Saturday, June 19, 2010

More words about the JONAH HEX movie than it's really worth...

Thanks to Todd at New Dimension Comics, Amy and I got to see an advanced preview of Jonah Hex. Since my father is a big western fan, I grew up with the Jonah Hex character. He’s a tough-as-nails bounty hunter that looks to most like Clint Eastwood but to me resembled Kirk Douglas. His defining features: a Confederate officer’s uniform and a hideously-scarred face thanks to a run-in with some Apaches. Knowing what I do about the comic book business and the constant urge for corporate revisioning (I’m told now Hex trolls a post-apocalyptic wasteland bereft of plastic surgery, to which info I can only sigh), I was certain that this movie adaptation would have a touch of the supernatural and more than a touch of the illogical. Unless a character is as well-defined as Batman or Spider-Man (and even when they are), comic book heroes don’t stand much of a chance on screen by themselves. They have to be fancied up. Jonah Hex is a fringe character (brought back to life in comics a few years back by the wonderfully awesome Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray), a niche character. Have to make him sexy so the kids will buy him. Have to make him “cool”.

I’ve raged against “cool” before. I’m as indifferent to cool as I am aggravated by “hip”. Don’t care for either of these things because they’re fleeting and insubstantial. The Wild One was so “cool” in its day that it inspired generations of Hell’s Angels. Show a modern cycle jockey The Wild One today and they’ll beat you to death with the DVD box. “Cool” is also a replacement for genuine. If you concentrate too much on “cool”, you loose the substance. But because Hollywood is all about the opening weekend, “cool” has to be layered on by the trowelful. Hell, audiences are pigs and “cool” is the slop—just dump it on them. Make it fast, flashy and noisy. If something sticks, all the better, but if it doesn’t, well, the studios got your ten bucks, what do they care what you Tweet afterward?

But comic book movies have been pretty good recently. I’ve managed to squeeze satisfaction out of the mis-managed likes of Daredevil and Ghost Rider.  And Iron Man, with a title character I never cared about, ranks among my favorite big-screen adaptations. (With that in mind, I feel differently about Samuel L. Jackson Samuel L. Jacksoning all over Nick Fury because, well, he wants to make the character “cool”. Although to me, the character was already cool. He didn’t need to be Samuel L. Jacksoned. He was cool in and of himself. Real cool—not that fleeting, temporary kind… And don’t make the “But he’s not David Hasselhoff!” argument because that’s just stupid.) So I thought to myself, out loud and in Amy’s direction, as long as I enter the theater knowing that dumb was coming my way, but covered in sticky-sweet cool, maybe I’ll be okay.

Another strike in the movie’s negative column, though, was that Jonah Hex would not be screened for critics. Which meant that the Studios considered a screening to be a suicide move. And that’s never a good sign. That means they want the audiences to be disappointed by the movie, not the review. Then I read that the running time was a mere 81 minutes. In an age where the trailers run slightly over two hours, 81 minutes seems like a cut-scene from the coming-soon video game. And since the movie has flown under my radar for the most part, I only recently learned about the re-shooting, re-tinkering, additional Megan Fox insertions, then deletions, and an army of uncredited screenwriters brought aboard during the actual production, I started to think that maybe forewarned wasn’t nearly forearmed enough. Maybe I’d need a Gallagher poncho in the theater because god only knew how much cool was going to get splashed all over me.

But the ticket was free. Even if I hate it, I already had my refund. As for the “but it’s 81 minutes of my life I’ll never get back” lament, to be honest, I’d likely spend those 81 minutes watching a movie anyway. And with my recent track record, they’ll be 81 agonizing minutes anyway, dedicated to the survival of something cinematically-yucky anyway. So, really, I was already ahead because I liked the Jonah Hex character and I really like Josh Brolin, or, as I like to call him, “the saving grace of The Goonies who isn’t Robert Davi”. Josh Brolin saved the Americanized Nightwatch… if only he’d been there to rescue the Danish Nightwatch.

Advanced screenings have changed since I was a wide-eyed innocent. Growing up, you’d get a photocopied flier in the mail, good for “two passes” to something studios didn’t have a lot of faith in—Tremors, The Best of Times, Gorillas in the Mist are three I remember hitting this way. Nowadays, the passes are professionally-printed and delivered in stacks to specialty stores, often with a bar-code that will be scanned at the theater to ensure that it’s genuine. So that happened. And then we had to run the security gauntlet. One designate looked through bags and purses while two more wanded people for… well, I didn’t know. So I asked the guy, point blank, who was wanding me, “What are you looking for? Should I be worried about getting shanked at the concession stand?”

My keys set off the wand. So did my change. And my Swiss Army knife. But no, they were more concerned about our cell phones. I could have been packing a bazooka and Amy could’ve been carrying a silverback gorilla with social anxiety disorder, but so long as neither of those things captured video, these flacks couldn’t have cared less. Which made me think that the stakes were exceptionally high here. DC and Legendary produced the thing, but Warner Brothers was releasing it. Warner Brothers, already on the ropes with the smelling salts beneath its nose and the defibrillator at the ready, couldn’t risk another failure-due-to-piracy, despite—or because of—having what already seemed like a loser on their hands. They needed to squeeze money out of this thing--$47 million had already been spent. They needed that back.

Except that they’d gambled on an obscure character, set in a Western period, who didn’t have superpowers, was known for his gray-area morality (if he was known at all), and sported an unsexy facial scar. You could hear the suits, by the time the credits rolled during their executive screening, asking each other, “Why did we do this again?”

And earlier in the day, before heading to the theater, I read this bit of info: ‘Brolin exclaimed to MTV News[,] "And then I had a moment a week later and I thought why is it awful? Maybe the thing to do is to do the most awful movie I can find."’

It seems that Neveldine and Taylor, the sugar-addled Red Bull addicts behind the incomprehensible Crank series, had dropped out of directing the movie back in 2008. It was then handed to Jimmy Hayward, whose big screen introduction had been Horton Hears a Who.

Still… it was free.

Amy had suggested we get their early and I wish I’d listened and not dallied at a rain-damaged Barnes and Noble for ten minutes. By the time we stripped down to our sock-garters for security and reminded ourselves we were there for a movie and not a flight the theater was filled to the rafters with Internet reviewers, comic store employees and random teenage mouth-breathers. Two of the three in front of us had just discovered Let the Right One In via On Demand and were attempting to describe it to the lone girl in their row that both hoped to bang but were resigned to the knowledge that she was going home with the usher with the bad skin but his own car. “It’s like Twilight only, like, deeper.” Said Thing One.

“I loved the part when the one kid was in the pool and you just saw his head,” said Thing Two.

“I’m totally not into Twilight,” said Girl Thing. “I loved the books, but Taylor Laughton [sic] or whatever is cross-eyed and not Jacob.”

“Yeah,” agreed Things One and Two.

It’s difficult to attempt suicide with a cell phone. I mean, yeah, I still had my pocket knife, but since security was so afraid of my phone, it felt like an implement of destruction. It wasn’t. It was still a phone.

And, again, the screening was free. And we got a cool extended Inception trailer out of it.

As expected, Jonah Hex is a wreck, but it is, definitely, a fun wreck. The script and structure is so muddled that about 40 of those 81 minutes are dedicated to flashbacks—the same flashbacks. In order to explain Hex further, we are treated to a stylized animated back story that fills us in on his relationship to the Crow Indians, who brought him back to life from “near death”, which enables him to talk to the dead. New to me, but I was still with it. His nemesis from the comics, Quentin Turnbull, as gnashed by John Malkovich, was just as evil son of a bitch as he was in the old comics, but unafraid to kill anyone. Large amounts of anyone. Folks hooted and hollered when Megan Fox appeared on screen—a woman I find so shallow that if converted to 3D, she’d still only make it as far as Flatland—but she had precious little to do. She’s a classic frontier whore in a one-whore town who has somehow pioneered the art of eyebrow tweezing and lip gloss application. Any hope I had that this would be closer to Deadwood than Blazing Saddles went out the window the minute she showed up.

Oh boy, the cool just kept a-piling on, though. Hex rides into town after his three backstories dragging three corpses behind his horse. When the sheriff attempts to renege on the bounty, Hex fires up twin 50 cal gattling guns strapped to either side of his horse. Beltless gattlings, with magic bullets, that somehow manage to mow down only what he’s pointing at and at no time blowing off the horse’s head. Or searing the horse’s sides. Fine. I have friends who would view that scene and sum it up with “It was awesome!” while abandoning any sense of logic, the ideal audience for a movie like this. Since my new medication was kicking in, I was able to jettison my disbelief.

Even when he’s presented with a pair of custom-made crossbow pistols that fire sticks of dynamite. Even when his ability to raise the dead seems not only silly, but reveals itself to be utterly pointless. Just as Megan Fox’s entire character is superfluous (and despite her tough talk, this woman would not have lasted a day in the post-Civil War frontier and would have been raped to death by someone who looked like Jack Elam). I was able to ignore the fact that the second-in-command Irish bad guy sported facial tattoos far too intricate for the time period, the application of such, in that time, would have likely killed him. Even Turnbull’s central MacGuffin—so angry is he at America, waging the war among the brothers, apparently, just to kill his son that he combines a Civil War battleship with the Guns of Navarone to build an industrial-age Death Star—didn’t strike me as overly silly. At this point, I was expecting the laws of gravity to disappear and was just happy the characters cast shadows. That the credits rolled without my seeing a single saloon Pepsi machine should have made my heart soar.

With the three corpses dragged behind the horse, I knew what I was in for. Hayward and company were making a modern-day Spaghetti Western. This is a cheap way of making a “modern” western and imbibing it with as much cool as possible. John Ford rose from the grave just to commit suicide when the Italians usurped the Western. Because the tropes of the American West as defined by Ford, Hawks—even Anthony Mann—were cast aside by Leone and his like for favor of the “revisionist” Western. While this led to the “demystifying” of the Western, it also led to the inclusion of grotesqueries, amoral anti-heroes and nonsensical gun battles filled with the type of ballistics that gave the Warren Commission its gravity.

When modern modern westerns, like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, include nonsensical style over substance, the producers quote the Spaghetti Western philosophies. It’s a way to justify “cool”. If you want a shoot-from-the-hip, lives-by-his-own-code, larger-than-life hero, you have to go with Eastwood or Franco Nero. Today’s audiences just don’t dig Robert Mitchum or John Wayne. And like anyone would believe that It’s a Wonderful Life guy could be a badass (like in Naked Spur or Bandolero). And all of this is fine, really. But let me make a parallel that some of you will understand: saying modern Westerns are better when they’re like the Italians’ is like saying that zombies are better when they wear oatmeal on their faces and fight sharks. There’s more than room for both, but you can’t tell me the latter is better than the former.

Anyway, from the flashy photography to the heavy-metal Mastodon musical score, I was dripping with cool by the time the lights came up. The Three Things in front of us who laughed and bounced all the way through proclaimed, “That was stupid!” as they left. As they no doubt viewed me as one of the elderly, I had nothing to add. If “stupid” is the new “cool”, it just means I don’t watch enough Jersey Shore to understand that.

For all the stupid/cool that dripped out of Jonah Hex, I will say that James Brolin was terrific. His make-up is distracting and looks incredibly painful, but that’s what it was designed to do. If Jonah Hex had been played straighter, I think the make-up would have vanished for me, leaving only the character and the situation. He brought the scenes to life and it’s a good thing that he’s in virtually every frame. Without Brolin, Hex would have collapsed under the weight of its own uber-ness. With him, though, it’s a pretty entertaining, if disposable, comic book western. I hope it makes a bucket of money and stays off Pirate Bay for at least the rest of the weekend (so far, though, a couple of cams have already appeared), in the hopes that a superior sequel can be crafted. But as it stands, it was definitely worth the price we paid for it, both the free ticket and the blathering of the Things Trio. It’s no replacement for The Searchers—or even Duck, You Sucker!—but it isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. 


Saturday, June 12, 2010

New Shoot: "The Night We Didn't Read Myra Breckenridge"

Once again, my body has taken it upon itself to remind me that I’m not as young as I used to be. All because I had the audacity to shoot a short movie. Lousy body.

A quick little “prequel” to Demon Divas has been in the works since our first screening of the feature at Cinema Wasteland. While the movie went over better than we’d hoped, the majority of the audience really responded to the Book Club characters played by Gwendolyn, Stacy Bartlebaugh-Gmys and, especially, Bill Homan as the bizarre and flamboyant Max. Knowing that we wanted to do a few things to round out the inevitable DVD, we started kicking around ideas for a companion film. Things gelled for me, storywise, with a visit to Scarehouse in Etna.

As we’ve long espoused, Scarehouse is an awesome haunted attraction outside of Pittsburgh. I’ve championed this haunt for years, not just because the owners, Scott and Barb and Wayne Simmons are good friends of ours, but because it’s just quite simply an awesome and elaborately-put together experience. One room in particular caught my imagination: a library being slowly demolished by some Elder God—tentacles bursting through the book shelves and a giant mechanized eye peering through a gaping hole in the wall. I love this room. By the time we finished our trip through the rest of the haunt, I had a skeleton of a story in mind.

Obviously, I don’t want to give too much away… so I won’t. Suffice to say we designed a script that could be shot in a maximum of two days, in two locations, with a minimum of characters and crew. It would be a down-to-the-basics shoot—short, quick and funny. What made this movie different for us is that it would be the first time we’d shoot a sequel/prequel with characters we’d used before. We’ve done little Necro-Phil promos, of course, and I’ve done continuations of things in different mediums (the upcoming Severe Injuries follow-up graphic novel, for instance), but I saw this is a new little challenge to see if we could reproduce some of the magic from Demon Divas in a new setting. Albeit goofy and way more over-the-top.

The Simmonses were already onboard and would provide anything we needed, including a trio of really talented make-up artists (Chris, Dejah and Dale), and since their pre-production prior to the Halloween season lasts pretty much from February to September, they’d be at the site anyway, so long as we didn’t mind a little hammering and sawing while we worked. Since that was something we’d gotten used to while shooting Splatter Movie at the Hundred Acres Manor, we were completely in our element. We’ve also gotten pretty good at ADR over the years, so even if that proved to be a necessity (and it did) it wouldn’t be a problem.

The short, under the working title of “The Night We Didn’t Read Myra Breckenridge”, really harkened back to our salad days—bringing our friends together for a quick shoot in exchange for gas money and doughnuts, after weeks of emails trying to nail down a day when six people would actually be available at the same time (with varying time-limitations), everyone chipping in to wear multiple hats as cast and crew, and making-it-up-as-you-go style of filming utilizing the limitations of the environment to our advantage.

The main drawback came on Monday, however, when I failed to reach Tonerwoods’ Jason Thompson in time to utilize him as DP. Selfish bastard decided to take a paying job instead! So I was more or less on my own as my own DP and camera. Now, as I’ve whined ad nauseum, I’ve studied cinematography, I know the principals of good lighting, I even have a decent lighting kit, I just hate doing it. There’s no joy comparable to having a lighting crew at your disposal to make everything pretty. My lighting style can be summed up by “enough light to get an exposure, preferably with proper shadows”. But, fortunately, I wasn’t alone. In addition to Gwen, Stacy (but not Gwen Stacy) and Bill, Amy was doing her usual acting and producing and crewing, Michael Varrati and Mike and Carolyn Haushalter were all available to make the requisite magic.

Another drawback, however, was shooting HD to P2 cards. I am not an expert at this. In fact, the only other times I’ve worked with this type of technology were when shooting other Demon Divas inserts. In those cases, I was dealing with seconds-long inserts, and nothing of real length or involvement. When the Diggerfilms hommes shot DD for us, they had two cameras and card-readers at their disposal. There was no loss of productivity during footage capture. I had only our HVX, a laptop and hard drive. So every fifteen minutes’ worth of footage required a real-time dump accompanied by panic. I had redundancies in place—after transferring, I burned the shots to DVD as a back-up, in case the hard drive decided to fail on the way home, but it was still nerve wracking to the extreme. As Bill and I discussed, even back in our film days, if a roll got damaged or came back out of focus, at least we still had it. The damaged reel still existed. A failed hard drive after a wiped card eliminates all proof that we did anything at all. And since I seem to be an enemy of all technology, these possibilities weighed heavily on my mind throughout.

On the happiness side, though, we had awesome sets to run amok on (even with the added joy of trying to find the hidden outlets to tie into with lights), outstanding make-up effects and cool-as-hell mechanical coolness providing coolitude. The coolness level was upped even higher due to the presence of our star, courtesy of Tom Sullivan and Pat Reese, one of the original Evil Dead Necronomicons (which should give you a hint of the plot).

But the nice thing was the feeling that we were back to the basics, doing something for fun. It’s been more than a year since we shot anything substantial and since we have a big project a ‘brewin’ for the fall, it was essential to get back into practice, particularly as the new project will have to be professionally structured and regimented. This short was loose and collaborative—everyone tossed out ideas, making the scenes the best they could be under the restraints we had (space for people, lights, choreography—everything had to be done right then on the spot).

This required forcing my body into odd positions to get the best angles. Rolling on the floor, using the Bill-built steadicam when possible, balancing, crouching, using my back to boom and tilt. By the end of the shoot, I wanted to curl up and die but my spine wouldn’t allow it. But we finished on schedule and the footage really does look terrific. As much as I hate production, it was definitely a satisfying experience.

We have one short day of pick-ups ahead of us to shoot Bill’s character’s wrap-around, but once that’s done, the Demon Divas project will be complete and the official DVD will likely see a release at October’s Cinema Wasteland. By then, we’ll hopefully be neck-deep in the next feature and starting forward on Happy Cloud Pictures’ second thirteen years. 

 Photo by Carolyn Haushalter