Friday, August 03, 2007

Camera Obscura - Shooter, Watchmen, Bergman, Blow-Up

Conspiracies and secrets fill the movies on today's menu, along with generous amounts of tough guy-isms. Plus a few news items on movies coming out in The Future.

Speaking of The Future - the award for dumbest idea I've heard in a while is the project to make "Magic 8-Ball: The Movie". Yeah, the toy from the 1960s. At least it isn't a musical with John Travolta in drag (yet). Mattel and Hasbro are also pitching movies based on the board games Candy Land, Monopoly, and others. Hopefully all these ideas (like a lot of toys these days) will get recalled before they ever get rolling. Then again, if I could finish up my script for "Slinky vs Silly Putty" fast enough, I could be a major player in no time. No, you don't like that idea? Wait -- how about "Easy Bake Oven From Hell"??

A movie yet to be finished (or even started) held much of the attention at the San Diego Comic-Con which just wrapped up. The talk about the long-planned and now in pre-production movie version of Alan Moore's brilliant graphic novel "The Watchmen" was most intriguing. Director Zack Snyder, whose work has been just darn near flawless, has spoken of some terrible casting ideas in recent weeks, but the things he said in San Diego give me hope:

One of the things I think is important about Watchmen is that it have resonance within cinematic pop culture as well as superhero culture. Because I believe there's a relationship between Rorschach and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver."

On running time for the film: "I don't have a time frame right now. I think it's running pretty long right now - it's about 130-140 page script, not counting "The Black Freighter". "The Black Freighter" (an essential subplot from the comic) is about 16 or 17 pages as a script."


I have to give a big thank you to Les Jones, who wrote about a movie called "Shooter" out earlier this year and now on DVD. Based on action/adventure writer Stephen Hunter's book "Point of Impact," it didn't get much of a push from studios and disappeared quickly from theatres. But what Les wrote made me remember it and want to see it. Good call, Les.

Now you can watch it at home and prepare to be surprised. The story opens with a sweeping shot of burning villages in Ethiopia and the camera then tracks an oil pipeline, and by the end has covered several years and reaches deep into dark conspiracies about oil and government secrets. However the center of the story is Bob Lee Swagger, played by Mark Wahlberg, who is channeling Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson here. Swagger is a deadly sniper/marksman for the Army who is reluctantly drawn back into action when they appeal to his patriotic duty. There's enough action movie cliches here to make you pause, but don't -- this one plays out like an intense game which just gets better as it goes along.

Some key points -- never, ever mess with a guy who can shoot you from a mile away; lots of modern weapons tech and strategy play big roles; Ned Beatty does a nearly hilarious impersonation of Dick Cheney; and as Les noted, there's the scene in Athens, Tennessee - 'patron state of shootin' stuff' as Swagger calls us, where Swagger meets actor Levon Helm as a master of the history of weapons in a juicy part which Helm delivers with true style.

Wahlberg - and here's something I thought I'd never say -- is really impressive on the big screen. Contrast the steely-eyed Swagger with the nebbish and nervous hitman character he plays in the action/comedy "The Big Hit" or the soldier he plays in "Three Kings." Not to mention the small but fierce part he played in the Oscar-winning "The Departed."


The Modern Tough Guy in movies was pretty much created by the pairing of director John Woo and actor Chow Yun Fat. Almost every video game shoot-em-up and most action movies that followed are all part of the Woo-Fat Pattern.

Their creation now comes full circle as a new video game for the PS3, "Stranglehold", is set for release. The game is a sequel to Woo's "Hard Boiled", where an animated Chow Yun Fat, playing a tough cop named Tequila (heh heh) will be the character you take through the continuing adventures in Hong Kong.

The action and characters and explosive action sequences have colored most U.S. and international movies made since it's release in 1992. And it still holds up very well. A new 2-disc DVD set of "Hard Boiled" is now out so I can finally retire my battered letterbox VHS copy.

From Woo to Wahlberg, the urban landscape has replaced the Monument Valley backdrop of John Ford westerns, but the themes about the nature of revenge and justice are just as vibrant today as ever.


Two legends of cinema history died recently, Ingmar Bergman and Micheangelo Antonioni. They were masters of cinematic imagery.

Their influence permeated movies and directors and actors for decades and still does today. Both men discarded conventional filmmaking and searched, some would say desperately, for ways that cinema turns into expressions of our most complex emotions. No - they certainly do not make movies like that anymore.

While Bergman's works are worthy of viewing and study, it was Antonioni who had the most influence on me. "The Adventure", about a woman who vanishes during an afternoon of sailing, is almost purely metaphysical. It's as if her indifference literally makes her disappear from sight. And the response of her friends is to casually discard her disappearance as well, sealing her fate.

But for me, his movie "Blow-Up" is one of the best I've ever seen. Critics and writers have all pointed to the movie as a benchmark for the Lost Souls of 20th Century Life. And it surely does provide characters who dwell in a portable and throwaway lifestyle. But for me the story is about perception itself and how we make our own meanings about reality and life. Did the photographer played by David Hemmings witness a murder or did he imagine it? It's a plot that has been very popular ever since. Antonioni does not provide the answer - you either participate in the movie or it may just bore you to tears. I remain fascinated by the movie, though I am certain to perceive layers where others perceive little at all or nothing. I kind of think that was Antonioni's point.

See, I do watch something besides mindless action movies and zombie stories. Oddly, I have often wondered what the death-dwelling mind of Bergman would have done had he made a zombie movie.

We do know that Bergman lost the chess game. (He should have, like Bill and Ted, asked to play Clue or Battleship instead.)


  1. Although invented by Seth Hoyt in 1946, the Magic 8-Ball was mostly popular in the 1970s rather than the 1960s.

    Kelvis? What do you say?

  2. WikiPedia says:
    "Invented by Abe Bookman in 1946 of the Alabe Toy Company"

    and while sold in the 1950s, i just recall its ubiquitous presence in the 1960s. but its always been popular. there was even a Simspsons version released a few years ago.

  3. Hmmm... I got Seth Hoyt... Something is fishy here...

    I remember them being big in the 70s. That's when I got mine. It's like they were suddenly there. Or maybe I just came of an age where I became aware of them.

    Again, I ask for Kelvis to comment.

    (Kelvis... who might come visit me at the Undisclosed Secret Location next weekend!)

  4. james3:46 PM

    Hey Joe,I want your opinion on Skinwalkers.

  5. James -

    I only know a few things about it, some good and some not. The director, James Isaac, made "Jason X", which I found to be a very entertaining twist on the the whole Friday the 13th series.
    The cast are all fairly well known and the movie is from Lions Gate, and they have been offering up some really fine horror movies in recent years.

    However, according to the folks who've seen screenings of it on the website, it isn't very good. Also, the movie went from an R rating to a PG-13, which means the story has been toned down. And it's original release date was last year and has been changed three times I think.

    So the jury is out on this movie. If they do not hold press screenings for it, that is a really bad sign.

    It sounds a lot to me like a sort of a riff on the "Underworld" movies.

    In an unrelated kind of comment, I did watch another movie recently which was pitched as an "Underworld" kind of movie called "The Covenant", about a group of descendants from the Salem witch days. Boy, was is lousy. They should have called it "Warlocks 90210". Shee-ooo, bad, bad, bad.

  6. Blow up is one of the reasons that I bought my first camera. After 40 years of using one I may have learned a little about them but I have much more to learn.