Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Double Bill: Dredd (2012) & Judge Dredd (1995)

This post was never intended to be a post-mortem but after Dredd's extremely disappointing box office last weekend it's going to be tough not to try and examine what went wrong. I think a lot of the blame has to be Lionsgate who once again proved their marketing department isn't up to scratch. Much like Conan last year, the campaign for Dredd was quite underwhelming - two posters and only one trailer? Released a couple of months before opening? It's going to be interesting to see if they correct their mistakes for next year when I, Frankenstein opens. Also, I think audiences are slowly getting more and more turned off by 3D films - they can tell it's a cheap way to boost ticket sales. Anyway, let's put all that behind us and take a look at the film itself.

Dredd is set in the future where nuclear war has forced Americans to live in three enormous walled mega cities. The police have disbanded and in their place are the Judges - law enforcers who can execute people on sight. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a veteran officer is assigned the job of assessing Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a rookie with psychic abilities, and takes her on a routine call out to Peach Trees - a 200 story block of flats. However, when they get there the drug lord ruler of Peach Trees, Ma Ma (Lena Headey), locks down the building and orders her men to execute the judges.

The first thing to say is that, in case you didn't know, Dredd is an adaptation of a very popular UK comic strip from 2000AD which has run since 1977 (admittedly, it popularity is mostly confined to the UK). It's an anarchic, violent and often witty comic strip that predominantly likes to take pop shots at America society and culture. Alex Garland's small scale script is certainly violent, occasionally witty but feels distinctly lacking in anarchy. Urban does a great job as Dredd, channeling a young Clint Eastwood and does a heck of good job consider he's only allowed to act with his body, chin and voice. He's ably supported by Thirlby who more than holds her own as Anderson, and is given the bulk of the character journey for the film. Headey as well, gives a spirited punk-inspired performance as Ma Ma (though arguably she never seems really terrifying like a good bad guy should).

For the most part, I really like the way the film was put together. The Judge costumes look like proper military/SWAT armour. To create the sprawling metropolis of Mega City One they just photoshopped Johannesburg and made it stretch for miles. And all the CGI work is made up of subtle background elements that really create a credible vibe for the city. Dredd is clearly taking a page out of Chris Nolan's Dark Knight films, smoothing out the more outlandish bits of the comic book and making them as realistic as possible. For me, the problem was that the story just felt too small. I can see that the makers have had to think carefully about the script in order to accommodate their $45 million budget but the film still felt too narrow, too "on-rails". There's very few interesting subplots or developments after the initial story is set up.

Also it never feels like Dredd and Anderson are ever in any real danger - unlike John McClane in Die Hard or Rama in The Raid. Both judges have superior weapons and gadgets that get them out of most situations very quickly. As the trailer lays out, they have to get to the top of 200 story block of flats but it never seems like much of slog. In fact, they use an elevator to get up most of the floors. I'm all for seeing a "day in the life" of Judge Dredd but I think they could have made some more dramatic story choices. Or broken up the action a bit more, the problem was that the story seems quite epic - wow, they've got to get up 200 floors - but it's actually quite dull visually, given that each floor looks exactly the same as the last.

As noted early, Dredd is also a 3D movie which I felt was a bit of an unnecessary choice. There are some very cool slow motion bits throughout the film of people being shot but these were already highly saturated and stylised (great work by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), the 3D felt a bit like overkill. I know it sounds like I'm quite negative on the film but I did enjoy it - it's certainly a three star movie - I just expected a bit more from the film. Given that the performances and costume work (not to mention the source material) were all pretty awesome, it's a shame they couldn't have been housed in a more engaging film.


Okay, and now on to Judge Dredd, the 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone. This got a lot of backlash on release from fans and non-fans alike. Fans hated the fact that Stallone's Dredd not only takes his helmet off but also kisses his colleague Hershey - two things that the comic book character never did. They also didn't like the film's mostly comedic tone. While non-fans complained of deja vu as the film came out within two years of Demolition Man, another Stallone film which saw him play a cop who chases a psychotic criminal through a futuristic city while using excessive force.

Despite these criticisms I still enjoy the film quite a lot. I was never that bothered that Dredd took his helmet off* and yeah, I agree that Stallone should have picked either this OR Demolition Man because the material IS too similar. Still, it's a fun, robust adventure movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. Also, unlike Dredd this film does take a lot of the iconography of the comic book and transplant it verbatim. The costume has it's cheesy eagle shoulder pads, the cannibalistic Angel family are featured and even the main robot is taken from the 2000 AD comic (though admittedly, from another strip ABC Warriors).

Judge Dredd sees Stallone play the titular character, a no-nonsense futuristic cop who is framed for a murder he didn't commit by his twin brother Rico (Armand Assante). Despite the best efforts of his partner Judge Hershey (a smokin' hot Diane Lane) he's sent to off to prison but his transport plane is shot down over the wastelands. Here he's forced to team up with small time criminal Fergee (Rob Schneider) to break back into the city and stop Rico from taking over control of the city. I know it's a little unfair comparing the two films. Judge Dredd had the advantage that it had a huge star in the lead, a $90 million budget and came out first. A lot of people have suggested that Dredd did poorly because people still remembered this one being a flop.

What I enjoyed about the film is that it retains some of the wacked out comedy of the comic strip that was absent from Dredd. I know Rob Schneider's a very annoying actor but, in this, I thought he was okay. He's there to poke fun at how po-faced and serious Judge Dredd is and I think he made a good and appropriate counterfoil. I still really enjoy his introduction in the film as he takes a shuttle bus through the city and tries to spot where he's going to get relocated only to realise the "Heavenly Haven" apartment blocks he's assigned to is an absolute warzone. And then gets arrested 10 minutes later.

Also, the set work was brilliant. Okay, a lot of it is obviously a soundstage but it's so huge and domineering - a parody of Ridley Scott cityscapes in Blade Runner. Sure, the costumes were questionable (spandex jumpsuits with a cod piece? Really?) but they were also really well designed and realised. They weren't really meant to be realistic, this wasn't a realistic movie. The cast is brilliant as well - Jurgen Prochnow, Max Von Sydow, Diane Lane. Stallone was a decent choice to play Dredd. It's kind of a catch 22 in that the film wouldn't have had the budget it had without him, but with him it ensure that it was going to have to be a film about a Judge Dredd who took off his helmet for the most part. No movie executive would fund a $100 million film with a star's face permanently obscured.

Basically, Judge Dredd was a compromised adaptation from the outset but I still think it's a pretty enjoyable action film regardless. It has a huge scope, weird characters, plot twists, hover bike chases, shoot outs, fights with robots. Call me a 10 year old, but this is the kind of stuff I love watching. There are some flaws in this one as well though. I hate the horrible bit where Hershey works out Dredd was cloned in a lab by removing photoshop layers from his baby photo(!) and how ever many times I watch it I still can't believe they cut out the sequences with all the clones coming to life at the end. That could have been an amazing fight sequence! By contrast Dredd is, tonally, a more faithful adaptation but it fails to do very much interesting with its protagonist.

Anyway, I guess I should wrap up. I liked both these movies. I'm not one for star rating but Judge Dredd maybe gets 3 and half stars while Dredd gets 3. Judge Dredd has the slight advantage in that I've watched it 20 more times than Dredd and given that I was 12 when it came out I maybe view it with rose-tinted glasses. I'll likely give the new film another go later on DVD. I think one of the problems that both films faced is that the comic is deceptively multi-layered. It's satire/action/comedy/horror/sci-fi which borrows from lots of other works; Mad Max, Death Race 2000, Dirty Harry, Blade Runner to name a few. In a lot of ways it's a melting pot and in trying to adapt it you can only really pull out two or three major threads, you always lose something important.


* And before you ask, yes I have read Dredd for many years - I'm a big fan of the early stories: The Cursed Earth, Day the Law Died, Judge Child, Block Mania etc. Anything drawn by Brian Bolland. I kind of fell out of love with it when it turned colour in the 90s.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Underrated martial arts: Broken Fist (2008)

I was thrilled to see this little flick has finally got released on DVD because I've been waiting ages. It originally came out in 2008 as Broken Path and played a few festivals in the US before disappearing without a trace. Thankfully some clever marketing guy has brought it to widespread attention by giving it the more marketable name of Broken Fist and releasing it in the UK.

Here's a bit of background about why I was so interested in it. Firstly, it's directed by Koichi Sakamoto. You might not recognise the name but he was the primary fight choreographer behind Drive (Mark Dacascos one, not Ryan Gosling) – one of the best DTV martial arts flicks ever – as well as Guyver: Dark Hero. Secondly, the premise is insane. A lot of films claim to be wall-to-wall fighting but this one actually delivers on that promise. It does not stop.

Sakamoto also did a lot of the stunt work on the TV series Power Rangers, which you may sniff at but so did Isaac Florentine (Undisputed II & III, Ninja, US SEALS II, The Shepherd) so it's clearly a very good breeding ground for quality action directors. I guess it's here that he met the leading actor of the film, Johnny Yong Bosch (who played the Black Ranger for several seasons as well as the the two movies).

Bosch plays Jack Ellis, an young guy who has recently moved into a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with his wife, Lisa (Pamela Walworth), and daughter. After having a small housewarming and packing the kid off to summer camp he and Lisa set about renovating the house, however the only thing that's going to get renovated this weekend is Jack's face as a group of masked attackers descend on the house intent on killing him and Lisa. Who are they? What do they want? And where did Jack suddenly gain these awesome fighting abilities?

To say any more of the plot would ruin it (mainly because there's not much more to it). The set up is all done by the 15 minute mark and after that everything takes place in real time as Jack tries to escape with his wife and fight off his attackers. Yes, it is literally 75 minutes of non-stop fighting. Okay, maybe there's 5 minutes of dialogue interspersed in there but that's it. One review I read described it in a perfect way – it's like watching a mix of an action movie and an experimental art film!

Considering the length of the fights, the choreography never gets dull. Sakamoto really knows how to inject fights with fun and creativity. There's a lot of jumping and flipping but nothing looks like it used wires and each punch and kick looks brutal. And there's some crazily gory death scenes too. At times it almost feels like your watching a horror movie. I thought it was quite clever to have the bad guys where masks as I guess it made them easy to double but from what I could tell Bosch did most of his own fight scenes. Hats off to the guy, he was incredible in this.

I can't understand why he hasn't gotten more work (I know he does a lot of anime voice over work) because he was on fire in this. Not only was he great at fighting he also had some good charisma that reminded me a little of Mark Dacascos back in the day. Some producer needs to use him in some quality DTV action movies now! And while you're at it, sign up Sakamoto to direct them. There are so many terrible, lazy, boring DTV action films out there, these guys could blow the competition out of the water.

One negative thing that a lot of people have brought up about the film is the indestructibility of all the characters. There's only ever 5 attackers and Jack in the whole (maybe they should have used more). Everyone gets hit, stabbed, cut, kicked, thrown down stairs multiple times. Sure, it's highly unrealistic but I think after about the first ten minutes you just accept that the makers aren't trying at realism, they are aiming purely for enjoyability. And for me they succeeded. So if you can get over this small point I think you'll love the movie, it gets my highest approval!


Friday, September 14, 2012

Time Machine: Box Office Predictions for Summer 2013

Now that the summer 2012 season is over I thought it would be a fun idea to make some predictions for how next year would pan out. I'll come back to this post this time next year and see how good my powers of foresight are!


Oz: The Great and Powerful
Sam Raimi (director)
Prediction: OKAY-ish
I don't know, are the Oz books really that popular anymore? Sure there's Wicked on Broadway but that was a clever post-modern reworking of story, this seems too earnest. I can see it doing respectable business but don't think it will be the franchise starter Disney want it to be.

Kimberly Pierce (director)
Prediction: BIG HIT
Even though Brian De Palma's 1976 version is considered pretty definitive I can see critics and audiences liking this. Chloe Moretz is a great choice to the play the lead and I'm expecting an equally great performance from Julianne Moore. Also, there's far too few female directors in Hollywood so it's good to see Kimberly Pierce taking the reins on this.

Now You See Me
Louis Leterrier (director)
No seriously, I think this will be the sleeper hit of the year. I really do. Sure, it hasn't got any big name cast members but it has got a truly fantastic set-up - a group of magicians pull off bank heists - that I can't believe someone hasn't made it already. As long as Leterrier keeps his directing in check and doesn't make an empty CGI spectacle like Incredible Hulk or Clash of the Titans we should be in for treat.

Jack the Giant Killer
Bryan Singer (director)
Prediction: BOMB
Sorry I can't see this doing well. The story of Jack and the beanstalk really didn't need a gritty “Lord of the Rings” reworking. I don't think Nicholas Hoult has the right charisma to be a full on leading man. Plus, I wish Singer would get back to doing smaller films like The Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (now in 3D)
Jon Chu (director)
Prediction: OKAY-ish
Another film that got pushed back from summer 2012 was the GI Joe sequel. It's a shame because I think it probably would have actually put up a decent fight against The Amazing Spider-man. Apparently, the makers have taken the time to convert it into 3D (which makes me less interested) and possibly added some more Channing Tatum (who has had a great 2012).

Evil Dead
Fede Alvarez (director)
Prediction: OKAY-ish
To be honest, I'd far rather an Evil Dead 4 with Bruce Campbell so my judgment is quite clouded on this. It seems so sacrilegious to remake such an important horror milestone. I understand the makers are going for a different feel – new characters, serious tone, drug metaphor – but I think most people will be fairly disinterested in this.

Joseph Kosinski (director)
Prediction: PRETTY GOOD
One of the few films out in summer 2013 that isn't a franchise. I think this will do pretty good business but won't be a runaway hit. Tom Cruise still seems to pull in the crowds (see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and I think Kosinski's a great visualist (perhaps even an heir to Ridley Scott?) who didn't get enough respect for his work on Tron: Legacy.

Iron Man 3
Shane Black (director)
Prediction: PRETTY GOOD
I'm sure Marvel's run of successful movies can't last forever – can it? The Avengers was great but a lot of that was down to Joss Whedon's assured writing and directing. By comparison Shane Black seems a bit of a “wild card”, I don't know how suited he is to the material. Still the Iron Man character has a lot of popularity so it's never going to totally flop.

Star Trek Into Darkness
J. J. Abrams (director)
Prediction: HIT
I'll admit the lack of colon in the title has me worried but the cast seems great. Benedict Cumberbatch (crazy name, crazy guy) is very “in” right now and it's great to see Peter Weller getting some big screen work. My only request is: can we give Anton Yelchin a proper 'mop top' hair cut to play Chekov?

Fast & Furious 6
Justin Lin (director)
Prediction: PRETTY GOOD
I can't see this film topping the surprise success of Fast Five but I still think this will do solid numbers at the box office and they'll make Fast & Furious 7: Mission to Moscow not long after. Vin Diesel seems to be having a great time wringing every last drop of money out of this series and the Riddick movies.

The Hangover Part III
Todd Phillips (director/screenplay)
Prediction: OKAY-ish
I'll admit I've never seen any of The Hangover movies. The central plot just seemed so generic and lazy. Maybe I'll give them a go at some point in the future because I do like Zach Galifianakis' 'Between Two Ferns' series. Anyway despite never seeing them I can tell from the reviews of Part II that audiences are getting a little weary of the concept. Pulling out a sequel so soon after the last one seems like a mistake.

After Earth
M. Night Shyamalan (director)
Prediction: NOT GOOD/BOMB
I'm getting slightly Waterworld vibes off this one – another big budget movie about a post apocalyptic earth. I feel sorry for Shyamalan, he can't seem to catch a break from critics, but I don't think this is going to be his comeback. In fact, I have a weird feeling it might completely bomb and lose a lot of money.

Man of Steel
Zack Snyder (director)
I think this will likely be the big hit of the summer. Everybody loves Superman and unlike the previous film – Superman Returns – this feels like a brand new exciting take on the character. I loved the Terence Malick-esque trailer and I think Christopher Nolan's influence on the film will be heavily felt.

Monsters University
Dan Scanlon (director)
Prediction: PRETTY GOOD
I kind of wish that Pixar would go back to making just original films but I understand that they've got to go “back to the well” every now and then. At least they've placed the characters in a completely new setting for this one and it hasn't got much competition from other children's films.

World War Z
Marc Forster (director)
Prediction: OKAY-ish
I think everyone is aware that this film has had a troubled production history and they seem to be doing a lot of reshoots at the moment to try and “fix” it. Films like this rarely do well but I think given that zombies are still very much “en vogue” it will pull in decent audiences. However the expense of the reshoots will probably mean it will only just break even.

Robert Schwentke (director)
Prediction: OKAY-ish
Ryan Reynolds seems to have gotten a bit of critical respect back after his 2011 flops (Green Lantern and The Change-Up) so I think this won't completely bomb but I think that audiences unfamiliarity with the comic book it's based on will stop it from doing big business.

The Lone Ranger
Gore Verbinski (director)
Prediction: NOT GOOD/BOMB
I love the concept for this – that Tonto is the hero and the Lone Ranger is a buffoon – but I think audiences are tired of Johnny Depp just doing over-the-top impressions rather than actually acting. Again, I don't think this is a franchise starter for Disney.

Pacific Rim (now in 3D)
Guillermo del Toro (director)
Yep, I think this will be the surprise bomb of the year. I'm sorry, I love Del Toro and I think I'll love this movie – it sounds like a cool riff on Godzilla – but I have a sneaking suspicion that it will flop at the box office and only become a cult classic a few years later. I think audiences will think it sounds too much like Transformers or Battleship.

The Wolverine
James Mangold (director)
Prediction: OKAY-ish
I was really pumped for this when Darren Aronofsky was attached but since he dropped out my interest has cooled. Mangold's a good director (I absolutely love Copland) but I can't see him making anything spectacular with this. Also, the last Wolverine movie was really quite bad movie – I don't think people have forgotten that.

300: Rise of an Empire
Noam Murro (director)
Prediction: NOT GREAT
It's so long since the original film came out (okay, only six years) but I think cinema has moved on from that over-stylised look – even the Spartacus TV show has been cancelled now. People didn't seem that interested in seeing Immortals in 2011 and I think this will do about the same numbers as that or maybe even less.

Dean Parisot (director)
Prediction: NOT GREAT
RED was a decent little movie but I think the “old age mercenaries” thing is getting a bit tired now. Expendables 2 showed that there's not much more to be done with the sub-genre. They need to have a really good story to have any chance of making some money on this.

Jose Padilha (director)
Again, like Evil Dead, Robocop is a film that's very close to my heart. I'd even suggest that it's my favourite film of all time. I want to say that it will flop but I can't tell if that's just because I don't want it made (seriously, has someone just bought all of Paul Verhoeven's back catalogue – when the Hollow Man remake?). It has got a great cast but I've seen a lot of critically praised foreign director trip up on their first American debut.

What do you guys think?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Random video... Sean Young's memories of Dune

Okay, this is going to be a bit of lazy post this week because I've literally just got back from holiday and haven't had time to watch anything let alone review it.

Anyway, I stumbled across this cool little video on youtube the other day and thought it would be a cool thing to share. It's a compilation of Sean Young's personal super 8 videos from her time working on David Lynch's adaptation of Dune.

It's fascinating to see all the actors in and out of costume and Young herself gives a nice little commentary on all the key players (though I think she's edited her comments on Lynch himself).

I've got to say I'm a pretty big fan of Dune. Sure, it's a bit of mess of a movie but damn if it isn't an interesting-looking mess.