Event Horizon (1997)

Scary empty astronaut suits are scary.

Years before Paul W.S. Anderson was eventually tasked to direct an Alien movie, he already exhibited an admiration for the franchise by way of his own Alien wannabe, 1997’s Event Horizon. It’s horror set in space, but instead of an extra-terrestrial creature wrecking havoc onboard a human spacecraft, the spacecraft itself is the antagonist. Being an early directorial effort, this is a film where Anderson still wears his influences on his sleeve, and actually does well by doing so. When he eventually injects his own style into the picture though is where it begins to fail. 

In the film, Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and his crew are pulled back into active duty from a well-deserved vacation. The mission is to answer a distress signal received from the Event Horizon – a starship that has been declared missing for years. They take Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) onboard as the resident expert and he explains to them what the Event Horizon was meant to do: To use gravitational power and bridge two points in space-time, making travel from any two locations instantaneous. He reveals that he is the creator of this technology and they are tasked to bring him to it. 

For much of the first hour, Anderson’s film looks and feels like a homage to Alien: The dirty white furnishings contrast with the steely gray interiors, the noise from the engines purr as the ship trudges through space, the utilization of dramatic noirish lighting as the sun’s light peeks into the spacecraft, the use of muted and narrow color palettes that Anderson would similarly use in Death Race, and the creation of impressively detailed set design required to bring the futuristic space setting to life. There are even moments that evoke influences from Kubrick, particularly in one sequence where Anderson shows us the eerie empty shots of Miller’s ship. So for a while there, it seemed as though Event Horizon had the potential of turning into a true sci-fi or horror classic. 

However, the story progresses like a descent into the mouth of madness. Soon after spotting the Event Horizon and docking on it, the crew starts to sense something wrong about the ship. Aside from the ominous eerie atmosphere, there’s also the matter of getting life scan readings on their gadgets where there’s only a stench of death, not to mention portals that appear out of nowhere to engulf unwelcome explorers, haunting hallucinations surrounding their deepest desires and feers, the splatter of blood and guts on the wall, and really just the general very obvious sense of danger that surrounds the damn ship. 

What begins as a picture with a sense of restraint in pushing forward elements of horror, mystery, and suspense eventually devolves into a sadistic and hellish gorefest. At one point early into the film, Anderson lingers on a shot of four empty astronaut suits with bare helmets looking like blank faces and it’s both unnerving and foreboding in the subtlest of ways. Later on, the scares come courtesy of images of a body hanged face down by hooks on the skin of its back with guts opened up and its innards spilled on the floor. It’s a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation that sees the film at one point looking like it could be the bastard child of Alien and The Shining, and then an hour later it transforms into Hellraiser meets Mortal Kombat. 

Truth be told, I’m not the slightest fan of horror films. It might even be the genre of film I dislike the most, so whatever I say here, your milage may vary. In fact, Event Horizon seems to be relatively the most respected in Paul W.S. Anderson’s much-maligned filmography. Laurence Fishburn and Sam Neill are also by far the most respectable of actors to top-bill any Anderson movie. Fishburn in particular brings a sense of reputability and dignity in his performance even as all hell breaks loose in the film. So in a lot of ways, I can see how other people – especially genre fans – can enjoy this film much more than I did. It’s just that while I liked the direction where Event Horizon was headed for the first half or so of the film, I feel that how it devolved into utter chaos was unfortunate. 

Rating: C+ (average)

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The Three Musketeers (2011)

Logan Lerman as d'Artagnan

For years, Paul W.S. Anderson has been making a name for himself by creating his own brand of tacky sci-fi and silly action films. Those are what he does best, can make work, and suit his style perfectly. The Three Musketeers seemed so far off from that that I had no idea how he could make it work – at least on the level that his best films have worked for him. It sounded like an inevitable train-wreck on paper. It seemed like an effort by Anderson to improve his reputation and legitimize his status as a filmmaker by trying to step out of his comfort zone. Especially when you see the cast and spot names like Christoph Waltz and Mads Mikkelsen, it begins to feel like a determined effort to make a “serious” picture.

For those not familiar with the classic Alexandre Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers is a story set in 17th century France. It revolves around a confident, strapping young lad named d’Artagnan who travels to Paris with dreams of becoming one of the King’s Musketeers. It’s there where he ends up meeting the Athos, Porthos & Aramis – the Three Musketeers – and a swashbuckling story follows, filled with themes of friendship, loyalty, treachery, secrets, lies, romance, greed, plus a generous serving of fun and adventure. It’s a period piece, and one that didn’t seem to ever be on the same trajectory as Paul W.S. Anderson’s directorial career.

If Anderson had gone the typical route and created a straightforward adaption of the film, it could have been incredibly boring. What I didn’t anticipate is that Anderson had a craftier plan in mind. Instead of adapting to the needs of the story, he instead adapted the story to suit his needs. He didn’t step out of his comfort zone – he brought the novel into it. The result at the very least is not something that’s artistically bankrupt.

Anderson’s treatment is a watered-down version of the original story, but it still keeps the key elements of the narrative intact. The characters, time, place and central plot are the same, but instead of Louis XIII’s France as we know it, Anderson has infused the world with a steampunk atmosphere, filling it with gigantic blimps as menacing warships, various mechanized gadgets and industrial weaponry. Even visual flair of the film adheres to its ambiance with the fun, vibrant colors and adventurous patterns scattered all over the place. Every aspect of the film that could be designed was done so ornately and with care. Everything has been peppered with such lavish and regal embellishments that if had been nominated for an Oscar for any of its costumes, production design or hair and make-up, I would be behind the nomination 100%.

Visually, it’s a refreshing take on the story, but make no mistake about it, this is still quite a ridiculous film. Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich) is in one scene running down a corridor dodging bullets ala-Matrix; and then in one of Anderson’s best scenes, she’s taking down guards left and right wearing a corset en route to stealing the queen’s jewels. Planchet and Louis XIII are reduced to a crass whipping boy and  a bumbling, whiny teen respectably, both for nothing else but cheap laughs. And while Mikkelsen, Waltz, plus the titular trio of Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson and Luke Evans try their best to raise the credibility of this adaptation, Logan Lerman is almost single-handedly able to spoil their efforts as one of the most laughably annoying miscasts of our time.

So while I’d want to argue that The Three Musketeers elevates Anderson’s style with the quality of its source material, the reality is that Anderson actually brings the quality of the story down to his level. He takes a multi-layered narrative and strips it down to its bare essentials and chooses to focus on making it fun, entertaining and look pretty instead. Maybe he’s realized that he simply does not have the skills to make the themes and messages of a good story shine through or maybe he simply doesn’t care to do so; but in any case, The Three Musketeers is fun, entertaining and looks pretty indeed.

Rating: C+ (average)

Death Race (2008)

someone about to die in Death Race

Shortly into the film, one will notice that Death Race oddly looks like a laundry list of its actors most popular roles. Jason Statham plays The Transporter, Joan Allen plays Pamela Landy and Tyrese Gibson reprises his role from The Fast and the Furious. Thankfully, Ian McShane gives the viewer a character to look forward to, with his gravelly voice and authoritative aura. But everyone else plays some sort of caricaturish cardboard cut-out role whose only purpose is to increase the body count throughout the film. The only thing that could have made the typecasting more ridiculous is if Robin Shou had pulled out some kung-fu moves while he was at it.

The film stars Statham as Jensen Ames, a man framed for the murder of his wife, subsequently incarcerated and eventually forced into being a driver for the top form of entertainment in the film’s dystopian world: The Death Race. The mastermind of the race and top beneficiary of its profits is Hennessey (Allen), the warden of the prison. And in a twist telegraphed long before it’s actually revealed, we learn that Hennessey is actually the brains behind Jensen being framed. The purpose being so that she could use him to assume the role of recently-deceased Frankenstein – the most popular racer in the game.

It isn’t difficult to surmise that Death Race is a film created by a director with no ounce of subtlety or nuance in his body, which is perfect because this is a film perfectly suited for the video game generation. The race itself looks exactly like a video game with its combination of cars, guns, competition and various gameplay mechanics. There is even a montage where the different drivers are introduced and it plays out similar to a racing game selection screen. There are copious amounts of blood, gore, crass humour and bad punch lines masquerading as badass punch lines. And to top it all off, the film also has the depth of character and plot development that one would find in most popular modern shooting games… which is not much.

Yet, for all of Death Race‘s shortcomings, Paul W.S. Anderson is not at all a bad director. Unlike Michael Bay, who always has everything turned up to 11, Anderson still has a setting that goes down a few notches. The pacing in this film is not perfect, but it’s not a mind-numbing attack on all the senses either. The best thing about it is that even though Anderson is a terrible writer who never goes beyond an elementary treatment of his screenplay, he knows how to put together a visually cohesive film.

Everything about the look of Death Race – from the sets to the props and the costumes – all serve to enhance the film’s dark, cold, steely and worn-out industrial aesthetic. Even the muted colour tones (contrast this to the vibrant palette in his 2011 film Three Musketeers) also conform to the film’s overall atmosphere. He knows how to work the camera and there are a lot of visually engaging shots that play with light and shadow and silhouettes. Anderson also shows the capability to come up with interesting camera angles and well-framed images; but most intriguingly, his fast-paced editing, quick cuts and shaky camera work play out like a poor man’s Paul Greengrass. It’s a more indulgent technique that results in a superficial grittiness compared to the raw and visceral work of Greengrass, but nonetheless works excellently for Anderson’s style.

Death Race is not nearly as bad as the reputation of its director suggests. In fact, I enjoyed it, was entertained and am now looking for a potential marathon topic where I could squeeze in the original it was based on. The film is cheesy, campy and comes from the same school of filmmaking as Michael Bay, but unlike Bay, Anderson shows skill and restraint. This film is still best experienced if you leave your brain at the door, but if for some reason you want to bring it in, rest assured the experience will not leave you feeling like your brain was mashed and eviscerated once you step out.

Rating: C+ (average)

Design for Living (1933)

Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March in Design for Living

After watching Trouble in Paradise, the one thing that I said I wanted more of was Miriam Hopkins. I got that in Design for Living. In the film, Hopkins works within the confines of a love triangle once more and chews up the scenery yet again. The recipients of the brunt of her performance this time are Gary Cooper and Fredric March as best buddies who become rivals vying for the heart (or body?) of Hopkins. This is not a romance though. This instead is a film more about passions and carnal desires more than romantic love. And as always, Lubitsch’s light touch and comedic treatment is able to make the material funny and breezy.

Gilda Farrell (Hopkins) is a commercial artist who draws artwork for advertisements. While on a train in Paris, she meets a two roommates: Struggling artist George Curtis (Cooper) and a struggling playwright Tom Chambers (March). She takes a liking for them instantly; and them for her, which ends up with Gilda sleeping with both of them secretly, much to the chagrin of her long-time friend Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Naturally, this causes trouble when it becomes clear to everyone that Gilda has been cheating on both roommates with the other. A confrontation with the three of them ensues and the resulting arrangement has Gilda living in but having sex with neither of them. Instead she simply remains as their “Mother of the Arts” to help them both succeed with their respective pursuits. The sexual tension however, is palpable, and the arrangement is soon broken, which throws the trio against each other once again.

Design for Living has the always-dependable Lubitsch wit, class and sophistication, but remarkably the least so out of the top-tier Lubitsch films. The dialogue is smart, snappy and witty, though that’s always the case with this director’s films. Hopkins is marvellously feisty, saucy and painfully sexy, while Horton is as reliable as needed being a frequent collaborator of Lubitsch. Cooper and March however, are both merely serviceable in their roles. While far from being “bad” per se, they don’t exactly make the story vibrant either. Cooper in particular has been maligned by some as being this film’s weak link, but most of those criticisms are gross exaggerations. His performance is typified by being more brawn and less finesse, which is slightly antithetic to the Lubitsch aesthetic, but still fairly decent. March, on the other hand, is characterized by a certain haughtiness that makes me think the role could have been more apt and appealing if played more sympathetically.

If anything, Design for Living shows how much Lubitsch’s films depend on his actors as much as it depends on the so-called “Lubitsch touch.” While Hopkins is totally game – maybe even more so than she was in Trouble in Paradise – nobody else really is in the same way, which unfortunately makes Design for Living something of a “lesser Lubitsch” compared to the other four films of his that I included in this marathon. It’s a film that’s fuelled by sassy sexiness and titillating innuendo as much as the comedy but regrettably neither fully comes to life nor reaches its full potential.

Rating: C+ (average)

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

It’s a peculiar experience to see a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis where he either wasn’t the most interesting actor or didn’t play the most interesting role. In most of his other films, he disappears into the character. He was Bill the Butcher. He was Daniel Plainview. He was Abraham Lincoln. In The Last of the Mohicans, he’s just a good actor making the most of a dull role. For the first time, I’ve seen him give a performance that I can easily see being done by another actor with half his talent.

More fascinating than his Hawkeye is that of the English Major, Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington). He gives off an aura like Javert from Les Miserables. Not as cold, but just as firm regarding his strict principles, patriotism and adherence to duty. In spite of this, there are scenes that subtly hint at his turn of heart and unlikely sympathy. That internal conflict is what makes him among the more interesting aspects of this movie, and it culminates in a surprising turn during the film’s climax.

Another thing peculiar about The Last of the Mohicans is it being a historical epic in Michael Mann’s filmography. As a director who typically excels in action-thrillers, it’s curious to see him weave together multiple dramatic narratives set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War. He not only tackles the conflict between England and France, but also the struggles of the local militia, a Native American’s quest for revenge and, of course, a love story. Interestingly enough, he succeeds in telling most of these tales, which brings me to the oddest thing about the film.

For the first time in a Michael Mann movie, the action sequences are what left me bored and uninterested. A lot of it was messy, unfocused and fell flat as if the efficacy of his stylized direction gets overwhelmed by the grandiose scope of this wartime period piece. He nails the beautifully sweeping cinematography, costumes and production design needed for such an epic, but for Mann’s standards it feels safe. The most compelling scenes turn out to be the ones that have very little action going on. The best ones in particular include one where the French & English army negotiate the latter’s terms for surrender, one at the end involving talks with the chief of the a native American tribe, and one in particular with Madeline Stowe stretching her acting chops as she argues fiercely against the charges of sedition against her lover.

On a narrative level, it’s a story layered with multiple conflicts, both external and internal, all handled very deftly. That’s not to say that it’s without fault, as I personally could have done without any of the romantic angles, which is – I’ve come to learn – something that Mann doesn’t do very well. Yet even then, the narrative of The Last of the Mohicans is easily much more engaging that anything else about it, which is not something I thought I’d ever say about a Michael Mann film.

Rating: C+ (average)