Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Written at the time of the film's release. A not-great review for a not-great movie, although rather prophetic at the end there. 

  Galactus Intolerant

Well, first, a confession: I'm not a huge fan of Jack Kirby, the artist who collaborated with Stan Lee to produce the Fantastic Four comic, the self-described "World's Greatest Comic Magazine!!" In some circles, this is considered blasphemy. I find Kirby's work great in the macro—he knew how to design a page to draw the eye—but cringe-inducing in the micro—he had very "creative" ways to convey human anatomy, for which he is given a pass from the folks who usually complain about those things.* He would occasionally hit on a good idea, but usually the stuff he created was really "out there," if not downright juvenile. For every "Silver Surfer," (which is a pretty silly concept, let's face it, though it "worked."), there was his Apokolips Figure of Death, "The Black Racer," who was an armored black guy...on skis. The guy flew through the air...on skis...with poles...and would appear right before you died. If I was dying, I could buy my life passing before my eyes, or a winged angel, or Neil Gaiman's little Goth-girl. But, a flying guy on skis? Pretty stupid. At least I'd get a good laugh before I kicked the bucket.

But I was a big fan of the old Hanna-Barbera "Fantastic Four" cartoon in the 60's, so I've always been a little nostalgic (which means, I look at it with blinders on) for the FF, no matter how wide Kirby drew their fore-heads. I didn't see the first FF movie because the trailer looked atrociously cheesy. I just didn't bother. I figured I'd catch up with it on video (which I never did). But I did want to see The Rise of the Silver Surfer, because if its one thing those early Fantastic Four stories did well, they produced a truly imaginative cosmic scope. I wanted to see how it re-produced on the Big Screen.
The answer: not bad. When FF2:TROTSS (what an unfortunate acronym!) concentrates on the heinous exploits of The Silver Surfer--the name says all you need to know, and as you might guess, he talks profoundly as if he was preaching Shakespeare--and the approach of its Master, the planet-consuming Galactus, it does a fine job, recreating that iconic Marvel sense of "I don't know what it IS, but it sure is BIG!" In fact, the climactic battle for this film is more focused and a considerably better set-piece than the Big Events of the latest Superman, Batman, X-men and Spider-man films, which all tended to over-complicate things and fall apart at the end. There are shots that stay with you, like the one where The Surfer parts trees in a forest, and, suddenly appears, incongruously non-organic in the natural setting. Or the Galactus-like shadow passing over and disrupting the rings of Saturn.
Where the thing (not "The Thing") falls flat is in the other 90% of the movie, and a lot of it is just inexplicable. The acting is...troubling. Andre Braugher's in this, and he commands the screen by holding back, while everybody else is busy flailing. Michael Chiklis' "Thing"/Ben Grimm is terrific, but the considerable make-up work doesn't suggest rock so much as the cracked surface of a chocolate cookie. I expected to hate Chris Evan's Johnny Storm, aka "The Human Torch," but I found the actor's take on the character fun and his portrayal of it very assured (and Johnny has the dramatic character arc in this one). But who told Julian McMahon that arch-villain Dr. Doom should be portrayed like an ineffectual Euro-trash fashion designer? And with all the blonde actresses in the world, whose bright idea was it to cast Jessica Alba who 1) can't act--her best scenes in this are when she's...unconscious--and 2) isn't remotely someone who could pass for a) blonde, or b) Johnny Storm's sister. And Ioan Gruffud just doesn't have the gravitas needed to pull off the role of uber-genius Reed Richards (he has hair problems, too--the grey at his temples comes and goes) and, if anything, he suggests the bland heroes that inhabited the Gerry Anderson puppet shows.
Director Tim Story keeps everything brightly lit, and it hums along editorially, but there are lots of things that just make ya wince--the usual Soap Opera, Marvel-style, here represented by Reed and Sue's difficulties dealing with fame and a celebrity wedding, an inexplicable and underdeveloped "Wedding Bells are Breakin' Up that Old Gang o' Mine" dead-end that makes a Big Unintended Statement against Diversity before it's abandoned, and another dance routine with Mr. Fantastic dancing his own version of the Funky Chicken, or is that the Rubber Chicken (Story does give him a wierdly apt Gene Kelly "Gotta Dance!" moment, though).
And, again, too much with the Stan Lee cameo! For any future Marvel movie, can we just give him a sign to hang around his neck that says "I USED TO BE STAN LEE," and place him randomly in crowd scenes? I think that would be more effective than stopping the movie cold so we can have an uninterrupted scene of Stan.

So, bad movie...with some good aspects to it. But if there's an FF3, they need to go back to the casting stage if there's going to be any improvement.

* I remember reading a letter in some comics magazine written by Bill Mumy (as "Billy" Mumy, he played Will Robinson on "Lost in Space"). He was responding to an interview with Carmine Infantino, who was editor-in-chief at DC when Kirby was working there, and Infantino had some critical things to say about Kirby's work, to which Mr. Mumy took great umbrage, and declared that he was going to have to re-evaluate Infantino's own artwork, given his words regarding "The King." I would say that my opinion of Mr. Mumy's work might have been influenced by his letter, but it wasn't--I've always thought he was a talentless hack.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Don't Re-Make a Scene: True Grit (2010)

The Set-Up: One of the most popular of the "Don't Make a Scene's" of the last year has been the gun-fight in the glen from the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne.  The visits were no doubt due to folks wanting to re-visit the scene after having seen (or anticipating) the recent remake by Joel and Ethan Coen

"Well," I thought, after several weeks of that entry getting at least a dozen hits. "why not do the new version of the scene, as well?"

Why not, indeed? The words of dialog are very much similar (I was tempted to use the earlier version of the article, with its selections from Marguerite Roberts' screenplay combined with appropriate passages from Portis' novel as a guide, but found the Coen brothers screenplay online), but the pictures, and the look are very much different. As I noted in the latter version's review, the first takes place in a sunny glen, where as this takes place in a wintry scrub-meadow, and although everybody is properly grubby in the 1969 version directed by Henry Hathaway, here the participants look positively scraggly.

Also, the technology has improved. The Coens and their brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins can use Steadicams to smooth the bumps and jostles following and tracking along with horses on the run. Not meaning any disparagement here, but John Wayne would not have been allowed to drive a horse with the reins in his teeth—he was doubtless on a camera truck during his scene, as I'm sure precautions were taken with Bridges in this one, although the close-shots are clearly him—it is just as clearly a stunt-man taking the fall with the trained horse (so care is taken for both horse and rider), and that's not real blood spurting out of men and horses. It also allows the camera to get in closer to the action (even from the horses' perspective—like a joust), while also letting the sound-boys emphasize distance by using separate microphone sources on the shouted dialogue in the meadow—a nice touch. 

The Coens and/or their editor Roderick Jaynes* are scrupulously tight with the editing, shots flow into each other, completing actions from previous shots and anticipating the results of the next. Each shot is composed to last just enough to complete an action, and as a result the sequence is fast. The 2010 version of the scene goes through 102 edits and lasts 02:29. The same sequence in Henry Hathaway's 1969 version lasts 04:48 and has 64 edits (both from surprising Chaney to LaBoueuf getting clobbered). That is an impressive difference, with Hathaway's providing more dialog and drama...and one great laugh-line efficiently, while the Coens make it a seamless, extraordinarily detailed military action—right down to making sure Cogburn sights with the one eye and adding more interaction with the watchers on the ledge.**

A couple of notes here. I've moved script sections around (crossing out the original placement), so you can see where the Coens moved things around for pacing—things move pretty fast, understandably, and so longer scenes with dialogue were shifted, so as to give a better flow to the action. And as for LaBoeuf's dialogue being written so strangely? Earlier in the film, LaBoeuf nearly bites his tongue in half from being dragged by a horse, and is still recovering.  That's why the sibilancy's a little thick. Matt Damon soft-pedals it a bit in the film, but it's there, and the script works phonetically.

This is Father's Day, and my memories of my father are slightly tied to the 1969 film, as I first went to see it with him. He gave a hard chuckle at John Wayne's "Fill your hands, you sunuvvabitch!"—he was constrained from using "language" at home, and used it only in front of us kids as a joke to get a rise out of my mother. He enjoyed hearing it in movies—he was a Navy man where things can get salty...I should tell you about the time we went to see The Last Detail—and took it with humor, and not with some outraged blue-nosed shock. I think he would have cackled at the way Jeff Bridges delivers the line-different from Wayne's—almost an offended scream. Anyway: obligatory Father's Day mention.

One other last thing: horses must think we're crazy.

The Scene:  The motley posse formed to bring in the killer of a "little" Texas Senator and the father of young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is "in a bad way:" Mattie has been captured by the gang the hapless gunman Tom Chaney, nee Chelmsford (Josh Brolin) has partnered with. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) has rescued Mattie, who the two lawman had supposedly abandoned. 

But, it was just a feint. They've split off, the Ranger tasked to rescue the girl, while Marshall Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) confronts his real prize, the gang of "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper)


Whack--a rifle stock swings into frame, connecting with Chaney's head.
His head snaps to one side and then lolls back as he slowly straightens, ropey drool and blood pouring from his mouth. He sways briefly and then collapses onto Mattie.
A hand enters to pull him off. Mattie blearily props herself on her elbows.
LeBoeuf is panting and sweating from his climb. He gazes down at Chaney. Once he has breath:
LeBoeuf: Sho that ish Chelmthford.
LeBoeuf: Shtrange to be sho closhe at lasht.
Mattie: Mr. Laboeuf...
Mattie: How is it you are here?
LeBoeuf's look breaks from Chaney. He pulls his pipe from his pocket and lights it.
LeBoeuf: I heard the shotsh...
LeBoeuf: and went down to the river. . .
He crosses the rock ledge.
LeBoeuf: . . . Cogburn outlined a plan.
LeBoeuf: (reacts to hole) Mind your footing. There izh a pit there!
He skirts the large hole and reaches the shelf's far lip and gazes out.
LeBoeuf: Hizh part, I fear...
LeBoeuf: ...izh rash.
Before him is a steep drop-off. We see the very crowns of near pines and then, four hundred yards away, the land flattening to an open meadow.
Mattie, also gazing out, comes up beside LeBoeuf.
Mattie: A plan?
LeBoeuf points with his pipe.
LeBoeuf: He returnzh for Lucky Ned.
Lucky Ned, the Parmalees, and the Doctor are just entering the low meadow, riding away.
As they do so Rooster enters at the far side, facing. He draws one of his navy sixes as he advances.
Mattie: One against four. It is ill advised.
Leboeuf shrugs.
LeBoeuf: He would not be dishuaded.
He and Mattie both watch as, below, the parties advance on each other at a walk. Eighty yards separating them, they halt.
Rooster and Lucky Ned eye each other. After a beat:
Lucky Ned: Well, Rooster...
Lucky Ned: ...will you give us the road?***
Mattie: One against four. It is ill advised.
Leboeuf shrugs.
LeBoeuf: He would not be dishuaded.
Rooster (in the distance): Hello, Ned.
Idiot: Moo! Moo!
Rooster: How many men are with the girl?
Lucky Ned: Our agreement is in force:
Lucky Ned: she was in excellent health when last I saw her.
Rooster nods. A beat.
Rooster: Farrel...
Rooster: I want you and your brother to stand clear. 
Rooster: You as well, Doctor.
Rooster: I have no interest in you today.
Lucky Ned: What is your intention, Rooster?
Lucky Ned: Do you think one on four is a dogfall?
Rooster: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned.
Rooster: Or see you hanged...
Rooster: ...in Fort Smith...
Rooster: ...at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will you have?
Ned Pepper laughs.
Lucky Ned: I call that bold talk...
Lucky Ned: ...for a one-eyed fat man!
Idiot: Koo koo roo! Blawk!
Rooster: Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!
He puts the reins in his teeth,
grabs his other revolver with the hand now free, and spurs his horse.
Mattie watches him charge.
The facing four charge to meet him.
Mattie: Shoot them, Mr. LeBoeuf!
LeBoeuf: Too far, moving too fasht.
Over the distant laughter of the idiot, the crackle of gunfire commences.
Rooster turns his head to either side as he fires, bringing his good eye into play.
The idiot is gaily waving a revolver over his head, not firing, squawking like a chicken as he charges.
A shot from Rooster kills him and swipes him neatly off his horse.
Mattie: Shoot them, Mr. LeBoeuf!
LeBoeuf: Too far, moving too fasht.
The Doctor Indian-rides past, sliding down and hooking an ankle on his saddle so that he may ride in the cover of his horse's body. He makes for the treeline on the far side of the meadow.
Farrel Parmalee has a shotgun. It roars.
Shot peppers Rooster.
He returns fire.
Farrel Parmalee's horse is hit. It stumbles, and Farrel is dashed forward, snapping his neck.
The Doctor Indian-rides past, sliding down and hooking an ankle on his saddle so that he may ride in the cover of his horse's body. He makes for the treeline on the far side of the meadow.
Rooster and Lucky Ned are charging each other, both firing.
They pass each other--both still mounted
--but Rooster's horse has been hit and it falls, pinning Rooster's leg. His guns are gone, lost in the fall.
Rooster, bleeding from sprayed shot in neck, face, and shoulder, struggles and unpins his leg.
Lucky Ned is reining his horse around with his left hand. His right arm dangles. He walks his horse toward Rooster, who is getting to his feet.
Lucky Ned: Well Rooster,...
Lucky Ned: I am shot to pieces.
Lucky Ned: It seems neither of us...
Lucky Ned: ...is to see Judge Parker.
He drops the reins to reach out a gun with his one working arm.
LeBoeuf, sighting.
LeBoeuf: Oh lord.
He squeezes the trigger.
He screams as the gun roars and bucks back into his shoulder.
Rooster is facing Lucky Ned.
Lucky Ned raises his gun at Rooster and--is shot in the chest.
As we hear the weakly distant guncrack Ned flops backward, slides halfway down one side of the saddle, and dangles, briefly, foot tangled in a stirrup, horse standing unperturbed.
Then, he drops.
Mattie whoops as LeBoeuf groans.
Mattie: Woo-hoo! Some bully...
Mattie: ...shot!
Mattie: That was...
Mattie: ...four hundred yards, at least!
LeBoeuf sets the rifle down and gropes at his shoulder.
LeBoeuf: I am afraid I have--
LeBoeuf: Well...
LeBoeuf: The Sharps carbine...
LeBoeuf: ...is a...
A rock is brought down on his head by Tom Chaney.
Mattie screams.

True Grit (2010)

Words by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based on the novel by Charles Portis)

Pictures by Roger Deakins and Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

True Grit (2010) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures.
(So, is True Grit from 1969)

* Roderick Jaynes is actually the nom de la lame of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.

** For the record (and it might be), there are 172 screen-caps in this one, and having done the previous version (with only 80 screen-caps), I felt a growing sense of panic when I'd gotten to 77 here without anybody firing a shot! The things I do for you people...

*** Everybody is great in this movie, but special mention must be made of Barry Pepper, playing "Lucky" Ned Pepper (no relation, I think), a role played in the earlier version by a pre-Godfather Robert Duvall. Pepper makes the role his own, with a rangy look, but an innate evil intelligence that the dialogue indicates. Pepper (Barry) also has the grace to acknowledge Duvall's history in the part, using distinctive hand-gestures that Duvall used while playing Captain Augustus McCrae in the mini-series of Larry McMurtry's great "Lonesome Dove." The screen-cap asterisked here is one of them—the lazy limp-wristed full-arm fluorish ending in a hand-point with two fingers.