Flesh+Blood (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Paul Verhoeven
viewed: 03/30/09

Director Paul Verhoeven has interested me for a number of years, a strange, perverse filmmaker, whose films are filled with sex, violence, irony and social criticism.  Though I’d been aware of him for a number of years, it was when he made Starship Troopers (1997), that I came to see him in a new light.  Flesh+Blood was Verhoeven’s first American film, but he went on to great success with science fiction action films including RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990) and also Basic Instinct (1992), which had him at the top of Hollywood’s director list, given the commercial success of his work.  But it was the film that he followed up his success with Basic Instinct‘s screenwriter that would come to flatline his Hollywood name, 1995’s notorious and now uber-cult film Showgirls.

Verhoeven’s work, especially if you look at the films listed here, is full of sex and violence.  I think what happened when Showgirls came out that it was so lambasted and criticized, not just for its ridiculous camp and bad acting, but for the misogyny that it showed, especially when paired with Basic Instinct.  Verhoeven’s star dimmed considerably.  And when I saw Starship Troopers, a return to the science fiction genre that had helped make his name, I read the film as a critique of Hollywood, featuring bland, pretty faces getting blown to bits, futher media critiques, and pessimism.  The film was a critical flop at the time and yet, I think it has developed into one of many people’s perverse favorites.

Though Verhoeven went on to make Hollow Man (2000), he left Hollywood and returned to the Netherlands, from where he orginated.

I think he’s one of the more interesting figures in the 1980’s and 1990’s in American cinema, not one of the guys who gets talked about a lot, perhaps this leans heavily upon his Showgirls production.  Who knows?  He is interesting and is well-worth investing the time in re-visiting.

So, anyways, this brings me to how I queued up 1985’s Flesh+Blood.  His first American film, set in the Middle Ages, an adventure film with gritty, dirty characters and an eternally questionable nobility.  I’d never seen it.  I’d only vaguely even remembered it.  The film stars Rutger Hauer (a Germanic Paul Newman look-alike) and the young nubile Jennifer Jason Leigh (who spends a fair amount of screentime entirely nude).  Hauer is a warrior, a hedonistic murderer, rapist, life-loving would-be saint.  Leigh is a sexually precocious virginal bride-to-be of a nobleman.  Hauer accidentally abducts Leigh when eking revenge upon the nobleman who cheated them from their pay, which leads to a very strange and disturbing rape scene.

Everything in the film is muddy and dirty, morals, religion, ideals.  Tom Burlinson’s character Steven, the nobleman to whom Leigh is meant to be engaged is the only character who shows any untrampled idealism and humanity.  It’s kind of confusing to try and make out exactly what Verhoeven is portraying here.  The world is a dark, nasty place where happiness and pain are embedded together, sex and rape are only a half inch apart from one another, and loyalty is entirely based on survivalist need.  It’s a kind of horrific portrayal of humanity, and the film does have some striking sequences.  One of the most telling is when the still virginal Leigh sits with her husband-to-be under two hanging, rotting corpses and digs up a root shaped like a baby, from which they both eat, as an omen of love.

Maybe that image sums up the morbid humanity of the film.  The ending is oddly open, with the heroic, noble Steven winding up with the deflowered and questionably loyal Leigh, with the escaping Hauer stalking toward the camera as it fades to mist.  While there is resolution of sorts, there is no closure of the triangle.  It’s left as muddy and infected as the sores on the bodies of the plague-ridden harlots.

One thing that is somewhat significant is a homosexual relationship between two of the gang of marauders, which is treated with dignity and respect.  The only funny part of that is that one of the two is the late actor Bruno Kirby, whose voice is so nasally New York, it’s utterly absurd to have him speak in this film.

There are other absurdities, too.  But as a whole, the film is interesting, but not necessarily “good”.  Some of the acting is totally laughable, perhaps Verhoeven is slanted toward camp always.  And the treatment of women, while not necessarily misogynist utterly, is certainly questionable.  Except for Leigh, the women are all small-minded and filthy, bearing no dignity nor morality.  And Leigh’s character is intelligent and survivalist, but ultimately self-serving.  Where do her true loyalties lie?

Interesting, if you’re up for this sort of thing.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
viewed: 03/27/09 at Century San Francisco Centre, SF, CA

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought: “Hey, that looks kind of fun.”

Well, that’s about right.  Later trailers revealed the likelihood that the film was far less creative and interesting than the concept at first blush.  The idea, that a sort of 1950’s B-movie invasion of Earth by aliens is thwarted by a bunch of B-movie type monsters that the government has kept under wraps all these years.  I like the concept pretty well.  And for the most part, I liked the design of the characters: a fishman Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), a blue blob (The Blob (1958)), a mad scientist cockroach (see: The Fly (1958)), a Mothra-like thing (most-useless addition), and a woman who has suddenly grown huge (see: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)).  This kind of thing is sort of up my alley.

But the film squanders the idea really by being just another animated feature film with stock “name” stars as the voices, including Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogan, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, and Stephen Colbert.  I mean, do you really need this many “names” to make an animated movie?  Aren’t there people who could build character just as well who we might never have heard of?

And the film follows the plight of the 50-foot woman character, from her wedding to her getting hit by an asteroid, through her experience imprisioned with the monsters, to her fighting aliens and finding empowerment…  Boring and poorly played emotional dreck.

And in the end, the characters are all pretty lame.  And the humor is flat.  The “adult” asides with references here and there to other films is tedious.  Just make a fucking movie.  We would think you were far more clever making a good movie than showing how many cultural “asides” you can make.  For chrissakes!

The one thing that did amuse me was that the adventure takes place in Modesto, CA with references to Fresno, CA, and ultimately in San Francisco, CA.  I was with the kids and we’d been trekking the city all day, looking at the Wharf and the TransAmerica building and Coit Tower and the Ferry Building.  And we were downtown watching it.  And them destroying the Golden Gate Bridge.

The kids liked the blob character the most, the dumb, funny one who gets the best lines.  He wasn’t bad, but the whole thing could have been a whole lot more entertaining.  We didn’t see the 3-D, but no one really cared.  The glasses give Felix a headache and I don’t know if it would have made any difference, really.  If you know my feeling about this current 3-D trend, you’ll know I don’t think a lot of it.

Samurai Rebellion

Samurai Rebellion (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Masaki Kobayashi
viewed: 03/23/09

It was only last year when I started getting into Samurai films, and the ones that I’ve been watching have been the recommended ones through Netflix and most of them have been produced for DVD by the Criterion Collection, which is the best of World Cinema, pretty easily.  I’ve been enjoying them quite a bit, but I am still sort of gaining a full perspective on the true tropes and traditions within the genre.  The films I’ve seen are sort of the high watermarks of the genre, and in some cases are pretty stylized.  How much do they differ from the average?  How do you tell your John Ford of Samurai films from your William A. Wellman, for instance?  Is the Western the best parallel in Western cinema to compare?

I’m still working this all out.

Samurai Rebellion is directed by Masaki Kobayashi, whose film Kwaidan (1964), a telling of four ghost stories from writings by Lafcaido Hearn, is one of the most recognized of Japanese cinema.  Something I’ve actually seen as well.  His film Harakiri (1962) is also in my queue.

The film itself is definitely stylized in its compositions and juxtapositions. Kobayashi’s camera spends a lot of time on the forms and shapes of the exteriors and interiors of the buildings in which most of the story unfolds.  Many compositions are almost abstract, shaping the specified world in which the characters live, artifice, patterns, sharp-edged pathways.  The characters live and move amongst these shapes and structures, and perhaps that is metaphorical of the story, in which a loyal swordsman is tested by the rulings of his lord, forcing a bride on his son and then recalling her to his side.  The structures of the Edo period feudal system and structures of social behavior (having to accept rulings with dignity and humility or be in contempt of the lord) are conforming and controlling, too.

The film actually takes almost all of its time before any blood it drawn.  Perhaps the opening sequence, in which star Toshirô Mifune tests a sword by cutting a straw man, is a comment on the bloodlessness of this film.  Mifune’s noble samurai who has followed the rules, accepting a hateful wife by arranged marriage and following the clan orders, which has left him a type of “company man”, realizes, by recognizing the love between his son and the former concubine who was forced upon him as a wife, he is moved to “rebel” against the system.  This rebellion is one in which violence is only the final outlet, in which his honor and pacifism have gained him nothing.

It’s not until the final 15 minutes or so of the 2 hour film that the blood starts flowing.  And it doesn’t really flow.  It’s just the point when the swordsman has to start using his sword.

It’s interesting in that respect, and I considered the parallels perhaps between the samurai who has accepted the social world around him, kowtowing to the lords and “upper management”, turning finally at the end to a personal integrity.  Is it in a sense like a modern “company man”?  The Japanese “salary man”?  It was 1967.

Though this film is shot in very effective black-and-white.

How do I put this within the catalog of Samurai films that I’ve seen thusfar?  Not sure where to file it.  And I mean that in terms of trying to understand the full scope of what is happening within the film, how it goes against the approaches of the genre, and how radical its position might be.  It’s interesting, certainly.

But I do prefer the films of Kihachi Okamoto, The Sword of Doom (1966) and Kill! (1968), as well as the ones I’ve seen by Akira Kurosawa.  Still, it’s interesting stuff.

The Watcher in the Woods

The Watcher in the Woods (1980) movie poster

(1980) dir. John Hough
viewed: 03/20/09

One of the local “mini-fests” that we have is the Castro Theatre’s “Midnite for Maniacs” film series, which features a lot of less-remembered films of the 1980’s among other tropes.  The series is also interested in other pre-digital special effects fantasy films.  Actually, that might be its primary trope, I don’t know.  I haven’t, I am ashamed to say, made it to the theater for any of the showings, but I do keep an eye on the schedule and when something interesting comes along, I’ll plop it onto my queue.

This film, The Watcher in the Woods, was intended to be the Walt Disney Studio’s first ever PG-rated film, a step into more edgy fare than the traditional G-rated films it had produced for the prior 40 some odd years.  Oddly enough, bad initial reception pushed it back and paved the way for Disney’s 1980 film, The Black Hole, to take that honor.

I saw a trailer for this film at the Castro earlier in the year, and the trailer is certainly something spooky and strange.  Like the trailer itself, the film isn’t exactly clear what kind of fear-inspiring shenanigans are actually at work in this mysterious little thriller.  The trailer focuses on the woods of the titles, twisted branches, and weird hand-held camera-work that could signify a body-chopping serial killer, an evil spirit, or who the heck knows.

The story is of a family that moves into a large house in the rural English landscape (somewhere), but the older of the two daughters senses something weird going on.  Flashes of blue light, broken window, broken mirrors, an image of a disappeared blond-look-alike who is blind-folded and begging for help.  Sound spooky?  It kind of is.

Bette Davis is there, as the owner of the house, who lives nearby and yearns for her lost daughter.

You know, it actually takes the entire span of the movie for the mystery to unravel, which works in its favor, really, since by the time that the story is out there, you don’t have a lot of time left to go: “did that make any sense?”  I won’t spoil it by saying what it is, but I do recommend if you watch this on DVD to watch the “alternate endings”, which were the original endings edited in two different ways that are scary and far-out, but actually aren’t handled in as satisfying a way as the ending the film wound up with.  They are worth the extra minutes because they’re pretty weird.

It’s not great cinema, but discovering these odd pre-digital fantasy films does not lack charm.

The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths (1936) movie poster

(1936) dir. Jean Renoir
viewed: 03/19/09

Back in 1995, when I was living in England, the BBC and Channel 4 were celebrating “a century of cinema” with documentaries and lots of “the greatest” of world cinema.  It was a pretty good time to be there and not have a lot to do.  It is when I was introduced to the word of Jean Renoir, through The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939).  But oddly, through time, I don’t think I ever ended up seeing any more of his films, nor seeing those films again.  It was an interesting time, the period that got me inspired to study cinema and really exposed me to cinema, as well.

The Lower Depths is Renoir’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play of the same name, adapted to France, of course.  The film stars the ubiquitous Jean Gabin, who I am really getting to know of late, from such films as Pépé le Moko (1937) & Touchez pas au grisbi (1954).  Little did I realize what an important film actor Gabin is/was in France, something of a Humphrey Bogart/John Wayne icon, and here, in The Lower Depths, he’s perhaps the most charming that I’ve seen him.  Playing a good-hearted thief from the poorest ranks of society, he is looking for a woman to give him a reason to be good.

Like the other of Renoir’s films, The Lower Depths is very much about class, or “the classes” of society.  It’s an odd thing for me to relate to the way that culturally is much more imprinted on Europe, especially a Europe of the 1930’s, when class-consciousness was more a full-on structure.  The idea that you can tell someone of the “upper class” who is “slumming” simply by the way they carry themselves, a sense of one class being better than another.

One of the best scenes in the movie is when Jean Gabin is burgalizing the flat of a baron and is caught in the act.  The baron, however, largely through gambling, has winnowed himself out of money to the point that the next day everything he has is going to be repossessed, so he pleasantly treats Gabin to dinner, drinks, and cards, and tells him to take anything he likes.

While the thief wants out of “the lower depths”, away from the dirt, poverty, crime, and death, the nobleman yearns for the freedoms that come from owning nothing.  He is charmed by the notion of sleeping in the grass by the river, though even his butler is shocked that anyone would do such a thing.  The class consciousness is clearly a dated thing, though an interesting one, and really, it’s the characters who make the film live.

There is an Akira Kurosawa film adapted from the play as well.  In fact, Criterion compiles them in packaging.  So, I guess that I’ll be seeing that one fairly soon.  Vive Renoir!  Vive Gabin!

Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Tomas Alfredson
viewed: 03/17/09

“The Swedish vampire movie.”  That’s not how this movie was marketed, nor exactly descriptive of its character or story, but that’s the short-hand word-of-mouth way to describe it.  I mean, how many more Swedish vampire movies can you think of?  I don’t doubt that there are many.  Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) is Danish.  Anyways, I belabor the point.

A friend who had seen this film in the theater described it as “sweet”.  And it is.  It’s a love story between two pre-pubescent children (age 12).  At once that sounds perhaps a little odd in a creepy way, and also perhaps a little too much like the Twilight (2008) book series and films about teenagers and vampires and love.  In fact, it’s a little hard to describe the details of the film and still capture its je ne se quois.

Oskar is a nearly albino-blonde and pale-skinned 12 year old, living in an apartment building in suburban Stockholm in the early 1980’s (it was only after the fact that I understood the film’s placement in time).  He’s tormented by bullies, lonely in living with his divorced/separated mother, and starting to fantasize about cutting up his tormentors with a knife.  Late one night, a mysterious man and a young girl move into the complex, boarding up the windows.  The girl makes an appearance to Oskar, a dark-haired waif of a girl dressed in thirft store clothes, inappropriately clad for the snow.  She is Eli, and while initially holding Oskar at bay, she becomes his friend.

Eli is a vampire, we come to find out, and the man with her turns out to be her procurer of blood, murdering young men, then hanging them upside-down and collecting their blood in buckets for her.  It must be said that he’s not particularly careful, and the murders start getting the locals up in arms.  But eventually, Oskar and Eli start “going steady”.  It’s a sweet, young romance, filling voids of loneliness that are very palpable.

Really, the film takes the vampire in some strange different territory.  It’s funny, but I was reading an article in the New Yorker about vampire mythology, and Dracula fanaticism, and in all that is covered in that, somehow Let the Right One In manages to touch on themes and ideas through the vampire that feel fresh.  There are themes of isolation, which aren’t so uncommon, but the vampires themselves live in squalor, and while Eli shows that they have money, her apartment makes Oskar wonder if they are very poor.  But the isolation and Eli’s relationship with Håkan, her procurer, implies sexual abuse and slavery while at the same time potentially representing an example of the love that is shared by Eli and Oskar.  I wondered whether Håkan was just like Oskar, just that he had aged in his time with Eli, while she had remained 12.  Is there pedophilia?

Also, in a brief shot, Oskar sees that Eli has a wound where her genitals would be.  In watching this sequence in the film, there is the queer feeling of taboo (the bodies of pre-pubescent children are not often displayed outside of Scandanavia) but the wound further reflects abuse, a scar marking previous pain and torture.  Eli’s isolation and loneliness are imbued with the tragedy of child abuse.  And of course, Oskar relates, from his familial isolation, an odd scene that suggests that his father left his mother for another man?  Oskar runs from this, though it’s very subtle.  And the abuse that he receives at the hands of his vicious bullies.

As it turns out, and I don’t want to spoil this for anyone, so don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want some foreknowledge of the film, but it turns out that when Eli is saying that she “is not a girl”, she doesn’t just mean that she is a vampire, but rather that she is a castrated boy…thus the wound.  I only found this out through some web research, relating to details that are implied in the film but more explicit in the book from which is was adapted.  While this is certainly an interesting inflection, the lack of this knowledge is still telling.  The film does strike upon these dark issues of abuse and loneliness and resultant violence.  Echoes of these tropes are effective.

That is to say that the film allows for subtlety in its points.  Suggestions of plot points open channels of reaction without having to spell out the “facts” so much for the viewer.  It’s part of why this film is so effective.  The emotional connection between the two lonely children is powerful enough, but the sadness and positing of this vampire as a lost, longing abused child is very touching.  And Oskar’s genuine affection, sweet and chaste in a sense, is quite compelling.

Now, I’ve also read, unsurprisingly, that there is an American version of this film getting into production for release next year.  I am guessing that it’s going to be a whole lot more Twilight than this film.

But this is a good film, interesting, touching.  It’s an odd thing, a film about Swedish pre-pubescent androgynous vampires, but there are those nuances that make it something that you just don’t see every day.

Cleo from 5 to 7

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) movie poster

(1962) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 03/16/09

After watching Agnès Varda’s interesting 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, I decided that it was time to catch up and watch more of her films.  Interestingly enough, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley is currently doing a series on her as well throughout the month.  Although I have the best intentions of catching something there, I already had Cleo from 5 to 7 at home by the time that I’d seen that.

Varda is associated with the French New Wave, the only female filmmaker among them.  But, as I have actually been exploring the French New Wave more of late, that categorization is more one of time and familiarity and novelty in approaching cinema, rather than any particularly specific style.

Cleo from 5 to 7 is a nice example of the New Wave in that sense, with Varda’s very curious eye scanning the world, seeing Paris, seeing character, in a very specific and different way.  Since it’s been years since I saw her tragic masterpiece, Vagabond (1984), I can’t say how much it has in common with that film, but I did find it interesting, the way that Varda uses her camera as an eye, as her eye, as she does in The Gleaners and I, even shooting scenes of passing motorists from the backseat of a taxi.  She is looking at the city, at the people, constantly, never passive.

Also, through the first hour or more, the film is also fascinated with mirrors and mirrored surfaces.  As Cléo strolls the busy downtown of Paris, through the neighborhoods and shops and cafes, the reflective surfaces are ever-present, reflecting all of the things in the world, but quite specifically Cléo, who is trying to come to terms with her potentially terminal illness.  There seems to be a statement of sorts about gender, about women in particular.  Cléo and her assistant both are extremely superstitious.  The film begins with Cléo having her fortune read by Tarot cards.  I don’t know exactly what to make of the superstition stuff, but it’s there quite prevalently.

The film transpires in a sort of “real time”, with “chapters” signifying the passage of time, from scene to scene, which infuses the film with a constantly moving energy.  Some of the images are strange, accidental, happenstance.  Some are like visions, though really captured from the streets of Paris: a man swallowing live frogs and another man piercing his arm with a needle.  The streets of Paris are a side-show, a vivid world of fashion, men, ever-changing roads, parks.  It’s a litany, in a sense, which also gives the feeling of an internal view.  Is it Cléo’s?  Or is it the camera’s?  Either way, it’s utterly Varda’s eye, Varda’s aesthetic and curiously playful gaze at the world.

There is a lot going on, as I have alluded to.  More perhaps, than a quick note on the film could hope to capture.  It’s ultimately a film about life, though Cléo is constantly fearing her own death.  She is surrounded by life and a fascinating world, and in the end, does she manage to realize it all?  It’s an interesting film, feminist, not lacking in political perspectives, but much more focused on identity, the self, the world, and life.  Quite beautiful in its way.



Rififi (1955) movie poster

(1955) dir. Jules Dassin
viewed: 03/14/09

While I’ve been watching a number of French crime films of late, including Pépé le Moko (1937), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), and Le Doulos (1962) among others, one of the noted Criterion Collection films that I had still in queue was director Jules Dassin’s Rififi.  Oddly enough, though this is indeed a French crime film, and even with as French a sounding name as Jules Dassin, Mr. Dassin himself was an American and made this film as an exile from the US after being investigated by the House of Un-American Activities and blacklisted.  I can only chalk up my ignorance to ignorance, since Dassin had made several notable film noir and/or American crime films before his blacklisting, including Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Thieves’ Highway (1949), and Night and the City (1950)…all of which have already been in my Netflix queue for some time.

Rififi may not be the “original” heist movie, but it is clearly a striking template for many, if not all heist films to come.  The jewel heist, perpetrated by a quartet of low-time criminals, is executed perfectly, staking out the jewelry store, casing the street, and negotiating the alarm systems.  And the quite stunning certerpiece is the heist itself, a 32-minute affair in which nary a word is spoken.  The thieves need to be silent, so without music and without speaking, the heist is pulled off, showing their teamwork and preparation.  I most recently saw this to an extent appropriated in The Bank Job (2008).  But you can definitely see the influence it worked on the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, most specifically in his heist film, Le Cercle rouge (1970).

Beyond the writing and directing of this film, Dassin’s first in French, Dassin also plays a great character part in the role of Cesar le Milanais, the safe-cracking specialist from Milan.  Oddly enough, I was really struck by this performance and character, not realizing that it was Dassin himself (sometimes ignorance can add to the experience — or at least change it dramatically).  He’s a charming Italian fellow who speaks very little French, “but understands everything”.  The character has great charm and is really quite wonderfully realized.

The film is shot in a gorgeous Paris of its day, but shot almost entirely on rainy days.  The streets are shining with rain, reflecting the lights against the black, while the skies are interminably gray.  But the city, while not depicted entirely for its beauty, is actually depicted beautifully.  From the back alley streets, to the semi-rural edges, the boulevards, the avenues, even the Arc de Triumphe shows up toward the end.  The camera sets the city distinctly in place, quite wonderfully.

Of course, it’s a crime caper, one filled with fatalism and a sense of the impossibility to effect that fate.  It fits well with the films that I mentioned above, but I am going to quickly queue up some more of Dassin’s films, push them to the top of the queue, that is.


Quarantine (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. John Erick Dowdle
viewed: 03/13/09

An unfortunate member of the hand-held camera perspective in which the camera is held by a character in the film (thus the entire film is assumed to have been shot on a camera “at the scene” rather than some omnisicent “regular” camera view), Quarantine is a re-make of a Spanish film [REC] (2007), a film that hasn’t yet been made available in the States on DVD.  That rather convoluted intro is to say that this film uses a trop of camera-work that was tired from its earliest usages and not something that has actually seen itself get furthered in value from its overusage.

Take a look (or don’t) at Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2007), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and even Cannibal Holocaust (1980), just to say that the camera in the hands of the crew subgenre of “style” has been around.  And with the YouTube world, the cameraphone world, that this is probably going to continue to be a fairly pervasive methodology of shooting horror films.

Conceptually, it’s okay.  It’s supposed to put you in the moment, the place.  The limitation of perspective doesn’t allow one to know more than any one other character knows about what is happening.  When used well, it can be successful, immediate.  But it’s also a little too easy, suggesting self-referential motifs, but also not building genunine drama or intensity.  Forcing the story through an existing lens is also limiting: how often does a camera in one’s hands hold still long enough for the unfolding of dramatic sequence?

Oddly enough, Quarantine seems to manage to rise above this, to rise above its other simple genre tropes than a lot of other films do.  It’s an uber-rabies, zombie infection film, another subgenre of horror that has been growing of late.  Though it’s existed since the 1970’s (maybe earlier), since the 28 Days Later… (2002) film, has become the new level of horror film with zombies.  It’s a mixture of zombies, madness, viciousness.  While at first it was somewhat shocking, it’s also become its own cheap trope.

Anyways, Quarantine is neither the best nor worst of these films.  Does it make it worth seeing?  Probably I would rack that up to your own predilictions.  For me, I’m willing to sit through a few of these films, for some, it might be pure thrills and scares, and others, the last way they would want to spend 90 minutes.


Watchmen (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Zack Snyder
viewed: 03/10/09 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

The “it” movie of the moment, Watchmen, if you didn’t already know, is an adaptation of one of the most notable comic book series created in the 1980’s (some would argue “ever”).  The comic, written in the waning days of the Cold War, imagined an alternate reality where superheros are real, that they helped to end the Vietnam War, ushering in a five-term Nixon presidency, until they are outlawed.  And while the Cold War raged on, with a God-like “hero” Dr. Manhattan as the ultimate Cold War weapon, the world still was heading toward midnight on its “doomsday clock”, the metaphor for inevitable nuclear war and the end of the world.

The book of Watchmen, which is a compliation of the comic book series, has come to stand as a criticism of the Reagan era and a “deconstruction” of superhero mythology.  The heroes in Watchmen are all flawed versions of recognizable existing heroes, some more pointedly than others.  They are vicious vigilantees or venal misogynists, lamed, drunken, and lacking in nobility.

So, after many attempts over the 20+ years since its release, the powers that be in Hollywood hired director Zack Snyder to bring this film to life.  Snyder, whose other comic book adaptation, 300 (2006), earned him the street cred to take this “holy” script into actualization in film.  And Snyder does manage to make things “look” pretty interesting.

Snyder’s visual style in 300 was something totally over-the-top and quite impressive.  And he gets these characters looking pretty cool.  He makes fight sequences with more than Matrix-like visual flair, artifical as hell, but slicker than grease.  Probably the best of these is the opening fight between The Comedian (the Captain America gone bad character) and his masked assailant who tosses him out the window.  He flies toward the window fast, but when it breaks, it moves very slowly.  Blood drips onto the iconic happy face (which is the comic’s visual “logo”) slowly and refinedly.  The whole fall is a bit of visual viruosity.

The beginning of the film, starting with this sequence, and transpiring for the first hour and a half of this two and three quarters hour of a movie, is the unravelling of a mystery.  Filling in the backstories that lead the Watchmen characters to where they are, the classic comic book trope of the “origin story”, led by the character Rorschach (the noirish vigilante with the hidden face), the question becomes: who is out to kill the “masks” (heroes)?

And while the mystery lasts, I found the film quite engaging.  I had read the book some 15 or more years ago, but had forgotten a lot of the details.  But as the story unfolds and the more loaded metaphors and meaningful tropes come to light, the whole thing gets pretty silly.

And the sillyness was there throughout.  The film uses music very poorly to telescope ideas and supposedly to set mood.  See, this is still 1985 in the alternate universe.  We’ve got Nena and her “99 Luftballoons” (why?) at a dinner meeting.  During a scene where two characters have sex, we get the reprise of “hallelujah”.  And the complete lack of imagination in this area sort of displays the lack of vision in others.

Snyder does his best and works the fanboy/geek angle hard.  But he’s also pretty lame in referencing himself, how many “300’s” can you spot in this movie.  Oh, yeah, he made 300, too.  While this might sound awfully nitpicky, my point would be that amid the massive details and the perfectionism, there is also a whole lot missing and it’s most painfully obvious in the more emotional sequences or the profound revelations.

The thing is, this book Watchmen was of its time.  A critique of the present in 1986/7.  And while the film adheres to this timeline, the modernization of the heroes’ costumes and the kick-ass fight sequences are almost the opposite of the point.

The darkness of a character like The Comedian is almost lost in a sense.  If you take that character as a darkened up Captain America, he’s quite interesting.  Captain America was the all-American fighting the Nazi’s, shaking hands with the president sort of guy.  So, if Captain America stayed true to the government’s evils in Vietnam, the Nixon administration, doing the CIA dirty work, he’s gone down the dark hole away from idealism and heroism to become a tool of the darkness of Nixon/Reagan covert operations.  It’s an interesting twist.

In the long run, Watchmen is a little too heavy for itself.  At nearly 3 hours, it packs in a lot and keeps moving pretty well.  Like I said, as long as the mystery lasted, I was kind of hooked in.  But the pompous message, the ironies, the depth of the twists and morality issues…becomes almost funny.  It’s not that the message is dated per se, but just that it’s the film’s own lack of ironic awareness can’t endure.