Friday, June 22, 2007

Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer: Old Skool Edition


"Hearts? Souls? I do not know their meaning, yet I know they are important. Ooooh, my head." - The One Known As The Silver Surfer

Rescue Dawn

In 1965, US fighter pilot Dieter Dengler was shot down over Laos during a top-secret bombing raid. He was soon captured and taken to a Viet Cong POW camp, where he was tortured and starved until he managed to escape into the dense surrounding jungle, headed for Thailand.

Director Werner Herzog recounted this story in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and now he fictionalizes it with actor Christian Bale in the role of Dengler in Rescue Dawn. This new film finds Herzog still dealing with the classic themes that have permeated all his most famous work - the struggle of man against nature, most notably - but in a decidedly more mainstream, straight-forward and narrative manner than his previous work.

In fact, Herzog seems to purposefully remove any traces of himself from the film, almost like he's issuing a corrective for his intrusion into the scope of films like Grizzly Man and the original Little Dieter. (Not that I think Herzog doesn't belong in there. I love both of those films. But the connection is intentionally and plainly made when Herzog has Bale actually speak the line "Little Dieter needed to fly" early in this film. And it's hard to overlook the fact that Dieter tells this same story with Herzog's narration while this time around he remains not only silent but more reserved, buried behind his technical proficiency. Even the real military film, which Herzog mocked in voice-over in the documentary, is brought back, mocked in this film by Dieter and his fellow servicemen.

What's left, then, without the usual Herzogness, is just an exceedingly well-constructed, intense and surprisingly intimate adventure story about the near-inhuman reserves of courage, grit and determination that allowed Dengler to survive this ridiculously harrowing ordeal.

Bale's performance is very interesting, particularly in the early passages in the prison camp. (He lost his usual 55 pounds to film the role, which at this point isn't even surprising any more. It's like, "Oh, look, Bale's emaciated again...Yawn...")

Dieter's unflappable and cocky, a mix between Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and Tom Cruise from Top Gun, which isn't quite what you'd anticipate from a guy who's been dragged around a Laotian village and hung upside down with an ant's nest strapped to his face. (McQueen even got to keep his baseball!)

We only realize later that this inner calm is the only thing keeping Dengler alive. We're really seeing two parallel stories: Dengler's race to freedom and the fraying of his tenuous grip on reality. Is he so positive and forward-thinking because he's not entirely sane?

In the prison, Dengler meets some similarly unhinged long-time prisoners. Gene (Jeremy Davies, upsettingly thin and channeling Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now) has convinced himself that he and his fellow prisoners will be let go "any day now." He reacts with shock and horror to Dieter's escape plans. Duane (Steve Zahn), on the other hand, gradually warms to the idea of escape, if only because he's tired of sleeping each night chained to several other grown men, pooping his pants and eating bugs for protein.

This has got to be Zahn's best performance ever. He's suffering in every scene in which he appears; there are no good times for Duane and Dieter. Their friendship begins and ends amidst hardship and extreme trauma. Yet Zahn makes Duane charming, funny and likable. He's constantly injured or complaining, but he also seems like a fun person to be around. That can't be an easy combination to pull off. (A simple scene in which Dieter and Duane stock an imaginary fridge effectively and amusingly establishes the friendship that drives the entire film.)

This really strikes me as Herzog's central focus in Rescue Dawn, the juxtaposition of beauty and horror. (Okay, it's the central focus of at least 65-70% of his work, including Grizzly Man). One beautiful shot sums the whole thing up nicely:

We open on a caterpillar crawling along a lush, green leaf. A hand enters the frame - it's Dieter's - and removes the leaf, and we see Duane, filthy, balled up in the fetal position and deathly ill underneath. The world is a beautiful place, and perfectly suited for human life, but it's also brutally violent and terrifying. The place that appears the most vibrant and inviting is the worst and most inhospitable environment imaginable.

(Interestingly, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto takes the diametrically-opposite approach. As the danger facing the protagonist increases, the environment around him becomes more desolate and bleak. That scene with the creepy little girl pointing and chanting really drives the message home. How do you know a place is evil? Because it's ugly and filled with bad people. I'm not knocking Gibson's film, which I liked enough. Herzog's is better.)

Speaking of violence and terror, there really isn't as much action in this film as I had expected and certainly not when compared to Apocalypto. When all is said and done, Rescue Dawn is fairly low-key. Bear in mind that, for Herzog, any film that doesn't involve moving opera houses over mountains or conquering continents can officially be considered "low-key." Ambitious tactics and extravagant plans don't help Duane and Dieter survive in the Laotian jungle. Slow movement, careful planning, conservation of resources and pluck work far better.

Herzog takes his time; rather than rushing between incidents, he lets madness slowly creep in along the edges of the frame, eventually consuming his characters. There's a Kinski-esque element to both lead performances, with a constant state of panicked alertness morphs tragically into wild-eyed dementia. (I doubt, however, that either of them were tempted to pull a firearm on their director).

The guys trade back and forth a found shoe, worn down to almost nothing. Dieter suggests Duane put it on the foot that's more banged up, as if it could possibly make a difference, as if it will be better for his feet to give out here or 50 feet from here. Through it all, Dieter keeps his hopes up, he stays focused on making it to Thailand and getting back to America, on being a pilot once again. How could anyone possibly do it? That's the question at the heart of Rescue Dawn. How could even the most proud and vital human spirit take this kind of punishment?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Introducing...the Dramatic Hamster!

Greatest 5 seconds in recorded video history?

Forster to Suck Life Out of Freshly-Revived Bond Franchise

Goddamn motherfucking bitch. This is pretty much the worst possible news for the James Bond franchise...

Filmmaker Marc Forster, the man behind such acclaimed movies as racial drama "Monster's Ball" and Peter Pan story "Finding Neverland," was named on Tuesday as director of the next James Bond adventure.

Forster will direct the untitled 22nd Bond outing from a script he and Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis will develop from a draft by previous Bond collaborators Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, the studio and producers said.

Oh, shit, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, why stop with just hiring the geniuses behind Finding Neverland and Crash to continue your series of action films. Couldn't we get Zach Braff and Nickelback to collaborate on a soundtrack, a la the classic Dinosaur Jr/Del tha Funkee Homosapien mash-up for Judgement Night? Oh, oh, and for Second Unit Director, Uwe Boll! Ed Wood can do the costumes!

The choice of Forster marks an apparent change in creative emphasis from "Casino Royale" director Martin Campbell, best known for his work in action-adventure films, including 1995's "GoldenEye," which introduced Pierce Brosnan as Bond.

Mmm, yes, indeed. Whereas Casino Royale was an exciting and well-made piece of entertainment, this new Bond film promises, based on the creator's resumes, to be an unwatchably maudlin heap of excrement. Quite the change in creative emphasis, that...

I'm sure Forster has ALL SORTS of terrific ideas for where to take these characters.

"Let's many classic characters am I allowed to kill? Oh, can Moneypenny develop some sort of terminal illness? Then, as she's withering away on her deathbed ( know...still hot...), she finally confesses her true feelings for James. Then, we find out that the adorable little scamp, Rusty, who James has been secretly sending through spy school died off camera in a tragic boating accident! Oh, that'll have the old ladies welling up for sure!"

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I loathed and detested the first Fantastic Four movie. It felt like a 90 minute commercial, selling me on the idea of seeing a Fantastic Four movie, which was very silly, as I had already paid $10 to do that very thing. Like Bryan Singer's first X-Men film, Tim Story's Fantastic Four movie was all lead-in and literally nothing else. Just as the stories begin to get interesting, the thing's over.

Fortunately, Singer's X-Men series took a major leap forward with X2, a large and ambitious adventure film that massively expanded the scope of the original and took more advantage of the franchise's long history and enormous stable of characters.

Fantastic Four 2 isn't an improvement on that kind of level. A lot of the flaws from the first film remain: egregious product placement, a lazily-drawn, predictable, scattered narrative filled with logic gaps, as well as a general blandness. Story's film quite literally deals with the destruction of the entire planet, but there's never a feeling of high stakes or a moment of genuine intensity. Without hyperbole, PIXAR films uniformly have more urgency and place their characters in more directly threatening, dark situations than these Fantastic Four films. And though more of the jokes work this time out than the last, the humor is extremely corny throughout, almost as if Stan Lee himself had come out of retirement to ghostwrite some of the dialogue.

Still, having said all of that, this new film is significantly better than the first outing. I'd go so far as to say that it's better than this summer's more-anticipated Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Those films both felt like pointless and labored attempts to squeeze some more life out of their respective franchises, while the Fantastic Four universe, meanwhile, is just starting to come into its own.

The superhero genre has turned into such a dour snoozefest, I think a franchise like Fantastic Four starts to seem more appealing. Instead of taking the Raimi/Singer tack of setting fanciful, oversized comic book action in a realistic real-world setting, Story has really embraced the Marvel Universeness of the Fantastic Four's world. Admittedly, he's spared the cliched "secret identity" storyline by the comics themselves - Reed Richards and his amazing family are famous, after all - but his desire to just make a goofy live-action cartoon comes through in every frame. Whether or not it's entirely faithful to the comics, it's fun, and definitely in the spirit of the classic Fantastic Four cartoon series. On that level, I found it entertaining, and surprisingly nostalgic for a movie starring Jessica Alba.

The film opens in outer space, as a creepy space cloud named Galactus destroys a faraway planet. From admist the debris speeds a lone, silver figure atop a surfboard. His destination...EARTH!

The Surfer's arrival is poorly timed. He interrupts the wedding of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), which has already been put off several times for scientific/superheroic reasons. This conflict, whether Reed and Sue will ever get around getting married, actually takes up the bulk of the film's running time. Seriously, I swear. It's the main conflict; the stuff with the end of the world takes a backseat until the last 30 minutes.

When I said the film was scattered, I really really meant it. There's not really a logical progression of events. The Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) begins to visit random locations on Earth, digging large holes that create all kinds of destruction. The Fantastic Four try to intercept him a few times to figure out what the hell's going on, but he's too fast and/or powerful for them.

Also, contact with the Surfer gives the Human Torch (Evans) the ability to swap powers with his teammates. And a mean general (Andre Braugher) with nothing much to do in the story insists on bringing in Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, regrettably reprising his horrible performance from the first film) to help the Fantastic Four.

Bringing back Dr. Doom, the one character irredeemably botched in the first film, was just a terrible mistake. He has very little to do in this film until the end, when he steals the Silver Surfer's surfboard and flies around like an idiot and doesn't do a whole lot. This plotline actually fits the character better than his ridiculous storyline the first time around - Dr. Doom really did plot to steal the powers of heroes in the comics - but McMahon is just way too soap-opera hammy to feel threatening as Doom and the visual of him atop a flying surfboard is just silly, not cool in any way, shape or form.

The chases and fights between the Surfer and the Fantastic Four, on the other hand, come off really well in this entry. I particularly liked the initial scene, in which Johnny chases the Surfer down the Eastern seaboard. You really get a sense for the incredible speed at which the characters are flying. It's a great sequence.

So, just like after Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, I feel conflicted. Ratner and Story, unlike the top-tier comic book directors, apparently feel more free to take on large-scale, monumental, epic-scale stories and to play around with the canon a little bit. I admire the fact that their films aim high. I personally thought that all the Marvel outer space drama stuff could never really work in a movie, and that's some of the best material in Story's film. So there you go.

At the same time, these are hugely flawed films by guys who are either constrained by budget or talent. Some of Fantastic Four 2 is really good, and it's overtly bright, colorful, campy style really worked for me, against my expectations, but the finished product is still kind of disappointing. Still, I'd probably go and see a Part III, which is probably the only kind of endorsement Tim Story cares about.

Unicorn Charles

Apparently, this "Charlie the Unicorn" cartoon has been a mainstay of the Internet for well over a year now. I had never heard of it before, but built a Mahalo page for it this morning, which you can check out here.

This thing is pretty strange. Two enthusiastic unicorns with whiny voices wake up a grumpy unicorn named Charlie and beg him to go with them to Candy Mountain. They speak in halting simple sentences and repeat things a lot.

"Hey, Charlie, we found a map to Candy Mountain. Candy Mountain, Charlie! Come with us to Candy Mountain. Yeah, Charlie! It'll be an adventure. We're going on an adventure, Charlie!"

It just goes on and on like this.

Now, okay, it does built up to a decent punchline, and I'm sure the point of much of the build-up is to be annoying. (After all, Charlie is also clearly annoyed by these other two unicorns).

But I'm still kind of perplexed as to why this has become such a phenomenon. I can usually appreciate running Internet gags, like goofy photos of cats with silly captions or the Star Wars Kid or Homestar Runner. But to me, this is just really really annoying.

I suppose a lot of humor for kids of a certain age is just naturally annoying and repetitive. Really, I envy the kids who get a huge kid out of this. I'm sure, once you think it's funny, endless amounts of joy can be squeezed from dropping "Charlie" references into daily conversation. (People have been making Charlie mash-ups for some time, putting the audio behind video game images or scenes from CW shows).