plot logic, goofball characterization, and their overall bizarre approach to the material. They lament the lack of sex this time around (only one individual gets buggered by the beasts) and the ending appears to be a combination of purposeful rebellion and a “what do we do now” dilemma. Along with the Gulager EPK and a series of trailers, the bonus features here are as much fun - and as much of a letdown - as this part of the Feast franchise.

Still, one has to admire Gulager for never giving up on his dreams. As the child of a Tinsel Town icon, he could have easily traded on his father’s fame to become one of many untalented leeches lunching on their family crest. Instead, Gulager held on to his passion for motion pictures and finally found the opportunity to achieve his dreams. The resulting horror spoof scored big with fans desperate for something thrilling, chilling, and filled with blood spilling. With Part III, we don’t really get the promised happy “finish” implied in the title - unless you’re talking about for Gulager and his career. Few filmmakers can create a successful film, let alone a series. While he may never be a Craven or Romero, this sunny survivor can make as much schlock as he likes, and as long as he keeps the same tone and temperament he showed with the Feast films, he’ll remain someone worth paying attention to.

by Bill Gibron

13 Feb 2009


Do few genre filmmakers “get it” that when a true artisan comes along, their presence can be initially perplexing - especially when he or she is being asked to reinvent a classic of macabre cinema. So many fail - David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s awful The Eye, for example - that anyone managing to survive said re-imagining is rare indeed. That’s why Marcus Nispel is such a welcome anomaly. Not only has he been charged with reviving the fortunes of two “archetypal” motion picture monster franchises - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th - but he’s managed to make the recognized classics all his own. In fact, some might argue that his updates are just as good (or better) than the originals.

Nispel is an interesting career case. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he came to America at age 20 to start a production company. Concentrating on commercials and music videos, he worked for artists as diverse as Faith No More, Simply Red, Elton John, and No Doubt. He won four MTV Video Music Awards and saw his Portfolio Artists Network expand their advertising reach with clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes and UPS.  In 2003, Michael Bay was looking for a new face to take on his planned redux of Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse epic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel, who had first tried to get into feature film directing with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days (he left the project over “creative differences”), was initially seen as an odd choice. Instead of going with a recognized horror name, Bay and company thought the cinematic novice would do the material justice.

They were absolutely right. With his trademark de-saturated color schemes, emphasis on atmosphere and tone, and a gore-drench brutality that the original completely lacked, Nispel made the story of Leatherface, his cannibal clan, and the unlucky teens that dared tread into his personal slaughterhouse domain an electrifying, terrifying experience. While paying homage to what Hooper and his beer-swilling buddies accomplished back in the Me Decade, he updated the premise for a blood and guts oriented post-modern crowd. Even cynical critics who normally dismissed fright flicks as the bastard step-children of the motion picture artform couldn’t deny that Nispel had forged something powerful and slightly sadistic out of what could have been a campy bit of nostalgia. The film became one of the Summer’s surprise hits and led to a less than successful origin story prequel.

For his part, Nispel went on to a pet project of his -Pathfinder, an adaptation of Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Ofelas. A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the original’s narrative was moved Westward, with Native Americans and Vikings taking the place of the Tjuder and Lapp tribes. With lead Karl Urban fresh from his turn as Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a directorial dedication to authenticity and history, studios clearly thought Nispel could deliver something spectacular. As the April 2007 release date came and went however, it was clear that this tale of murder, revenge, and cross culture clashing would do little but die at the box office. For his part, Nispel took the failure in stride, sitting back and studying his options (like the long rumored adaptation of American McGee’s Alice for horror heavy Wes Craven).

So it was quite shocking to see Nispel’s name featured in the initial teaser material for the proposed update of the Jason Voorhees legacy. It appeared like a step backward, a desperation move by a filmmaker who failed when moving outside the fear factory. In addition, the Friday the 13th franchise, while fun and very much tied to the introduction and explosion of home video in the 1980s, was not the kind of “classic” that Chainsaw was. Perhaps from a purely cultural standpoint, but Sean Cunningham’s crude slice and dice definitely wasn’t finding a spot in the Museum of Modern Art (where Hooper’s film now sits). Indeed, it looked like for all intents and purposes that Nispel, finding no success to separate himself from murder and mayhem, came crawling back to the scary movie to save his career.

In truth, bringing this director back was a godsend. Of all the films that need careful reconstructing, Friday the 13th is definitely high on the list. It’s an oddball mystery, a tawdry take on And Then There Were None where we don’t get the joy of figuring out the killer’s ID until the fiend shows up and says “Hello.” Betsy Palmer is brilliant as cook turned psycho Pamela Voorhees, and her machete battle with last girl Alice is amazing in its broad scoped camp cravenness. But before that, we have to suffer through endless minutes of stalk and shock, with little suspense preparing us for Tom Savini’s autopsy level make-up F/X. Today, the hockey masked hacker known as Jason is considered a true horror icon. But that status definitely comes from the other 10 films the character has starred in. At first, Friday the 13th was not about the deformed boy. It was about his batshit mother.

Nispel’s decision to redefine Jason as an animalistic predator is just one of the new film’s novel approaches to the material. This new Friday the 13th thwarts convention as easily as it embraces the standard slasher formulas. The opening 25 minutes are all film craft and corpses, Nispel showing off in ways that both shiver the spine and tweak the brain. By the time the title shows up, we’ve already experienced the death of his mother, the rise of Jason, and the set-up for the next part of the plot. Nispel’s greatest asset, and the one element that differentiates him from all other post post-modern horror filmmakers is his level of seriousness. He never treats the genre like a joke, or a lesser level of cinematic artistry. He sets up his scenes like old school masters would and he works the audience like regaled names in the category’s past. Sure, there’s still a by the numbers corpse grinding involved, but getting there is an exercise in polished, professional cinema, nothing more or less.

Indeed, the reason Nispel should now be number one on any studios classic horror remake list - an inventory now containing such noted names as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and The Evil Dead - is that he won’t kowtow to fanboy lusts or messageboard mandates. He won’t cater to memory or excessive obsession. Instead, he will play the narrative exactly the way the material requires. As a matter of fact, the next update he should attempt should be Sam Raimi’s breakthrough demons in a cabin romp. The Evil Dead would be perfect for Nispel’s ominous ambience and sensational splatter rampaging. He would use the wilderness as an effective foil to the foolishness happenings within, and when the creatures start to emerge, he could really turn on the terror. Just like Leatherface and his family, Nispel could even make the entire thing into some sort of redolent look at society circa 2010 (or whatever date the studios decide to set).

Because of his complete confidence in his own vision, because he can take even the cheesiest chestnut from the macabre mindfield and turn it into something stunning, Marcus Nispel should be instantly tossed to the top of the horror heap. He should never have to worry about working. He should have a laundry list of potential projects to choose from. Even when he fails - and Pathfinder is nothing short of subpar - he shows a spark and originality that few filmmakers possess. Remember, both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th were predisposed to fail. Devotees just knew that anyone tackling these titles would come up incredibly short. That Nispel managed to match - and in the case of Jason’s journey, best - the previous offerings says something about his gift for gruesomeness. Clearly, when it comes to horror, he “gets” it. Any producer looking to jumpstart their genre franchise should “get” him as well.

by Bill Gibron

12 Feb 2009


It’s been said before but it bears repeating - when making a movie, casting is everything. You can have the best script, the most accomplished director, and a budget that allows for both to maximize their effectiveness, but in the end, it takes people in greasepaint and funny duds to make the material zing. Put the wrong person in the lead and audiences will abandon your vision. Have a hack surrounding your otherwise accomplished company and listen to the critical commentary build and build. Some performers are poison from the get go (Jennifer Aniston, Robin Williams, Hayden Christensen), while others can steamroll over the rest of the players with their inherent sense of self (right, Mr. Olyphant???)

So when Zack Snyder started announcing his choices for the upcoming big screen adaptation of Watchmen, fans were initially fearful. Without seeing the actors in full costume and make-up, their ability to essay these iconic figures remained questionable. Now, just a few scant weeks from opening day, there are still issues with who will portray Moore’s enigmatic figures. SE&L has decided to look over the main characters from the novel and compare their print personalities with the actors hired to highlight them. In some cases, the choices are excellent. In others, we see the possible flaws in Snyder’s thinking - and where his visual panache will have the hardest time meshing with Moore’s more human take on the material. Let’s begin with:

The Comedian/ Edward Blake Jeffery Dean Morgan (Grey’s Anatomy, Supernatural)

The Comedian is perhaps the most complex character in Moore’s novel. He’s a hero, a cad, a scandal, a psychotic, a symbol of the old guard and an ever-present burr in the side of his former compatriots. In the book, The Comedian is a war criminal, a rapist, a guileless self promoter, and a survivor. We have to care that he’s murdered, wonder who did the deed, and wish to see such “injustice” addressed. This means Morgan has his work cut out for him. While The Comedian can easily turn into a caricature of the corrupting influence of ultimate power, there has to be a nobility and a self-awareness to his actions. Also, the character is all over the time line. Morgan will have to play old, young, spry, and sinister - in essence, the hero your love to hate or the villain you hate to love. Luckily, he’s more of a sidelight than a constant main focus in the Watchmen narrative.

 

Rorschach/ Walter Kovacs Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears, Little Children)


It’s one of the few feel-good stories in Hollywood. Haley was a child star, an important part of Michael Ritchie’s comedic commentary on kids and sports. But after a turn in Breaking Away, he seemed to literally disappear. Oh, he worked, but appearances in Dollman and Maniac Cop 3 could not prepare him for a run at Oscar glory for his work in Todd Fields fabulous suburban primer. Though he lost the trophy to Alan Arkin, the rise in profile meant more meaningful jobs. Now he’s landed what is essentially the lead in Watchmen. Rorschach is our antisocial detective, hoping to figure out who killed fellow crimefighter The Comedian. In the process, his conspiracy theory oriented brain unravels a more meaningful cabal which could spell the end of all masked vigilantes. To call Haley’s hiring a genius stroke is an understatement. He’s a dead ringer for the character in the graphic novel, and has the right amount of world weary seediness to make truly take on Rorschach.

Dr. Manhattan/ Dr. Jon Osterman Billy Crudup (Almost Famous, Big Fish)

Since he plays most of his scenes in a CG-assisted body that would make Mr. Universe jealous, the actor essaying the only true superhero in Alan Moore’s world does have to worry about the role’s physicality. But Dr. Manhattan is an important part of the graphic novel’s theme (the concept of humanity failing to seek the help it so desperately needs), so whoever takes over the glowing blue mantle has to really deliver in that department. Crudup is an interesting choice. The trailers show his radioactive transformation into Manhattan, and his pre-nuked look is totally appropriate for the ‘50s era experimentation. In the few new scenes where we hear the character speak, Crudup puts on a slightly stilted, almost alien lilt to his voice, capturing the ethereal quality of the character quite well. How he manages during the more confrontational moments (as when Manhattan is accused of giving former colleagues cancer) waits to be seen.

Nite Owl II/Dan Dreiberg Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Little Children)

As one of the last remaining vigilantes still geeked up and ready to rumble with his self-created technological crimefighting wonders (the Owl Ship), Dan Dreiberg is the heart and soul of Watchmen. He’s the reason to care about the fate of these former heroes, and his efforts - along with those of Silk Specter and Rorschach - help uncover what’s really going on. Wilson seems like a decent selection, his ability to slink between bad guys (Candy) and victim (Lakeview Terrace) indicating an excellent range. Besides, he was wonderful in Todd Fields’ film and has extension stage training. This will definitely help in those moments where Nite Owl must don the cloak and take to the skies once again. Wilson is also an excellent example of an audience window. His wholesome looks and Everyman characteristics could make his Drieberg Watchmen‘s most valuable player.

 

Silk Spectre II/ Laurie Juspeczyk Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid, 27 Dresses)

This is a tough one. Akerman survived the horrid Farrelly Brothers remake of the Elaine May/Neil Simon comedy, and has found additional fortune as the bubbly blond bimbette skittering around the outsides of the typical RomCom. Seeing her dressed up as Silk Specter, however, shows some inherent limitations in her onscreen persona. Unless the trailers are taking some of the more meaningless moments from her performance and accenting them for now, she just doesn’t look like superheroine material. Her costume wears her, not the other way around, and Snyder can accentuate her movements with as much slo-mo stylization as he wants and she still seems…stiff. Along with the casting of the original Silk Specter, and to some degree the choice of Ozymandias, this could be Watchmen‘s biggest let down - or greatest surprise.

Ozymandias/ Adrian Veidt Matthew Goode (Match Point, Brideshead Revisited)

Without going into detail, this is perhaps the most important role in the entire Watchmen saga. Adrian Veidt is more than just an ex-masked avenger. He’s a corporate superstar, an entrepreneur who took his stint as a crimefighter and, post-Keene Act, turned it into something much larger. He harbors secrets. He’s power mad without being obviously so. He plays to the publicity and loves the limelight. That’s why Goode seems like an odd choice. He was wonderful as the weak and spineless son in Brideshead, and other roles have concentrated on his vulnerability and weakness. Maybe Snyder sees an inherent cowardice in Ozymandias and wants Goode to play to those tendencies. But for fans who imagined some beefy blond superstar as the egotistical avenger, this version seems strange. Oddly enough, the only other actor previously considered for the part was Jude Law.

Nite Owl/Hollis Mason Stephen McHattie (300, Shoot ‘Em Up)

As the inspiration for Wilson’s character, and a member of the old guard that fostered the Comedian’s corrupt ways, McHattie will be an interesting choice as the original Owl. Now the owner of an automotive repair shop, it will be curious to see how much of his backstory is offered by Snyder. Hollis Mason has an interesting arc, which is very important to the overall narrative. Still, one could easily see his material pushed aside for more modern forward motion.

Silk Spectre/ Sally Juspeczyk Carla Gugino (Spy Kids, Sin City)

Here’s the biggest risk in the entire Watchmen casting process. Fans of the comic know that Sally Jupiter (aka Sally Juspeczyk, and mother of Silk Specter II Laurie Juspeczyk) is one hard-edged, arrogant shrew. She’s all burlesque queen beauty and tawdry tales outside of the crimefighting arena. Imagine someone like Debbie Reynolds meshed with Blaze Starr and you get the idea. While no one is doubting Gugino’s beauty, she’s way too young (all of 37) and too vital to be this fallen, broken down ‘broad’. Snyder will have a hard time making this click.

 

 

by Bill Gibron

11 Feb 2009


How did he do it? How did Zack Snyder go from motion picture no one (well, he did direct a Michael Jordan documentary short and a Morrissey video) to helmer of hits like Dawn of the Dead and 300? Even better, how did he become the kind of Hollywood heavyweight capable of getting the long dormant Watchmen movie out of development Hell and into theaters? Better men than him - Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass - have tried and failed miserably, each one claiming that Alan Moore’s graphic novel was practically “unfilmable”. Yet here we are, less than four weeks away from the movie’s release, and the buzz is so thick both in and outside the industry that Warner Brothers and Fox actually went to court over who actually owned the rights (and the resulting profits).

Snyder’s story is nothing new. He’s not some wunderkind who dropped out of the directing tree and hit homeruns all the way down. No, he was an art school savant, earning his wings as a creator of commercials and a star cinematographer. When Universal was looking for someone to jumpstart their horror genre remakes, Snyder was brought in to take on one of the more forbidding projects - a new twist on George A. Romero’s classic zombie film Dawn of the Dead. With a script from Troma trained outsider James Gunn and a modern feel to both the moviemaking and the monsters, Snyder unleashed his unique, hyper-stylized vision of Hell on Earth. With rapidly moving members of the living dead, and bloodshed o’plenty, the film was a box office bonanza.

Aside from the violence, which gets ramped up beyond all possibility of survival, Snyder understood the inherent hopelessness of an all out zombie apocalypse. Sure, there was the external threat of flesh eating fiends, but society cannot survive for long outside its classified comfort zones of instant gratification and material want. Romero emphasized this element to a fault in his brilliant cultural commentary. Snyder pays it lip service, but also acknowledges the need for humanity to scrape and claw its way back to the consumerism womb. The sequences inside the mall are claustrophobic and creepy, as if something horrific is just around the food court, hungry and unable to control its voracious appetite. That said creature could be a frazzled security guard or a distraught father accentuated the already palpable horror.

Success allows for a little artistic license, even for a newcomer, and Snyder picked a whopper for his feature film follow-up. Enamored of Frank Miller and the masterful Sin City, the comics writer’s take on the Spartan battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. became the foundation for 300. In order to convince the studio to make the film, Snyder scanned the entire graphic novel into a computer. Adding simply animation and a voice-over narration, he proved the movie could be made. A year later, he was still tweaking the CG-aided action to match his vision of Miller’s brutal universe. With very little hype and even less expectations, 300 hit theaters in March of 2007, and the rest was history. A surprise blockbuster, it put Snyder in the position of handpicking his next project. The choice, as we now know, would be as controversial as consistent with the filmmaker’s fearlessness.

If anything, 300 surly symbolizes Snyder’s desire to expand the language of film and the comic book genre in general. Similar to Sin City in that it takes direct inspiration from Miller’s designs, the accented realism achieved and the level of cinematic experimentation were indeed eye popping. What was most impressive, though, is how Snyder kept the emotional level so intense. We care about King Leonidas, his attempt to save Sparta, and his good lady queen who suffers significant humiliation in order to provide his army some hope. That none of it matters in the end is part of the film’s heartfelt heroics. We understand the battle may have been in vain, but the meaning of what these men went through clearly stands out among the washboard abs and bulging muscles.

Many felt 300 was all pizzazz and little passion. That’s why an uproar occurred when it was announced that Snyder would make Watchmen next. After all, treading into such nerd nation volatility demanded an equally histrionic response. The filmmaker said all the right things - dedication to the source, adulation for Moore, a desire to make a definitive version of the material, an attention to detail, etc. When the casting news hit and the teaser trailers sprang up, the intensity of discourse leveled off. Soon, Snyder was seen as the messiah, a man harboring the greatest comic book creation into its rightful place in motion picture history. Even as The Dark Knight bagged a billion dollars worldwide, many still believe that Watchmen will set the tone for all graphic novel adaptations to come.                                                                                                                       

So far, his gamble appears to have paid off. Few can argue that 6 March is becoming a destination date for film fans and early, early, early takes from Kevin Smith and various Ain’t It Cool News spies indicate that Snyder may have actually created a motion picture classic here. There are those, like Movie City News’ David Poland, who wonders if the movie will make any money outside the dedicated followers and already hip demographic. There are also concerns that, no matter what kind of reception the film receives, it will be viewed solely on terms of the money it makes, and not the aesthetic merits of what Snyder created. Hollywood wants - nay, NEEDS - this movie to be huge. If the director merely succeeds in being faithful to Moore’s masterwork, a lax box office will spell disaster for Snyder’s upcoming plans (and there are many).

Clearly, this is one filmmaker whose gone from lucky as Hell to damned if you do/don’t. No one expected 300 or Dawn of the Dead to be a monster. Now everyone believes that Watchmen needs to be just as popular or, somehow, Snyder has failed. How he went from over achieving newbie to set in cement vanguard will be something for cinematic scholars to argue over for decades to come. And even if he never makes another film, Snyder will always be remembered as the man who tackled Alan Moore, and managed to live to tell the commercial tale. When it finally hits theaters in less than four weeks, Watchmen‘s already inflated legend will finally come down to Earth. Whether it’s a crash or a cushioned landing, remains in the hands of the man who made it. Zack Snyder has defied convention before. Here’s hoping he can do it again. 

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Hitchcock's 'Suspicion', 'I Confess' and 'The Wrong Man' Return in Blu-ray

// Short Ends and Leader

"These three films on DVD from Warner Archives showcase different facets of Alfred Hitchcock's brilliance.

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