What’s Wrong With Watchmen

Watchmen movie poster


I was right to worry. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie is indeed a sexed-up and dumbed-down shadow of the richly multi-layered graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

I’ve already unleashed my pent-up anxieties about the then-forthcoming movie in The Dork Report’s 10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck). Now that the notably long-gestating and troubled production is finally out in the wild, I’m puzzled why so many comics fans utterly adore it (q.v. Wil Weaton and AintItCoolNews), while mainstream film critics compete to deliver the most vicious bitchslap (q.v. The New Yorker and The Hollywood Reporter). The exception to the rule is the always-unpredictable (bless him) Roger Ebert, who gave the “powerful experience” four out of four stars. As a lifelong comics fan, I ought to naturally fall into the first camp, but I cannot relate to geeks like Kevin Smith, for whom, after spending decades anxiously pining to see Watchmen playacted on the big screen, found the result “fucking astounding” and “joygasmic.” Endlessly fascinated by the original, I personally never even wanted a Watchmen movie in the first place. But as a lover of both comics and movies, I felt obligated to suffer through it.

If Watchmen were a Saturday Morning Cartoon (via Daring Fireball):

My aforementioned rant also repeated the old saw that Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comics, and attempting to adapt it into another medium is folly. What is important about the example of Citizen Kane in particular isn’t so much its characters or incident, but rather how the story is told. As Welles did to movies in 1941, Moore revolutionized how comics could be told, stretching and bending every rule. Like Welles, Moore didn’t invent the many storytelling devices he used: including scrambled chronology (flashbacks nestled within flashbacks – not just as a storytelling device but a key insight into how one character experiences life), mixing of media (prose pieces expand the story), and stories-within-stories (the embedded Tales of the Black Freighter comic book that foreshadows a cataclysmic ending). Watchmen is in essence a book, not a movie.

Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City inaugurated the recent trend of treating comic books not just as raw story material but as actual storyboards. But whereas Snyder had room to expand the story of Frank Miller’s relatively short graphic novel 300 into his previous film, Watchmen is a massive beast of a book that only realistically had to be brutally cut and/or significantly altered to squeeze into a roughly two-hour motion picture narrative. Maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly what Snyder should have done: radically reinvent the story to fit another medium. Instead, he created a slavishly accurate translation that comics fanboys like Wheaton, Smith, and Aintitcoolnews apparently thought they somehow deserved.

In the end, Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse did make numerous cuts, many out of simple necessity. Some of them hurt (especially the murder of Hollis Mason, a scene which I consider essential to the story). Whereas I suggest above that the movie fails to reinvent the book as a film, Snyder’s mostly faithful adaptation does in fact make many significant alterations, but they are arguably the wrong ones. My three primary objections are the out-of-character violence, the flawed characterization of key character Adrian Veidt, and the altered ending.

Patrick Wilson in WatchmenNite Owl might have some trouble doing up the snaps on his super suit


First let me pre-empt the immediate objections: I am not a prude that decries any portrayal of violence in fiction (be it movies, video games, whatever). I have never subscribed to the reductive theory that censoring movies is the way to reduce real-world ills; if an individual is so damaged as to be inspired to violence by a movie (or even to take up smoking), there’s something more wrong with that individual than can be repaired by censoring movies for everyone else. So I don’t object to Watchmen’s notably extreme violence and gore per se, but rather to its injudicious use by all its characters, irregardless of whether it is motivated by their individual natures.

All of the so-called superheroes in the Watchmen movie are shown to be brutal killers. It does makes sense in the cases of Ozymandias (a megalomaniac presuming to kill a few to save many), Dr. Manhattan (an unemotional non-human that finds nothing extraordinary in life), The Comedian (a misanthropic, nihilistic mercenary), and, most especially, Rorschach. One of the most difficult-to-watch sequences of the entire film is a flashback relating Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Haley) origin story. His voiceover narration states that, early in his career as a costumed vigilante, he was originally “too soft on crime,” meaning to him, that he used to let criminals live. He goes on to recall the specific case in which he cracked. He tracks down the hideout of a creep that has kidnapped and killed a little girl, and fed her to his dogs. This case is beyond the pale for a street-level vigilante more accustomed to busting up organized crime and purse snatchers. Rorschach sees no point in apprehending him on the police’s behalf, and summarily executes him in a rage. This sequence is unbelievably violent, but it speaks volumes about Rorschach, why he is the way he is, and what differentiates him from his peers, the vigilante fraternity.

But all this is undercut when we also see Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) execute an entire gang of would-be muggers. Muggers, not demonic child molesters! What’s their excuse for splintering bones and severing spines? At what point in their careers did they adjust their moral compasses and decide it’s justified for them to kill? To kill is totally out of character for both of them, and undercuts the entire point of the Rorschach sequence. Their actions make them no different than Rorschach. If the point is that they think they are different than Rorschach but are not, the movie doesn’t seem to be aware of this contradiction. Silk Spectre’s fighting style, incidentally, seems inspired by Madonna’s “Vogue” dance and maximized to strike sexy poses (not that I’m complaining).

The movie also alters the already-horrific rape scene in the book in two very strange ways: it makes it considerably more violent, but also explicitly clear that the actual act of rape was interrupted before… there is no word for the crime… completion, I’ll say. In later scenes, it is explicitly spelled out that Sally (Carla Gugino) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have consensual sex some years later, conceiving Laurie (who assumes his mother’s mantle of Silk Spectre). My interpretation of the rape scene as it appears in the book has always been that Laurie was conceived during the rape, and that there is no evidence in the text that Sally and The Comedian had any kind of relationship afterwards. In both the book and the movie, the aged Sally cries and kisses a picture of the original hero group The Minutemen, which included a young Comedian. The scene is totally ambiguous in the book; I always assumed that Sally’s feelings were very complex – certainly not that she forgave or loved her rapist, but more that she was sad and nostalgic for a world long-lost. Laurie’s biological father (for better or for worse) and most of the population of New York were all murdered. Her happiness and glory days are long gone. Wouldn’t you cry too? But in the movie, it’s made utterly clear that she voluntarily slept with The Comedian some time after his attempted rape. If we are expected to believe that a fictional woman could do that, the movie ought to spend some time examining her psychology and motivations, which it does not.

In fact, this scene was so squeamish that the crowd in the theater became unruly (an opening-night screening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side), and at least one person (a man, as it happens), got up and walked out, loudly complaining all the way. I also note without judgement that a few other people also walked out during the absurdly long sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Personally, the most offensive aspect of that scene for me was its ironic soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s lovely Hallelujah. The Onion’s A.V. Club reports on even more significant walkouts.

Sally & The Minutemen from WatchmenSally’s complex feelings for the past


To pull off a workable movie version of Watchmen, I would argue that the one character it would be most important to get right is Adrian Veidt. Strangely for such a visual director as Snyder, Veidt’s origin story is told not as a flashback (as with all other characters) but as a dull lecture given to a bunch of industrialists. He takes pleasure in explaining that he has patterned his hero persona after no less grandiose historical models than Alexander the Great and Pharaoh Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias. Everyone should have known that this one would be nothing but trouble. A statue in Veidt’s arctic hideaway (his version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude) is inscribed with the Percy Bysshe Shelley verse:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.

One of the key details that makes the superhero characters in the book so interesting is that only one of them is actually “super.” Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a nonhuman being that exists on a quantum level of reality, but every other “hero” character is mortal. Exemplary and/or damaged in certain ways, but all human. We know from the book that Veidt has honed his body to near-perfect physical fitness, but the movie clearly shows him to possess superhuman strength and speed. It’s a pity to make Veidt more than human, because, like all of history’s greatest heroes and villains, he is just a man.

Most curiously of all, the movie implies Veidt is gay. If you think my gaydar is on the fritz, bear with me here for a moment. First, we see a brief flashback of Veidt hanging out in front of the legendary Manhattan nightclub Studio 54 with gay and/or androgynous pop icons The Village People, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger. Additionally, actor Matthew Goode made the bizarre choice to give his character a speech defect, perhaps meant to be the sort of lisp that codes movie characters as “gay.” It’s so dominant that some lines of dialogue were actually difficult to understand. Goode seems to speak clearly in Match Point and Brideshead Revisited (in the sexually ambiguous role of Charles Ryder), so we can rule out it being natural for him. The original graphic novel does not make any suggestions as to Veidt’s sexuality at all, which makes a kind of sense, as he is a megalomaniac that probably doesn’t want or need anybody, male or female.

Matthew Goode WatchmenOzymandias speaks the only instance of the word “Watchmen” in the book


Veidt’s final solution to save the world is utterly insane, but one aspect in particular is brilliantly manipulative. He distracts his former comrades from his machinations with a conspiracy theory perfectly tailored to their own little psychodrama: an invented serial killer targeting former superheroes. While the world slides towards armageddon, they are preoccupied running around the globe fretting about a “mask killer.”

Meanwhile, Veidt plots to save the world from immanent nuclear war, a threat the other heroes are aware of but never consider to be something they can affect. In the graphic novel, he fabricates a nonexistent extraterrestrial threat, and stages a massive alien attack on Manhattan that kills thousands (millions?). Humanity is effectively united in a new but fragile world order, looking outward for foes, rather than at each other. Veidt’s plot in the movie is significantly different, framing Dr. Manhattan for the destruction of New York. Both endings imagine a kind of 9/11 in 1985, but the movie version is more self-contained and less absurd, perhaps meant to be easier for audiences to digest. The comic version is admittedly utterly batshit insane, which is part of the point: the faux attack is so shockingly unprecedented that it shocks the entire world into submission. It also underscores Veidt’s true diabolical evil genius: he’s the only one of his kind that sees outside of the superhero psychodrama, and he knows that to truly unite the world behind a fiction, it has to be something new, not something humanity has already rejected: the superhero. Also, as contributing Dork Reporter Snarkbait notes, why would the Soviets necessarily react peaceably to the threat of Dr. Manhattan? He was already a threat to them for decades, but had long since stopped becoming a deterrent (as the story begins, they were encroaching on Afghanistan anyway). It shouldn’t have surprised any citizens of this fictional world that Dr. Manhattan might blow something up. But it would shock the entire world if a gigantic alien squid were to decimate a city.

New York City gets blown up in WatchmenNew York suffers again: the movie shows only the attack, the book shows only the aftermath

Another issue entirely is the pathetic cop-out of depicting only the decimated buildings of Manhattan, and not the accompanying piles of bodies (something the book does not shy away from). Co-screenwriter David Hayter chalks it up to a fact of the movie being a big-budget product of a major studio:

The ending of the book shows just piles of corpses, bloody corpses in the middle of Times Square, people hanging out of windows just slaughtered on a massive scale. To do that in a comic book, and release it in 1985, is different from doing it real life, in a movie, and seeing all of these people brutally massacred in the middle of Times Square post 2001. That’s a legitimate concern, and one that I shared.

If you’re doing the movie for $40 million, fine – bloody bodies everywhere. And that’s fine, and it’s a niche film, and only the hardcore fans would go see it. But if you’re doing it on this big of a scale, I just don’t think that’s… I understood their [Warner Bros.’] reticence to putting those images on screen.

Malin Akerman in WatchmenI’m hard pressed to decide which Silk Spectre costume is more impractical


Quite a rant this is turning into. Who needs this much negativity in their lives (and blogs)? The movie was not a crime against humanity, and certainly could have been a lot worse. As io9.com reports, for all its flaws, Snyder’s flawed alterations look like genius compared to the rude bastardization the studio Warner Bros. wanted: to set it in the present day, cut all flashbacks, cut the sequences on Mars, cut Rorschach’s psychoanalysis, and worst of all, end with the villain Veidt dying, apparently based on the conventional wisdom that audiences are conditioned to expect villains to die.

The movie kept one of my favorite little character moments of the book: when the old crimefighting duo of Nite Owl and Rorschach are reunited, Nite Owl finally snaps and tells him people only put up with him because he’s a lunatic and they’re afraid of him. Rorschach shows a final glimmer of the last bit of humanity left in him, and puts out his hand: “you’re a good friend, Dan.” But he doesn’t let go. Rorschach has long since lost his ability to interact normally.

Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley in WatchmenNite Owl and Rorschach get the old band back together

Watchmen is, remarkably, a period piece. Snyder keeps the original setting of the book in the 1980s, complete with nostalgic easter eggs: including a vintage Apple Macintosh desktop, Pat Buchanan, Annie Leibovitz, John McLaughlin (of The McLaughlin Group, not the jazz fusion guitarist), Andy Warhol, Henry Kissinger, Ted Koppel, Lee Iacocca, Truman Capote (seen in Warhol’s Factory), Fidel Castro, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie. But one background detail in the book (a repeatedly reelected Nixon) is expanded to an absurd degree.

Jackie Earle Haley was extraordinary, far and away the best asset of the movie. More than any other cast member, Haley seemed to really understand the complex character. Rorschach is undoubtedly an unhinged, right-wing, sexually stunted nutjob, but in a strange kind of way, he becomes the moral center of the very liberal graphic novel. The same utterly uncompromising nature of his character that causes him to appoint himself an executioner of criminals also makes him unable to live with the grand lie that Veidt architects. For all his sins, Rorschach is right about one thing: the world deserves the truth. Haley’s final scene was perfectly performed, and the one moment in the entire movie imbued with real emotion.

Some of the best bits of Watchmen commentary, clips, humor, and esoterica that bubbled up on teh interwebs during the buildup to this geek apocalypse:

Official movie site: watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com

Official iPhone game: watchmenjusticeiscoming.com

Official DC Comics Watchmen site: ReadWatchmen.com – download a free PDF of the first chapter of the original graphic novel.

Official expanded, interactive trailer: 6minutestomidnight.com

Three vintage pieces on Watchmen by budding journalist Neil Gaiman: The Comics Explosion from Time Out, Moore About Comics from Knave, and Every Picture Tells a Story from Today.

Todd Klein’s Watching Watchmen, the best-written review of the film I’ve yet read. Klein is the comics letterer extraordinaire, and friend to both Moore and Gibbons.

Reading the Watchmen: 10+ Entrance Points Into the Esteemed Graphic Novel by Tom Spurgeon. A sober look at the phenomenon from the point of view of one who’s fallen in and out and in love with the book, and has no interest in the movie. Via The Comics Journal Journalista

Levitz on Watchmen, in which DC Comics CEO Paul Levitz reveals the heartening statistic that DC hurriedly ran hundreds of thousands of additional copies of the book to meet demand. (also via The Comics Journal Journalista)

5 Reasons a Watchmen Movie was Unnecessary by Christopher Campbell. Prejudges the movie “redundant, rehashed, irrelevant, ridiculous and inescapably disappointing superhero cinema.” I’m jealous they received more comments than my own 10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck, despite having precisely twice the number of bullet points! Via Snarkbait

This is Not a Watchmen Review by Sean Axmaker, asking not only why the world needs a Watchmen movie, but why it would need another Watchmen review. Guilty.

Why Alan Moore Hates Comic Book Movies by San Shurst. Total Film’s brief exclusive interview with Moore in which he pithily nails the problem with movies: “everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant.” On Watchmen’s 100 million dollar budget: “Do we need any more shitty films in this world? We have quite enough already. Whereas the 100 million dollars could sort out the civil unrest in Haiti. And the books are always superior, anyway.”

Will You Watch the Watchmen? by Jason A. Tselentis. A consideration of the then-forthcoming movie from the point of view of a designer. I posted what I thought was a decent comment but was rejected. Ouch!

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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 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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Boyz n the Hood

Boyz n the Hood movie poster


John Singleton’s 1991 debut Boyz n the Hood is the story of a group of friends coming of age in South Central, LA. After an extended flashback set in 1984, the film catches up with the boys as high school seniors in the present day. Tré Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a soft-spoken virgin that drives a wimpy blue VW bug, while his good-for-nothing gangster friend Doughboy (Ice Cube) rides a souped-up Cadillac and packs heat. The serious, dedicated Tré has a job and a future, and Doughboy’s brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has real prospects for going to college on an athletic scholarship.

Boyz n the Hood“Get off me wit yo’ big four by forehead!”

It’s worth noting that the most evil, racist person in the movie is a black cop. It’s a double whammy; as both a policeman and an adult black man, he ought to have been the man the kids could looked up to and relied on the most. Indeed, the one key factor that differentiates Tré from his circle of doomed friends is his role model. His father Furious Styles’ (Laurence Fishburne) uncompromising parenting style helps keep Tré from the fates that befall many of his friends.

Boyz n the Hood“You still got one brother left, man.”

Singleton himself has a cameo appearance as the totally blasé mailman that delivers mail during a front-lawn fistfight. Boyz n the Hood was Singleton’s first film, notable for being one of the first mainstream movies to tell a kind of story for a kind of audience Hollywood historically ignored or exploited. But its relatively low budget also corresponds to clumsy direction, awkward editing, and some crummy acting (especially Baha Jackson as the young Doughboy). The DVD edition I saw was panned & scanned, a travesty that certainly didn’t help. Stanley Clarke’s cheesy lite jazz score is surprisingly awful, and I say that as a fan of Clarke who’s seen the jaw-dropping bassist live in concert.

Boyz n the Hood opens with the sobering statistic that in 1991, 4 in 21 African American males will be murdered within their lifetime. But it also ends with the hopeful epigram: “Increase the Peace.”

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie poster


This Dork Reporter is slowly cooling on former favorite David Fincher. His underrated first feature Alien3 is highly compromised, but easily the next most thematically interesting entry in the Alien franchise (after, of course, Ridley Scott’s rich original). Se7en is one of the most gut-wrenchingly disturbing movies ever made, notable for having virtually no violence appear onscreen, despite its reputation. Fight Club is perhaps the movie of the nineties, an eccentric blast of countercultural fury. But almost everything that followed seemed a disappointment. The Game was wildly implausible without the pop and sizzle that carried the similarly over-the-top Fight Club. Panic Room was an empty exercise in style, seemingly conceived solely for Fincher to experiment with new digital techniques that would allow him to create impossibly continuous camera moves through the walls and floors of a city brownstone (and possibly also as another vehicle for star Jodie Foster’s persona as a single parent to be reckoned with). Zodiac was highly praised both as a tight procedural thriller and as a tour-de-force of still more bleeding-edge digital special effects (so good that most viewers wouldn’t suspect that many sequences were not traditionally shot in camera), but it did absolutely nothing for me. I’m wondering if I missed some key aspect of it that would open it up to me – and that perhaps I should reappraise it now that a director’s cut is available on DVD.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonYou’re only as old as you feel

The advance marketing for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button excited me at first, but I was apprehensive when I learned the screenplay (loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) was by Eric Roth, the writer of Forrest Gump. Indeed, it did turn out to be constructed in a similar vein and tone, even mimicking some of the corniest devices of Gump: the famous digital feather twirling in the wind has been replaced by an unlikely reappearing hummingbird; Forrest’s mother’s aphorism “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” has its analog in the less memorable “you never know what’s coming for you”; even Forrest Gump’s parade of cameos by famous or infamous Americans is here continued with an appearance by Teddy Roosevelt. Against my will, this cutesiness did succeed in drawing me in for most of its running time. I was engrossed for much of it, but its leisurely three-hour running time honestly strained my patience by about the two-hour mark.

Fincher and Roth relate the decades-long story via the framing device of Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) one true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, introducing her adult daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to her biological father through a dramatic reading of his diary, with gaps filled in from her own memory. A soon-to-be infamous hurricane brews outside the Louisiana hospital room, shortly to erase much of Benjamin and Daisy’s milieu. The multiple layers of storytelling result is no less than three speaking voices to narrate the tale in voiceover. One framing device too far?

Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonCate Blanchett is a beautiful woman, but it’s eerie to see her appear to be in her 20s

The central conceit of the story is a fantastically unfortunate disease that afflicts one Benjamin Button. His body is born aged and decrepit, and ages backwards while his mind matures normally. As he aptly puts it when still a boy, he was “born old.” Taking this story as anything other than a parable or fairy tale would be to miss the point, but the photorealistic special effects place the movie firmly in believable reality. So this viewer’s mind (when not distracted by the high-tech visuals) wandered into logistics. Some of the rules don’t seem to hold up: as a chronological adolescent, he manifests the typical sexual desires and self-centeredness. But his aged body strangely has the physical fitness and stamina/potency to act them out (we see him preening in front of a mirror, seemingly only aged from the neck up). Also, presumably, Benjamin can be assured to die when his body regresses to infancy. So, given his physical state at birth, is his death date pre-ordained? If he had been born with an infantilized body of a 20-year old, could he have been assured of only having two decades to live? Is he impervious to harm? Indeed, he somehow manages to survive being stepped on as a newborn, and later, is one of the few survivors of a German submarine attack on an outclassed tugboat during World War II.

Benjamin is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), an unfortunately stereotypical African American character, and spends his youth and old age (and vice versa!) at the nursing home she manages. There, he meets his one true love Daisy, the niece of one of the tenants. Benjamin’s curious condition prevents him from having any kind of normal friendship or relationship with her, so he leaves home to find his way in the world. He has his first serious relationship with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), an older woman who thinks she’s younger than him (later, we learn that meeting him helped her change her life). Eventually, Benjamin and Daisy do meet at roughly the same physical age and consummate their mutual love. When Daisy quite rightly asks Benjamin if he will still love her when she’s old and wrinkly, he jokingly turns it around and asks if she will still love him when he has acne. But what first amuses eventually comes back around to become one of the most painfully emotional sequences in the whole movie: Benjamin does after all regress into senility (or perhaps even Alzheimer’s, before it was identified), trapped in the body of a pimply teenager. As always, the point is that the bell curve of a human life can be seen as a mirror image of itself: here, the impetuousness, aggression, and mood swings of senility are equated with the tumult of adolescence. Likewise, extreme youth and old age both are characterized as the ultimate states of dependence and vulnerability.

Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonTilda Swinton as Benjamin’s first lover, an older woman whom he allows to believe is younger

The special effects that allow an aged version of Pitt’s face to be superimposed over another, diminutive actor are light years in advance of the still-creepy digital rotoscoping animation style used in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Beowulf (although the latter is an excellent film in spite of the ineffective effects). But no matter how eerily fluid and seamless the effects, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching something largely actualized by animators equipped with a giant computer server farm. These obviously cutting edge techniques are more comprehensible to me than whatever the makeup and/or CG wizards did to make 44-year-old Pitt and the 39 Blanchett appear to be in their smooth-skinned and limber-limbed 20s. Also, it must be said that an artificially aged Pitt in his hypothetical 50s and 60s is a dead ringer for Robert Redford.

There must be something in the bottled water filmmakers have been drinking recently, for I’ve noticed a decided trend towards movies about aging recently. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (read The Dork Report review) and Tamara Jenkin’s The Savages (read The Dork Report review) both look at the senility than often comes at the end of life, and how it may affect the lives of those still living, for better or for worse. But another pair of movies dealt with mortality and the fear of unfinished business through the lens of fantasy: Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (read The Dork Report review) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (read The Dork Report review). All of these movies tap into most people’s fear of aging: not only of losing physical health and thus independence, but also of the reliability of one’s own mind.

Official movie site: www.benjaminbutton.com

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A Clash of Faiths: Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies

Ridley Scott

Body of Lies movie poster


Ridley Scott’s follow up to the gentle comedy of A Good Year (read The Dork Report review) and the crime drama American Gangster (partly modeled, I think, on Michael Mann’s epic Heat), returns to the politically-themed yet still action-oriented territory he first visited in Black Hawk Down. The key difference here is that, like Peter Weir’s The Kingdom and Pete Travis’ Vantage Point (read The Dork Report review), Body of Lies is set in a fantasyland safely divorced from the very, very real events that inspired Black Hawk Down. All of these films have the air of gritty realism, but still indulge in the wish fulfillment of a very cinematic war on terror.

Body of Lies can be seen as completing a kind of Middle East trilogy for Scott, after the aforementioned Black Hawk Down plus the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (read The Dork Report review). Screenwriter William Monahan wrote both Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies (adapted from the novel by David Ignatius). But of the three, Body of Lies is clearly the least serious.

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of LiesMesopotamia, and step on it!

No doubt movie studio executives have calculated down to the last cent that world audiences are still too sensitive to actual terrorist attacks like London and Madrid in order to buy tickets for dramatic recreations on the big screen. Instead, most mainstream terrorism-themed movies are basically entertainments that only have the feel of serious import, and none of the substance. Body of Lies invents analogous terrorist attacks such as a sleeper cell blowing up their London flat, and later, the bombing of a U.S. marine base in Turkey (I hope O’Neal – Demi Moore – from Scott’s G.I. Jane – read The Dork Report Review – wasn’t stationed there). Vantage Point is a little more creative in imagining a worst-case-scenario of a presidential assassination, but has no interest in the repercussions beyond a Rashomon-like recounting of the immediate aftermath.

So audiences get films like this, where shadowy CIA operatives sneak around Iraq and Jordan, saving the world from Islamic fundamentalism. They have seemingly limitless resources but no government oversight, and anything is possible with a little computer hacking. Meanwhile, more serious and realistic movies are ignored, like In the Valley of Elah (read The Dork Report review) and the truly excellent but emotionally devastating United 93. In comparison, Scott’s Black Hawk Down was unafraid to recreate actual events still raw in the American public’s memory: the catastrophic marine incursion into Somalia in 1993. And even to limit the scope to Scott’s own oeuvre, Kingdom of Heaven is a much smarter consideration of the clash of faiths in the Middle East.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Golshifteh Farahani in Body of LiesLeo meets cute with an Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani)

Body of Lies is Russell Crowe’s fourth film with Scott, following Gladiator, A Good Year, and American Gangster. Here, he packs on some serious poundage to enter the same schlubby mode he debuted in Michael Mann’s The Insider, seasoned with a little of the crass bastard he played in A Good Year. Leonardo DiCaprio, on temporary loan from Martin Scorsese, sports a scrappy beard but still looks like a teenager. The pretty boy is constantly getting beaten up, cut, bruised, and losing fingers. But he meets cute with pretty Iranian nurse Aisah (Golshifteh Farahani), so that’s alright, then.

Official movie site: www.body-of-lies.com

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Ridley Scott’s A Good Year

Ridley Scott

A Good Year movie poster


Scott returns to France for the first time since his 1977 feature film debut The Duellists (read The Dork Report review) for the fluffy soufflé A Good Year. Maximillian Skinner (Russell Crowe) – hardly the most subtle of names – is a self-proclaimed asshole that inherits his uncle’s winemaking estate in Provence. His Uncle Henry (Albert Finney, who also appeared in The Duellists) raised him there, but evidently failed to impart the kinds of life lessons that would have moulded Skinner into a decent human being capable of savoring the joys of life. The ideal life as defined in the film is essentially everything that a life of leisure in Provence provides: namely, wine and women. But Skinner’s life in London is made up of much of the very same, so the solution to fixing Skinner’s poisoned soul is not to add something that is missing, but rather to subtract something: his assholeness. Skinner does sometimes manifest some self-awareness; one moment he seems to genuinely relish his life as the most venal of London stockbrokers, but the next he professes a love we’ve never before seen for his uncle and the simple life of Provence.

Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe in A Good YearRussell Crowe views his handiwork, writ large upon Marion Cotillard’s derrière

Skinner’s wavering character complements a number of confusing plot holes. A running mystery is the mysterious provenance of an exceptional “garage wine” (limited batches by tiny operations, sometimes literally in a garage). Didier (Francis Dulot), the longtime tender of the Skinner vinyard, admits to deliberately producing undrinkably vile wine under the vinyard’s banner, in an attempt to run down the value of the place and hopefully disinterest Skinner in selling it. But is he simultaneously directing his real talents into the making of the mysterious garage wine? The plot thread is dropped and we never learn for sure. The cool closing credits make the film seem more entertainingly screwball than it actually was, and there’s also an utterly bewildering coda involving Skinner’s snarky assistant Gemma (Archie Panjabi) meeting a rapper and his agent. Huh?

Marion Cotillard and Russell Crowe in A Good YearRussell Crowe learns what’s important in life: hot French girls

I’m not sure if Crowe has the same sort of Cary Grant-like appeal for women that George Clooney has in spades, but there is plenty of eye candy for male viewers. The luscious Californian backpacker Christie (Abbie Cornish) appears on Skinner’s doorstep claiming to be his only blood relative, and thus a rival to his inheritance of the estate. French actress Marion Cotillard would later disguise herself very unflatteringly to play the frail, sickly Edith Piaf in the turgid biopic La Vie En Rose, but here she uncorks her full-on Gallic gorgeousness as Fanny (again, another of the movie’s unsubtle names – for she rather spectacularly lifts her skirt in an outdoors cafe, to the delight of the entire town and, admittedly, this Dork Reporter). One of the funniest recurring gags is the priapic Skinner’s helpless doubletakes to any of many displays of ripe breasts and bums. But unfortunately, one of the other recurring jokes is his repeated involuntary exposures to animal dung.

Abbie Cornish in A Good YearAbbie Cornish as the cousin Skinner wishes he didn’t have, for more reasons than one

A Good Year takes quite a long time to get going, but does seem to pick up some comedic energy once Skinner’s cold London heart defrosts while courting Fanny in the second act. Ridley Scott can always be counted for fine art direction and cinematography, but here he wields his talents bluntly. Even the color temperature is clichéd, lest any viewers miss the point; Provence is amber-hued, and London is steely electric blue. The right choice for Skinner is never in doubt; living on a winemaking estate in Provence with a beautiful French girl is a fantasy probably every human being on earth shares, asshole or not.

Official movie site: www.agoodyear.com

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Chrome Dome: Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane

Ridley Scott

G.I. Jane movie poster


Ridley Scott has made his share of testosterone-laden Hollywood flicks, ranging from his very first feature The Duellists (read The Dork Report review), through Black Rain (read The Dork Report review), and finally blowing the top off the scale with Gladiator. But unlike many of his contemporaries (Michael Mann and Michael Bay come to mind), a surprising number of feminist-themed films with strong female characters are scattered amongst his oeuvre: Alien, Thelma & Louise, and G.I. Jane.

Demi Moore in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneDemi Moore sports the chrome dome look that failed to take off in the 90s

For Alien’s protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be female was not just a bold choice for a horror / science fiction film, but an utterly appropriate one. Alien is loaded with symbolic fertility imagery and metaphorical childbirth. Ripley grapples with the themes of reproduction (and, arguably, abortion) anthropomorphized as a carnivorous monster with an erect penis for a head. Thelma & Louise had an explosive impact upon its release, and this Dork Reporter recalls seeing it on the cover of Time Magazine. A common theme in the press’ coverage of the controversial film was that such a story of female empowerment was in fact directed by… gasp… a man! To oversimplify, the film considered the relative morality of violence when perpetrated by an oppressed gender. Thelma & Louise packed pistols a decade later than Ripley aborted her alien baby with a phallic flamethrower.

Demi Moore and Viggo Mortensen in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneViggo Mortensen dresses down Demi Moore with his eyes

Thelma & Louise may have raised hackles and inspired countless op-ed pieces about gender equality, but I recall Scott’s G.I. Jane not being taken seriously at all upon release. Its premise was its worst feature, and indeed one might compare it to Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, except for the minor detail that it’s not funny. Craven politician Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) talks a rising female Navy lifer Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore) into competing against a bevy of men in the most grueling and gender-segregated type of military training ever devised: the Navy SEALs (in the real world, SEAL training is expressly limited to males, and no woman has yet been allowed to attempt it). DeHaven manipulates the resultant media circus to gain votes and save the military bases in her state from closure. O’Neill faces off against Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen), a closeted sensitive guy who repurposes a D.H. Lawrence poem to initiate his standard ritual of humiliation and dehumanization.

Demi Moore in Ridley Scott's G.I. JaneHands up, who doesn’t want to watch Demi Moore do one-armed push ups?

Beyond the contrived premise, G.I. Jane was obviously a vanity star vehicle for an overreaching actor known more for her considerable beauty and fitness and than her acting chops. It didn’t last long, but Moore was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of 1997. Here, she shows off her muscular physique in scopophilic workout and shower sequences, and famously shaves her head live on film. It’s a weak form of feminism for O’Neill’s greatest triumph to be her triumphant exclamation “suck my dick.” She transforms herself into just one of the guys rather than proving herself as a human being of equal standing, be she male or female.

Now having seen G.I. Jane as part of The Dork Report’s Unseen Ridley Scott Film Festival, the best I can say is that it’s not as bad as I would have imagined. If Black Rain found Scott in Michael Mann territory, G.I. Jane places him squarely in Michael Bay country. SEAL training is shown in great detail, with all the fetishized military hardware and windblown American flags one would expect in a Bay hagiography. But most shocking to a viewer in 2008 is a sequence in which O’Neill is subjected to waterboarding. It cuts through the nauseating patriotism like electrodes to the genitals.

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Ridley Scott’s Black Rain

Ridley Scott

Black Rain movie poster


Ridley Scott’s police thriller Black Rain (1989) opens in New York City at a time when The Meatpacking District actually was a meatpacking district. Tough cop Nick (Michael Douglas) is a ridiculously aggressive, foul-mouthed tough guy who tools around the city astride his crotch rocket. The despised Internal Affairs department suspects him of being a bent copper (spoiler alert: rightly, it turns out!), and pressures him to name names. By sheer accident, he and rookie partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) witness a Yakuza assassination in a Meatpacking District bar. After a thrilling chase through some vintage Manhattan locations since replaced by nightclubs, luxury condos, and The Apple Store, they manage to apprehend the perpetrator. The Yakuza assassin Sato (Yasaku Matsuda), being Asian in a Hollywood movie, is of course a martial arts expert. Contrived plot machinations result in Nick and Charlie escorting Sato back to Japan, whereupon they immediately and embarrassingly lose him. By this point, the plot has been constructed in such a way as to raise Nick’s stakes to the highest level possible: the only two things that matter to him, his honor and job security, depend on one task: catching or killing the bad guy. If he returns to the States empty-handed, he’s almost certainly to be disgraced.

Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas in Black Rain
Andy Garcia refuses to pass the edamame

In his Tokyo downtime, Nick entertains an unconsummated romance with gaijin Joyce (Kate Capshaw). The subplot is a boring distraction. Joyce is a mere love interest in the worst storytelling sense: her character is not integrated into the main thriller plot as is the female lead in Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me. It strikes this Dork Reporter as something of a copout on the part of Scott and screenwriters Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis that their protagonist Nick goes all the way to Japan but doesn’t do as the Japanese men do (which is to say, Japanese women).

Nick and Charlie partner with upright Japanese cop Masahiro (Ken Takakura). Cultures clash, and the suave Charlie teaches the uptight Masahiro to party hearty, beating the Japanese at their own game (that being karaoke). When Nick’s moral ambiguity becomes known, the righteous Masahiro seems to convince Nick that theft of any sort is shameful. But in the end, it is Nick that teaches Masahiro that it’s OK to steal from criminals (in the moral universe of this film, at least). I’d never say that any work of fiction has an obligation to present morally-correct behavior (the kind of censorship that Hollywood theoretically left behind with the demise of the Production Code). But Black Rain seems to present Nick’s amoral behavior as The Right Thing, instead of the complicated actions of an interesting complex character.

Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott's Black Rain
A moodily backlit Michael Douglas contemplates a new hairdo

Scott stages a huge shootout sequence at a refinery, seemingly chosen for maximum visual appeal (picture the clouds of steam, showers of sparks, bursts of flame, etc.). In a kind of self-referencial closed circuit, Scott’s aerial shots of Japan look just like Blade Runner’s futuristic dystopian Los Angeles, which was itself inspired by Tokyo. Another direct lift from Blade Runner: Nick discovers sequins from Joyce’s dress at a crime scene, recalling the sequence in Blade Runner in which Deckard tracks down the origin of synthetic snake scales — belonging, of course, to one of cinema’s most famous femmes fatale.

The opening credits state “In association with Michael Douglas.” Douglas is of course a successful producer (for instance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest), but Black Rain has the feel of an ego trip. More trivia: the director of photography Jan de Bont was later to direct Speed.

One final cheap shot before I go. I don’t know what has dated more: the cheesy music or Michael Douglas’ big hair.

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