10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck

Sorry for the melodramatic title, but be honest, would you have clicked through to this article had I used a more measured headline like “10 Well-Reasoned Arguments to be Mildly Apprehensive the Watchmen Movie May Not Meet Expectations”?

Consider yourself a true admirer of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986)? Read on for 10 reasons to be very, very afraid. Please note that I haven’t yet seen the movie, and the below rant is all coming from the perspective of someone that cares about the book. Also be forewarned that I can’t be bothered to avoid spoilers.

1. The project has been cursed for years.

Numerous directors have come before Zack Snyder, and all have tried and failed. The rogues’ gallery includes no less than Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass, and those are just the ones we know about. It’s too soon in Snyder’s career to issue a verdict on him, but it’s fair to say that these three directors are all a fair sight more seasoned and acclaimed than he. It’s likely that all three (not to mention their producers and screenwriters) gave up on Watchmen for very good reasons. Gilliam, in particular, famously had the good sense to agree with Moore that his book may actually be truly unfilmable. And all this is not even to mention Warner Bros.’ dramatic feud with 20th Century Fox over the rights to the project itself, eventually ending in January 2009 with the two rivals begrudgingly agreeing to share the profits (while not mentioning that, I also won’t mention its fruitless fling with Paramount). Read on for still more animosity and bad blood swirling about the long-gestating project…

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in the movie WatchmenHave no fear! Right-wing, sexually damaged, sociopathic nutjob Rorschach is on the case

2. It doesn’t have Alan Moore’s blessings.

Worse, it doesn’t have his apathy either. Moore didn’t seem too perturbed by the From Hell (The Holmes Brothers, 2001) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) movies. He didn’t collaborate on them, nor did he care to even see them. Basically, he shrugged, and trusted his books would live on in their own rights. But the results in every case so far have been disastrous: terrible films that retained little of what made the books matter. In retrospect, it seems Moore showed extraordinary patience with the first two films that mangled his books, and that he now have no mercy for those messing with V for Vendetta and Watchmen makes perfect sense. Additional legal and ethical skirmishes with DC Comics and Warner Bros. over The Wachowski Brothers’ and James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta (2006) led to Moore taking his name off any comics work to which he does not control the copyright (essentially everything he did for DC). In the cases of the V for Vendatta and Watchmen films, he has put his money where his mouth is and officially deferred all of his royalties to his collaborators David Lloyd and Dave Gibbons. You have to admire the integrity of anyone willing to leave that much money on the table. One ray of hope for those that appreciate the book, however, is that Gibbons has been actively collaborating on the Watchmen production. Hopefully his contributions have helped to keep the filmmakers on target.

3. At least one character has been horrendously miscast.

One of the curses of having read a book enough times to internalize every detail is to also have very clear mental images of the characters. The Watchmen producers were probably right to avoid casting any especially well-known faces. Based on what I’ve seen so far, several of their choices do feel right to me, especially Patrick Wilson as Daniel Dreiberg (Nite Owl) Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs (Rorschach), and Matt Frewer as Moloch. The 30-year-old Malin Akerman is certainly a very attractive sight onscreen, but her character Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) is supposed to be almost 40 in the novel’s present. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt for now, but the real problem is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). Goode is, simply, totally wrong. Veidt should be ridiculously handsome, like George Clooney, but utterly dispassionate and ice-cold, like Keanu Reeves. He should radiate intelligence and self-confidence, like Kevin Spacey, and be incredibly fit, like Michael Phelps. But Goode here seems shrimpy, ugly, and weaselly. His mushmouth dialogue in promotional clips has him affecting some kind of botched accent or speech defect. If I were the Watchmen casting agent, I’d Aaron Eckhart’s agent a call.

This scene between Laurie and her mom Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), the original Silk Spectre, drops a big hint as to how to measure Laurie’s age (spoiler alert!):

A scene between Veidt and Dan, during which Goode’s performance stuns me in its total, absolute wrongness for the character:

4. Snyder has reportedly tarted up the action.

Early reports are that Snyder has amped up the sex, violence, and action. Readers of the book will recall that Silk Spectre and Nite Owl come out of retirement by effecting an aerial rescue from a burning tenement building. As io9.com rightly notes, Snyder’s version of the scene sets entirely the wrong tone. The book shows Dan and Laurie as old pros that can basically sleepwalk through such a mission, and yet the movie has them outrunning fireballs in slow motion (Snyder’s directoral calling card). Other early reports are that a rape scene, already horrific and shocking in the book, has actually been made more titillating and explicit for the film. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) told MTV News that the scene is “really violent” and the movie is “rated ‘R’ for a reason.”

Thrill as Silk Spectre and Nite Owl escape slow-motion fireballs:

5. Snyder’s adaptation may be too worshipful.

In DeZ Vylenz’ documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Moore notes the superficial resemblance between comics and movie storyboards. He believes that an understanding of the mechanics of cinema can inform comics writing (and vice versa), but if comics writers worship movies too much, their comics will be reduced to “movies that don’t move.” It also works the other way: Snyder has already proven his skill to literally recreate comics panels into cinema with his lurid adaptation of Frank Miller’s bonkers graphic novel 300 in 2007. Worse, Warner Bros. has produced an atrocious “motion comics” version of the original Watchmen graphic novel (available now on iTunes and soon on DVD), comprised of motion-graphics animated versions of Dave Gibbons’ artwork, read aloud by a single voice actor. As Scott McCloud spent an entire book demonstrating (Understanding Comics, 1993), the way that comics “work” is much more than that: the interplay of sequential images and (optionally) words. If Snyder’s movie is similar to 300 or the Watchmen Motion Comics, then it might as well just be called Watchmen for Illiterates. We don’t need a moving, talking version of the book; we can always read the book.

BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin interviews Snyder and special effects creator John Des Jardins about their efforts to make an exactingly faithful adaptation of the source material:

6. Paradoxically to the above point, the changes that Snyder does make may be the wrong ones.

Anyone who’s so much as flipped through the book will realize that its complexity is irreducible. I personally can’t imagine what must be sacrificed to squeeze the essential narrative down to a 2 1/2 hour movie, so thankfully Entertainment Weekly has compiled this list. Snyder has recently admitted to cutting what I feel to be one of the most heartbreaking and seminal sequences in the entire story: the senseless murder of Hollis Mason (the Golden Age Nite Owl). Snyder also hints he has changed the book’s cataclysmic climax. I don’t mind losing the specific details if screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have devised something suitable to replace it.

7. One word: “Watchmen”

Several trailers and TV spots released to date include both Rorschach and The Comedian speaking the word “Watchmen.” To anyone that’s read the book, this is an egregious sin (almost as bad as saying “The Watchmen”). As such, the trailers make it seem as if “Watchmen” is the name of some kind of supergroup like the Fantastic Four or The X-Men. True, in the book’s backstory, there was a group of heroes called The Minutemen in the 1940s (Moore’s equivalent to comic’s so-called Golden Age). A second generation of heroes gather in the 1970s (including many of the main characters of the book) to discuss forging a new group called The Crimebusters, but they immediately break up. At no point in the book is the word “Watchmen” ever spoken, by anyone. Its only appearance in the book is the occasional graffiti “Who Watches the Watchmen?” in the background of some New York City street scenes. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” comes from the Roman poet Juvenal, asked by Plato in the socratic dialog Republic (380BC-ish). In the context of Watchmen, the meaning is obvious: the public is asking of their self-appointed protectors, who’s protecting us from you? But who’s protecting moviegoers from filmmakers that are dumbing down this story?

Here’s a TV spot with both Rorschach and The Comedian speaking the word “Watchmen”:

Here’s the full scene during which the Comedian seems to refer to the 1970s group as “Watchmen”:

8. These characters are definitely not “cool.”

Nearly every character in the book is psychologically scarred, some deeply so (with the possible exception of Hollis Mason – the original Nite Owl – who comes across as the only one who turned to vigilanteism out of a genuine need to help people). Rorschach is a right-wing sociopath (Watchmen having been written in the mid 1980s, think of a costumed Bernard Getz or Charles Bronson). The Comedian is a fascist and a rapist. Ozymandias is an egomaniac of the most dangerous sort (think George W. Bush, except infinitely worse). Dr. Manhattan is not even human, and unlike the somewhat analogous Superman, is devoid of emotion, empathy, or compassion. New York City was recently host to a Comic-Con convention at which more than a few borderline psychos left the sanctity of their mothers’ basements to walk around the city dressed up as the sexually damaged, violent nutjob Rorschach. The imagery and clips released from the movie so far only seem to reinforce the perception of these characters as cool and badass.

9. The merchandise makes me cringe.

What creep would buy and display a statuette of the rapist and fascist The Comedian? Or if you want to rob a bank, you could do worse than don a Rorschach ski mask, about which io9.com has already remarked. Only an Ozymandias action figure [http://www.dccomics.com/dcdirect/?dcd=10047] makes sense in an ironic kind of way, for the character heavily marketed his superhero persona for personal profit. As for why these tie-in items make me feel queasy, please refer to No. 8 above.

Adrian Veidt Ozymandias action figure from the movie WatchmenOne of the most ironic aspects of the whole Watchmen movie hoopla is now that you can actually own a real Ozymandias action figure

10. And finally, Hollywood is taking away one of the last remaining comic book masterworks.

Warner Bros. Picture Group president Jeff Robinov proclaimed to Entertainment Weekly his loyalty to the source material: “The movie is impactful, tough, and true to the book that we all loved, and I’m very proud of it.” I’ll try to set aside my immediate gag reflex at the use of “impact” as an adjective, and hope that he’s right. Hollywood has already brutalized Moore’s From Hell, V for Vendetta, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The books were read by relatively small number of people, but the movies were seen by millions who who may never even know the source material exists, let alone read it. Watchmen, like all of Moore’s comics work, was created for comics. None of the previous adaptations of his work have survived the adaptation process, and were misinterpreted and puréed into milquetoast.

Final Thoughts

Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen is perhaps the seminal graphic novel to date. I’m not the first to say it, but Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comic books. It’s a towering, complex, and multi-faceted masterpiece. It has the kind of scope, ambition, and narrative experimentation that makes it one of the few graphic novels that deserves to be called a novel. Time Magazine recognized as much by naming it one of its All-Time 100 Novels in 2005. Just as it’s inconceivable that Citizen Kane be adapted into another medium (theater? poetry? interpretive dance? or for that matter, comics?), so too do I shudder to imagine Watchmen translated into any other form. My biggest fear is that millions of moviegoers will experience Watchmen in this incarnation as a big-budget escapist spectacle, and never be aware of its special source material.

Most of Moore’s graphic novels are exactly that: novels. Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Lost Girls, and From Hell are all finite and self-contained. There are no sequels, prequels, or spinoffs. Watchmen is being heavily marketed as another in a long line of superhero movies, following the massive success of Iron Man, Batman (read The Dork Report review of The Dark Knight), and Spider-Man franchises. All of these are open-ended, ongoing episodic series that have lasted for decades. How many moviegoers will not understand that Watchmen is based on an actual novel? Will they anticipate a sequel? Let’s pray that Warner Bros. isn’t plotting one, lest Moore really lose his temper.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in the movie WatchmenThe Comedian is no Captain America

Only Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus is more well-regarded, if perhaps less widely read. Watchmen too might have earned such top-shelf garlands had it not been set firmly within the historically juvenile genre that utterly dominates Western comics to this day: men and women that dress up in tights and fight crime. Superheroes. They’re for kids, right?

To anyone familiar with Moore’s oeuvre, it’s clear he does genuinely love superheroes despite his repeated attempts to rip them apart. With Watchmen and the even more pitiless Miracleman (now tragically out of print, maybe forever), Moore tried to inject a degree of psychological and political realism into comics. But generally speaking, audiences (and publishers) mostly latched onto the superficial elements of violence and sex, ushering in a few decades of superhero comics that were grim and gritty but lacked depth and imagination. As the comics chased the aging generation that grew up reading Watchmen and its progeny, it left kids behind. In 1999, Moore did try to atone for his inadvertent revolution with a line of comics that attempted to re-inject whimsy, clever storytelling, and innocence back into comics (especially in the Tom Strong and Tomorrow Stories series). But even so, today most acclaimed comics lie outside the superhero genre, including Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (fantasy, mostly) and Brian K. Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man (science fiction, mostly).

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian in the movie WatchmenThe Comedian is dead. Ground floor coming up. The jokes just keep coming.

Watchmen is one of my favorite books, and I’ve probably read it at least 10 times over the years. So obviously, my love for it feeds into my apprehension that it may be mishandled. But there have been other much-loved books that I haven’t been especially worried about. Stuart Gordon’s film based on William Wharton’s novel A Midnight Clear is an excellent (and rare) example of an exceedingly faithful adaptation that works. Also, as much as I loved Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, I’m quite looking forward to director John Hillcoat’s film, as opposed to dreading how he might screw it up. Although it should be noted Hillcoat has the excellent The Proposition (2005) on his résumé to commend him, while Snyder only has Dawn of the Dead and 300.

Some prose works have arguably been improved as movies, or at least translated into great works in their own rights. To name a few examples mostly in Watchmen’s arena of science-fiction: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (read The Dork Report review) is more gripping and visceral than P.D. James’ novel. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is something else entirely than Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And at the risk of incurring the wrath of sword-and-sorcery geeks everywhere, I’m prepared to argue that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films improve enormously upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s insufferably tedious books. Oh yeah, I said it. Bring it on.

So why am I so apprehensive about Watchmen in particular? Because it has been historically misunderstood and misinterpreted for 20 years and I see no sign that Snyder is seeing any deeper than its surface. If Moore’s Watchmen tried but failed to permanently revitalize the superhero genre by laying bare its internal lunacies, what is Snyder’s movie trying to accomplish, and will it too fail?

Official movie site: watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com

Must read: Why I will not be seeing Watchmen by Kevin Church

Must read: Spoiler Alert: WATCHMEN is Fucking Awesome by über-geek (that’s a compliment) Wil Wheaton

Must read: What Happens if Watchmen Flops? by Graeme McMillan

Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:


The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 5: Diary of the Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Welcome to The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join The Dork Report in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Diary of the Dead movie poster


This is not an opinion you’re likely to find anywhere else on the internet, but we here at The Dork Report are prepared to argue that Diary of the Dead is the best of the entire George A. Romero zombie cycle so far. It sports the best special effects, is the least repetitive or trigger-happy, and is a welcome return to the focused social satire of the first (Night) and second (Dawn) installments.

Curiously, Diary of the Dead is the first to break the continuity of Romero’s ongoing story of society in zombie meltdown. The first four films follow a rough chronology: Night of the Living Dead depicts the initial wave as seen by a small group caught in a country farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead takes place a few weeks later, showing the breakdown of cities (and even the media). Day of the Dead featured an isolated group surviving in isolation as the world was long since overrun by the undead. Land of the Dead shows the ultimate gated community fall to an evolved zombie horde. But Diary of the Dead is a return to the early days of the outbreak, a more fertile ground for storytelling: you never get tired of human characters witnessing such horrors for the first time.

Diary of the DeadSaving the human race, one nonfiction documentary short subject at a time

The rules are still the same: simply, the dead don’t stay dead. The zombie epidemic is not due to a plague or virus, which was the potent contribution of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later to the zombie genre. Arguably, Romero’s concept is more bleak. A virus might be mitigated or even cured, but if anybody, anybody at all, that dies will revive as a unintelligent carnivorous monster that feels no pain and never tires, it cannot be stopped. If humanity is to somehow regroup and survive, it will forever have to burn or decapitate anyone that ever dies.

Diary of the Dead opens on a group of University of Pittsburgh film students making a tongue-in-cheeck mummy movie in the woods of Pennsylvania, under the guidance of alcoholic Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth). Many of these kids are privileged, but judging from the events of Romero’s other zombie films, we know that the luxuries of the rich are of little worth against the living dead. Obviously none of these movie aficionados have ever seen a zombie flick. One of them, Eliot (Joe Dinicol), wears Coke-bottle glasses in an apparent homage to Romero’s famous spectacles. Budding director Jason Creed (Joshua Close) looks down his nose on the commercial horror genre, and has the not-so-secret ambition to become a documentary filmmaker. But Jason gets his chance to do both, as he documents their their flight from a real-life plague of zombies. Jason’s footage, later completed by girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) comprises a film within a film: “The Death of Death.”

Diary of the DeadRomero’s scathing indictment of our broken health care system, or just some more zombie gore?

In a world in which nearly everyone carries a cellphone camera around in their pocket, “shoot me” can have a different meaning than you usually hear in zombie movies. With a batch of young filmmakers documenting a real-life tale of horror using new portable video technology, Diary of the Dead superficially resembles Cloverfield (read The Dork Report review). One of Cloverfield’s most telling moments showed a group of New Yorkers instinctively reacting to the horrible sight of a chunk of the Statue of Liberty hurtling into the middle of a street by whipping out their cell phone cameras and taking pictures to transmit to their friends. But Diary of the Dead’s true inspiration is actually a bit older; it rips off the basic plot of The Blair Witch Project, in which a batch of student filmmakers set off to shoot a horror film in the woods and accidentally stumble onto the real thing. Cloverfield became increasingly implausible as the fleeing teenagers cling to their cameras throughout their travails. In contrast, Diary of the Dead surprisingly sports more believable psychology than Cloverfield, constantly questioning its characters’ compulsion to document everything. Indeed, it’s one of the biggest themes of the movie.

Diary’s mix of themes also includes the return of the media as a prominent presence for the first time since Night and Dawn. In what I felt was one the film’s only dramatic missteps, the characters first learn of the zombie breakout via radio (really? radio? in an age of instant text messaging?), and are convinced of the incredible news reports a little too quickly. But perhaps their immediate acceptance of what the voices of authority tell them is one of Romero’s points.

Two characters in Dawn of the Dead were members of the traditional media of broadcast news. But in this case, something only possible in the 21st century internet age, the Diary of the Dead kids are able to become part of the medium itself. Jason starts out as a frustrated documentarian making a silly commercial mummy film, but given the chance he chooses to document. As citizen journalists, they edit their footage on laptops and post to YouTube and MySpace. They also download other clips from around the world, providing the film with what are basically a series of short vignettes. They watch as U.S. SWAT clean out zombies from an apartment complex, and as counterparts on the other side of the globe document an overrun Japan. One of the spookiest clips is a brief shot from the point of view of a truck driving under a bridge from which someone has hung themselves. After the truck cab jostles the corpse, it starts to move.

Three radio monologues were voiced by horror genre luminaries Guillermo Del Toro (whose ghost story Devil’s Backbone shares some elements of the zombie genre), Simon Pegg (who paid homage to the genre as comedy with Shawn of the Dead), and Stephen King (brilliant as a heartland evangelical preacher: “Get down on your &$#@ing knees!”). There’s also a funny bit featuring a badass Amish guy, who’s deaf but handy with a scythe and dynamite.

The ending to this very short movie (a little over 90 minutes) is a bit abrupt. But given that it is narrated by Debra, it is possible she has survived beyond what we’ve seen, long enough to release “The Death of Death” in some form, perhaps after humans have reclaimed the planet. One might imagine Diary’s premise would lend itself to a lower budget than the grandiose Land of the Dead, which starred actual stars like Dennis Hopper and John Leguizombie — sorry — John Leguizamo. But Diary sports a bigger cast, more locations, and even more accomplished CG, so it can hardly have been cheaper to make.

Official movie MySpace page: www.myspace.com/diaryofthedead

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The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 4: Land of the Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Welcome to The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join The Dork Report in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Land of the Dead movie poster


George A. Romero’s sporadic zombie flicks are sometimes decades apart in production, but nevertheless form a chronological sequence telling the story of the downfall of society from every angle. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is set in the early days, with a few random civilians trapped in a farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead (1979) zooms out a little to see what’s going on in cities and suburbia, and Day of the Dead (1985) examines a final remaining pocket of survivors months into the plague. Land of the Dead opens some time after the zombie epidemic has swept the world, and the surviving dregs of humanity have retreated behind the fortified walls of the ultimate gated community, a city dubbed Fiddler’s Green. Romero has used each of his zombie films to satirically articulate some social commentary, and here his targets seem to be big business and class warfare. Another possible allegorical target is the Israel / Palestine conflict. Have humans walled the zombies out, or walled themselves in?

A man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) has set himself up as mayor/president/king of Fiddler’s Green. Kaufman is very much a businessman along the lines of Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg, so here Romero seems to equate big business with totalitarianism. Kaufman’s machinations ensure that his supposed safe haven is actually a highly tiered class society. The rich live in high-rise comfort while the underclasses starve in skeezy street-level slums. We know society is truly depraved when caged go-go dancers are the only form of entertainment.

Eugene Clark in George A. Romero's Land of the Deadwet zombies smell like wet, uh, zombies

In the world outside, the zombies have long since eaten all humans within reach, and have nothing left to do but stand around. Despite the big budget, there only seem to be about a dozen of them. Some have returned to old routines: working gas stations, pushing shopping carts, and banging tambourines. Dawn of the Dead showed zombies instinctually drawn to the shopping mall (a new American innovation at the time) like pilgrims to Mecca. But Land of the Dead Goes further and suggests they have even greater powers of logic, and can feel actual emotions such as victimization. Their leader Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is soulful and sympathetic like Bub the zombie from Day of the Dead.

Kaufman sends minions Riley (Nathan Fillon) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) out into the infested wastelands, in caravans of heavily armored vehicles. They distract the “stench” (the derogatory term of choice for the undead) with fireworks as they loot for food and valuables to cart back to stock Kaufman’s larders in Fiddler’s Green. Riley and Cholo are old friends since fallen out, and their relationship provides the one genuinely funny bit of dialogue: happy-go-lucky Cholo tells the perpetually dour Riley: “Didn’t I tell you not to bang chicks with worse problems than you?” That’s not bad advice, actually.

The intelligent zombies, apparently feeling disenfranchised, organize and mount an attack on the city. Anyway, Riley and Cholo finally become disillusioned about Kaufman’s utopia. Together with Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento, who collaborated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead), they try to escape for the imagined safe haven of Canada (as if they think they are merely dodging the draft and not the twin threats of plague and humanity’s own venal overlords). In true Romero fashion, the villainous Kaufman also happens to be a racist, shouting epithets at the zombified Cholo (John Leguizombie?) as he comes to kill him. If there ever were a point in human history when race will have truly become irrelevant, this ought to be it.

Dennis Hopper in George A. Romeros' Land of the DeadDennis Hopper as the mayor from hell, or is that the mayor OF hell?

I don’t think Romero and his zombie films would be remembered without the racially charged ending of Night of the Living Dead and the pointed satire of consumerism found in Dawn of the Dead. But if he had started out with something as unfocused as Land of the Dead, he probably wouldn’t have been. Romero admits to Parallax view he didn’t fully work out the analogy: “I have to tell you that even when we started to shoot, I was worried that this isn’t quite clear. Who are the terrorists, is it Cholo and his gang or the zombies? And it gave me a little pause, but we had to start shooting because we had the money. I’m being perfectly honest, I have to sit down and re-analyze it and figure it out. Sometimes you just run on instinct.” Even the roundtable of horror aficionados on InternalBleeding.net agree that the movie is “not scary, but really gross.”

Land of the Dead obviously has the biggest budget of all of Romero’s zombie cycle so far, and remains the only one with well-known stars. But it is only superficially “better” than its predecessors, featuring bigger names and more technological polish. As is the case with many a Hollywood production, raised financial stakes bring a lowering of standards and diminishing returns: more money in, more shit out. A “some time ago…” prologue montage illustrates for the slower members of the audience what zombies are all about. Perhaps the movie studio executives were pitching the film to audiences beyond the usual horror genre ghetto already versed with the zombie genre.

Official movie site: www.landofthedeadmovie.net

Homepageofthedead.com’s extensive archive of Land of the Dead info

Must read: The Light That Failed: George Romero’s Dead Rock On by Kathleen Murphy; and George Romero Surveys the Dead by Sean Axmaker, both on Parallax View

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 3: Day of the Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Welcome to The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join The Dork Report in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Day of the Dead movie poster


Day of the Dead (1985) is the third episode in George A. Romero’s continuing tale of civilization’s collapse in the event of a global zombie epidemic. This and the big-budget Land of the Dead (2005) are tied for the worst entries in the series. What makes the first two (Night and Dawn) of merit is their surprisingly acute social satire, but here Romero loses his critical focus in favor of gore and general unpleasantry with little redeeming value.

After the initial wave of undead in Night of the Living Dead and the collapse of cities and suburbia in Dawn of the Dead, Romero now jumps still forward in time. Several months into the zombie plague, a dozen humans huddle isolated in an underground bunker. Their fortress is sufficient to protect them from the barbarians outside the gates, but they have lost radio contact with the outside world. They make occasional sorties to nearby cities via helicopter, but encounter nothing but more hordes of zombies. For all they know, they are the last humans on the planet.

Lori Cardille in Day of the DeadWhen there’s no more room in hell, zombies will break through the styrofoam walls

The disparate batch of survivors in Night of the Living dead was essentially a cross-section of civilization, but Romero narrows his focus here onto the military and scientific worlds. The humans trapped underground include three scientists, two civilians, and seven soldiers. All of them are slowly losing their minds save for level-headed scientist Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), valiantly researching a cure. As is now customary in Romero’s zombie flicks, Sarah is an atypical protagonist for a horror movie. The most capable and sane character in Night of the Living Dead was a black man (Duane Jones), a huge deal for movies of any genre in 1968, and still rare now. Sarah is a woman, another social group historically subjugated by society, not to mention typically reduced to screaming eye candy in horror movies.

The nerve-wracking 28 Days Later (2002), director Danny Boyle’s contribution to the zombie genre, borrowed this scenario of an isolated batch of male soldiers acting without command, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces, and locked in a fortress with only one woman. Not surprisingly, things get ugly. To a one, the soldiers are despicably racist and illogical. But leader Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) is actually correct about one key fact of their situation: the head scientist they have been ordered to defer to is indeed totally mad. Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in domesticating zombies into slaves than he is in either curing (as Sarah is trying to do) or eradicating them (as, naturally, the soldiers would have it). His star lab rat is a captive zombie dubbed Bub (Sherman Howard). The chained and tortured Bob is surprisingly sympathetic, possibly even moreso than heroine Sarah. He’s also the first instance in Romero’s movies of an intelligent, self-aware breed of zombie we won’t see again until twenty years later in Land of the Dead. But neither film makes much of the concept of zombies as a new life form, as opposed to the classic remorseless adversary typical for the genre.

Sherman Howard in Day of the DeadBub Zombie wants his MTV

As discussed in The Dork Report’s review of Night of the Living Dead, one key aspect of the zombie genre that has fueled its continuing appeal over the years is that a plague is a great leveler. Everyone is vulnerable to disease. Everyone is equal after death (or is that undeath?), be they male or female, rich or poor, of any race. And for the survivors, once society breaks down (and it always does when the undead walk the streets), all the money and creature comforts in the world become irrelevant.

Must read: Homepage of the Dead’s complete Day of the Dead archives, including the original script

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The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 2: Dawn of the Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Welcome to The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join The Dork Report in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Dawn of the Dead movie poster


Zombie godfather George A. Romero waited more than a decade to create Dawn of the Dead, the first sequel in his zombie cycle that would eventually number five (soon to be six) installments. Night of the Living Dead was marketed under the tagline “They won’t stay dead,” which beautifully told audiences all they needed to know. Still, the marketing teams behind Dawn of the Dead were able to find room for improvement and crafted the even more memorable “When there’s no room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Gone is the classic oxymoron “Living Dead.” Now and for the rest of Romero’s zombie movies, the foes are known simply as “The Dead.”

Dawn of the Dead doesn’t feature any characters from the original film (unsurprising, as none of them made it through alive), but there’s no reason why it can’t be seen as taking place about three weeks after the onset of the same plague witnessed by an isolated bunch of people in the Pennsylvania countryside in the original film. This time around, we open in Center City Philadelphia, as a different batch of survivors nobly keep a television station operational as society slowly collapses about them. Conditions eventually break down in the studio as well, and two of them selfishly escape to seek safe ground via helicopter. As they lift off, note the best image of all Romero’s zombie films: in the background, lights eerily switch off floor-by-floor in a skyscraper. In a rare case of artful restraint on Romero’s part, his camera lingers on the scene just long enough for it to register.

Dawn of the Deadbringing new meaning to the phrase “shop ’till you drop”

The team of survivors includes two contrasting pairs. Pilot Steve (David Emge) is the weak link in the group, while station manager Gaylen (Francine Parker) is the heart and brains. Two very different SWAT commandos throw their lot in with these civilians: the diminutive but athletic and enthusiastic Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), and the tall, quiet, and serious Peter (Ken Foree). But together, the two soldiers are more than the sum of their parts and manifest leadership qualities. Echoing the social subtext of the original film, race becomes irrelevant (Peter is black and Roger is white) and the two become fast friends.

David Emge, Francine Parker, and Ken Foree in Dawn of the DeadGaylen, Steve, and Peter in their consumerist paradise

The four set down upon the roof of a suburban shopping mall, a relatively new American invention in 1979. They purge it of lingering zombies and turn it into what is equal parts fortress and paradise. It is here where one realizes that Dawn of the Dead is probably the most openly satirical of all Romero’s zombie movies. It’s impossible to miss the critique of our materialist consumer society, as these survivors gleefully take whatever they want off the racks, for free. Even the stoic commandos are thrilled by the opportunity to go on an unlimited shopping spree. They live off fine wine and canned caviar as the barbarians are literally at the gate. You know it’s the end of the world when shopping mall muzak is the soundtrack for our heroes’ systematic mass zombie slaughter and corpse collection. Infamous Italian horror director Dario Argento composed the soundtrack as well as served as script consultant.

Scott H. Reiniger in Dawn of the DeadRoger is not a morning person, it seems

Unfortunately, Dawn of the Dead fizzles with a weak ending, especially compared to the pitiless conclusion of Night of the Living Dead. Internal strife and the zombie hordes assembling outside are not their only problems. A ragtag caravan of roadwarrior survivors arrive and disrupt the stalemate. But the central consumerist satire still resonates enough for the movie to have been effectively remade in 2004 by director Zack Snyder, without Romero’s involvement.

Fan site: www.dawnofthedead.net

Must read: Internal Bleeding Zombie Week ’08

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The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 1: Night of the Living Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Welcome to The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join The Dork Report in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Night of the Living Dead movie poster


I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing what is now recognized as the first zombie movie ever made: White Zombie (1932), starring none other than Bela Lugosi. But arguably, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the actual zombie urtext. It preceded the first of its four official sequels by almost a decade, but laid down the definitive template for the great flood of derivatives, remakes, homages, and ripoffs to come. Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, and can be legally downloaded for free from Archive.org.

If there is any doubt as to the endurance of the genre, check out Wikipedia’s compilation of over 300 zombie-themed feature films. Zombies thrive online in the open-ended zombie narrative ZombieAttack slowly unfolding on Twitter, and in online shrines to the undead like AllThingsZombie.com. Max Brooks has cornered the literary zombie field with his books The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006) (the first a disposable trifle, but the second a gripping tour de force). Zombies have invaded the Marvel Universe comics, ironic t-shirts, and hacked roadwork signs in Austin.

Night of the Living DeadBraaaaaaaaaaaaaains!

One may wonder about the mental health of such obsessive zombie fans, but now that The Dork Report is hosting a Romero Zombie Cycle film Festival, I must now count myself among them. Also, the word “zombie” is just kind of fun to say. Zombie, zombie, zombie. Perhaps sensing the recent spike in the zombie zeitgeist, Romero himself has picked up the pace of his zombie cycle, adding fresh new entries in 2005 and 2007, with yet another planned for the near future.

What exactly is the appeal? The basic zombie conceit is uncomplicated. Indeed, the Night of the Living Dead marketing tagline “They won’t stay dead!” pretty much says it all. Simply, any and all dead people (no matter what the manner of their expiration) will inevitably come back to life as unthinking, unfeeling, carnivorous monsters. There’s something pure to Romero’s original concept, without the complexities added by later zombie stories. Horror and science fiction blog io9 posits that war and social upheaval correlate with spikes in zombie movie production. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), forever retooled the zombie concept for a world obsessed with contagious diseases (SARS, AIDS), and the essentially animalistic badness of human nature (torture, terrorism). Boyle’s zombies don’t want to eat; they are just plain mad.

Night of the Living DeadThis is how you do The Monster Mash

Romero’s zombies have some rudimentary intelligence and are able to open doors, employ simple tools like bludgeons, and are afraid of fire. But they have no remnants of their former memories or personalities, and exist only to sup upon the living. Common to nearly every zombie tale is that an epidemic effects a breakdown of societal order, be it on a micro (such as the classic horror movie scenario of a few survivors locked in a farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead) or macro scale (witness the total collapse of civilization in Brooks’ novel World War Z). There’s a basic pessimism inherent in the genre; everything we regard as human is fragile. Faced with zombie hordes, the living turn on each other, cut and run, or totally shut down.

Romero & John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead screenplay includes some pseudo-scientific technobabble concerning a returning space probe contaminated with radiation from Venus, but for all intents and purposes the origin of the phenomenon is irrelevant to the story. Later zombie films would introduce the concept of a blood-transmitted virus, but it is irrelevant here whether or not any victim is contaminated by a germs or extraterrestrial radiation. Merely dying is all it takes to become a monster. In a way, Romero’s original conception of the zombie, absent of any plague metaphor, is the bleakest of all variants. Human society will be forever changed in a world in which even those that die naturally will have to be decapitated before they revive as beastly ghouls.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living DeadBen (Duane Jones) greets the undead hordes

Like all of Romero’s zombie flicks, Night of the Living Dead is set in the Pittsburgh, PA area (except Day of the Dead, which is the odd one out for many reasons to be discussed in the forthcoming Dork Report review). The opening sequence is set in graveyard littered with American flags, perhaps meant as a silent allusion to the vast numbers of fresh corpses being sent back from the Vietnam War. A random assortment of survivors barricade themselves in a farmhouse. Romero tells Parallax-view.org that the cast and crew actually lived in that farmhouse while filming: “We had no bread. We were literally sleeping out of that farmhouse, chopping ice out of the tank behind the toilet bowl in order to wash our faces, and we were taking baths out in the creek.”

In the best horror movie tradition, we have a cross-section of society with representatives of every gender, age, class, and race: a traumatized woman, a young couple, a classic nuclear family, and a lone black man. For all intents and purposes, their various social standings are erased as they all must unite to defend themselves against a common foe. Ben (Duane Jones) proves himself the most intelligent, sane, and capable of the bunch. But the humans can barely agree on anything, and expend most of their energy on infighting. One suspects that they wouldn’t be able to get along even without the zombie hordes assembling outside.

Night of the Living Dead is notorious for remaining unrated by the MPAA, proudly showcasing a considerable amount of gore (and even a little nude zombie derrière) unprecedented in 1968. But I think it’s fair to say that the true reason the movie is remembered as more than a cheapie horror flick is its African American protagonist. Of superior intelligence and maturity than everyone else, he alone (spoiler alert!) survives while the rest of the gang self-destructs. But unbeknownst to him, authorities have mobilized to sweep the countryside in order to execute any and all shambling zombies. It’s impossible to ignore this group’s resemblance to a lynch mob of the white male establishment, bearing scythes and hunting rifles. Given this scenario, one might predict the powerful, racially charged ending. In an interesting stylistic choice, the final sequence is told as a photomontage, a series of still images showing us the tragic aftermath of what happens when the supposedly civilized “living” are given free reign to indulge in their bloodlust.

Free download: Archive.org

Must read: Internal Bleeding Zombie Week ’08

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Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World movie poster


In 2007, the National Science Foundation invited legendary filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog to make a film about Antarctica. With only seven weeks to plan and shoot, and with an austere crew of exactly two (Herzog himself and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger), he produced the stunningly beautiful film Encounters at the End of the World.

Right away, Herzog declares he is not a “tree-hugger” or “whale-hugger.” Instead, he wonders why civilization is more concerned about endangered species than it is about its own disappearing languages and cultures. He made it clear to his sponsors that he had no interest in making “another penguin movie,” of course a backhanded reference to the smash hit documentary March of the Penguins. For a brief period around 2005, it seemed everyone was obsessed with the peculiar lifecycle of penguins, finding in them metaphors for everything from the sanctity of marriage to evidence of homosexuality in nature. But it turns out even Herzog couldn’t resist the pathos inherent in the penguin lifestyle. He became fascinated by the regular occurrence of individual penguins becoming disoriented, and determinedly marching off alone to certain starvation and death. His camera catches one happily scooting off towards the mountains, away from the relative safety of the ocean and his comrades.

Encounters at the End of the World Henry KaiserSome of the otherworldly underwater footage by Henry Kaiser the inspired Herzog to investigate Antarctica

But Herzog is mostly interested more in the humans that migrate to Anarctica. As is his custom, he narrates the film himself and openly wonders whom he will find there. Some of the unusual characters he encounters are a philosopher operating a forklift, a humanitarian driving a bus (the continent’s single largest vehicle), a linguist tending plants on a continent with no languages, and a journeyman plumber descended from Aztec royalty. Most Herzog-ian of all is an Eastern European man unable to speak of his traumatic escape from “behind the iron curtain.” He keeps a large backpack full of survival gear, everything he would need should he have to leave at any moment. He puts it as being “in search of adventure,” but it seems he has left many places before he came to this one, so he is most likely doing more escaping than adventuring. He is not unlike Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), who keeps a cache of foodstuffs in his home long after escaping a Laotian prison camp in 1966.

Werner Herzog & Peter Zeitlinger in Encounters at the End of the WorldWerner Herzog & Peter Zeitlinger

Antarctica represents “the end of adventure.” There are no more “white spaces on the map.” But most of the people Herzog finds there are scientists, making it clear that there are many discoveries left to be made. Of interest to Herzog is not only the research itself, but why it is being conducted in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Zoologists study naturally tame seals, especially enjoying their truly bizarre underwater communication that one likens to Pink Floyd. Geologists flock to Mount Erebus, one of the the earth’s only three stable open volcanos, whose “lava lake” is essentially the Earth’s exposed mantle. The world’s only two other open volcanoes are both located in politically unstable countries, it being preferable for scientists to risk being pelted by exploding bombs of molten rock in subzero temperatures than to be shot by bullets in hotter climes. In a separate experiment, The University of Hawaii is attempting to detect neutrinos. These subatomic particles are omnipresent in abundance, but are almost impossible to observe directly. The reason to come to Antarctica is to escape the distorting background radiation of civilization, a metaphor if I’ve ever heard one.

Herzog dedicated Encounters at the End of the World to critic and longtime advocate Roger Ebert. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, his only nomination to date. How the Academy could overlook the sublime and haunting Grizzly Man (2005) is beyond belief.

Official movie site: encountersfilm.com

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The Only Child: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Coraline movie poster


I saw Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline on its opening day in my favorite movie theater, the best possible venue to see any remotely visually ambitious movie: the Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City. Fittingly, my tickets were misprinted “Caroline,” a misnomer that is a recurring plot point.

Coraline was written and directed by stop-motion animation genius Henry Selick, whose patient and precise hands also created the utterly mad pleasure The Nightmare Before Christmas (often erroneously credited to Tim Burton, who produced). As if Coraline needed any finer pedigree, it was based on the fine novella by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a longtime Dork Report favorite, at least since my buying the very first issue of The Sandman new off the rack in 1989 (read my account of having books signed by Gaiman and Ray Bradbury). Coraline and his later The Graveyard Book are both ostensibly aimed at “young adults,” which I guess means whomever is old enough to understand most of the words. Such a categorization is more about marketing and the convenience of knowing where to shelve titles in bookstores and libraries, anyway. As is also the case with his children’s books The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls (both illustrated by frequent collaborator Dave McKean), they’re all basically for anyone that likes to read.

Dakota Fanning in CoralineCoraline traverses the portal into John Malkovich’s brain

Gaiman, once famous for possibly having the record for most unproduced projects in Hollywood, has been tearing up the movie biz of late. Just to name a few highlights, he wrote the script for McKean’s sumptuous film Mirrormask (read The Dork Report review), had his fantasy novel Stardust (originally illustrated by Charles Vess) adapted into a film by Matthew Vaughn, and co-wrote the brilliant script for Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf with Roger Avery. As is his custom now for all his pending projects, Gaiman has been blogging and Tweeting about the Coraline adaptation all along, a process rudely interrupted by his winning the Newbury Medal for The Graveyard Book. His mantle is now officially groaning under the weight of all his trophies, medals, Very Important Prizes, and suchlike.

Gaiman was not directly involved with the making of Coraline (beyond being on good terms with the filmmakers and making the occasional consultation), but was pleased the finished product and especially with how well it was marketed by Weiden+Kennedy. Frequent readers of his blog will be familiar with how he blames Stardust’s relatively disappointing box office (in the US, anyway) with a marketing campaign that misrepresented what the film was actually like (the precise analogy he used went something like “more Princess Bride, less Ella Enchanted”). But I feel that this kind of heightened level of communication between artist and audience made possible by the internet might sometimes be too much information. Close to the release of Stardust, I recall Gaiman urging readers to see the film on opening weekend or even opening day if at all possible, the narrow window that in today’s movie industry determines the perception of success or failure. This time around, he made a point of mentioning that Coraline’s production company Laika had basically bet the entire farm on the film. I have been working for movie companies for years and am familiar with perpetual job insecurity. I was happy to go see the film right away anyway, but I would have rather not worried about whether or not I was protecting someone’s job. Thankfully, Coraline appears to have performed above expectations on its opening weekend, and all is well.

John Hodgman in CoralineThe Other Father gives us our 3D money’s worth

Apologies for the rambling preamble. On to the movie: Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her family move into the ground-floor apartment of a crumbling rural house. Her parents are busy gardening writers without the time to actually garden, let alone to pay much attention to their only child. Coraline’s biggest problem is that she’s unhappy at being so often left alone. I suspect that most overprotected kids whose parents take them to see this movie will have trouble identifying with a kid who has too much freedom.

The residents of the neighboring apartments are at least as eccentric as those of The Sandman’s The Doll’s House. Russian acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), may or may not be training rodentia to take part in a Mouse Circus. Coraline gets off on the wrong foot with unloved oddball Wybie (Robert Baily, Jr.), who takes his name from “Why be born.” British comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders appear as Misses Spink & Forcible (two Gaiman-esque names if there ever were any), a pair of well-aged actresses living in the basement.

Coraline discovers a long-forgotten doorway hidden behind furniture and layers of wallpaper. Not unlike the very similarly diminutive door in Being John Malkovich, it is a gateway to another world. Whereas the portal to Malkovich’s brain resembled the gross inside of a digestive tract, this one is part cobwebby cave and part glowing funhouse tunnel. On the other end of the door is another, better version of Coraline’s milieu. In the real world, no one gets Coraline’s name right, but in the Other World, everyone knows her. She is well fed, the garden is a luxurious Eden sculpted in her image, her bed is made, and her toys are new. But alas, her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) has constructed this enticing simulacrum just to ensnare her. Coraline is about to abandon the real world for this coddled existence, when she is given the price: she must sew buttons over her eyes. This is point in the film when adults squirm and kids squeal with delight. Creepy, creepy, creepy!

Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning in CoralineThe Other Mother serves Other Omelettes for breakfast

Roughly the first three-quarters of the film is genius-level setting of tone, character, and atmosphere. It falters only when a rigid plot structure appears out of nowhere and forces the narrative onto fixed rails. Cat (Keith David), the only other creature that can travel between worlds, tells Coraline that the Other Mother likes games. This key characteristic would have been better shown than told, for Coraline is able to turn the tables by simply challenging her to a game. The Other Mother immediately acquiesces, and is apparently unable to resist a game in the same way that the mythological Sphinx can’t resist a riddle (a plot point that also figures in Mirrormask). Coraline’s challenge is equal parts game and bet: if she can find the five souls The Other Mother has trapped before her (her parents and three other children), she must release them all. Finding three hidden objects hidden in different virtual worlds is a classic video game scenario. Coraline has no shortage of other MacGuffins to lose and recover, including a key and an Eye Stone (a magical jewel fortuitously provided by the actresses). Indeed, a tie-in videogame exists, which no doubt doesn’t have to stretch the story to structure its own narrative.

Also disappointing are the three children the Other Mother has already captured. Their trio of cutesy voices that compliment and encourage Coraline are the most conventional aspect of the film, not in keeping with the rest of the film’s enjoyably macabre tone. But actually, maybe this all makes sense… the kids are definitely not as bright and spunky as her, for she alone has the brains to escape and defeat the creature.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in CoralineThe comedy stylings (and alarmingly large bosoms) of French & Saunders

Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest filmmaking techniques, but Laika (based in Portland, Oregon) and Aardman Animation (makers of Wallce & Gromit and Chicken Run) are still making films more dazzling than the most advanced CGI. The reason is quite simple: you’re looking at moving photographs of physical objects crafted by human hands. Like Beowulf, Coraline is being shown in many theaters in 3D. If possible, the technology seems to have improved even since U23D (read The Dork Report review), let alone since the 1950s. But as animated movies such as The Incredibles (read The Dork Report review) and WALL-E (read The Dork Report review) have proved, all the technology in the world must play second fiddle to a good story.

Gaiman has been saying in interviews lately that his books for kids are creepier than his novels for adults (including American Gods and Anansi Boys). In keeping, Coraline the film is wonderfully deranged, weird, and twisted. By far the eeriest sequence is the opening credits, featuring the hands of a creature we later learn is the Other Mother, ritually disemboweling a puppet and reconfiguring into a simulacra of Coraline. Watchdog site Kids-In-Mind nearly goes into meltdown counting the discrete instances of violence and disturbing imagery, and expect to read a great many reviews cautioning parents to keep sensitive kids away. But I suspect most kids will love this film, and will probably be better off for having their imaginations poked and prodded in ways that safer pap wouldn’t. One of the reasons I love movies is to experience the mad visual imaginations of directors like Selick (and Burton, McKean, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Tarsem, etc.), and it’s a good thing “kids'” movies like Coraline are here to warp youngsters minds early.

Official movie site: www.coraline.com

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Redbelt movie poster


Redbelt is writer/director David Mamet’s ode to jiu-jitsu, of which he himself is reportedly a purple belt. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a struggling black belt jiu-jitsu instructor, one of the few remaining practitioners of martial art in its authentic Japanese origins. The professional combat sport association MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has tainted the martial art with commercialism and spectacle akin to professional wrestling. In contrast, Terry is a noble warrior with an absolute code of honor, like Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) in Mamet’s Spartan (2004). Terry is a former special forces soldier, with a past in one or both Gulf Wars he does not wish to discuss. One of his favorite aphorisms becomes something that he realizes he must live up to himself: “There is no situation from which you cannot escape.” He’s a fearsome fighter, able to win a bar fight without throwing a single punch. But another of his aphorisms, “competition is weakening,” reflects his choice to teach self-confidence and reliance, not aggressive combat.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt“Competition is weakening”

Like many of Mamet’s films, Redbelt features many of his regular stable of actors: Rebecca Pigeon (Mamet’s wife, who also performed the music), Ricky Jay, David Paymer, Joe Mantegna, and a cameo from Ed O’Neil. Anyone familiar with Mamet’s films would know to suspect a character played by any one of these actors is up to some mischief, especially if the latter two are seen to be in any kind of collusion. Significantly for a playwright/writer/director known for his characteristically dense dialog, the last long sequence is mostly wordless.

Mamet states Redbelt is firmly in the fight film genre, singling out the two recent examples of Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man. Like the superb Spartan, it’s also something of a samurai movie. Just don’t call it a martial arts or action flick. It also includes healthy doses of two other Mamet obsessions: the long con and the corruption inherent in business. The most obvious advantage of the long con in storytelling terms is that it automatically provides a structure for a fiendishly complex plot, as it did for both House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997).

Emily Mortimer and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt“There is no situation from which you cannot escape”

Mamet’s recurring theme of institutional corruption in the business world is probably best expressed in Glengarry Glen Ross (read The Dork Report review). But in his book Bambi Vs. Godzilla (2007) and movie State & Main (2000), Mamet reveals the one particular business that fascinates him the most: Hollywood. As he states in the electronic press kit included in the Redbelt DVD, moviemaking is a business like any other, but the particulars of its moral bankruptcy fascinate him. Terry is seduced by Hollywood as embodied by aging action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). Frank first finds leverage in the fact that Terry is broke, but also recognizes that he is is secretly prideful, and seeks approval and recognition for the burden of honor he has been carrying for so long. These flaws make him manipulatable. Frank initially seems to provide the solutions to his problems, but turns out to be the precise inverse of his name: all empty promises, façades, scams, and pretense.

The two corrupt worlds of Redbelt are both hungry for meat: professional sports need fighters to run through the grinder, and the movie business eats up ideas as raw material for its product. They find both in Mike, and neither wants to pay for what they try to take from him.

Official movie site: www.sonyclassics.com/redbelt

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Solaris (2002)

Solaris 2002 movie poster


As a huge title card reads immediately at the end of the film, Solaris was “written for the screen and directed by Steven Soderbergh.” This Dork Reporter is a huge admirer, but that seemed a bit egotistical even to me. Perhaps an overenthusiastic end-credits designer is to blame? Or maybe the studio wanted to capture some more of that lucrative Ocean’s Eleven magic by playing up the Soderbergh/Clooney brand?

But writing and directing credits, however many feet tall, barely begin to describe Soderbergh’s role. For this and many of his other films, he serves as his own Director of Photography (and even physical camera operator) under the pseudonym Peter Andrews and also as editor under the name Mary Ann Bernard. So, obviously, Soderbergh is one of the few mainstream filmmakers with the luxury of near-total control over his films. Like Kubrick, he produces, writes, directs, operates the camera, and edits. But while Kubrick was a control freak (in the best sense), the modest Soderbergh is lauded as being more collaborative and especially as a sensitive director of actors.

George Clooney in SolarisPaging Dr. Ross, to the O.R., stat!

The DVD edition includes an excellent commentary track of Soderbergh in conversation with co-producer James Cameron, the original director attached to the project. Soderbergh asks Cameron what he thought of how he approached the material. Cameron points out that Soderbergh took a more “internal” approach than he would have, and both agree in good humor that Cameron would have included more car chases. More than Soderbergh’s grand total of zero, anyway.

Depending on how you count, Soderbergh has only directed two remakes: Ocean’s Eleven and Solaris (The Limey was a kind of homage or mash-up remix of the English crime classics Point Blank and Get Carter). The source material of the Polish novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem has proven a rich mine for cinema. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky directed the original adaptation in 1972 (read The Dork Report review) as the Eurasian answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report review). The basic concept also drove films as diverse as Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon (which is horrible but has uncommonly spectacular special effects and art direction) and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Soderbergh’s version of Solaris is credited as being based more on the original novel the 1972 film, with barely a mention of Tarkovsky even in the DVD commentary track. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection edition of the original Solaris, Phillip Lopate states that Lem was unhappy with Tarkovsky’s interpretation, and was looking forward to what he expected to be a more faithful translation by Soderbergh.

Natascha McElhone in SolarisNatascha McElhone doesn’t like the looks of this tanning booth

Solaris is set at an unspecified point in the future, distant enough for humanity to have perfected the technology to leave the solar system. Kelvin (George Clooney) is a shrink who is himself deeply emotionally damaged. Indeed, the theme of both this and the original film could be summed up as “physician heal thyself.” We first see him hosting a group therapy session for survivors of an unspecified tragedy. Since the movie was released in 2002, it’s possible this was intended as an analogy to a 9/11-like event. But judging by how every scene set on Earth is drenched in darkness and persistent rain, perhaps there was some kind of ecological catastrophe.

Single and with no family, Kelvin is an ideal candidate for a solo trip to investigate mysterious goings-on in a space station orbiting the distant gas giant Solaris (pay attention for the brief cameo by John Cho as a governmental emissary). Unlike Tarkovski’s extremely leisurely pace, this version wastes no time; Kelvin’s boots are on the space station less than 10 minutes into the film. This is the point where any readers wary of spoilers ought to stop reading.

Kelvin encounters Snow (Jeremy Davies, supremely well-cast), a man understandably gone stir-crazy from being cooped up on a haunted space station. But it becomes clear that he himself may be one of the forces doing the haunting. Evidently, the planet Solaris somehow draws upon the strongest emotional resonances in visitors’ brains and manifests them as living beings. These incarnations are most decidedly not a blessing for anyone. For Clooney, it’s an echo of his dead wife Rheya (Natascha McElhone); for the captain Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), it’s a copy of the son he left behind on earth; for Snow, it’s… another version of himself. The “Snow” that Clooney meets is, in effect, his own ghost; he killed his own creator within seconds of his birth. The faux Snow’s weird behavior is not that of a man gone mad but of a not totally fully-formed human bluffing his way through unfamiliar human interaction. One has to wonder what kind of man is so alone or self-obsessed that the most important person encoded in his emotional memories is himself.

Natascha McElhone and George Clooney in SolarisThe Solaris crew rehearses its big technobabble scene

Kelvin and Rheya originally bonded over the Dylan Thomas verse “and death shall have no dominion,” but the emotionally fragile woman committed suicide after he left her. Tortured by the renewed presence of her in his life, and the perplexing puzzle of Snow’s doppelgänger, he begins to question his own existence: is he someone else’s ghost? But he doesn’t take the question to the next logical step: is there anyone in the world with enough emotional investment in him to cause him to haunt them?

Solaris is both Soderbergh and Clooney’s first and only science fiction. It was marketed with a misleading poster suggesting a romance while obscuring any hint of science fiction. It is admittedly kind of funny to see Clooney in a spacesuit, especially when he was relatively early in his career as a movie actor (after years in television sitcoms and dramas). One can’t imagine Clooney’s Hollywood ancestor Cary Grant appearing in a space opera. But Solaris tries to have it both ways: to be somehow above science fiction but still be overloaded with enough pseudo-scientific technobabble to fill several Star Trek epics. The sensitive, emotional tone of the film is shattered as soon as scientist Gordon (Viola Davis) starts lecturing the audience about proton beams breaking up fields of Higgs Particles (or something along those lines). Such technobabble cheapens the premise. Indeed, the talky screenplay makes everything too explicit and concrete, especially compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which says so much more with so many fewer words.

Official movie site: www.solaristhemovie.com

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