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Monthly Archives: July 2013

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Let’s talk about Christ allegories.

No, wait, don’t run away. I promise you it won’t be pretentious. Well, no more so than my writing typically is.

And there will be spoilers by the way, both for Man of Steel and a few other Superman stories including The Holy Bible.

So Superman is the story of a man who sends his only son to Earth, that son grows up with incredible abilities beyond the scope of mortal man and when he grows up that son then aims to live his life as an example to others of how to be a better man, to be a Superman, the best that mankind could possibly be.

It actually took a long time for writers to start playing with the Christ similarities inherent in Superman’s set up. Partly this is because his two creators were Jewish, partly it’s because comics in the 40’s and 50’s with a few exceptions just weren’t very sophisticated and partly it’s because in the 50’s the perception of comics as morally degenerate for children meant that D.C. would be in massive trouble if they started implying connections between a guy who flies around wearing his underpants on the outside and the son of God.

But there’s a greater problem with playing with the Christ allegories which is once you’ve pointed them out what do you start doing with them? Well you could have Superman become the figurehead of a church I suppose. You could have him fight the devil, which if you assume Darkseid is the D.C. Universe’s equivalent of the Devil they do frequently. Or you could have him die, to save us.

This last one is the most obvious way to play with Christ allegories of all and they’ve gone to the well with that trick a few times. It appears in two of the best Superman stories ever written, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” and “All Star Superman.” It’s also the key aspect of, “The Death of Superman” unsurprisingly and even appears in Superman Returns.

But there’s an aspect to the death of Christ that I don’t think anyone has touched on in a Superman story. Why Christ is killed. Of course there’s a greater reason Christ is killed, it’s a sacrifice to redeem us all, but there is also a specific reason, because he was preaching he was the Messiah and the people of Judea rejected him as a false messiah with a false message.

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The idea that Superman would show up with a message of hope and be treated with skepticism and fear and maybe rejected is something I don’t recall being toyed with in a Superman story before. It’s been told with loose parallels of Superman such as Marvel’s Hyperion or Eclipse’s Miracleman before because it is a fascinating story hook. What if some godlike being came to Earth? Would we accept their help or would we fear their power?

And there is a very good reason it’s not been told with Superman before, it’s because it’s very hard to set up a situation where you fear Superman. He’s Superman, you’ve probably known about this guy since you were 3 years old. He’s on underpants! He’s the ultimate symbol in modern times of a hero. He is the archetypal, the platonic, the Ur Superhero. If you think Superhero you immediately think of Superman. He’s truth, justice and the American way (and not the real American way either but the way America aspires to be full of hope, freedom and the pursuit of happiness for all).

But that’s the really clever thing about Man of Steel. Did you notice the title? Did you notice that it isn’t called Superman. That’s because you can’t realistically fear Superman but The Man of Steel? Some mysterious Man whose name we don’t know, seemingly invincible, unknown and mysterious, Him we could fear.

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I walked into Man of Steel fully expecting to hate it. That’s not something that happens to me very often with films. I love terrible and inept cinema and I’m a pretty forgiving critic of most big budget action movie efforts. For me to expect to hate something it generally has to be a sequel, prequel or adaptation of something. There has to be an existing version of these characters and concepts that works and that I love. And obviously there’s 70 years worth of people doing good versions of Superman. And everything I’d heard beforehand made this sound like a very bad version of Superman indeed. He lets his father die? He smashes up Metropolis? He breaks Zod’s neck? This isn’t Superman.

Then I watched it and I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it but it was pretty good nonetheless. There was some great acting, some nice themes, some great action scenes and all the stuff I walked in there expecting to hate didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. I couldn’t work out why until a couple of days later when it all twigged for me. This isn’t a film about Superman, it’s a film about young Clark Kent becoming Superman.

Some people reading this now probably think I’m an idiot, “well duh Adam, it’s his origin story, of course it’s about him becoming Superman.” Well yes it is his origin story but Superman’s story isn’t the same as most super-heroes. Most super-heroes start as ordinary people and get transformed. Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed and in that moment he is transformed into Batman (even if the training stuff comes later). Arrogant military inventor Tony Stark gets kidnapped and wounded and forced to escape, and in that moment gets transformed into Iron Man. Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, becomes an arrogant tool and then loses his Uncle and in that moment is transformed into Spider-Man. Superman doesn’t have such a transformative moment, he’s always had his powers to a greater or lesser extent and he’s always had the desire to use his powers to help people. When we first meet Clark Kent in this film he’s using his powers to save people from an oil rig explosion, he’s already a super hero, but he isn’t Superman, he’s The Man of Steel. And as the Man of Steel or as the alien Kal-El he’s a mysterious entity that the governments of the world fear.

But he gradually becomes Superman not because of any big change in Clark as a character but because the world gets to realise who he is. He saves Pete Ross’ life as a kid and they become friends. He saves Lois from a Kryptonian robot and she decides to bury the story. He saves the military from Faora and they stop attacking him. He saves the entire world and they realise he represents hope and will always be there to save them in future.

And we also see the effect he has on the world as he gradually becomes Superman. The best example of this is probably Perry White and Pete Lombard saving Jenny the Intern from the rubble in Metropolis. There’s a moment where Perry calls to Pete to help him save Jenny and we think for a moment that he’s going to leave Perry, but he looks up at Superman fighting and turns right back around. Superman inspires us all to do our best and do what’s right and that’s something the movie gets entirely correct.

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This also helps excuse many of the more problematic elements of the film. Killing Zod for example. I have no problem with The Man of Steel killing Zod, especially because it becomes clear in that moment that Superman has finished being created. After killing Zod the last thing missing from Superman, his code against killing, has been born. You can see and feel the anguish on his face and you know, without a word being said, that Superman will never kill.

It doesn’t excuse all the problematic aspects though. As I say I am fine with killing Zod but the way he dies is a bit too graphic and over the top for me. Similarly I’m not too bothered with the destruction in the final fight scene in principle since, again, this isn’t Superman yet, but in practise there is too much of it and it’s pretty distressing to watch.

And on a completely different topic all the stuff with Krypton at the start is terrible. Just flat out terrible. The action scenes are incomprehensible and too shaky, the setting and ideas are far too over the top and everything is just hilariously over designed. Hey why have a door with two moving parts when it could have seventeen! Why use monitors to communicate when we could have faces made of bits of moving metal! What!? Seriously what?! Even the acting seems poorer here. Michael Shannon does a fine job with Zod in the later scenes simmering with barely controlled rage and menace but here he’s hammier than a pig farm. And his character makes perfect sense later in the film, he wants to recreate Krypton and doesn’t care who he needs to kill to do it. That’s a fine clear villainous motivation but in the opening he’s some kind of eugenicist? Who wants to preserve some bloodlines but not others? Nothing about that is ever explained it’s just kind of thrown out so we’ll go, oh Zod’s a racist he must be a bad guy despite him showing no evidence of this later on. Similarly Russell Crowe makes a fine Jor-El later on but seems monumentally bored during all the Kryptonian scenes. And his suit makes him look silly, there’s no getting around that.

Honestly the Krypton stuff is so bad compared to the rest of the film it seems like it was done by an entirely different writer and director. You could easily cut it all out and if anything the film would make slightly more sense.

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There’s a lot more general stuff on the positive side though. For starters the acting is uniformly excellent. Amy Adams might be my favourite Lois Lane since Terri Hatcher*, Laurence Fishbourne is my favourite Perry White and as for Henry Cavill. Well, it’s hard to say really since he only gets one scene in the whole film where he’s Superman and he’s, okay in that. In every other scene he’s young Clark Kent or The Man of Steel but in both roles he excels. There are two moments in the film, the death of Zod and the death of Pa Kent where he conveys so much meaning and thought without saying a word.

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Oh and Antje Traue’s Faora is just incredibly bad ass. Love her!

The story is well paced and largely free from puzzle box plotting and techno babble, and what is there is harmless enough. I loved the structure of the flashbacks, I thought it really helped the film keep moving whilst delivering the necessary back story and exposition.

I also liked the Hans Zimmer score a lot, although the original John Williams theme is sorely missed.

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And then we come to the director, Zack Snyder. Snyder has something of a bad reputation being accused of being a misogynist, a homophobe and a hack. I’ve now seen every film he’s made except Sucker Punch (from where most of the misogyny comments come) and some movie about armoured owls that I’ll probably pass on and I’m starting to think that he’s being really under-estimated. The Dawn of the Dead re-make was a ton of fun even if it wasn’t as smart as the original. 300 similarly is tons of fun and a very efficient film and also demonstrates some real artistic thought in the use of ramping to re-create a sense of comic story telling. Watchmen was about as good as you could feasibly make an adaptation of Watchmen which is basically an un-filmable story and now Man of Steel. Like 300, Man of Steel has really made some effort to try and translate the storytelling language of comics into film. It’s much more subtle than 300 but there are several moments that borrow cleverly from comics. The one that comes to mind is a scene when Faora uses her super-speed against some soldiers. Super-speed is usually really hard to represent in cinema and looks really fake and terrible but there is a long history of representing it in comics using numerous tricks. one of those tricks is to draw a character multiple times in the same panel to show that they’re moving so fast they appear to be in different places. Snyder re-creates this trick by holding a shot completely still and showing for split seconds at a time multiple Faora’s on screen before the slower Faora fades. It looks great and is an example of Snyder really leading the way in innovating how to translate comic book ideas into cinema.

Also that final fight with Zod is amazing. As a super-hero fan a decent fight between two flying opponents is something I’ve been looking forward to for years and it has never happened until now. Snyder delivers an amazing gravity defying spectacle and doesn’t clutter it up with shaky cam or too fast editing.**

So Man of Steel. Most films these days I watch and like but the more I think about them the more I dislike them. Man of Steel completely reverses this. The more I think about it the more I want to see it again, or see a sequel where Henry Cavill actually gets to step up and be Superman. You could watch a lot worse.

 

* as a total aside I like that Lois figures out that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person straight away in this. Although you lose out on the love triangle aspect you can’t really do justice to that in a non-serialised story telling medium anyway. And it always hurt the character of Lois that she’s supposed to be an amazing journalist but could never work out that Clark and Superman were the same person.

** although the flying scenes on Kyrpton are atrocious and absolutely riddled with shaky cam.

 

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As a critic I don’t think I’ve ever been presented with a film that’s easier to review than Pacific Rim.

The high concept here is giant robots and giant monsters hitting each other. If that concept sounds like fun to you then you will love Pacific Rim because everything in this film that is related to either robots, monsters or hitting is absolutely perfect. If, however, that concept sounds kind of dumb and boring, then there is nothing in this film that is going to change your mind.

Pacific Rim tells the story of a world where giant monsters called Kaiju (the actual Japanese word for giant monsters such as Godzilla) periodically emerge from an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the pacific and wreak destruction in human cities. After being blind-sided by the first few Kaiju, humanity collectively gets our shit together and starts building giant robots called Jagers (the German for hunter) to stop them.

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The film then flashes forward 7 years and we learn that whilst initially successful the Jager programme has started to become a problem. The Kaiju emerging are getting bigger and more frequent and the Jagers are losing fights more often. It is becoming too expensive to keep the programme running and instead the world is going to build a giant wall around the pacific to keep the monsters out.

The film then flashes forward another 5 years and we learn that the wall isn’t working either. The Kaiju are still getting bigger and getting even more frequent and neither our Jagers or the wall are stopping them. With only 4 Jagers remaining it’s up to a rogue military group based in Hong Kong to make a last ditch effort to take the fight to the monsters and end it once and for all.

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There are is an awful lot to love about Pacific Rim almost all of it to do with the high concept and how well it’s executed. The Jagers are cool, they have distinct intimidating and memorable designs and are filled with all sorts of fun giant robot weapons like whirling blades, chest missiles, plasma cannons and other weapons I won’t spoil here. The monster designs are absolutely amazing (as you’d expect from Guillermo Del Toro) full of creepy and bizarre alien touches such as a tongue that opens up to reveal another tongue, and then another all glowing like a fibre optic Christmas tree.

The fight sequences are just brilliant too. There is one fight towards the end of the film (although not the actual final battle) that without hyperbole is one of the greatest action sequences I have ever seen, right up there with the Death Star trench run and the final fight in Avengers. Not only are they shot and edited beautifully but the action scenes all remember that a key to a good action sequence is risk and reversal of fortune. It can be fun for a short while to watch an unstoppable action hero wade through a horde of enemies but that quickly gets boring. Instead in a good action scene you genuinely feel that there is some chance that the character could fail and the fortunes of the hero and villain should switch so sometimes the hero looks like their winning and then suddenly the villain does. Pacific Rim not only nails this principle it absolutely blows it out of the water and each action sequence is punctuated with moments of such awesome inventiveness and surprise that I at times screamed out loud “no fucking way!” from the audience.

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Also on the positive side is the score. Some have criticised the film for being far too loud and whilst I can understand that, this is a very loud film, I quickly acclimatised myself to the volume and I found the sound mixing and particularly the music (written by Ramin Djawadi the same guy that did the Game of Thrones opening) worked phenomenally well. I still have the main theme stuck in my head days later.

Oh the hell with it, this may get taken down soon but just listen to this here.

There are plenty of subtle references to existing mecha and kaiju films too for the fans such as designs that subtly echo famous film monsters (like a very King Kong-esque monster at one point) and even a plot point that I swear is a reference to the horrible American Godzilla remake.

If you are already a fan of Kaiu films, mecha anime or just like the sound of the concept you will love Pacific Rim.

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However; it’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, there are plenty of flaws here and they’re all on the non-robot, non-monster side of the equation i.e. the human cast. The fact of the matter is the human characters are just not particularly interesting. I’ve seen some very scathing reviews of the human parts of the film accusing them of being terribly acted and that all the characters are walking stereotypes. I don’t think the human stuff is that bad but it isn’t great. The acting in this film is pretty much fine, not great, not bad, but fine. The exceptions being Ron Perlman (who eats so much ham his scenes look like a barbeque restaurant) and Idris Elba who, shockingly, is just awful. I love Idris Elba, he was great in Thor and easily the best thing in Prometheus but he’s so stiff and lifeless in this film. I get that his character is meant to be stiff but even in moments when he should be letting the mask fall and showing emotion it feels like he just wanted to say his lines as quickly as possible and get off the set.

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The film also has major issues with character development. Our main hero is Raleigh Beckett (played by Charlie Hunnam and as an aside everybody in this film has just terrible character names) has an arc set up involving his dead brother. We spend most of the first act talking about this and then absolutely nothing comes from it. Similarly our heroine Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) has a huge arc about overcoming her fear of the Kaiju that dominates the entirety of the second act and then gets resolved almost in a throwaway line. The only character who gets a complete story arc would be the irascible Australian Jager pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinksy) and he’s a minor character.

This is symptomatic of a larger pacing problem too. The film starts with a long expositional narration, then jumps forward 7 years, then jumps forward again 5 years effectively giving us two first acts. We then get a looooooooooong second act and finally the third act feels really rushed. With the amount of world building and exposition that needs to be done I completely understand why the film has two first acts, the alternative would have been to drop the audience in the middle of the story and trust us to figure out the past from context clues and I understand why they didn’t trust a mainstream audience to do that. I also understand why the third act was so rushed as it’s basically just one big fight sequences and every extra minute was likely another million on the budget to animate these monsters. Nonetheless whilst I understand the film maker’s choices the film is poorly paced.

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And if it weren’t so poorly paced the issues with the human characters would be less of an issue. Let’s compare it to a film I review last week, 300. Now whilst these films have very different settings and budgets they function similarly in that they’re both action films and so their purpose is to present the audience with action and spectacle.  To get this to work you do need stakes so you do need to establish the characters, the world, what the stakes are and make the audience care that the characters succeed so the character building stuff is a necessary evil to get to the hitting. Pacific Rim does the character building much better than 300, as it has (barely) more nuanced characters but it also spends an awful lot longer with those character whereas 300 rushes through the set-up to get to the good stuff as quickly as it can. 300 is a much more efficient film and if Pacific Rim either had better character development or cut down on the time spent with the characters in the second act it too would be a much more efficient and much superior film.

Because ultimately we didn’t come here for a character piece, we need just enough character stuff so that we care when robots start hitting Kaiju and Pacific Rim unfortunately gets this balance wrong.

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There are other things one can criticise if you’re aiming to nit-pick, such as, the absolutely ridiculous science (somebody needs to explain to the scriptwriter what analogue means, hint unless you have a lot of reel to reel computer banks in it I highly doubt your building size robot with a holographic computer display is analogue) but giant robots are inherently bad science anyway, you’re either on board with it and choose to ignore it as a convention of the genre or you were never going to like this film anyway.

And really that’s my long and circular way of saying if you expect to like Pacific Rim than it has everything you wanted to see in it.

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In preparation for watching Man of Steel I decided to watch a DVD I’ve had sitting on my shelf for a few years now and have never actually got around to watching, namely visionary director (you have to call him this, he made it his first name) Zack Snyder’s 300.

Short version, it was stupid but fun and I enjoyed it.  I think some of the impact of the film was blunted by the fact that so many scenes and moments from it have escaped into the wider pop cultural world and become memes. I think I’ve seen approximately, oooh,  a trillion parodies of the “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” scene long before I ever saw the original.

For those who have somehow avoided learning anything about the film (congratulations on finally joining this new-fangled internet business by the way) it tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae. This was a real historical event which the film recounts as follows (spoilers):

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King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) of Persia is invading Greece and intends to conquer Sparta. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) aims to stop him but the corrupt senate of Sparta won’t allow him use of the full army. Thus, he sets out with a team of only 300 men to halt the forces of Xerxes one million. Using a narrow pass he can funnel Xerxes larger forces to a small point which reduces Xerxes numerical advantage. The 300 men hold off the much larger army for two days when an outcast Spartan named Ephialtes betrays them, showing Xerxes a mountain path that lets him break through the Spartan lines. Leonidas sends a runner back to tell the story of the 300 and with his remaining men fights to their eventual death. Their noble sacrifice allows time for the rest of the Spartan army to arrive though who presumably will rout the Persians.

I can sit here all day and pick holes in the historical accuracy of the film. For starters there weren’t 300 Spartans fighting for two days, there was a actually a force of 7000 allied Greeks. On the last day when there were only 300 Spartans (because Leonidas had realised their betrayal and dismissed the larger force leaving behind only a small rear guard to protect their retreat) there were also 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans which everybody seems to always forget.*

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But really by the time a Persian Immortal removes his mask and reveals himself to be basically an Orc underneath it is pretty clear that this is not a film that bears any resemblance to reality. The Persians are literal monsters they have giants, dudes with knives for hands, armies of what are basically orcs and memorably one dude with a goat head (which makes two films in a row I’ve dicussed that have a dude with an animal head running around).  In contrast our Spartans are perfect physical specimens, except the one betraying Spartan who is twisted and malformed. There really isn’t any question of which side the film’s sympathies lie with even if Sparta is depicted as a brutal, cruel, eugenically perfect society.

The moment we see the Orcs was also when the film clicked for me. I had been attempting to evaluate it thematically since so much of what I’d read about it was an argument about whether the film was pro or anti war, whether the Spartans were America or whether the Persians were. But the Orc scene was just a red flag that went up saying, this is basically just an excuse to do one long fight scene from lord of the Rings. Not that you can’t read all that stuff into 300 but it undermines any attempt to take the film seriously when the filmmakers so clearly don’t and just want an excuse to show you Gerard Butler’s magnificent six pack as he stabs a guy.

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And taken on that level the film excels. I like a good fight scene as much as the next guy, indeed probably more, and 300 has some spectacular fight scenes. And the rest of the film is really just a way to get us to the fight scenes as efficiently as possible whilst covering all the plot holes and exposition we need. We have some set up that explains who the baddies are and how dangerous the threat is and which plugs the rather gaping plot hole of why we’re only sending 300 Spartans*** and then it’s on to the fighting.

Part of the reason the film is less concerned with historical accuracy is it isn’t based on the real event but rather on a Graphic Novel written and drawn by Frank Miller. The monstrous Persians and half naked Spartans are straight from his work. But why bother? The battle of Thermopylae was real, the story is well known and has been told before. There’s nothing in Miller’s characters or plot worth paying money to adapt. The only thing original and worth discussing about 300 is the art which features some of the best work of Miller’s career and some of the finest sequential art ever produced. But a film by its very nature wouldn’t be Miller’s artwork, unless it was animated. You can use his designs but you miss out on his story telling, his panel composition, his angles, etc. But 300 really is an attempt to put the artwork of Frank Miller into a live action context, and it actually does work at that task.****

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Partly this is because Snyder basically shot the film using the graphic novel as a storyboard recreating individual panels as shots and frames in the film. 300 probably ranks as the most faithful adaptation of a comic ever produced as in parts it is a shot for shot remake, just changing the shots from static images to moving ones.

But it’s largely because of the use of “ramping” a technique that 300 popularised and that has become something of a trademark of Zack Snyder’s. Ramping involves showing a shot in slow motion and then at the end of it speeding the action up faster than normal frame rate for a split second. The effect is that we see the build up to the actual moment of violence in all its detailed glory. A Spartan jumps into the air, spear poised to strike and we in the audience get a long slow motion look at the shape of his body and the perfect curve of his arm as he prepares to strike, of his perfectly muscled abs, of the fear on his opponents face and then finally the film speeds up as the spear hits as if to emphasise the impact.

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It turns the violence of the action scenes into something aesthetic. Snyder doesn’t focus on the gore, the blood or the impact; those moments are sped up, and disposed of. Instead his attention is on the perfect bodies of his heroes, their skill and their talent at violence. In contrast to something like Transformers which uses very fast cuts and multiple angles to suggest s disorientation, danger and fear; 300 lets us linger on the action, we observe it slowly and take it in as a visual pleasure.

It’s also the best attempt to translate the language of comic books to cinema I have ever seen. The use of ramping recreates the effect of reading a comic. In a comic time is split up into discrete moments known as panels. A panel is a still, a frozen slice of time that the reader can linger over taking in every detail of a moment. Then separating the panels are gutters or borders, moments of white space that indicate time passing, and then another panel, another discrete slice of time. The ramping recreates this effect, we have the long slow section being the panel that we can focus our attention on and then the sped up final moment is the panel border, the transition to the next moment. As in the comic it allows the viewer the pleasure of watching and turns what should be a violent action scene into an aesthetic artwork of human musculature and grace. This is almost certainly the reason the film is considered homoerotic by the way, since there is an awful lot of just looking at men’s bodies in this.

300 is a film that everyone seems to want to read symbolically with the Spartans standing in for this country and the Persians for that and honestly there are enough big clearly symbolic ideas in here that you can do that easily. But it’s such a scattered mess thematically that it takes all the fun out of it for me. When your Spartan’s can equally be the American army in Iraq or the Iraqi dissidents defending themselves from the invading Americans and both interpretations work you have a bit of a mess on your hands.

But as an action film I find it oddly beautiful with a form of cinematic language that is genuinely novel and, yes, visionary. What Snyder has put together here is an approach to action films never before used and whilst it isn’t perfect in execution it is nonetheless interesting and worth seeing.

Also it does just jump from one badass moment to another so I can easily see why it generated so many memes.

*everyone seems to forget the Thespians and Thebans even though there were more of them than the Spartans. 300 does remember that it wasn’t a Spartan only battle but is possibly even more insulting to the poor  Thebans because it includes a lengthy scene suggesting that  whilst the Thebans may have brought 400 men, they haven’t brought any soldiers whereas each Spartan is raised from birth to be a killing machine. The poor Thespians get an even worse treatment as their name gets used as a homophobic slur, which is a bit rich coming from Spartan’s**

**the Spartan’s actually had a dedicated all gay division. Each member of the division fought side by side with his lover, the idea being that you would fight extra hard to protect your lover’s life. Although this is a widely disputed idea amongst historians.

*** In real life it was vastly complicated and involved festivals, naval plans, retreat plans, etc. In the film its down to corrupt Spartan politicians, indeed there may be a touch too much corrupt Spartan politicians in the film as any attempt to do plot fails dismally compared to more stabbing.

****Actually Miller seems unusually blessed in this regard since Sin City, also based on his original comics, was also remarkably faithful to his original artwork and really captured the art style.

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Here is a pitch for a film that would never get made in a million years.

So I have this idea to do a film right, and it’s based on this kids TV show but we’re going to put swearing and violence in it that means a lot of the audience for that show can’t go and see it. Also when they do eventually see it they’re going to be confused because we’ve changed how all the characters look and act and their origins. And the reason we’ve changed it is that this is actually based on a comic book which barely 3000 people in the world read.

Oh and did I mention the main characters are anthropomorphic turtles? Yeah, turtles. Turtles with ninja weapons. And we’re going with suits and puppeteers to get the turtles so that means we need to hire martial artists who can perform stunts wearing heavy and constricting rubber turtle suits. Oh and it means our stars can’t really act for most of the film as y’know, they’re puppets.

You go pitch that to a Hollywood exec today and watch how fast the door hits your ass.

Nonetheless they made it, and it became the highest grossing independent film of all time.

Yes, THE HIGHEST GROSSING INDEPENDENT FILM OF ALL TIME!

Maybe that’s not such a surprise. TMNT was basically the biggest thing in kids entertainment from its debut until Power Rangers came along and dethroned it. Certainly it was in North America if not the whole world. The desire to milk the franchise for all its worth was logical and inevitable and so of course a film would get made.

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But what was popular about TMNT in 1990 was the cartoon. Sure the comic was a moderate success by comic book standards (and a huge hit for independent black and white comic book standards) but for most people, and especially most children, the image of the turtles that they had in their heads (and also on their backpacks, lunchboxes and t-shirts) was that of the animated series.

So why not make an animated film? After all G. I. Joe and Transformers had done animated theatrical releases that had been moderate hits. In contrast He-Man had done a live action film that was a critical and commercial flop. A live action film might be slightly cheaper but you immediately run into the problem that your main characters are turtles and so have to be portrayed using actors in suits and expensive animatronics.

And why base it on the comics? The comics may be more mature and more serious but they’re also a lot less well known. You also quickly run into the problem that your audience is expected to take anthropomorphic turtle men seriously. That’s hard enough to do in animation or comics which both have a long tradition of animal protagonists but guys in rubber suits?

I’ve looked and looked but I can’t find any material about the decision making process that led to TMNT being made but however strange those decisions seem at first glance they worked. They absolutely worked.

So a brief plot summary. April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is a reporter covering a recent crime wave in new York City, a crime wave that has the police baffled and the residents of Japan town (is that a thing in New York) reminded of a similar crime wave by The Foot Clan some years ago. Basically April thinks that the crimes are being committed by dun dun dun Ninjas!

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And she’s sort of right. Actually the crimes are being committed by teenage delinquents being trained in the ways of Ninjitsu by the mysterious Shredder (James Saito but voiced by David McCharen). He sees April as a mouthy female that can ruin his plans (we never learn what his plans are incidentally other than steal stuff) so sends a team of Ninjas to shut her up. She is saved by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who take her back to their lair when she faints. There she meets Splinter and learns their origin.

Shredder tracks her to the lair though and a team of Ninjas destroy it and capture Splinter. The turtles, with nowhere to go, end up crashing at April’s place whilst they plot how to rescue Splinter.

Shredder becomes obsessed with stopping the turtles since he recognises their ninja style as his own and perceives them as a threat. Through one of his clan named Danny (the delinquent son of April’s boss) he learns the Turtles hiding place and sends another group of ninjas to kill them.

An all out brawl ensues and Raphael is greatly injured. As a result April, The turtles and their ally Casey Jones flee out to the countryside to recover and recuperate. After some time they get a spirit vision from Splinter and go back to New York where they meet Shredder in an epic show down and defeat him.

Then Splinter makes a funny.

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In many respects the film is a synthesis of the comics and the cartoon taking the best elements from both. The plot, for example, summarises the first 13 or 14 issues of the original comics, or at least those elements related to Shredder. The brutal ninja beatdown of a turtle (in the comics it was Leonardo but in the film it’s Raphael) the trip to the farmhouse and the first meeting of Raph and Casey Jones are all straight from the comics. Since the comics had much better realised plots than the cartoon using them as a story basis is a good idea.

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The tone though is much closer to the cartoon. These turtles crack jokes and eat pizza. The fights are full of flips, pratfalls and slapstick moments. This is all for practical reasons of course. This is a PG film and you simply can’t get away with the kind of violence that was present in the original comics* (poor Raph and Leo will never get to stab anyone outside the comics I fear). You’re also working with actors in suits who have somewhat limited movement for what are supposed to be expert ninjas so going the slapstick route is the smart choice. And it works. The tone it resembles most closely is a Jackie Chan film. You have a serious plot with real consequences and emotions all broke up incredibly silly fight scenes full of slapstick that nonetheless are real fight scenes with people hitting each other. It’s not executed even a tenth as well as a Jackie Chan film of course but the fight scenes are still pretty enjoyable to watch and are one of the few parts of the film that still hold up today.

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Character wise the film freely mixes and matches elements of both the comics and the cartoon, usually picking the best version in my opinion. The turtles have their colour coded costumes and love of pizza here but they’re treated as real people with real feelings not just catchphrase spouting jokers. Michaelangelo is the loveable goofball we know from the carton but Raph, rather than being the sarcastic wit he was in the cartoon is much closer to the angry lone wolf he is in the comics. Leonardo is the taciturn stoic he is in both versions. Donatello however gets the most changes; he’s voiced by Corey Feldman here (pretty much the highest profile celebrity in the film, which is saying something) and they make him more humorous and light hearted to match the casting. He’s basically portrayed as a slightly more intelligent Michaelangelo and other than fixing a van never gets to do anything particularly nerdy or intelligent. This is a shame since the turtles all have very distinct personalities in most versions and Donatello’s good humoured nerdiness makes a nice contrast with the other three. Making him into just another Michaelangelo makes both Donatello and Michaelangelo less effective.

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The suits, which were provided and operated by the Jim Henson company, are pretty great. The design keeps the big friendly faces from the cartoon rather than perpetual scowls of the comic which helps sell the emotions of the main characters. The actors in the suits also do a great job, they avoid the big over the top gestures most performers in costume opt for and they perform some fairly impressive stunts and martial arts in what must be restrictive costuming.

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 April is a reporter because April being a reporter is such a good plot device it’s insane to waste it but she also owns an antique store like she does in the comics. She’s also less ditzy than the cartoon version. Oh and she wears normal clothes not a banana yellow jump suit, although the film makers do give a visual nod to the cartoon version.

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Casey Jones (Elias Koteas) is pretty much directly lifted from the comics and is a much more nuanced and fun character than the cartoon version. They do play up his humour quite a bit in this, particularly by making him obsessed with sports, and especially hockey. I like that choice though since it produces some of the films best gags, for example;

Casey: Time for a new game (pulls out cricket bat) cricket!

Raphael: Cricket! Aw no not cricket! Nobody understands cricket. You gotta know what a crumpet is to play cricket.

 Casey smacks him in the face and knocks him into a dustbin

Casey: Hmm, 6 runs.

Casey is easily my favourite character in the film since he’s basically a fifth turtle here but with the benefit of being able to see the actor’s face and Elias Koteas just has this great laid back smug delivery.

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Splinter (Kevin Clash, most famous for being Elmo of all things but doing a pretty good impersonation of Peter Renarday from the cartoons) uses the (worse) original origin of being a rat that mimicked martial arts. Sigh. He’s basically a non-entity in the film since the puppet can barely move and he spends most of the plot tied to a wall.

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By far the biggest set of changes apply to Shredder. Rather than being based on the comic or cartoon version he’s pretty much a third version here. His origin is mostly like the comics but simplified a bit. He’s still Oroku Saki and he’s still a foot clan ninja but his brother Oroku Nagi is removed entirely. Instead Saki is the one in love with Tang Shen and the one jealous of Hamato Yoshi causing Yoshi, Shen and Splinter to flee to New York. He tracks them down there, murders Yoshi and Shen and Splinter scars his face before fleeing.

Because his face is scarred he starts wearing a mask and because he’s in New York now he decides, what the hey, let’s start building a new Foot Clan by recruiting delinquent youths and training them in Ninjitsu.

There are things I like about movie Shredder and things that simply don’t work.

On the positive side I like his simplified origin. Comics Shredder had a weird double standard problem where it was wrong for him to want to seek revenge for his brother’s murder (presumably because his brother was a dick) but totally okay for Splinter to seek revenge for his master’s murder. The movie wisely side-steps this issue by removing Shredder’s brother entirely and making Saki the murderer of Yoshi. The move also constructs the initial encounter between Shredder and the Turtles much more elegantly. In the comics the turtles are specifically sent out to kill Shredder making them little better than Shredder is himself. In the movie Shredder attacks the turtles first and kidnaps Splinter. The Turtles have a much more heroic reason to go up against him, they want to rescue Splinter and they also want to stop him using children to commit crimes.

I also like his costume which mixes the super villainy of the cartoon version (purple in the colours and the cape) but also looks like somewhat realistic samurai armour. He’s also just portrayed as very threatening and powerful. The cartoon was a straight comedy so wanted a comedic villain but the movie is an action adventure film with a light hearted tone. You need a serious and threatening villain for that to work and James Saito’s Shredder is decent in that role able to dispatch all four turtles with ease when they finally face him.

My main problem with him though is that whilst he’s intimidating to look at he’s absolutely terrible in a fight. He’s a vague mysterious presence for the first two acts seen briefly and with his power and menace only hinted at. The film builds him up to be this great and terrible threat and, quite logically, builds to a final fight with the turtles. And that fight is lame. Utterly, irredeemably lame. Shredder basically draws a stick along the ground, the turtles get defeated by editing and then Splinter throws him off a rooftop with a stick. It is such a huge and disappointing anti-climax.

Also many people have drawn comparisons between Shredder and Darth Vader. And it’s true, they do look alike. But that’s because they’re two dudes in capes and stylised samurai helmets. But movie, don’t draw attention to this problem by having Shredder declare “I am your father,” to the turtles. It isn’t cute.

I also have to question his plan. His motivation is fairly low key, steal stuff, but his method is bizarre. Train gangs of teenaged delinquents to become ninjas and employ them to steal the stuff. I think the idea is that you have to get them young to make them effective ninja but teenaged delinquents are not exactly famous for their obedience or work discipline. What are the odds that one kid gets sick of being hit in the face by nunchucks all day and decides to rat the operation out to the cops? I mean its not like their imprisoned there. Danny seems to be able to come and go as he pleases. And wouldn’t you know it, Danny rats Shredder’s operation out to the cops. Next time Shredder use either real ninjas or robots.

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This does lead to one of the film’s best scenes though with the ultimate underground hide out for teenaged kids. This thing has a half pipe, arcade cabinets, a pool table, a resident D.J. and all the cigars a 16 year old can smoke. This film makes joining the foot look pretty awesome. Hell I’m, 27 and I’m tempted to join if I get to spend my off hours playing arcade cabinets and pool.

The film has two other major characters not present in the comics, Danny and Testu.

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Tetsu is Shredder’s right hand man and he’s basically someone to do all the acting in scenes between ninjas in full face masks and turtles in full face masks. Since all he has to do is look menacing and yell instructions he’s fine but he has no character to speak of.

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Danny is the son of April’s boss. He’s probably the only character in this film with a real character arc (you could maybe argue Raphael and Casey but it would be a stretch) since he starts out as a member of the foot clan and after meeting Splinter and the Turtles decides to repent. Ultimately he redeems his former bad actions by leading the turtles to Shredder’s base. Now in most films the character with the arc is the protagonist but Danny is barely in the film at all and we don’t get any scenes that give us any sense of why he joined the foot in the first place or what leads him to realise that stealing is wrong. Which is a good thing because the kid is a terrible actor. His range runs from mumbling and scowling to confused mumbling and scowling. He’s immediate death to any scene he shows up in. Worse he is given the challenge of spending most of his scenes acting opposite a largely immobile rat puppet. He is not up to this challenge.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Movie is ultimately not very good but considering the challenges inherent in adapting TMNT into live action it is miraculous that the film is as good as it is. The plot is utter bobbins, the fights are nothing special, the final fight is a huge anti-climax and it lacks anything in the realm of character growth or proper character arcs. Nonetheless it possesses a sort of goofy charm, there are some good gags in here and there’s just enough of a plot that it feels brisk rather than flabby. It’s a perfectly affable way to spend an hour and a half.

But as a kid I hated this film because of how different it was to the cartoon. I couldn’t get over the lack of the van or the blimp, or Kraang or Bebop and Rocksteady. Or why it was literally so dark, or who the hell these teenaged gang members were. However, I was an idiot as a kid and now, whilst the execution is lacking the conception of TMNT in this film is actually the one I prefer. Take an action adventure spine with real emotions and consequences but rather than wallowing in angst, gore and violence keep the tone light and breezy. Have the characters quip and fight with ridiculous slap stick moves but have them occasionally need to grit their teeth and get serious to put down a real threat like Shredder.

Oh yeah, and Sam Rockwell is in this film. Yes, that Sam Rockwell, the guy from Moon and Iron Man 2. See if you can spot him.

Next on Teenage Mutant Ninja Origins we’re going to look at the 2003 animated series but i have seriously underestimated the amount of research it’s going to take to review this so this feature is probably going to go on the backburner for a few weeks whilst I plow through the important episodes of the first four series.

 

*Although actually the film was widely criticised for how violent a PG it was. To today’s eyes it’s pretty tame stuff but at the time the use of martial arts in any children’s entertainment was considered controversial. Evidently the producers took this seriously enough that the turtles basically never use their weapons in the immediate sequel and the slapstick gets toned up even further. It also got heavily criticised for the language. There are at least three very loud “damns” in the movie and one scene where I swear a Japanese character says “kuso,” the Japanese word for shit. He kind of hisses it so it might just be the actor hissing but I listened to the scene a few times and I swear he’s saying shit under his breath.

 

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Gozu (2003)

Takashi Miike is probably the hardest working director in the world right now. He averages about three films a year compared to most directors’ one or even one every two years. In 2003, the year Gozu came out, he made 6 films! What’s more he’s a remarkably varied director producing films in genres as diverse as horror, sci-fi, comedy, even kids’ films and romantic comedies. He even produced a video game adaptation that wasn’t terrible!

Given his workload you might think Miike would be something of a hack, quickly cranking out films to a set formula with little regard for quality; but this couldn’t be more wrong. Many of his films (Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins) are modern masterpieces and he employs differing visual styles in all his films, something even the best auteurs seldom do.

In short his films don’t feel like they’re made by a man rushed off his feet but by a thoughtful artist.

So why doesn’t Gozu? Because this feels like the kind of thing Roger Corman would do back in the day when he had a spare set for a weekend. Rather than waste it he’d commission a quickie screenplay and film it with the money and sets left over. Little Shop of Horrors came about that way and whilst I have no idea what the genesis behind Gozu was it feels very much like there wasn’t even a script, rather Miike just filmed his actors wandering around Nagoya improvising and then edited it into something resembling a story.

And I say resembling a story because Gozu is as elliptical and obtuse as any art film you’re likely to watch. Most of the film consists of a confused looking man wandering around a nondescript town and having incomprehensible nonsense conversations with locals about why they’ve served him two meals or whether the weather is hotter today than it was yesterday.

And yet Gozu is a memorable and often hilarious film that I don’t regret seeing in the slightest.

The “plot” (please note the use of sarcastic quotation marks, I’ve read phonebooks with more plot) starts simply enough but is quirky from the beginning. Minami (Yuta Sone) and Ozaki (Sho Aikawa) are Yakuza. Ozaki is going mad, he’s starting to think that everything is out to get him, including (in probably the film’s best scene) tiny dogs. Minami’s Yakuza masters order him to take Ozaki to Nagoya to kill him and drop his body off at a “disposal centre.” Minami struggles a bit with the mission that he has to kill his friend but this issue is rather neatly sorted out for him when Ozaki accidentally dies in a car crash. Although this does cause a new problem for Minami when his friend’s body goes missing, apparently under its own power and is wandering around Nagoya somewhere.

Okay so we’ve got a dead body wandering around but otherwise that’s a pretty decent set up for a quirky detective story. We don’t get that though. What we get in the middle is a combination of scenes that are insane, nonsensical, boring or all four as Minami wanders aimlessly and singularly fails to be any kind of detective.

Eventually (and I am going to spoil the ending here guys) Minami does find Ozaki. In a woman’s body. And yes you read the sentence correctly. As best as I can make out (since nothing is explicitly stated in the film itself) Ozaki wandered off to the “disposal centre” he was supposed to go to in the first place and arranges for his physical body to be destroyed. He then possesses some poor girl and shows up to seduce Minami. Minami then takes his friend’s ghost in the form of a horny woman back to his bosses who understandably think he is insane (I don’t blame them, I’ve just re-read that sentence). Then when he thinks his bosses are going to deflower his friend’s ghost in a woman’s body Minami murders his boss and shags her himself. The woman then gives birth to his friend, as a fully grown adult complete with tattoos and they all ride off into the sunset.

Although that opening and ending are strange enough on their own they only take up about 40 minutes of the films 129 minute running time and are the only scenes that have any relevance to what might, if we’re being incredibly charitable, call the plot.

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What then makes up the rest of the film. Stuff, stuff makes up the rest of the film. Stuff that ranges from the fantastical, such as as a cow headed demon that comes to Minami in the middle of the night and licks him or a lactating middle aged woman bottling her breast milk to sell to children and restaurants, to the completely mundane. However even the mundane is rendered bizarre either by the strange acting choices, such as a man in the restaurant talking about how today is cold, but yesterday was hot, it definitely was because he had short sleeves on and he doesn’t today  or due to Miike’s directing. The example that sticks in my mind most is a scene of Minami talking with two inn keepers. The content of the conversation is completely mundane but it’s shot with Minami and the Inn Keepers entirely off screen behind a wall panel so the audience can’t see the actors speaking. Instead the camera is set high on the ceiling focused on a lamp.

Why?

Is it supposed to be a distancing effect reminding us we’re watching a film? Is it intended to place us in the role of a voyeur? Does it hint at some malevolent watcher? I frankly have no idea and I’d suspect neither does Miike because the sensation I had watching this film was that all the bizarre imagery amounted to nothing more than Miike messing with the audience because he thinks it’s funny to do so. That the reason he puts the camera there, or has one character wander around with half his face covered in chalk is because he’s thinking

“Wait, wait, cover his face in chalk!”

“But why boss?”

“Because it’ll mess with the film critic’s heads.”

“Yeah but what does it mean?”

“What does it matter, it looks weird!”

I’d be hard pressed to identify exactly what gives me this feeling that Miike is just messing with us and the best I can point to is one thing in the film and some evidence from the director’s commentary. The commentary evidence is there is at least one scene where exactly what I’ve described happens. There is a fourth wall breaking moment where we see that one character is literally reading from a script when she talks to people and can’t deviate from it. This is because the actress spoke terrible Japanese and could only read from her script phonetically. Miike liked the effect so much he decided to use it despite it having no intrinsic meaning in the film.

The evidence in the film comes from almost the third of fourth line of dialogue spoken in it. Ozaki leans in closer to the camera and whispers “what I’m about to tell you is a joke.” It’s as if he’s the voice of Miike stating directly to the viewer that he’s messing with us.

It can’t really be all made up though. With as many sfx set pieces as there are in this it must have been pre-planned and some of the symbolic elements must have a purpose to them. And it wouldn’t matter if Miike intended a meaning to anything or not, I’m a firm believer in the death of the author and there is certainly enough symbolic meat in here for someone to dig their teeth into if they’re so inclined.

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So if I had to speculate, what do I think the film is “really” about (in sarcastic quotation marks)? Well I think the basic structure is that Ozaki changes into a different state (he goes from alive to dead in the film but this may be symbolic of some other change) and Minami has to undergo some kind of ordeal to achieve the same transformation and becomes the same state as Ozaki which he does when they’re re-united at the end. As for what that change is? That’s harder to answer and there are a few possible interpretations. Homosexuality seems to be the most obvious one since Miike often makes it a theme in his films. Minami is a virgin for most of the film until he has sex with his “brother” Ozaki. Now Ozaki is in a woman’s body at the time but once they have sex the male Ozaki re-appears as if Minami had to realise that what he really wanted was the male Ozaki all along. This is also reinforced by the restaurant owner who was said to have died three years ago but like Ozaki seems to be up and walking around despite this. The restaurant owner is clearly coded gay since he wears women’s clothing and has sex to gay porn at one point so dying in this film’s terminology may symbolise realising one’s own homosexuality. There’s also the fact that Ozaki’s death is caused by a car accident caused in turn by a piece of bone, a play on “boner.”

This is just one interpretation though and the film is open to many others. One poster on imdb has a theory that it’s about entering into adulthood with the younger Minami following his older brother through puberty and that seems to fit a lot of the imagery very well too. Or it could be about coming to terms with death as a natural part of life.

Bottom line though, would I recommend watching this film?

Well firstly, full disclosure, I watched this film in less than ideal conditions. I was at a party with friends and was plenty drunk by the time we got around to Gozu. With those caveats I’d say that actually watching Gozu is a bit of an ordeal. There are moments that are really funny intentionally (the dog scene in particular is a highlight) and moments that may or may not have been intended to be funny but which nonetheless my drunken friends and I found hysterical. The sequence with Minami going from shop to shop reached Pythonesque levels of surreal hilarity for my friends. However the majority of the film is just frustratingly obtuse and boring.

However, it has stayed with me. The imagery is so striking and original that I’ve found myself thinking about Gozu since I watched it and the more I think about it the more I find myself liking the film. There is something to the strange dream like world that it presents that is inherently fascinating.

Plus if you’ve never seen a woman give birth to a full grown man, well, it has that going for it at least.

So yes, Gozu gets a recommendation.

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