Monday, August 18, 2003

Saw a couple of movies over the weekend:

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First up, Daredevil. I came into this one expecting a trainwreck of colossal proportions, based on all the negative word of mouth and reviews I had read. But you know what? I thought this film was OK. Not great, but OK. They stuck pretty close to the Frank Miller template. I think that if you're inclined to like Ben Affleck, that helps a lot. He's made a lot of junky films, but I've always thought he was an engaging presence, especially in the Kevin Smith movies, and he not only looks like the comics' Matt Murdock, but manages to give the character that tragic, driven side that Miller saddled him with for better or for worse. Jen Garner does a good job in a pretty limited role, considering that she's a onscreen a lot, and while I wasn't really all that crazy about Michael Clarke Duncan playing the Kingpin, when I first heard that he had the role, he won me over as the film went on. He's an imposing presence, exactly what the Kingpin should be. But I had reservations, simply based on the fact that the comics' Kingpin is a white man (please don't get me wrong here), and I was hoping they would stay true to the original conception of the characters. I've enjoyed Duncan in other films, and he was very good here. Jon Favreau (who I saw again in the funny Swingers yesterday) was born to play Foggy Nelson and had a couple of amusing scenes. Colin Farrell wasn't asked to do much as Bullseye except act like a lunatic, and he did that with aplomb...but the comics' Bullseye was largely a cool customer and not an eye-rolling, foam-at-the-mouth nutjob. It's been a long time since I read the original Miller run, though, so I could be wrong there. Still, a one-note performance, and I've seen better from him. Visually, I thought the filmmakers did an excellent, imaginative job of depicting DD's radar sense, especially in the scene with Elektra in the rain. The first big fight scene with Bullseye was fast-paced and well-staged- something the climactic battle was not.

On the negative side, this film is DARK. I don't mean in tone, although it is sometimes that too. But it seems 75% of the movie is shot in pitch blackness, and sometimes it's pretty frigging hard to follow what's happening, especially in the action scenes. I think the filmmakers must have left a lot of this film on the cutting room floor as well because the story often goes to point D from point A and you're left wondering what the hell happened. The plot tends to favor contrivance and the dialogue, while overall fine, gives us some eye-rollers once in a while. One is also hard pressed to understand why Matt falls so hard for Elektra and vice versa, especially on such short notice. They "meet cute", and fight a couple of times, and suddenly they're intensely devoted to each other? Somehow I doubt that technique will work for anyone else. I thought it was regrettable that once again we had to have our superhero characters decked out in fetishistic black leather (well, OK, very dark red in DD's case) outfits. I'm beginning to think the S&M outfitters must have a potent lobby system in Hollywood.

Gotta mention the wonderful "History of Daredevil" documentary that's included on the bonus disc. In it, they interview many of the people that have written and drawn Daredevil comics over the years, including Stan Lee, Miller, John Romita, Brian Michael Bendis, Kevin Smith, and most notably Gene Colan, one of my favorite comics artists from back in the day...and notably missing from the cameos and in-joke name-drops in the film itself. Fascinating stuff and something which almost makes buying the DVD worthwhile.

So, not a perfect film, but at least it showed some respect for the source material and didn't condescend. If I was inclined to give it star ratings, I'd give it 3 out of 5.

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The other movie I watched was Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, the story of Bob (Hogan's Heroes) Crane, his recreational pastimes and brutal demise, based on a book written by one of his sons. Now, I'm of that generation that remembers Crane from, of course, Hogan's and a ton of TV sitcom appearances on shows like Love Boat, Love, American Style and Night Gallery, where he played an affable, wisecracking "regular guy" most of the time. Then there was The Smirk, which was the most notable aspect of his run as the title character in Heroes. There was nothing in his onscreen persona which would prepare you for the revelations about his personal life, in which he was apparently a total sex freak, especially when it came to filming his exploits. Auto Focus exists, it seems, solely to present us with that side of old Bob, and that's what it does, unflinchingly, for almost two hours.

This film is meticulously crafted; the period recreations look right on the money. There are several scenes in which the Hogan's cast and sets are recreated, and they're very well done, especially Kurt Fuller, who plays Werner Klemperer playing Colonel Klink. In fact, all the performances are great: Greg Kinnear acts his ass off trying to portray the lead, who, as portrayed here seemed to have no moral compass or introspectiveness whatsoever- he apparently just fell right in with whatever he fell into and didn't trouble himself too much with the consequences, and Willem Dafoe once again successfully defends his crown as Creepiest Guy in Films Today with his portrayal of Crane's partner in debauchery, John Carpenter- who is often portrayed in what seemed to me to be an almost positive light. Perhaps he was manipulating and/or enabling Crane, and using him for his fame, but he also appeared sometimes to be a pathetic sycophant. Willem brings out every nuance in this contradictory character, as always.

The biggest drawback to this film, for me, was the one question I had when it was over...what, exactly, was the point Schrader was trying to make? By presenting Crane's peccadillos in such a objective manner, it's uncertain exactly what we're supposed to make of the man. There certainly seemed to be a void somewhere inside him, and perhaps Schrader intends this to be a cautionary tale. There's very little here that's erotic or titillating, even though there's a lot of nudity and naughty behavior, so that couldn't have been the idea either- in this way it's a lot like Boogie Nights, which at least had a sense of humor that this film totally lacks. Maybe the moral is "Don't film yourself or anybody else having sex, or someone will come along and beat you to death with a video camera tripod". Oh well, I suppose that's as good a moral as any. Another nitpicky thing for me was that while Kinnear certainly walked the walk as Crane, he just couldn't reproduce one of the man's most notable traits: his voice. Crane had a deep voice with a lot of range, and Kinnear just doesn't. And while this is not a big thing, it kept bugging me because he just didn't sound like Crane, and it kept me from totally believing that he was anything else but an actor portraying someone. The actor that played Richard Dawson didn't look a damn thing like the real Dawson of the time, either. The film would have you think that except for a couple of flop Disney films, Crane did nothing after Hogan's was over, but one look at his bio on IMDb will tell you otherwise. In all fairness, I have read of factual errors and misconceptions that were published in the book this movie's taken from, so a grain of salt must be employed when considering the facts presented, something like one has to do with Ed Wood, another similarly scandalous pseudobio that was scripted, I believe by the same people responsible for this movie.

Another somewhat negative side effect of this flick is now I can't watch anything with Crane in it now without flashing on his "other" life. I recently caught a showing of the movie Crane made in 1968 with many of the Hogan's cast members, The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz, not a porn film (despite the title) but a virtually laugh free cold war comedy with Elke Sommer as the title character. I could not help but wonder if Bob got to snog or at least photograph Sommer; you'd think he'd at least try. And that's terrible, I know...I've always been one that espouses the philosophy that there are two sides to every story and usually the truth falls somewhere in between. But now I'll always mentally tar Crane with that brush. Unfair, but what can ya do?

So see Auto Focus, it will suck you in and hold you for the duration. But after it's over, it will be, like many of Bob's exploits must have been, ultimately unsatisfying.