Friday, March 20, 2009

Movie of the Week – Raging Bull

Sorry for not posting this on Monday. It’s been kind of a busy week for me, but everything should be back to normal now.

As one of director Martin Scorsese’s best films, it seems surprising today that Raging Bull (1980) was initially met with mixed reviews, and that a poor marketing campaign caused it to fail at the box office. In fact, it’s taken quite a while for it to truly gain the recognition it deserves. It was nearly a decade before critics began to really view it as a modern classic, and almost two more before the American Film Institute finally named it the fourth greatest American film of all time in 2007. In many ways, Raging Bull represents the first and, to this day, most definitive realization of director Martin Scorsese’s creative potential and cinematic vision.

The story follows the life of Jake La Motta, a real-life boxer and former middleweight champion portrayed in the movie by Robert De Niro. The role earned him his second Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. His transformation from a taut, muscular boxer in La Motta’s early days to an overweight, pathetic has-been as he gets older is mesmerizing, to say the least. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an actor in any other movie devote himself to his craft as physically as De Niro does in Raging Bull.

While the film’s boxing scenes are predictably (although not by any means uninterestingly) brutal, the most unsettling violence occurs outside of the ring. In fact, La Motta might even be more violent in his everyday life than he is as a professional fighter. His own insecurities lead to constant fights with his family, and his rages can materialize out of nowhere in less than a moment’s notice. In one scene, convinced that his steak has been overcooked, he suddenly explodes and overturns the kitchen table; in another, he smashes down his own bathroom door in order to get at his wife (Cathy Moriarty). His paranoia about her fidelity eventually alienates him from his brother (Joe Pesci) as well, bringing the strongest and most important relationship in his life to an end.

Even as he becomes more violent at home, though, La Motta begins to lose his edge in the ring. He doesn’t put up much of a fight at all in his final bout, losing the middleweight title to longtime rival Sugar Ray Robinson. La Motta’s life after boxing is mildly horrifying to watch – having gained considerable weight, he operates a sleazy nightclub and tours the country as a painfully unfunny stand-up comedian. Perhaps saddest of all, he continues to view himself as the fighter and celebrity that he once was.

All of Scorsese’s signature directing techniques are here, from his constantly, often imperceptibly, moving camera to his use of popular music in the soundtrack. Shot in black and white, though, Raging Bull is unique to much of Scorsese’s work in its wholehearted devotion to the time period in which it takes place. However, that doesn’t stop him from placing color in a few places that contribute to the film’s meaning.

The main title, for instance – as you can see in the theatrical poster above – fills the frame with bold, blood-red letters when it appears at the beginning of the movie, instantly communicating to the audience that the story about to begin is one that will be characterized by both violence and anger. And while it is both of these things, what ultimately elevates Raging Bull to a higher cinematic level is not just the interesting nature of La Motta’s story, but the exceptional nuance that Scorsese and De Niro inflect upon the character along the way.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Marvel Release Dates Pushed Back

Well, this is sort of a bummer. It seems we're going to have to wait a while longer for Marvel's Thor and Avengers movies, as they've been pushed back a year each:

Not mentioned in that list is that Spider-Man 4 is also slated for May 2011. In other words, there are three Marvel movies scheduled for three consecutive months in 2011, and just one scheduled for 2010.

I guess it's probably a good thing that the movies were pushed back, seeing as we haven't heard anything definitive yet about any of them aside from Iron Man 2. I just worry that if one of the 2011 releases isn't that great, the others will get lumped in with its bad press. Still, at least Marvel is keeping their timeframe on the realistic side, and I hope the movies will turn out for the better as a result.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Movie of the Week - A Boy and His Dog

It’s been a while since the last “Movie of the Week,” but starting this week I’ll do my best to bring back the tradition and talk about a new (old) movie each Sunday or Monday.

A Boy and His Dog (1974) is a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie based on a short story by Harlan Ellison. Future Miami Vice star Don Johnson plays Vic, an 18-year-old boy who is able to communicate telepathically with his dog, Blood (voiced by Ted McIntire). The story follows the two as they scavenge the last nuclear war-ravaged vestiges of civilization for food, drink, and (in Vic’s case) women.

Vic is a crude, immoral, and misogynistic character, and his behavior ranges from the absurd to the downright deplorable. Living as he is, in such a lawless, tenuous world, perhaps we can’t expect much better of him. Nevertheless, it’s hard to sympathize with such a base persona by himself, so we need Blood and the way he so pointedly antagonizes Vic in order to balance things out. The movie works extremely well when they’re together, with Blood as the wise yet misanthropic teacher and Vic as his ambivalent young student. Their constant verbal sparring, while quite funny at times, also drives their characters forward and establishes the truly desolate nature of the world they live in.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the movie falls apart a bit in the final act, with the two main characters separated while Vic chases an attractive woman down a hatch and into her subterranean community. Vic’s hormones blind him to the obviousness of the trap the people there have set for him – when they say they need someone to impregnate their women (their men have become sterile), Vic volunteers under the false assumption that he will get to have sex with all of them. Without Blood to play off of his impulsiveness, though, the plot languishes in scenes where Vic is held the community’s unwilling captive. It doesn’t help that director L.Q. Jones goes too far with the underground culture’s bizarre nature, unnecessarily applying all of its inhabitants with clown make-up. The people are deprave enough without this touch, and I honestly think they would have been scarier had they been more normal-looking.

Even if some parts of it are a bit off-putting, though, it really is interesting the way the movie hints at a larger universe in which these characters play only a small part. One early scene has Vic and Blood attempting to hide from the “screamers,” whose presence is indicated by an eerie green glow and a series of high-pitched, ghastly shrieks. We never actually see the screamers, but they work well as a sort of unseen horror – perhaps even better than if Jones had actually found it appropriate (or in his budget) to show them to us.

But what really makes A Boy and His Dog worth seeing, despite the weakness of part of the story, is its brilliant ending. Without giving anything away, this is the sort of ending you secretly hope for and yet don’t think is actually possible – and when it does play out that way, the payoff is perfectly fantastic. This is easily one of the best endings I have ever seen in any movie, and it bears watching if only for that reason.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Do Not Watch the Watchmen

The title is a bit cliché, but I wanted something that would grab people’s attention. As you’ve probably guessed, this post is all about why you shouldn’t see the Watchmen movie that opens this week. There are a whole host of reasons why this movie never should have been made, and I’ll try to go through all of them.

First of all, just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, Watchmen is a twelve-issue 1986-87 comic book series written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons. It’s about a group of former superheroes who are being killed off in a world where costumed vigilantism has been made illegal. It’s widely considered to be one of the best and most influential comic stories of all time, and it’s been collected into a graphic novel which has been in print for over two decades.

A movie adaptation of Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300), comes out on Friday, and for reasons that I really can’t understand, some people are just foaming at the mouth for it. I love the book, but the movie looks like a complete disaster in every way imaginable. It’s more than just that, though – the movie, in a lot of ways, represents everything I dislike about the film industry and certain segments of the movie-going public.

The fundamental difference between Watchmen and comic books like Spider-Man or Batman is that you can always tell new stories about those characters – even ones that might be a better fit for the big screen than for a comic book. But with Watchmen, there is only one story, and it’s already been told. Any retelling of that story can only dilute it, especially if it’s in a medium other than comics.

Brian K. Vaughan (the writer of such popular comic books as Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, as well as one of the writers on TV’s Lost) puts it extremely well: “I’ll go see it [Watchmen] if it doesn’t feel like a betrayal of what Alan Moore wants. But it’s like making a stage play of Citizen Kane. I guess it could be OK, but why? The medium is the message.”

It’s an excellent point. Personally, I’m fed up with the mentality that film is the ultimate art form, and that any story told well in another medium should automatically be made into a movie. I love movies (enough to have started a whole blog about them!), but to assume that every story worth telling has to be told in audiovisual form is arrogant, presumptuous, and entirely disrespectful to the original creators of that story. Speaking of which, perhaps now would be a good time to mention that Alan Moore refuses to have anything to do with the film (and, in fact, says he has no intention of even seeing it).

Another big part of my problem with Watchmen boils down to some basic issues I have with the increasingly mainstream nature of comics. Comic books are more in vogue now than they have been probably since the 1960s, and it has a lot to do with the excellent quality of so many recent superhero movies. But while it’s nice that one of my favorite hobbies doesn’t get me as many awkward glances as it used to (I’ve been reading comics on a regular basis since I was in the seventh grade), I find myself incredibly annoyed that so many people are reading comics these days just because it’s the “cool” thing to do.

The people I’m talking about aren’t the ones who are legitimately interested in learning about the medium – people like that are always welcome – but rather the ones who say, “I’m going to read Watchmen and V for Vendetta so people will be impressed by me” and who refer to comics only as “graphic novels” because they think it makes them sound more refined. Newsflash, guy (or girl): the comic books you’re reading aren’t “niche,” they’re as mainstream as it gets. Hell, Time Magazine listed Watchmen as one of its top 100 American novels a couple of years back. It’s good that you’re reading some truly great stories, but doing so doesn’t make you “cultured” or “well-rounded.” It’s a lot like bragging about having seen Star Wars or The Godfather.

Unfortunately, these are the sort of people for whom the Watchmen movie was tailor-made. They’re the people who think film is the only legitimate art form, that Chuck Palahniuk is “deep,” and that Watchmen is the next Dark Knight. Most importantly, they’re the people who didn’t get Watchmen when they read it. Because as anyone who appreciates the comic and has done even the slightest research on the movie knows, the changes director Zack Snyder has made for the movie – specifically, in the ending – completely undermine the entire thrust of the story.

I know a lot of people reading this probably haven’t read Watchmen, so I’m not going to spoil exactly what Snyder changed. The point, though, is that a significant part of Alan Moore’s ending in the book is wild, bizarre and comes out of left field in a way that it has to in order for the plot to work. But more than that, the way Snyder has changed the ending not only creates a plot hole big enough for you to drive a truck through, it eliminates something essential to the overall tone of the story.

Many people, including Moore himself, have made the argument that the true ending of Watchmen is “unfilmable,” and that the average movie-going audience wouldn’t be very receptive to it. They’re probably right. But the solution is easier than you might think: just don’t make a movie based on Watchmen. I really can’t say it enough – just because a story is good doesn’t mean it has to be made into a movie. In the case of Watchmen, the greatness of the original story arises from things inherent to its being a comic book. Everything from Rorschach’s mask to the nature of Dr. Manhattan’s powers just works in a way that can’t be replicated, much less improved upon, in another medium.

Even if all you’re looking for is a mindless action flick, the Watchmen movie is still a failure. Every trailer and video clip that’s been released has reveled in its own slow-mo, music-video-style editing, but it’s all old hat at this point. It’s the exact same style Snyder used in 300, minus the decapitations – so if you’re really a fan of that kind of stylized action, you would do better to just rent that movie. At least in 300, the technique sort of works; it’s a movie that puts style over substance and succeeds because, honestly, its substance isn’t anything special. But in the case of Watchmen, a story that actually does have some meat to it, that kind of action can only detract from the rest of the experience. If Moore and Gibbons didn’t need slow motion action scenes to tell their story, why should we need them to enjoy the story now?

I hope by this point that I’ve gotten my point across without sounding like a raving lunatic. The fact is that even in the best-case scenario, the Watchmen movie can’t ever be more than an inferior version of the graphic novel. And why settle for inferiority when you don’t have to – especially when the more likely scenario is that the movie will just be flat-out bad? Please, for your own sake, do not see Watchmen. You’ll be wasting your time and money, and if you haven’t read the book you’ll be denying yourself a truly wonderful experience.

And just in case all of that isn’t enough to convince you, let me sweeten the pot a little. If, say, twenty people go to the comments section of this post and honestly pledge not to see the movie, I’ll choose one of them randomly and buy him or her a copy of the Watchmen book. (If you get chosen and you already have the book, I’ll get you something you don’t have.) So that’s it…comment away!