Movie Marathon Wrap-up #03: Paul W.S. Anderson

BEST PICTURE:
Death Race

This is more like choosing the lesser evil than the best, really; and given that, I gravitate towards Anderson’s most fun film. It’s stiff competition between Death Race and The Three Musketeers, but I choose the former.

The Dreadnought falls in Death Race

BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE:
Laurence Fishburne, Event Horizon

Kurt Russell in Soldier is easily the lead performance that’s most in keeping with Anderson’s style, but I think Fishburn’s work in Event Horizon keeps that film grounded, with a sense of dignity and reputability that could easily have been lost by the time it turns into a gorefest.

Laurence Fishburne in Event Horizon

BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE:
Ian McShane, Death Race

Plays the Morgan Freeman to Statham’s Tim Robbins. Seems to always come across as a badass even when his role really isn’t. Totally game for what was required from him in Death Race… which wasn’t much, really.

Ian McShane in Death Race

BEST SCENE/MOMENT:
Milady steals the queen’s jewels, The Three Musketeers

Milla Jovovich kicking ass in slow motion, stripping down to a corset, rappelling off the top of a palace, and maneuvering through laser alarm tripwires. Laser tripwires… in 17th century France. Come on, no contest.

Milla Jovovich as Milady de Winter

CAMPIEST SCENE/MOMENT:
“Soldiers deserve soldiers, sir”, Soldier

“How do you know they will be back?” 
“Because they are soldiers, sir…like me” 
“Why are they doing this?” 
They’re obeying orders, sir…it’s their duty” 
“Do you know how many they’ll be?” 
17 more, sir” 
“You can’t fight 17 on your own. You have to organize us. We’re not cowards. We’ll do as you tell us. We’ll fight” 
“No” 
“why not?” 
“Soldiers deserve soldiers, sir” 
“But one soldier…against 17? What are you going to do?” 
“I’m going to kill them all, sir” 

Nuff said.

Kurt Russell. Soldier. 

MARATHON SCORE: 54/100

Advertisements

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)

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)

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

the predators

Alien vs Predator begins with a recruitment montage, just like the way that heist films do when they’re putting together a crew to execute a robbery. But in this film, the group that’s being put together is meant for a mission to Antarctica, where wealthy tycoon Charles Weyland has discovered an archeological find and is out to uncover it to make his stamp on history. The resulting group includes around a dozen people comprised of scientists, archeological experts, engineers, mercenaries, and Weyland himself.

Almost halfway into the film things start to go awry; and then shortly after that, I catch myself wondering: Why are they all… dying already? It’s no exaggeration when I say that someone was dying every 2-3 minutes. From the time the shit hits the fan, bodies were falling everywhere. Even characters that one would have thought might hang around a little longer ended up being cannon fodder. There was whatshisname who kept on showing pictures of his kids and I felt like they’d keep him alive until the climax to maintain the viewer’s sympathy. No, he died quickly. Then there were whatstheirnames who seemed like they had sparks between them and a romance was brewing. No, they died quickly too. At around the 1-hour mark, there were only two people left, then shortly after that, just a sole survivor.

Then I figured that the film is, of course, called Alien vs Predator, so they were just setting the stage for the titular battle. But even then, in the original Alien, The crew of the Nostromo ended up being such remarkable characters. Ripley in particular became one of the most iconic figures in sci-fi history. In the original Predator, not only Arnie, but also Dillon, Mac, and even Jesse “The Body” Ventura were such memorable parts of the story. They were the elements in those films that made you care about the conflict and be afraid of the danger. In AVP though, I could barely remember half of the crew after the film had ended. What’s worse is that I haven’t the slightest idea about any of their characters and personalities outside of the several most featured ones. Years from now, none of them will stick in my memory.

So in the absence of anyone to root for, AVP ends up being dull. In fact, it has very little going for it, if it even has any. There is nothing frightening or thrilling, the visual effects, sets and creature design are notable, but not particularly impressive. All that this film shows is that its producers knew elementary mathematics. The Alien film and its sequels made bajillions of dollars at the box office. The Predator film and its sequels also made bajillions of dollars at the box office. Put them together and what do you get? Two bajillions of dollars of course! And that’s the story of the film right there: Never mind the perfunctory plot. Never mind the cardboard cutout characters. Let’s just take these two incredibly recognizable sci-fi film franchises, beef it up with a fair amount of serviceable effects, then let the people come in droves… and they did. AVP: Alien vs Predator made quite a lot of bajillions of dollars in the box-office as well.

Rating: D (bad)

Soldier (1998)

Kurt Russell in Soldier

In most strategic video games, a player usually chooses beforehand whether to play against a human or an AI (artificial intelligence). When playing an AI, there’s also the matter of how difficult the AI should be. At its highest difficulty, an AI is designed to be faster, stronger and more efficient than any human. In Soldier, infants are selected at birth and trained to be war machines that are similarly faster, stronger and more efficient than any standard military recruit. They’re not robots, but they might as well be. They are brainwashed – or programmed, if you will – to become the most efficient killers possible. Todd (Kurt Russell) is one of these soldiers and the best in his squad. However, when a younger and better breed of super-soldiers is introduced, Todd’s squad is rendered obsolete. After being beat by one of the young blood, Todd finds himself thrown out to a remote waste disposal planet called Arcadia.

On Arcadia, Todd discovers a small and peaceful human society. Through them, he starts to feel emotions and reconnect with his humanity. When the squad of super-soldiers land on Arcadia and attack the colony, it’s Todd who defends them – not only defeating the younger soldier who beat him earlier, but also its entire squad, including their commander. So how is it that Todd gets manhandled earlier in the film and then is able to wipeout the entire opposing squad later on? The answer lies in the video game analogy I cited earlier. 

Even though an AI is superior on paper than any human, a lot of high level gamers will still be able to beat an AI easily at its highest difficulty. In most cases, they can even beat several at the same time. This is because AI’s don’t have the capacity for genuine human thinking, and that makes all the difference. AI’s are caught up in a web of routines and pre-defined conditions. While the speed of their processing power makes them more efficient than a human, it also makes them more predictable, and this predictability can be exploited. Humans on the other hand have the ability to adapt and feel, which makes their actions infinitely more varied and unpredictable, and this is what enables Todd – having gotten in touch, even partly, with his humanity – to save the Arcadian colony from being destroyed.

The surprising thing about Soldier is that it’s a film that has a lot to say. It wrestles with the question of what it means to be human and what the price of progress and perfection can be, which is incredibly relevant in today’s increasingly chaotic and fast-paced world. The unfortunate thing about it though is while David Peoples (writer of Blade Runner, Unforgiven & Twelve Monkeys) tries to convey a noble message through his story, the director is not one well-equipped to treat the material justly. When one sees close-ups of a woman’s nipples poking through her garments, an unbearably cheesy song backing an even cheesier amateurish montage, a rubber snake bought from a toy store meant to be a menacing threat, and a colonel urinating out of his trousers in terror – then you know that Paul W.S. Anderson has more juvenile and superficial goals in mind. There is also the forgivable issue of a $60-million sci-fi picture looking like it had a $6-million budget, but when an actor meant to be stone-faced and deliver a mere 104 words throughout the whole film turns in a better acting performance than half of the cast, then there’s just no saving that.

In the hands of a more competent filmmaker, Soldier could have been good. With a better cast, it could have been great. But as it is, the crudeness of the film robs the material of its power while the tacky and campy direction drowns out the message and prevents it from coming through loud and clear.

Rating: C (poor)

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)