Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam F-91: The Pros and Cons of a Clean Slate

It's that time again! We delve back into the history of one of Japan's most lucrative brands to involve giant humanoid robots in celebration of said brand's 35th birthday.

At this point, some of you out there may have been wondering why I've felt the need to preface each entry in this project with a bit of a history lesson leading into the film's place in events. This is being done for three main reasons:

First, because hey, it IS an event project. Let me try and make this one a little special.

Second, because while I know some of the reader base is familiar with Gundam, there are quite a few who aren't. So these explanations are partially to help clarify things, especially since some of these movies are direct sequels to shows and would be pretty damn baffling on their own without explanation.

And third, because it really helps set context for some of the decisions that go into the films, ESPECIALLY in a case like this month's entry.

Now, as we'd last left things, original series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino had finally gotten the chance to close the book (or so he'd hoped) on some of the more prominent and played up elements of the Gundam brand at the time. Most notable were the Federation-Zeon conflict, and the fates of fan favorites Amuro Ray and Char Aznable. With the Universal Century's core story fulfilled, Bandai was trying some new things with the brand. The previous movie was followed, for example, by the brand's first direct-to-video sidestory Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, which would prove successful enough to see several other sidestories produced after.

At this time, Tomino had started work on another full length series. Whether this was at studio insistence, or he was genuinely interested to take the brand in a new direction is another one of those stories that, sadly, is lost behind the language barrier. In either case, Mobile Suit Gundam F-91, so the stories tell, was his attempt to make a whole new series for the Gundam line. Taking place thirty-five years after the events of Char's Counterattack, this was his attempt at making a completely new Gundam story. The setting was the same, but thanks to the passage of time, there would be no returning characters or call backs to risk reheating the One Year War premise again. The show was in production and slated to be a fifty-two episode run.

"Oh yeah! Door's open, boys!"

What happened next...the stories are a bit hazy on. Whether it was conflicts in production staff or a decision handed down from Sunrise higher-ups, the idea of making F-91 into a series fell through. The problem was, they had already been pretty busy at work on the show at the time things fell apart (as fun facts go, the show's chosen opening theme, never featured in the movie, still appears on several Gundam Singles albums.) Wanting to at least salvage what was worked on, a greenlight was given to recut what footage had been already put together into a single movie.

And so, in March of 1991, the movie cut of Mobile Suit Gundam F-91 was screened for Japanese audiences. The result was somewhat mixed. Certain elements of the movie, such as its titular Gundam and its main theme have enjoyed some degree of popularity (further bolstered by its manga sequel, Crossbone Gundam) but in general it's kind of settled into a place as one of the more middling offerings of the Gundam brand over its run.

...okay, history lesson over. Let's get into the workings.

Like I said before, this is set to take place roughly thirty-five years after the end of Char's Counterattack, the lay of the land has changed a LOT. Zeon is now but a fading name in the history books (much to the disappointment of some fans, I'm sure,) and the Earth Federation is finally expanding its territories establishing new space colonies. Of course, because a story of peaceful expansion makes it hard to sell fighting robots, this era has also marked a rise in a new faction: the Crossbone Vanguard - an organization whose primary modus operandi is to establish a new ruling system based on the old world concepts of nobility and, essentially, space feudalism. With this in mind, they promptly set to work taking over many of the newly established Frontier colonies, with the film starting with one of these takeovers. In the chaos, we're introduced to protagonist Seabook Arno (Kouji Tsujitani) and several of his friends as they seek to escape from the colony that has now been turned into a war zone. Further adding to the complications is the plot involving Seabook's friend-cum-love interest, Cecily Fairchild (Yumi Touma,) who actually has blood ties with the leaders of the Vanguard. As the movie unfolds, Seabook tries to navigate both the survival story, in which (as is often the case of these stories) he finds himself the pilot of the titular machine, as well as trying to talk Cecily into leaving behind her family ties in the Vanguard to escape with the rest of them.

Worry not, dear viewers. The overriding ethos has changed, but it still has the same great taste of space-based fascism you've come to know and love!

If this starts to sound overly complicated and confusing, I can only say the movie doesn't help make it any easier. Like I said last month, Tomino's use of in media res is a double-edged sword for him. When he uses it in the series, it can be a great tool to get people coming back to figure out what's going on. Yet in film, where time is precious, it's something that takes a much more controlled hand to use right. By comparison to Char's Counterattack, F-91 is arguably the worse use of the narrative device. For starters, there's no actual indication in the movie as to just how long has passed between the start of Char's Counterattack and F-91. In fact, the only real indication we have that it would be around that particular era is the Federation's still using Jegan mobile suits, though we see them being phased out. The year is given in supplemental materials, but is never established in the movie proper. Further this film completely eschews any idea of establishing anything else out of the gate. We start, quite literally, with the Crossbone Vanguard infiltrating a colony and attacking.

From there, the story flies fast and frantic, with only a few hits landing. Several of the plot threads in this film-stories one can tell would make a lot more sense were they expanded on and allowed to breath in a series- are just thrown out here and discarded or resolved as quickly as they came. One particularly egregious example comes around the halfway point in the movie. We go from Seabook's first sortie in the F-91 on one colony, to suddenly running an infiltration job - that we later learn he took on himself, rather than by any assignment - on an entirely different colony with no explanation of how long it's been or how he got there without anyone asking questions (remember, we're talking travelling between giant space stations here.) I can see why the plotline was left in the final film, to help properly establish Cecily's conflicting alliances, but the fact is, the jump to it is so abrupt, that it's hard to suppress the urge to say "What the Hell?" when Seabook turns up outside the royal family estates. Likewise, the movie's big climactic battle involving a dangerous drone superweapon (BEFORE it was cool for every sci-fi piece to play up) is clumsily set up in a few throwaway lines before it's ever rolled out proper.

Also this weapon, partially pictured here, which I suspect has inspired more than its fair share of horrifying fanart over the years.

Besides the problems in exposition, one of the big faults with this movie's rushed presentation is how many emotional notes fall flat. Early into the film, we're treated to a scene where Seabook and co run into a civilian war curator who decides he'll fight the invading forces using an old tank-type of mobile suit. Seeing the chance to turn the tables, a couple of Seabook's friends take part in the defense. The fight goes...about as well as you'd expect, and one of the friends is killed. On paper, the point of this scene makes a lot of sense - it makes all the death and carnage happening around Seabook become personal. The problem is, because of how rushed everything has become to that point, Seabook's shock feels rather phoned-in - as he desperately tries to hammer home how tragic this death is, it really has no impact for us, as we barely knew the character to begin with. Even sadder, since the movie had up to this point, already made a minor character death carry some emotional weight when an unnamed woman is killed in crossfire. It's a moment that really maintains a sense of shock in that it's something that doesn't often come up in these sorts of titles. Then, later in the movie, a pilot character who has been established as a pretty prominent support role, dies with little more than two people passingly acknowledging he was killed. The result gives the whole movie an emotionally uneven spread. It has a few moments that really hit home, but a lot of them just feel either brushed off, or land with a thud.

"Come on, man. We're in enough trouble with legal on this movie as it is. If we lose our token character in the first fifteen minutes, we might as well end this project right here!"

Which is certainly a shame to say, since there's actually a fair number of interesting elements at play in this movie's story. Just taken on some of the plot points here, we see a fair number of elements that feel like Tomino is trying to riff on some of the more classically 'Gundam' elements that had been established to that point. For example after two of the three former leads falling into the role of 'pilots a robot their father made', Seabook's Gundam is actually designed by his mother. Likewise, the space-based Crossbone Vanguard at times feel like a sort of spin on the Zeon concept - rather than being an independence movement hijacked into establishing a totalitarian regime, this is an organization that has openly declared its intentions to ultimately establish a royal ruling family over all. Further adding to the parallel, either by coincidence or as a means of tweaking, the family's son Dorel (Takeshi Kusao) is almost a physical ringer for Zeon's own Garma Zabi, complete with the desire to prove himself in battle. Meanwhile, the 'Char' style of character is actually split into not one but two characters this time around: Cecily's father, Carozzo (Masaki Maeda,) who hides behind a Darth Vader-esque metal mask as an ideological statement, and Zabine (Kiyoyuki Kanada,) a one-eyed variant on the charming ace rival who is trying to smooth-talk his way to the top. Both characters contain some elements of the Char character, and, either ironically, or as a criticism, both are treated as largely negative personality traits in them. Cecily, of course, is a variation on the 'scion of the enemy leader' role established with Sayla Mass back in the first series, although put in a much more active role politically this time around. Whether or not these elements were all meant to be deliberate riffs on the classic formula or just a wild coincidence, it still makes for an interesting aspect to this story. Even outside of these, however, the movie has several other ideas that it would have been interesting to see explored more - for example, the fact this is the only Gundam storyline so far to deal with a major plotpoint taking place inside a colony under military occupation is rather surprising.

"Come on now, children. Stop recoiling in horror and give your old man a hug!"

Alongside the some of the plot and setting elements, the film's visual style is one of those areas where this leaves one wondering about the series that could have been. The pseudo-classical styling of the colonies as well as within the Crossbone Vanguard, while perhaps a touch deliberately anachronistic, does make for an interesting choice to help further distance this period from the familiar style of the earlier titles. There are certainly enough shared elements to see them as the same setting, but enough different to give the impression that things have changed with time. Likewise, the mobile suit developments add to this. Like I said before, the Jegan, the luckless grunt of Char's Counterattack returns for another round of abuse (this time even more so given the age of the suits,) and along with it, we see the Federations new frontline units, the Heavygun and G-Cannon as plausible, but still very altered descendants of earlier Federation weapons. Likewise, one can see why the main Gundam design- this time conceived by character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, has endured as a favorite even if the movie itself hasn't retained the same level of popularity. Meanwhile, the Crossbone Vanguard suits, to further differentiate the era, maintain a unique aesthetic that distances considerably from the cycloptic weapons employed by just about every other prior antagonist action, employing an ornate design philosophy and goggled look that evokes gas-masked shock troopers for a different emotional response.

Also, no other main Gundam has ever really tried to do the flying death blender trick here, which is a crying shame.

In a lot of ways, visuals are this movie's strongest suit. Alongside the good look of the setting, cast, and robots, this movie, as is often the case for Tomino in film, has a lot of strongly directed individual sequences, even if they don't all come together for a good finished product. Scenes like the initial arrival of the Vanguard's leaders on the occupied Frontier IV colony, a sequence with no dialogue set to the movie's main vocal theme, are more memorable on their own terms than as parts of the overall narrative. Also, while on the weaker end of the spectrum in terms of storytelling, this is another of the movies that stands out for its combat sequences. The opening twenty minutes in particular capturing the chaos and destruction of a fight breaking out in a colony on a level that had previously not been covered in earlier works. Later battles, meanwhile, use the colony setting to good end, allowing for some impressive aerial combat, with the terrain being factored in - especially in one sequence involving ground-based resistance forces joining in and actually providing a viable threat. I have to say, if the stories about much of this footage being put together before the decision to recut to a film was made have any weight to them, then we lost out. This had the potential to be a visually stunning series .

Which is part of why it's a shame that the visuals are really the only strong point here. Even the cast, while largely well acted, are in many cases only interesting as concepts rather than how their characters are actually executed. This was a problem that was already present back in Char's Counterattack, where the movie-only characters felt flat next to returning characters, but the latter at least helped keep things afloat. This time out, we have no returning faces to help buoy the new cast, so they ultimately remain flat. In particular, Seabook Arno is, through no fault of his own, arguably one of the blandest Gundam protagonists the brand has conceived even to this day. I want to clarify on this point, I don't think he's necessarily a bad character per se - but the fact is, as a protagonist, he's fairly singular as far as the movie is concerned - he's really all about protecting his loved ones with little else to his personality. Even his motivation for piloting the Gundam feels almost arbitrary in this line-he's already lost one friend, he won't see another die when he could do it. There's even a line that unintentionally highlights how arbitrary his role is, when he explains about piloting "Somebody's got to do it" and really gives no other reason why it should be him over anyone else. He's the case of a character who is ultimately defined by what other characters throw his way, and doesn't show much in the way of growth in personality as a result. Even when they came back to him in Crossbone Gundam, he still stays mostly just a likable pilot who does some cool tricks with his machine. He's otherwise a bit of human filler. Cecily at least offers a bit more conflict, even if it's a little cliched, and most of the rest of the team are just talking heads. I'll grant this is primarily a consequence of the time crunch, but it certainly isn't doing the movie any favors as it is.

"Let's be brutally honest here: look at yourself, look at me. Who do YOU think is gonna be the protagonist of this movie?"

In a particularly disappointing area, the soundtrack to this movie is probably one of the more forgettable in Gundam's history. Barring the movie's vocal end theme, Eternal Wind by Hiroko Moriguchi, most of the music featured in the score (by Satoshi Kadokura) is really rather unremarkable with one unfortunate exception. Alongside good things said for the end theme, the one other element of this movie's music that really has garnered much attention is one piece that sounds eerily similar to John William's Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. To be fair, it's not the most damningly similar I've ever heard an anime score come to cribbing music from another source, but it DOES sound close enough that it's become something of a punchline regarding the film (the fact the main antagonist is an estranged father in a full-head metal mask isn't helping shake that either.)

In all, Gundam F-91 is one of Gundam's more unfortunate forays into cinema. It had a lot of potential to be good, and to this day, English fans continue to wonder if the novels based on the story continue past the film's ending point. Unfortunately, fans didn't take to F-91 in strong enough numbers for it to really see much of a revival beyond a manga sequel that has now become more its own property than an F-91 related piece. In the end, it remains a rather cruel punchline: a compilation movie to a series that never happened. As a movie, it's certainly not devoid of merits, but it's also a rather flawed film that will ultimately never be able to fully escape the shadow of what could have been.

The fact even they were hoping for more here makes this title card even more of a shame on top of it all. Here I wondered if I was going to have enough to say on this one.

This brings this month's entry to a close. Next writeup in general should be coming soon.

Till then.

"So...not to ruin the emotion here, but...I don't remember where we parked."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Rosemary's Baby part 2 - “It wasn't a miscarriage, Michael...”

Well, about a week later, we finally bring this demonic plane in for a landing.

To recap last here.
Or, if you're a very busy person - in which case, damned if I know why you're spending time here. Don't get me wrong, I'm flattered, but it is a bit strange from a logic standpoint – part one introduced us to Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse – fresh-faced Americans trying to make it in the big city of Paris. Guy is offered his shot at the brass ring, and all it takes is offering up his wife's babymaker to Satan for nine months. Ending on a cliffhanger that saw Rosemary having her fateful 'big night' in...rather underwhelming fashion.

Which brings us to now...

We start with things literally the morning after the end of part one. Rosemary doesn't remember much of the night before and sees scratches and realizes – at least as far as she's concerned – she and Guy made the Shakespearean beast with two backs. I cite this more specifically because, to be honest, this is one of those changes – and this part actually has a few – that I have to give them points for. For my issues with Saldana's performance in this version overall, seeing her version of Rosemary look at Guy's cover story of admittedly doing the deed with her while she was passed out and going “WAIT A MINUTE...” was a good idea on the writers' parts. Of course, like so many of the little things this does right, it's quickly forgotten.

While I'm looking at the minor bits of praise, I should give credit where it's due from when I discussed this last time.

The people behind this one did promise a bit more of a look at the aspect of loss of agency in pregnancy in this version compared to the old Polanski adaptation. The good news is, this aspect they handle overall well. The bad news is, they don't handle it particularly often. It's one of those elements of the story that actually benefits from the update, but whenever it turns up, it's all too quickly forgotten in the interests of getting back to the horror elements of the story.

Said horror elements being one thing this version continues to wield with all the subtlety of a raging PCP addict. While watching this, I've been trying not to do too much comparing to the Polanski version in order to be fair to this adaptation on its own terms. At the same time, the difference between the two also really helps highlight the problems with this newer version. Probably the biggest of these is the fact that, as I said last time, this movie REALLY doesn't have much of a sense of subtlety going for it. Certainly not any more here than they did in part one in any case.

When the baby is the spawn of the devil, it raises the question - the fight is one-sided, but in whose favor?

The demonic kills, in particular, showing this version's lack of restraint. Now, to their credit, the first of these- which involves a mutual friend of Rosemary and Guy, played by Cristina Cole- is actually a sound idea on paper. It's one that genuinely feels like it could be taken for an accident. The problem with it arises in the fact that this version is not content with just a simple “oh no, how unfortunate!” It spends more time than it really needs drawing out the scene before a payoff that feels almost too graphic to be believable. The sad part being, this is still worlds better than the second of the big kills, involving a French police commissioner (Olivier Rabourdin) whose role seems to be solely to further build suspicion about Roman Castevet. The scene in question is a needlessly drawn out sequence with probably one of the worst soundtrack choices in the entire film. By the time it gets to what's supposed to be its big 'shock' moment, you can see where it was coming from a mile away.

However, even before his death, the commissioner is indicative of one of the issues that's been prevalent in this miniseries and especially this part – despite being what the story is named for, Rosemary's pregnancy ultimately takes a backseat to her game of 'what are my neighbors up to?' For example, let's consider Rosemary's blowout with Guy, a scene that, in the original work, takes a while to build to before Rosemary finally hits her breaking point. Here, she hits it within the first twenty minutes (and again, she's only been pregnant as of the start of this part.) For a story about being pregnant with the devil's child, the filmmakers seem to be altogether bored with the actual pregnancy, and quickly breeze through many of those scenes so they can pad out the story with more spookhouse scares. Even when Rosemary finally starts to figure everything out, the idea that they want her child is almost an afterthought in the overall reveal. When Rosemary is later angry with Guy's altogether flippant attitude towards the idea of the loss of their child, it comes across as hypocritical of the writers this time around.

Of course, to give Guy his due, this version does continue to try to build up his character. The result of which creates an awkward two-step. Guy alternates between being concerned for Rosemary's well-being and being repelled by her with the knowledge he's let someone else knock his wife up. I'm still not sure if this was to make him more sympathetic or just give the story more dimension. Either way, Patrick J. Adams seems to have missed the memo, as he continues to just be sort of there for everyone else to just act off of. It's something of a shame here, since I get the sense that they wanted Guy's arc to be one where he slowly gives in to the temptations being offered. Unfortunately, Adams only really has one mode in this, so it's more like he just decides one day "maybe I'll try something different by being a jerk to my pregnant wife." Again, I keep trying not to compare to the older version, but it's hard to do in cases like this – John Cassevetes did a great job making Guy start off somewhat likable and believably slide into utter scumbag territory. Here, Guy is really only despicable by virtue of some “did he seriously just say that” lines of dialogue, and even those could have benefited from a better delivery. By the very end, he could have just vanished from this version altogether and it wouldn't really impact anything at all.

"...okay, line? Am I supposed to be caring and concerned or an utter prick here?"

Adams aside, the cast continue to be a mixed bag. To her credit, Saldana is actually putting in more of an effort than I expected, but even then, she's still limited. At many points, she soft-balls what are supposed to be the harsher scenes emotionally, and the impact is lost. Meanwhile, Isaacs and Bouquet continue to play up the “look how bloody evil we really are and no one suspects a thing” version of the Castevets here. While I do have to give them some points for the fact they at least feel like they're having fun with their parts, but it continues to highlight the problem with the fact that this version really doesn't have any moderation in how it depicts things. It's constantly cranked to eleven, often to unintentionally comic end – they even have a black cat act as a foreshadowing plot device!

"Who's the cutest little piece of on the nose foreshadowing?
YOU'RE the cutest little piece of on the nose foreshadowing!"
(Yeah, this image is actually from part one, but i hadn't discussed this then, so...)

Beyond these cast members, many of the rest are just sticking to line reads. It's a little sad that, for having an extra hour of screen time to build up its plot, this version feels barer than the original, with many characters either removed or replaced with less fleshed out equivalents.

Which is actually the biggest problem this adaptation has. It has more time to tell the story, but it actually feels like it does less with it in turn. Instead, either because they don't see any need to hide the twist now that it's known, or just because it's not their style, they don't have any patience for a slow burn. This miniseries is in a constant state of playing up scares that are less at home in Rosemary's Baby, and more at in something like The Devil's Advocate or the 2006 remake of The Omen. Unfortunately, that constant bombardment causes a viewer to grow numb to it, and by part two, many of the scenes of Satanic reveal in this version just feel tedious. By the time they got to what was supposed to be the big shock finale – seeing the titular baby (yes, you see it in this version) – it has no real impact at all.
Not that that's helped by the ultimately underwhelming reveal of the baby – a scene that's surprisingly staid for how overt much of this version gets, but I digress on that point.

Because if you don't talk to your child about Spice addiction, who will?

In all, this update of Rosemary's Baby can be summed up as a missed opportunity. Once I got past my initial automatic reflex, I had to admit, and still will admit, it has potential to be updated done right. Unfortunately for them, this version was not it. It too readily indulged in overt horror and, as a result, many of the moments that were supposed to scare or surprise in the original story are lost in the screams and the blood the new version has slammed on viewers.

Maybe in another twenty years or so, another filmmaker will feel ambitious enough to do this. Until that time, however, this version isn't likely to be all that remembered from here on out. It was a nice attempt, but these people just weren't the ones to do it.

Sorry this one was a bit shorter than last time. Given how many of the issues here were carryovers, it limited what I could really go into.

Next entry to come soon.

Till next time.

In closing let me just say - that's enough Margaux.
I'm not sure why the writers felt she needed to come on to both Rosemary and Guy, but it's really kind of pointless here.
Not sure if this is supposed to be a 'decadent wealthy people' angle or 'hey, they're European', but it just...yeah...

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rosemary's Baby Part 1 - "Could It Be...Hmmm...SATAN?"

Okay, I'll acknowledge that's an old reference, but trust me, it's not without reason here.

First, I should explain something. Lately, I've been trying to be more lenient towards recent updates of things. Yeah, a lot of them can be painful. At the same time, I do acknowledge I can sometimes be unfair to some of these right out of the gate. This particular piece was in part inspired by the fact I recently got into watching (Thanks to your incredibly persistent girlfriend- Editor) Bryan Fuller's Hannibal - a televised reboot of the characters from Thomas Harris's novels. For a show that I was initially INCREDIBLY skeptical about, it's now one of the better shows I've seen on television in a while, and its recent renewal was a big plus for me.

However, when NBC announced its plans to do a miniseries version of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, my initial response was...shall we say less than enthusiastic.

Anyway, I started to wonder if maybe I wasn't being fair to this update. So, despite my many reservations, I decided to sit down and give this a go. I even went ahead with revisiting the original novel just to gauge how this one would fare compared to the source (which was kind of a practice in futility. Polanski's version really is an almost 1:1 lift of the novel, so for this to do the same would be about as logical as Gus van Sant's approach to Psycho.)

Anyway, I finally sat down with this doing my damnedest to keep an open mind. On the plus side, I can now honestly say my problems with this movie really aren't just personal bias talking.

Before I go into this one, I do want to say this: the more I think about it, the more I can honestly say I'm not opposed to the idea of updating Rosemary's Baby as a general rule. There are certainly elements of the original story that wouldn't translate well to modern day - things like the religious and political aspects in the setting,  but there are also themes in it that still speak well to modern audiences: most notably the theme of loss of agency and autonomy during pregnancy, which is still disturbingly relevant. I can see the case for wanting to deviate from the text - even beyond the fact the story's already been given as faithful a lift as it's going to get already - and honestly would even welcome an update that kept with that core theme (especially given how religiously motivated a lot of the issue of women's rights can be.)

Unfortunately, if part 1 of this new version is any indication, exploring those themes through a modern filter isn't high on the priorities list - though I could be wrong, as the first part ended with the infamous 'date raped by the devil' moment.

But we'll get back to the themes. Otherwise, let me just say, as an adaptation, this is almost an entirely different story so far. I mean, at the center is the VERY loose thread of plot - Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse are the fresh-faced young couple trying to make it, Guy gets a chance at the big leagues, and all at the low, low cost of renting out his wife's uterus for nine months to grow the spawn of the Prince of Darkness - and oh, she has no idea about this deal, so she has no idea why everyone's suddenly so protective of her child. know, that chapter that got edited out of later editions of What To Expect When You're Expecting.

Back when it was getting published with this cover art.

Anyway, outside of a couple of character names (in fact, outside of the Woodhouses, the only two characters to really carry over to this version are the Castevets, although that's more in name than character) there's really very little of Levin's original story in this version. I can kind of get the sense of logic behind a couple of the choices - trading out New York for Paris does still allow the story to maintain that feeling of 'the outsider' that colors a lot of Rosemary's initial interactions, and likewise, changing Guy's profession from acting to teaching does make it a little more plausible for them TO be sent to Paris in the first place.

Unfortunately, there are several other changes that really don't add much to this version - one of the most glaring being within the first five minutes of part one, where we're introduced to another Parisian couple who had previously tried to take up the 'surrogate parents of the Antichrist' deal; a point that ultimately blows one of the story's big twists rather early - ESPECIALLY if you already know about it. Probably one of the strangest for me was their choice of reworking for Roman and Minnie (now Margaux) Castevet. In the original book/film, we see them as just a pair of overly friendly and doting to the point of annoyance elderly people. In fact, it's very easy to sympathize with Rosemary and Guy's initial irritation with them. In this version, rather than being a seemingly benign older couple, the Castevets are the embodiment of 'the beautiful people' - younger, wealthier, and much more openly connected with all of society's elite. This is done, in part, to help set up Roman's being able to make the deal with Guy (who gets a lot more plot to himself this time, as this version does away with telling the story from Rosemary's perspective) and is something of a side effect of the change in career, but otherwise it feels like it undermines the whole point of the Castevets. As an initial concept, Roman and Minnie are two characters who are supposed to seem like the LEAST likely people to be involved in a Satanic coven. By comparison, looking at the new version (played by Jason Isaacs and Carole Bouquet) they come across as already seeming suspicious from the outset. In fact, with the change in location and role, there's moments of this adaptation that feel like the filmmakers rented the wrong Polanski adaptation for reference and started remaking The Ninth Gate by accident.

It also doesn't help that they're naturally in 'just as planned' expression.

The suspicious nature of the Castevets, and this is where this review's subtitle comes into play, is part of what's arguably the biggest problem this version has - it announces its evil with a full marching band. Besides how faithful Polanski's vision is to Levin's story, it has otherwise aged quite well as a thriller for one big reason - it runs on the rule of 'less is more.' I realize it's hard to really play up the mystery in Rosemary's Baby nowadays, given its big twist, like such other thrillers as Psycho and The Usual Suspects is now part of pop culture common knowledge. Yet once you disregard that, the earlier film does a good job of downplaying the supernatural elements of the storyline. In fact, before the ending confirms it, a lot of the way the movie presents things is done in such a fashion that one could just as easily read it as paranoia on Rosemary's part that is only confirmed at the very end as the big reveal. This new version makes the same mistake the 2006 remake of The Omen did, and wears its supernatural elements on its sleeve, with no real interest or concern for leaving audiences to ponder these things. This is probably most overtly handled in how Guy gets his big promotion in this version - Levin's initial version makes it come across as a freak accident: the actor he competes with goes blind. In the new version, his competition hallucinates wildly in a job interview, snaps, stabs the interviewer with a letter opener, and then uses it to slit her own throat.

It's one of the problems that comes with trying to remake a story when everyone knows the big reveal. It winds up being made with the assumption that the audience already knows what's happening, so why try and hide it? While I could somewhat sympathize with the filmmakers for handling that challenge, there's a part of me that is still disappointed they didn't at least try to maintain the element of mystery, instead embracing more overt horrific imagery, much more blatant foreshadowing, and much more blatant deaths. By the time this version got to a scene where Rosemary learns the history of her new apartment - an account previously related by an old friend and author, which gave the stories something of a loose possibility of exaggeration - here learned from a priest, who makes it very clear the devil has influence in her building, I could tell it was all downhill from here. When said priest later met his demise, it came as no shock. Rather than being Rosemary's Baby, this version is technically asking "What if we did The Omen with the Woodhouses in place of the Thornes?"

Ironically, for as overt as other things are, THIS is their vision of Satan.
...Yeah. I was at least hoping for as much as they were playing things up here, they'd put a bit more thought into this.

I do kind of feel bad about coming down on this adaptation as hard as I am, and if it were at least still a good film on its own, I could at least fall back on that. Unfortunately, if this first night is any indication, it's gonna take a lot to salvage this. The cast are largely just functional, with the two big names of the cast - Isaacs and Zoe Saldana in the title role - alternating between being decent in certain scenes and completely underwhelming in others. In the case of the former, I can get why he was picked for the role  - in this version, Roman is the polished salesman for the life of the upper crust that he's trying to use to bait Guy into making his wife the devil's incubator, and Isaacs does try to put on the charm for the part. Unfortunately, thanks to the number of 'evil' roles, he's been cast in at this point, his sales pitch here makes it clear he's a corrupting influence. The bigger challenge would have been to cast someone who the viewer wouldn't expect to be so overtly evil. Meanwhile, Saldana's Rosemary starts as an interesting update on the character - where the original is written as a passive housewife from Omaha adjusting to life in the big city, here Rosemary is depicted as more of an equal to Guy - we learn from the get-go she partially stopped working so they could have a child, only for it to miscarry. In terms of giving her a bit more of an equal footing, Saldana plays this well enough. The problems arise as the movie starts to turn over the cards on its sinister elements. Saldana has developed something of a reputation at this point for playing the tougher characters in film, so seeing her in the role of the uncertain and concerned is a chance for her to branch out and show some range. In a couple of moments, it hits, but in others, it feels rather flat. Probably the most damning moment here being at the very end of the first part - the above mentioned 'demonic date rape' scene. This version chooses to leave off on her fleeting moment of just what's actually happening, with the fateful line "This is not a dream." It's a moment that's really supposed to help sell the sense that something is awry here. The problem is, because this version has already established that something is awry from the get go, the moment is already at lower impact, then add Saldana's rather half-hearted line read, and what's supposed to be a sinister note to end the first part of simply just sputters.

Besides the two big names, Patrick J. Adams as Guy is rather limited in what he gets to do - which, given how much more story he has this time, seems a bit strange. Even more so given this version isn't exactly being subtle about the nature of the way the Castevets work, one would think Adams would be allowed a few scenes of internal conflict before signing over his wife's womb space to the forces of Hell. Yeah, we don't really see that much from Guy in the original version either, but again, that's because that story is being told exclusively from Rosemary's perspective - so it makes sense she wouldn't be getting any wind of that or the whole deal falls apart. By this version switching to more of a third person omniscient style of telling the story, they have a chance to really explore that angle more, but instead Adams mostly just sits there and listens to Jason Isaacs tell him about all the kicks that come from renting out your wife's EZ-bake oven to Beelzebub. [...I should probably stop with those, huh?] Bouquet, meanwhile, plays into similar problems as Isaacs, albeit less overtly so. She does play the ingratiating side well, being accommodating to a fault while being less openly sinister by comparison. At the same time, where the earlier Mrs. Castevet reads as mostly just nosy, Bouquet's Margaux feels much more intrusive, complete with the film working in not one but two scenes of her locking lips with Rosemary. No. That's not a typo. In both cases, it really is kind of random for the scene as well. Like they felt like they needed to do something that said 'personal space? Bah!' and that was their choice.

and Guy...well...Guy's just getting things warmed up for his new boss.
...there's no way to NOT make this one creepy.

With the end of the first part, Rosemary is now officially pregnant. So maybe part two will prove me wrong and this miniseries will actually have something to say for the themes of loss of agency with pregnancy after all. They certainly were claiming to attempt a more sophisticated take on the themes than the original (their words, not mine.) So now that we're up to that point, the time will come to see if they are gonna put their money where their mouths are.

As of this first part, however, I am not optimistic. Outside of some polished production values, I'm not really seeing much that this version offers that wasn't already covered - well, unless the idea of a story in the 1960s is THAT off-putting to a viewer. Taking a story of uncertainty and some loose mystery, this version instead embraces a more graphic and direct approach, deciding not to bother with the slow burn since the secret's out there. As a result, we get a version that telegraphs a lot of its twists without really building any suspense for itself.

I will continue to give them a chance to see if part two can turn this around. But at this point, I'm gonna be honest, while this hasn't soured me on updates - I do plan to try and be more open to them in the future - this one DID help to remind that, yeah, sometimes it just doesn't work is all.

Better luck next time, guys.

On the plus side, the credits also mention parts of this are adapted from Levin's sequel Son of Rosemary, so maybe part two will see the completely insane finale.

Time will tell.

Till next time, folks.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Better Late Than Never

Or “Because I Promised and This Beats What I Have Lined Up Next.”

Well, I did say I would get to Captain America, so-several weeks after everyone else-it's time for Captain America.

I'm gonna be honest-This was a review I had a hard time with. Not cause this was a bad movie, or even that hard to explain; if anything, this was a great time. The problem is, because it took me a few weeks to get to seeing it, what can I say about it that the rest of the world hasn't already said?

I wrestled with that for several days before I decided to just say “Screw it!” and make good on what I promised back in Jodorowsky's Dune. So in the event you feel like you've already read this review elsewhere...hey, I did my best for you guys, but really, barring some Armond White level reading in, this is one that can only be laid out just so many ways.

Now then...

I have to start this by saying something I've noticed with the whole Avengers line of Marvel movies. In general, the brand has been quite good. With the possible exception of Iron Man 2, they haven't really missed on anything to date. At the same time, the majority of the films more come to rest at being "okay" to "pretty good." Films like the first Captain America and the Thor duology are fun popcorn films, but not without their flaws, particularly with pacing. Prior to this, I'd say the only two times to date Marvel has gone above to make a great movie with their properties have actually been the first Iron Man (luckily so, given this was the title that had to get everything rolling) and The Avengers (which, for all the buildup going into it, understandably needed to bring its A-game.) Anyway, the first few offerings after The Avengers weren't bad – I will say that, but there was still a sense of a brand that was coming down from its built up hype and just taking a moment to bask in the afterglow of a MASSIVE box office coup.

So when I started hearing that The Winter Soldier was their first big post-Avengers hit, and talk that the slump was finally over, I was intrigued. Especially given that the first Captain America was a hit and miss movie overall – fun, but not without its shortcomings.

With this, Marvel has pulled a few tricks – their first big post-Avengers hit as well as their first successful 'part 2' to really improve on its first offering. A big part of this being born out of them no longer having to use Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, back for another tour of duty) in his World War II element, or as the proverbial straight man to the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth. While The Avengers loosely tugged at the threads of the idea of Rogers as a man from a different age trying to reconcile the world he knew with the one he was living in, it was an idea that didn't really get much play in order to balance all the different characters and personalities. In fact, only once did we previously get to see him questioning the clandestine nature of his handlers in S.H.I.E.L.D. So to have an entire movie dedicate itself to the idea of Rogers trying to work out serving an organization that both lies to the American people as well as to its employees gives this film a lot to play with.

In the world of covert ops, Gallant wears his tactical gear in dark colors, in the interest of keeping a low profile.
Goofus has a shield that stops bullets, so screw stealth, it's ass-kicking time!

Yeah, I realize I'm taking kind of a roundabout way to get into the plot on this one...but in all fairness, by this point, at least the overall story is pretty well known, even to those who've not seen it yet (though will refrain from spoilers.)

One of the things I actually have to give this one over the last couple of 'part 2' Marvel movies we've had of late – and I realize this will seem like a really odd issue – is that this one didn't go whole hog on the humor. Again, I know how odd that sounds, but hear me out:  the Marvel movies in general have had humor in them. It's part of the enjoyment, it's the nature of the beast. At the same time,  I've noticed while looking back at Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World was that, in an attempt to up the ante on just about every level, the humor went from being amusing in the first part to getting really rather grating in the second. It wasn't as bad in Thor's case (mostly coming care of the supporting roles by Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgaard who were already one foot into the humor to begin with, though the way they'd rewritten Skarsgaard as full blown nuts was a little much.) But in the case of Iron Man 2, it REALLY wore on the movie after a while. Even more so considering it was loosely adapting one of the few more 'serious' Iron Man storylines, so seeing it played for laughs just felt really, really weird. There's certainly some laughs to be had here (partially to be expected, Joe and Anthony Russo had been picked to direct this thanks to their work on the Dan Harmon series Community) but they rarely feel like the movie is trying to go into full silliness, so much as they're small bits of levity to help a – for the Marvel movies – pretty dark storyline come up for air.

Said darkness is another one of those areas where this film shows a good level of restraint. From the outset, the Russo brothers were open to admit their big influence on this movie was 70s espionage films like Three Days of the Condor and All the President's Men (which made the casting of Robert Redford as a S.H.I.E.L.D higher-up even better.) This decision really helped them dodge an obvious bullet that a lot of other blockbusters have been tripping themselves up by trying to take head-on. With the story's major theme of Rogers trying to reconcile his 'greatest generation' ideals with the less clean-cut vision of the world of today (even less clean cut in his line of work,) the film could have risked coming across as either overly self-important or just tacky in its attempts to mine current controversial topics for audience reaction (things like last year's Man of Steel's half-hearted jab at drone technology and Star Trek: Into Darkness's REALLY ham-fisted mining of 9/11 imagery both come to mind.) While there are certainly areas where that could have worked its way into this film – a plot point regarding an aerial weapons platform could have fallen with a hard thud had someone tried to draw the obvious parallel too overtly – the Russos resisted the temptation and instead stuck to their thematic story.

"Well, I spoke to the doctors. The good news is, given this a comic movie, he'll be back on his feet in six months. The bad news is, that's still too long for this movie's plotline, so we'll just have to work around him for now."

Of course, alongside how the story is balanced, the cast are a big part of what help keep this film afloat – particularly since they need to help maintain that tricky balance of emotion needed for keeping the tone this film was going for. In this regard, Evans is probably the best he's been in this part of the three movies he's gotten to hoist the vibranium shield. The above mentioned theme of 'then and now' gives him a lot more to work with, and honestly some of his best moments aren't even based on dialogue, but rather just contemplation. For a guy whose previous work in comic book films was as the overly cocky Human Torch in the Fantastic Four movies, he's gotten to show a lot more range on this one, and I'm curious to see where he takes it from here. Likewise, on her third outing as one of S.H.I.E.L.D's top agents, Scarlett Johannson continues to build up Black Widow as an interesting character for someone whose history is supposed to remain a cypher. Further, the idea of partnering her up with Evans in this movie gives the two of them a lot to run with in their different personalities – his overall ideal sense working with her as the veteran who has seen and done her share of horrible things to keep the system running. Making up the third part of this team – and a VERY welcome addition to the Marvel universe is Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (aka Falcon) a veteran counselor who strikes up a friendship with Steve, and later becomes one of his few allies as those  he can trust dwindle.

In the roles of the higher-ups, we get a good split. On one hand, we have new cast addition Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D official Alexander Pierce. After several films of Fury's stoic, rough edge, Pierce is played as the sort of good cop to Fury's bad cop. He's the supportive, fatherly figure who, feels off in an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D, but you can never quite figure out why. Even as things start to sour within the organization, Redford keeps up the outgoing face and soldiers on. In a movie where no one can really be trusted, he plays that ambiguity quite well, and proves another welcome addition to the film. On the other side, we have Jackson's returning Nick Fury, who, like both Cap and Widow, actually gets to build on his character more. Probably one of his better moments performance-wise being during a talk with Evans in an elevator about his father. It's a minor scene, but one where Fury lets down his guard a little and Jackson plays it sincerely. This extra level of making the seemingly superhuman Fury a bit more human is actually a necessary part of the movie's story, given one of the big narrative points of this film is the idea that the seemingly unstoppable S.H.I.E.L.D could be compromised – as such, seeing the man who has, since the first Iron Man, been the stone cold badass face of the organization actually at a disadvantage, and even hurt and bleeding, is probably the single strongest way the Russo brothers could drive home the idea that nothing and no one is safe anymore.

As far as the titular antagonist, well...this is one of those areas it's tough to say a whole lot on while still observing the spoilers (even though they're likely already pretty well known to most of you.) I will say that, for a character that spends much of the first half as little more than a silent assassin, the film does a good job of building him up, playing on the idea of the Winter Soldier as a sort of espionage ghost story. The end result of the character as far as this movie is concerned makes for some well-choreographed fight sequences and the potential for an interesting new addition to the Captain America films from here on out.

"That's not a--WHOA! Okay, I take it back. That IS a knife!"

Speaking of that combat, these are honestly some of the best action scenes we've gotten in a Marvel movie since- and I hate to be redundant-The Avengers. Except where The Avengers went the way of the big spectacle – a team of superhumans vs an invading alien army, The Winter Soldier plays it closer to the ground and more in line with the style of the spy movie. There are certainly some flashy sequences, such as the film's climax involving the earlier mentioned weapons platforms, and a few rather impressive gadgets you won't get to see in many spy movies (Falcon's flight pack is a movie highlight on its own) but these are still largely grounded in a world of fists and bullets. Comic book-like, but still not forgetting the spy movie roots this movie is born on. This is helped in no small part by the fact that, of the big heroes Marvel has rolled out so far, Captain America is the most (relative) down to Earth. Yes, he's stronger, faster, etc, but compared to his colleagues, he's still fairly grounded in what he can do. With this in mind, his fights offer an extra element of hand-to-hand that none of the other mainline Marvel heroes currently offer. One great set piece for this being a fight that breaks out in an elevator at S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters. Alongside a well shot build-up to the fight with an extra sense of growing tension as more people enter, when the fight breaks out, it's a swift, inventive sequence that plays well with the confined quarters and multiple players.

Like I said at the start of this, this was a tricky review to cover, simply because so much has already been written. I'll even acknowledge a lot of what's been said here has likely already been covered, but I still stand by it. With this, Marvel's finally regaining the momentum they burnt off after The Avengers. My initial misgivings about where they go from here have eased off, and personally I'm now curious to see what happens with Guardians of the Galaxy this summer.

Well...that took me longer to get to than it should have, but it was worth it.

Going to have the next ready in a day or two, so keep an eye out.

Till then.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune - Because Frank Herbert's Version Didn't Take ENOUGH LSD

If there's one thing I've noticed the more I get into study of film and review (and I suspect this is a fairly common occurrence) it's that I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with the behind the scenes tales of films. Commentaries, memoirs, production diaries, just the various stories of how these projects turn out the way they do provide interesting new perspectives on titles, for good and ill (the amount of money that got spent on The Room, for example, makes the film THAT much funnier/more depressing.)

Strangely enough, some of the best stories are actually the ones about the films that never get made. We see so many films, we almost take for granted that it got made at all, seeing as the figurative graveyard for the number of films that don't see completion would make up a small country at this point. Some of these stories are pretty well known for various reasons; Many for the weapons-grade amounts of Murphy's Law that sabotage them, some to the point of being the stuff of legend just through failure.

This is part of what makes the story behind Jodorowsky's Dune a fascinating one - it's a movie that's ultimately not that focused on the failure, but the attempt.

and also this...
Especially this.

Let's wind the clocks back and set the scene for the moment - it's the mid-1970s. Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has gone from being a relative unknown to American moviegoers to conquering the midnight movie circuit with the one-two punch of El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The heavy spiritual meditations combined with his engrossing visual style were like nothing many viewers had seen to that point and are said to have helped completely cement the midnight movie movement of the 70s. Inspired by the two movies, French producer Jean-Michel Seydoux contacted Jodorowsky about making a movie with him, any sort of project Jodorowsky wanted. Without even stopping to think it over, he picked Frank Herbert's science fiction classic Dune- a book he humorously later admitted he hadn't read at the time. What followed was one of the most ambitious projects to never make it to screen. Jodorowsky and Seydoux put together a team that, for the industry at the time, was unheard of: artists like Moebius, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, and an at-the-time fresh-faced effects guru Dan O'Bannon, music by bands like Pink Floyd and Magma, and a cast including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali (whose demands for agreeing to be in the film lead to some of the funniest stories recalled,) David Carradine, and Mick Jagger.

Considering the outcome, this movie is pretty much the textbook definition of too good to be true.

Yes, even factoring in the fact Moebius intended for Welles to wear the outfit on the left.
That would take a LOT of wine to get him to go along with it.

As I said above, what makes Jodorowsky's Dune stand out for me as a documentary about a film that didn't make it is how little it actually focuses on what went wrong. In fact, the only reason it fell through is pretty benign. No studio wanted to back it, despite many execs being utterly blown away by what was being offered. The film does touch on this, but the bulk of its 88 minutes is more about showing us the offerings rather than exploring why they were turned down.

And said offering, despite never making it past the stage of concept art and storyboards, is still one of the most fascinating things I've seen on the big screen in a while.

Jodorowsky's Dune is a weird case as a documentary goes. In terms of just how it's produced, it's pretty standard in a lot of regards. What really escalates it to being as memorable as it is is their choice in subject. For a film that never happened, it's a genuinely fascinating project. The filmmakers do their best to help give us tastes of it, in particular in a few sequences where they do some colorization and animation on a couple of Moebius's storyboards (most notably in a long take Jodorowsky wanted to open the film with,) and that's certainly one of their own nice touches on it. For the most part though, they're aware this film is ultimately about another team's movie, and so they let them have the floor. Alongside the peeks into the storyboards and concept art, the interviews with all the members of the production team are a good balance of interesting and enjoyable. Of the full team, sadly the only one there are no comments from is the late Moebius, who had died before this entered production (O'Bannon, while also dead, relates some stories via archival interview, including one appropriately funny and bizarre story of his first meeting with Jodorowsky.) Everyone else, meanwhile, relays their own various thoughts at the time they worked on the project as well as their sentiments after the fact - for a film that didn't happen, it's one everyone involved seems to have had a lot of love for.

No one feeling that love any more than Jodorowsky himself, who is probably one of the most interesting people to appear in this film. Besides this ultimately being his brainchild, there's something very infectious in the man's enthusiasm for what he does. Given the nature of his films and how few he's made, it would be easy to almost picture him as a very reserved or withdrawn artist. When he's on camera, however, Jodorowsky is animated and enthusiastic about just about everything. He's a man who genuinely loves what he does and it really helps give this movie a lot of its energy. Even when he's discussing the nature of art, a topic that could easily sound pretentious, he comes across not as being full of himself, but rather just very passionate about making sure he's happy with it. It feels odd to try to sell the man in text here, but really, he's someone where reading statements from one thing, hearing and seeing them from his own mouth is another. The whole team is interesting, but at the center of it all is this man's dedication and energy that pulled everyone together.

As further evidenced by the fact this was the portfolio he put together to send studios.
I will state here for the record - and again in the review - I would love to see this get general publication.

One of the things I find oddest to say walking out of this after is the fact that I genuinely would have loved to see this movie. I will also be the first to acknowledge this would NOT have been a particularly faithful adaptation. We only see samples of the full story - Jodorowsky had all of the film's concept art, script, and storyboards compiled into a book to send to studios (see above) - but those samples show some pretty big deviations. Things like the death of Duke Leto Atreides - a scene that as Jodorowsky and Moebius envisioned it, feels like a sort of futuristic bit of grand guignol or their envisioned finale, in which protagonist Paul Atreides undergoes physical death only to live on in an enlightened form among his followers, are very much products of Jodorowsky and Moebius rather than Herbert's original work. Jodorowsky is pretty open to admit this, and even argues it's something of a necessity in the art of adaptation - albeit care of an analogy that REALLY should have been reconsidered (I know the word 'rape' gets thrown around a lot in discussion of adapting another person's work, but Jodorowsky picks the wrong way to address that here.) I mean, I find the man's openness and frank honesty rather refreshing, but that talking point was one very awkward scene in an otherwise really enjoyable set of interviews. Poor word choice aside, it speaks to the creative efforts on this film that, despite its apparently breaking from Herbert's novel on several levels (which I would still like to see a good adaptation of some day) it's a film I would have genuinely loved to see happen. Even at its very worst, it would at least be a memorable mess.

and, true to Jodorowsky's style, the finest quality eye-porn.
Also, based on what this film's shown me of Foss's art, I have to look into more of it.

I think part of the reason it doesn't phase me much is, as I was watching the movie, I became less and less concerned with the film as an adaptation and instead became more intrigued by the movie in its own right. It's not unlike Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining in that regard, in that it comes across as a film that, independent of its source novel, would still be a legitimately strong story in its own right. At this point, I'd even welcome the possibility of Jodorowsky approving publication of the production bible they put together. Especially since, as this documentary tells it (particularly in an account by Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn) it's a film that they so thoroughly plotted out before filming that, by just looking through their notes, it's almost like watching the film for yourself. The discussion at the start of the movie really speaks volumes about why this project is so fascinating to people even nowadays, it's a project that, even before getting greenlit, inspired such passion that they had all but made it on their own. It was a film they had all but made out, shot for shot, in their heads, and needed only the funding to then play out for the rest of us. That level of dedication right out of the gate is astonishingly rare in film, and I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't love to see more of just how far they had taken it, even if only on paper.

Of course, even though it never did see film, the documentary does also point out that it actually went on to influence a lot of other projects. Jodorowsky and Moebius went on to reuse many of their concepts from the film in several comics, most notably The Incal (which is a pretty wild read if you can ever track down a copy of it). O'Bannon later contacted Moebius and Giger to work with him on Alien, and, as this film points out, a lot of the visual style of this movie would later influence many other science fiction films to come – including such works as Star Wars and the 1980s version of Flash Gordon. It's another way where, even in the field of movies that never happened, Jodorowsky's would-be epic is a particularly special case, and one of those rare titles where one can say it may have just been too ahead of its time and mean it.

After seeing this art for years with no site explaining specifically what it was, learning Giger essentially made a giant techno-mansion based on Welles's image just makes this picture even better.

I realize I've kind of been a bit roundabout on discussing the movie itself, but like I said before: this is a movie that ultimately has its greatest strength in its choice of subject. It's one of the most unusual and intriguing passion projects to become the stuff of cinema legend, and, for a film that got cut down in its prime, its influence echoed on long after it. I can certainly see why; leaving the theater, some of that enthusiasm had rubbed off on me. This is one of those films that winds up stoking the creative itch, in a weird sort of way (not bad for being about an unfinished project.)

I'm not sure if this will be making anyone's top ten lists when the year wraps up, but as of now, I can honestly say it's certainly one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences I've had in a good long while.

...okay, with that, I'll finally get the Captain America review up soon. But humor me, I'd been waiting to see this movie for a while now.

Till next time.
...and this may officially be the strangest image I've ended an article with in a good long while.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

From the Angry Old Man Department - Instant Franchise, Just Add Brand

Why yes, this is another largely useless department here at the Third Row. I'll be honest with you- It mainly just exists as another excuse to horde office supplies.

You laugh now, but when you find yourself hard up for a stapler, you'll remember me and my citadel of them. Then who will be laughing?

...Okay, I promised angry old man, not delusional.

Anyway, this has been an interesting few weeks in the film circles as far as comic book films. Actually, this time of year is shaping up as an interesting one. For one thing, DC confirmed the inevitable moment we all knew/dreaded coming - yes, a Justice League movie WILL happen, and they have Zack Snyder locked to direct. Whether or not this is because Snyder managed to make Man of Steel profitable for them (...well, Snyder and an ad campaign that was the PR equivalent of carpet bombing) neither DC nor Warner Brothers has said. For another, over the last few weeks, we have seen/will be seeing the continuing installments in not one, but three different comic book franchises.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opened a few weeks back to probably some of the best reviews Marvel has gotten since The Avengers came out (and deservedly so. This will likely see a writeup in the near future here, even though it's a bit late for its release.) In another few weeks, Fox will be rolling out its next X-Men installment, Days of Future Past, which will either solidify their comeback or bury it, depending how things proceed. Finally, this weekend, Sony released their follow-up to their Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This, in particular, is the one that's inspiring my angry old man grumblings.

The Amazing Spider-Man brand hasn't been sitting particularly well with me for a while now. The first film was...okay. Not awful, but not really as amazing as its title would suggest either. The arbitrary retread of the Spider-Man origin story felt rather forced at the time, but given Sony was trying to hang onto their license of the character in response to the building steam of the Marvel money train, I was willing to let them have a quick brand lock and trust they would at least try more the next time around.

This was also around the time The Avengers happened. With a wave of strong reviews and audience response, Marvel's big gamble paid off with a vengeance. It was pretty safely locked for one of the biggest hits of 2012 and the entire effort was seen as a game changer for how comic book movies would be made.

...and Sony took the absolute wrong lesson from it.

Of course, I can't say it's JUST on Sony here, seeing as DC/WB has also been pretty openly trying to jump-start their own super franchise in light of the movie's success. When they went from a standalone Superman movie to announcing its sequel would also feature Batman, Wonder Woman, and even Cyborg with the intent of turning this into a Justice League project, it was no surprise that people read this as a pretty bald-faced attempt to ape Marvel's success.

Which is particularly unfortunate since, as I've said before, Man of Steel wasn't a bad idea for a movie. Doing a film that tried to break from the Richard Donner mold was a great idea, and actually playing more with the idea of the possible mistrust Superman would face as an outsider was a concept with a lot of potential to build from. Even some of what Snyder and Goyer gave us was decent, if flawed. I left the film thinking what they had left this one off with could be salvaged with some more thought and work on a sequel. For a couple of weeks after its release, I was even willing to go to bat for them on the idea that this could be growing pains. Then they made the fateful announcement that the sequel would be Batman vs Superman and I was willing to concede I'd backed the wrong horse. They weren't interested in trying to fix up the flaws in their new Superman - they'd gotten a profit out of it and that was enough. Now they were gonna take this sucker to the big leagues as hard and as fast as possible.

I could make all manner of tasteless analogies for what they're doing there, but you get the idea.

Not ones to be outdone, Sony is now busting their humps to turn their Spider-Man license into its own super franchise as well. It was actually pretty striking that, in the months ticking down to ASM 2's release, for every announcement about what the movie itself would contain, their would be at least one, often more, announcements heralding Sony's plans for the overall Spider-Man brand - including announcements of spinoffs already in the works for supporting characters like the Sinister Six and Venom. The former of these also resulted in some criticisms towards the current movie, care of the fact Paul Giamatti's four minutes of screentime seems to amount to little more in the film than to set up the next movie. Even up to the week of the movie's release, Sony was rattling off more of their future plans than having anything to say about the film itself - they even made announcements about the ASM 2 Blu-Ray release before the film was even in theaters. It was like a Mel Brooks gag come to life.

Then the movie came out, with all the mixed reception, the speculation was confirmed. Even now the film is currently the most critically roasted Spider-Man movie. Yes, even more so than the infamous Spider-Man 3 from the Raimi years. One of the big reasons for this - as many people pointed out in reviews, was the fact the movie devotes more of itself to hyping up future releases than it does to making the movie it has here and now good. In fact, a friend of mine over at MoarPowah probably put the problem best when he described the film as not a movie, not a trailer, but a two and a half hour long power point of Sony's plans for the next ten years.

Not that this is necessarily a shock at this point. Between the Giamatti confirmation happening months before the film's release, and even ASM 2 teasers containing blatant hints of upcoming villains care of gear for the Vulture, Sony has been pretty clear this film is being made with one eye on the camera, the other on the business plan.

While I have concerns for Fox's actions here, I'll admit, I'm inclined to give them a half pass on this one. Not because I necessarily thing DoFP will be good - it could go either way at this point. Rather because they've been building up X-Men for a while now. I mean, they've been at this brand for a good ten years off and on now. While it's not at the same level of work and dedication as Marvel's shown on the Avengers project, they've at least paid their dues so far. Whether this marks a continued rise or fall is all on the individual film now, but at least it feels - for now at least - like they're focusing on just making this film work first before they start jumping on future projects.

Which brings us to where the old man in me is bitter and rambling. The reason Sony and DC/WB are annoying me as much as they are - especially in Sony's case, is because of the utterly blatant the attempts to piggyback off the success of The Avengers. In both cases, they're essentially operating as though a big cross-media franchise will be a given, rather than a possibility. It's like they forget just how much of a roll of the dice the first Iron Man movie was years ago, given that was the film that would ultimately make or break Marvel's chances at the Avengers effort. Prior to its release, they'd played those plans close to the chest, and even after its release, they were pretty careful. It wasn't until after the success of The Avengers and its follow-up features that they decided to announce plans for the next fourteen years of movies.

I feel a fourteen year plan might be a bit excessive - but Marvel has paid their dues here, so for now, they can do as they will. By comparison, DC and Sony have each had two relatively successful, if not particularly memorable, films to their names and were following them up with plans for a big industry on the spot. This wasn't even a matter of taking a slow road to get there - it's again worth pointing out that DC intends to use their Superman movie to bus in Batman and Wonder Woman. They're in such a hurry to get to the Justice League that they don't even want to give two of their brand's vaunted 'big three' chances to stand on their own, which is particularly damning given just how little representation Wonder Woman has had so far. On the other side of the coin, rather than going for the big event film, Sony is already convinced with two movies they have enough ground laid to spin off films for supporting characters and villains that, at this point, have really had little to no screentime.

Maybe I'm finally just that bitter old man I joke about. Maybe the industry's changed and I just have a hard time keeping up. All I know is, looking at this model, I just keep hearing the old Yoda line:

This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph.”

I wouldn't mind this approach if the films being made in the present were good. Unfortunately, it feels too much like they're so caught up in the dream of pulling in Avengers money that they're not actually bothering to see if the films they're making now are even worth a damn. It also gets harder to shake the concern that, if this keeps up, we'll see audiences lapse into a state of comic book film burnout within the next few years, causing even Marvel's thought out plans to take a hit.

Granted, this isn't a new observation, and other, better people than me have likely already made this same observation. Still, sometimes it helps to just get something out of the system.

Or, for those who want me to be more succinct:
Sony, Warner Brothers -

...sorry. I can only play it polite just so far. Either approach, I think the point is clear. A franchise needs at least some quality before you can make with the quantity, guys.

Got a review coming your way in the next couple of days to make up for this (no, it won't be CA just yet.)

Till then though!