Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Film version of popular teen novel disappoints

Published: Thursday, November 27, 2008 at 9:00 a.m.

By now I'm sure it's safe to assume that most people have either read at least one of Stephenie Meyers' best-selling "Twilight" series or have at least heard of the phenomenon whose popularity reached a fever pitch in the last few months with the release of the final book in the series, "Breaking Dawn," and film adaptation of the first installment, "Twilight."

William Shakespeare, Screenwriter

Happy 444th Birthday, William Shakespeare, Screenwriter

Let's raise a toast and watch some clips to honor this one-man movie-making machine.
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in Miramax Films' 'Shakespeare in Love'
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in Miramax Films' 'Shakespeare in Love' - Miramax Films

Mark Bourne,

With Wednesday, April 23, marking William Shakepeare's birthday, let's all raise a flagon of ale and wish a happy 444th to one of our favorite screenwriters.
Sure, the Western canon's greatest playwright may have lived centuries before movies came along, but he has proved himself time and again as one of our most prolific and popular writers for the big screen. So to commemorate his birthday, let's go to the DVD shelves and find a few of our favorites that ask "What light through yonder movie break?"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Don't be stuffy over screen adaptations

A N Wilson pays tribute to the skill involved in turning books into film
Addicts, not merely of Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece, but also of the 1981 Granada Television version of Brideshead Revisited can only look forward to the new screen version with diluted enthusiasm.

We are told that the new version has Charles Ryder and Sebastian snogging; that the story turns into a "love triangle" between Charles, Sebastian and Julia. Religion is played down. And how could it be Brideshead without Geoffrey Burgon's superb music?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Graphic Novels are Hollywood's Newest Gold Mine

Thursday, Jun. 19, 2008 By REBECCA WINTERS KEEGAN
TIME magazine

Superman Leaped 40 years' worth of tall buildings on the printed page before he landed his first feature film, in 1978. In 2003, Wesley Gibson, the cubicle-dwelling assassin in Mark Millar's nihilist graphic novel Wanted, had producers circling before his first issue even went to print. Millar's work is unlikely source material for a big-budget movie; one of his obscenely named villains is made of fecal matter from 666 evildoers, including Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer. Nevertheless, Wanted is now a glossy summer action movie starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, directed by new-to-big-studio-movies Russian Timur Bekmambetov.

Graphic novels--long comic books for grownups--have always had mostly cult appeal. Last year's most successful, the 13th volume in a Japanese manga adventure series--Naruto, by Masashi Kishimoto--sold 80,000 copies, far short of 2007's hottest novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, which sold more than 1.5 million copies. The point of the comics was largely their transgressiveness. "They're the last pirate medium," says Millar, a Scottish writer who consults for Marvel Comics on more mainstream fare, like Iron Man. "They're the last medium for a mass audience where you can do anything you want."

But the creations of oddball loners like Millar scribbling at drafting tables have also become the movie industry's most reliable development tool. Thanks to the box-office success of A-list superheroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men, Hollywood's appetite for comics-fueled material is insatiable. Titles from the darker corners of the genre, including gritty graphic novels like Wanted and Alan Moore's watershed deconstructivist superhero tome Watchmen are getting the big-screen makeover. Stories and characters first written for an audience of a few hundred thousand geeks at most are reaching, at the box office and on DVD and cable, popcorn-chomping crowds that number in the tens of millions. "The dalliance between Hollywood and comics is becoming a marriage," says Frank Miller, creator of the graphic novels Sin City and 300. "The downside is in the heads of people who make comic books. Everybody wants money and fame."

Times weren't always so flush in Toontown. In 1997, "George Clooney killed comic-book movies," says Millar. Joel Schumacher's joyless Batman & Robin, in which Clooney legendarily donned a bat suit complete with rubber nipples, left fans feeling abused. Studios turned their attention to fantasy literature like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But when Spider-Man bested two wizard movies and a Star Wars prequel in 2002 and X-2: X-Men United broke $200 million at the box office in 2003, hand-drawn heroes swung back into favor. The joke in Hollywood now is that in a risk-averse era, comic-book adaptations have a distinct advantage: the drawings mean studio execs can see beforehand what the movie will look like.

At first, it was the family-friendly superheroes who made the leap to multiplexes, with the help of directors like Bryan Singer and Chris Nolan. Slowly, lesser-known comic books got a shot. Some, like Sin City and Hellboy, became modest box-office successes by adhering to the distinctive spirit of their creators. Others, like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence, attracted audiences with sophisticated stories that few people knew were derived from graphic novels.

Then came the spear that pierced the industries of comics, movies and ab videos: 300. "I was pretty sure we were making a boutique movie," says director Zack Snyder of his R-rated, blood-spattered retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. With no stars and a lot of leather bikini bottoms, 300 grossed more than $200 million in the U.S. alone. "The movie struck a chord because it was unapologetic," says Snyder, who is directing Watchmen for release next March. "It's difficult to find a movie that feels true to itself. You feel the hand of Hollywood, the moviemaking by committee, on everything."

In the case of 300, the hand audiences felt was really Miller's, since whenever Snyder made a creative decision, he asked himself, What would Frank do? Comic-book-movie directors like Snyder, who see themselves as stewards of another person's vision rather than architects of their own, have made comic-book creators Hollywood's latest big-budget auteurs. Because they work with such low overhead compared with moviemakers, comic writers and artists can take many more creative chances than directors. "You don't have endless development meetings that turn your brain into milk," says Miller. "You get to at least see what an individual has to offer." After co-directing Sin City with Robert Rodriguez in 2005, Miller is completing his comics-to-movies arc by directing The Spirit, an adaptation of a 1940s crime-fighting strip, for a December release.

The other axiom 300 proved to Hollywood is one the comics industry has known for decades: "The audience for comic-book movies is overweight guys in their mid-30s," says director, comic-book-store owner and overweight guy in his late 30s Kevin Smith. Actually, the average age of a comic-book buyer is 23, but Smith's point--that there are fans aplenty to support R-rated comics franchises--has been digested. Even PG-13 comic-book movies are maturing. Batman keeps getting darker scripts, like Nolan's The Dark Knight, starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger (in his haunting last performance, as the Joker). Marvel Studios' first two movies, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, star Robert Downey Jr. and Ed Norton, Oscar-nominated actors with indie credibility. And Hellboy, who is back this summer for a sequel, is hardly your standard man in tights. He smokes cigars, drinks Red Bull and collects kittens. "Kids aren't kids anymore," says Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. "They're so exposed to everything. They wouldn't accept really simplistic superheroes." It's likely that a superhero movie like Watchmen or The Dark Knight couldn't be appreciated by audiences without the simpler fare that came before it. You can't deconstruct the superhero until someone has constructed him, rubber nipples and all. "Watchmen is thick and complicated and violent and political and critical of America," Snyder says. "It's huge."

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Film Semiotics: A Metalinguistic Analysis

A language, by definition, is a semiotic process through which thought may be conveyed, but a language system (or linguistic system) enables a response to that thought using the degrees and kinds of signs and signifiers produced by the language. Film uses not only words, but also different kinds of shots, angles and speeds; therefore, while the audience can react to a film's semantic intent, that audience cannot address its concerns regarding the film in the same language the film used to convey its argument. For that reason, Robert Stam, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis advance Christian Metz’s argument that while the means by which film expresses itself to its audience constitutes a language, it cannot constitute a linguistic system. Metz argues that

one might call ‘language’…any unity defined in terms of its matter of expression…Literary language, in this sense, is the set of messages whose matter of expression is writing; cinematic language is the set of messages whose matter of expression consists of five tracks or channels: moving photographic image, recorded phonetic sound, recorded noises, recorded musical sound, and writing…Thus cinema is a language in the sense that it is a ‘technico-sensorial unity’ graspable in perceptual experience. (37)

The language of cinema, as a result, cannot be answered by the language of literature because the two systems use different modes of expression. In support of this point, Raymond Bellour argues that film is the "Unattainable Text":

the film-text, unlike the literary text, is not ‘quotable.’ Whereas literature and literary criticism share the same medium – words – film and film analysis do not. While the film medium entails five tracks – image, dialogue, noise, music, written materials – the analysis of the film consists of a single track – words. Critical language is therefore inadequate to its object; the film always escapes the language that attempts to constitute it. (56)

To appropriately respond to a film, consequently, one would have to generate a film of his or her own using the same methods employed by the director in a manner dialogic to the film being addressed, and this is problematic for most of the viewing audience. In spite of our inability to respond to a film in its language through natural means of discourse, understanding the nature of film semiotics makes us critically aware of the language being used, and that results in an enhanced understanding of the way in which film is representative of cultural and counter-cultural values.
The book is divided into five parts, the first of which develops the terminology and history of semiotics in a chapter entitled "The Origins of Semiotics." It begins with an introduction of two seemingly interchangeable terms: semiology and semiotics. The former is defined by Ferdinand de Saussure as:

A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology, I shall call it semiology (from Greek semeion ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. (Course in General Linguistics 4)

The latter is derived from Charles Sanders Pierce, who proffered a similar definition of the term (4). Regardless of this semantic distinction in terminology, Stam et al. explains that the "sign is for Saussure the central fact of language, and the primordial opposition of signifier/signified constitutes the founding principle of structural linguistics" (8). The dichotomy between these two is reconciled in the following formula:

The identity of any linguistic sign is determined by the sum total of paradigmatic [involving choosing] and syntagmatic [involving combining] relations into which it enters with other linguistic signs in the same language system. (9)

The Paradigmatic is defined as "a virtual or ‘vertical’ set of units which have in common the fact that they entertain relations of similarity and contrast," and the Syntagmatic4 deals with "the sequential characteristics of speech, their ‘horizontal’ arrangement into a signifying whole" (9). This formula loosely resembles the linguistic system of Tagmemics, wherein diction and syntax are construed in a slot-plus-class (syntagm-plus-paradigm) relationship, which enables them to be better understood in their functional grammatology.
The use that Stam makes of this in its relationship to cinematic forms lies in the concept of translinguistics, which entails a "theory of the role of signs in human life and thought" (13), in that signs have multiple significances depending on the views of conflicting classes. This multi-accentuality4 is "the capacity of the sign to elicit variable social tones and ‘evaluations’ as it is deployed within specific social and historical conditions" (13). In contrast to Saussure’s structuralism, Derrida proposed a vision that went beyond it--post-structuralism. This line of thought "demonstrated a thoroughgoing distrust of any centered, totalizing theory, a radical skepticism about the possibility of constructing a metalanguage which might position, stabilize or explain all of the other discourses, since the signs of the metalanguage are themselves subject to slippage and indeterminacy" (23). By entailing "a critique of the concepts of the stable sign, of the unified subject, of identity and of truth" (23), post-structuralism

exists in both continuity and rupture with structuralism. It shares the structuralist premise of the determining, constitutive role of language, and generally continues within the structuralist problematic, especially the assumption that signification is based on difference. At the same time, it rejects structuralism’s ‘dream of scientificity,’ its hopes of stabilizing the play of difference within an all-encompassing master-system. (27)
The Saussure-Derrida disagreement’s significance to film is discussed in the second chapter entitled "Cine-Semiology," in which Christian Metz is introduced by way of transition.

The question which oriented Metz’s early work was whether the cinema was Langue (language system) or Language (language) and his well-known conclusion…was that the cinema was not a language system but that it was a language. (34)

His argument is that "langue is a system of signs intended for two-way communication, while the cinema allows only for deferred communication" (34). In today’s world, however, this assertion will eventually have to be rethought because it does not allow for interactive cinema (like porn chatrooms) or Internet conference calling where role play is being done by either party—either of which can technically be considered film-making, especially if the parts of dialogue and imagery are manipulated to produce a contrived result. Metz further argues that cinema is not a language system because "it lacks the equivalent of the arbitrary linguistic sign," replacing it instead with a ‘motivated’ sign. So, the relationship between signifier and signified differs from literature to film (35). Metz argues against the idea that the camera/cinematic shot is like the word while the sequence is like the sentence. He states as evidence that "(1) shots are infinite in number…(2) shots are the creations of the film-maker…(3) the shot provides an inordinate amount of information…(4) the shot is an actualized unit [meaning that it generates an exact representation of its intended meaning]…(and) (5) shots, unlike words, do not gain meaning by paradigmatic contrast with other shots that might have occurred in the same place on the syntagmatic chain" (35-6). Also, cinema "does not constitute a language widely available as a code" (35), for while all speakers of English can produce English, not all can produce the talent, training and access produced by filmic utterances (35). Again, this would have to be qualified in respect to advances in technology that put Internet cameras on everyone’s desktops or enabled lightweight camcorders to be used in independent film-making efforts like The Blair Witch Project. Stam argues further that language and film are both discursive "through paradigmatic and syntagmatic operations" (37).

Language selects and combines phonemes and morphemes to form sentences; film selects and combines images and sounds to form syntagmas, i.e. units of narrative autonomy in which elements interact semantically. (37)

The idea that there was one grand syntagmatic code, moreover, was refuted by others who argued that he was setting up a system too rigid to be viable. In response, Metz modified his argument to allow room for other cinematic codes. Stam explains that

like any artistic language, the cinema manifests a plurality of codes. In cinema, numerous codes remain constant across all or most films; unlike language, however, film has no ‘master code’ shared by all films. Filmic texts, for Metz, form a structured network produced by the interweaving of specific cinematic codes, i.e. codes that appear only in the cinema, and non-specific codes, i.e. codes shared with languages other than the cinema. (48-9)

The sense Metz makes of these codes, to give meaning to the plot of any given film, is discussed in the third chapter entitled "Film-narratology." Within this chapter, Stam explains the means by which the idea of a lengthy feature film is sold to an audience.

Metz argued that the organization of images into a narrative was one of the most important ways that film was like a language. The Grand Syntagmatic sought to designate and classify the specifically narrative segments of film language, which Metz understood in terms of sequences of shots, called syntagmas. These eight syntagmas [see footnote above], which were distinguished primarily through editing, expressed the spatial temporal and logical connections that form the universe of the fabula. (79)

Implicit in the need for a cohesive plot structure driven by a recognizable and powerful theme lies the necessity for these syntagmas to be sutured, or stitched, together in a way that enhances the flow of the film and generates the realism necessary for the audience to maintain credulity. The way in which those shots are sutured together is another form of communication between the film and its audience, but it is not a dialogue any more than the actors on the screen are influenced by the mood of the spectators sitting in the theater5. By choosing how to cut the story the film is trying to relate to the viewer, the director decides how that story is going to speak to the outside world.
That the outside world responds to film in a certain way is predicated upon its having been pre-conditioned through an innate desire to find the self in the gaze of the other. The fourth chapter, entitled "Psychoanalysis," describes one of the aims of psychoanalytic film theory as "a systematic comparison of the cinema as a specific kind of spectacle and the structure of the socially and psychically constituted individual" (123). Stam explains

If psychoanalysis examines the relations of the subject in discourse, then psychoanalytic film theory meant integrating questions of subjectivity into notions of meaning-production. Moreover, it meant that film-viewing and subject-formation were reciprocal processes: something about our unconscious identity as subjects is reinforced in film viewing, and film viewing is effective because of our unconscious participation. Moving from the interpretation of individual films to a systematic comprehension of the cinematic institution itself, some film theorists saw psycho-analysis as a way of accounting for the cinema’s immediate and pervasive social power. For them the cinema ‘reinscribes’ those very deep and globally structuring processes which form the human psyche, and it does so in such a way that we continually yearn to repeat (or re-enact) the experience. (124)

The idea that individuals can be influenced by films that mirror their latent desires within a broad range of their birth culture is interesting in the sense that it defines the culture as the macrocosm of the individual. It further seems to explain the voyeurism and vicarious living undergone by each audience member who sits alone surrounded by a crowd of other people who are alone, too. Theaters, therefore, are not social gathering places in the sense of a community’s coming together to enjoy a shared experience. They are, rather, places in which the lone individual, even if surrounded by his or her friends, can experience nascent predilections and explore formative moments within or outside of the safety of his or her own cultural norms. Spectators are able to do this as individuals either because they have already developed beyond the confines of their own understanding of the world and, therefore, are open to the suggestions of others that lay outside their realms of experience, or because they have yet to grow beyond their earliest attachments and rediscover those within the context of film.
This idea of the self as both a part of culture and as an autonomous unit with a very specific inner sense of identity helps us recognize the effect any given sequence of images may have upon us and distinguish the roles played by those images in relation to dominant cultural values. The book concludes with a chapter entitled "From Realism to Intertextuality," which lists the Comolli and Narboni taxonomy of the possible relations between a film and the dominant ideology of the culture in which the film was made. These include:

1) Dominant films, i.e. those films thoroughly imbued with dominant ideology

2) Resistant films, which attack the dominant ideology on the level both of the signified and of the signifier

3) Formally resistant films, those films which, while not explicitly political, practice formal subversion

4) Content-oriented political films, explicitly political and critical films...whose critique of the ideological system is undermined by the adoption of dominant language and imagery

5) Fissure films, i.e. films which superficially belong to dominant cinema but where an internal criticism opens up a ‘rupture’

6) Live cinema I, i.e. films depicting social events critically but which fail to challenge the cinema’s traditional ideologically conditioned method of depiction

7) Live cinema II, direct cinema films which simultaneously depict contemporary events critically and question traditional representation (196)

In each of these film types, there is a means for the spectator to either identify with or rebel against the image offered. The choice the movie offers is not necessarily compatible with the spectator’s ability to answer back with the language of the ideology, just like there is no possibility of the spectator’s being able to answer back in the language of the cinema. However, the spectator’s reaction to those choices helps that spectator define his or her place in that culture in comparison to or contrast with the values being witnessed. The signs and signifiers of the film media can, therefore, be accessed and responded to even though they engage the audience in a language the audience itself cannot speak.
Works Cited

Stam, Robert, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Monday, March 31, 2008

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Movie adaptations of Dr. Seuss stories

Horton captures imaginations and Seuss' vision

Rameez Anwar

Issue date: 3/21/08

After the last two movie adaptations of a Dr. Seuss story - the forgettable How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the abominable The Cat in the Hat - it had become a legitimate concern as to whether it was possible to successfully convert one of Seuss's concise classics into a full-length film. However, Hollywood's latest attempt, Horton Hears a Who!, makes the prospect of a big screen Green Eggs and Ham much less frightening. While the movie is legitimately entertaining, and not even in a "so bad it's kind of good" way, it flags in energy whenever it strays from the concept of the original story and focuses on uninspired plot additions.

For the most part, the film focuses on Dr. Seuss' original plot: Horton the elephant (The Number 23's Jim Carrey) discovers a microscopic world on a speck of dust, befriends the mayor of tiny Whoville ("The Office"'s Steve Carell) and then embarks on a journey to find a safe place to store the speck of dust.

In addition to its faithful rendition of the original plot, the movie's vibrant animation excellently captures the tone of Seuss' trademark whimsical illustrations. The live-action adaptations of Seuss' work had neutered this essential quality with pounds of creepy makeup and expensive but drab set pieces. The success of Horton's visual style seems to indicate that Seuss' magic works best in a cartoon format.

Another aspect of the movie that separates it from The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat is its refusal to allow the story to be hijacked by any of its performers. Jim Carrey tones down his act to create a sweet and sometimes funny character without overstaying his welcome.

The voice acting in general is well done, with notable performances coming from Carell and from Will Arnett ("Arrested Development") as the vulture mercenary, Vlad.

The movie only temporarily loses its way whenever it forays into the subplots added in order to extend a 10-minute read into a 90-minute movie. For instance, the plotline involving the miscommunication between the mayor and his only son (out of 97 children) is clichéd and never really gets resolved.

Besides adding these ill-advised plot devices, the movie's only other shortcoming is that it never really strikes an appropriate balance between entertaining both children and adults. For a cartoon like Horton, keeping parents and nostalgic college students from groaning or falling asleep in their seats should be subservient to the primary goal of entertaining children. However, most of the laughs in the theater were coming from the adults, while the kids often sounded confused. That isn't to say they were never laughing; on the contrary, most of the kids seemed to enjoy the movie quite a bit, judging by the looks on their faces as they exited the theater. But it often seemed like there was a chorus of "huh?" accompanying the film's soundtrack.

Overall, Horton Hears a Who! is the best of the three recent Dr. Seuss adaptations. The general adherence to the original plot, engaging but never over-the-top voice acting and lively visuals easily offset the movie's few shortcomings.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

ILLUSTRATED BOOKS Movie adaptations have happy endings

Movie adaptations have happy endings
Friday, March 14, 2008 3:06 AM
What Horton the elephant hears in the Dr. Seuss story about him is, of course, a Who.

What 20th Century Fox hopes to hear with the movie adaptation of Horton Hears a Who!, featuring the voices of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, is something quite different: the rustle of runaway box-office receipts.

That's what Hollywood has always wanted to hear when it adapts children's stories -- and why it's adapted so many. What's notable about Horton Hears a Who! is that it marks the latest instance of an increasingly common development in Hollywood's pursuit of the family market: the return of the illustrated children's book.

Using children's picture books and illustrated novels as inspiration is nothing new for Hollywood. Several early Disney animation features originated that way. Yet the past few years have seen picture books come to the screen as never before.

Seussian cinema, as one might call illustrated-book-derived movies, has practically become its own genre: The Cat in the Hat (2003) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), among others, preceded Horton. No doubt this movie connection would please Seuss, who, as Maj. Theodor Geisel, headed the animation division of Frank Capra's Armed Forces Picture unit during World War II.

Rivaling Seuss as king of the illustrated-book movie genre is Chris van Allsburg. Adaptations of his books include Jumanji (1995), The Polar Express(2004) and Zathura (2005). Like Seuss, van Allsburg has a Hollywood connection: He was a layout designer on Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989).

The genre might have rival kings, but there's no argument about who its 800-pound gorilla is -- or, rather, 800-pound ogre: The three Shrek movies, featuring the title character of William Steig's 1990 picture book, have had worldwide grosses of $1.6 billion.

Almost since they began, movies have adapted both fairy tales (Cinderella in 1899) and children's classics (Heidi in 1920). And it was a fairy tale that Walt Disney turned to for his first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

The bad thing about the genre is how it invariably abandons one of the most cherishable elements of the books it draws on: their elegant simplicity of storytelling.

In filling out the narratives for the screen, so much of the charm, grace and character of the books' storytelling gets lost. The Shrek movies are the worst offender, but they make up for it with their inventiveness. The creepiest children's book adaptation might be The Polar Express, with its weird animatronic computer graphics.

Almost since they began, movies have adapted both fairy tales and children's classics.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

REVIEW: I am Legend

I Am Legend (PG-13)
Ebert: Users:

Will Smith the sole human survivor in New York City in “I Am Legend.” He has a dog.

I Am Legend

/ / / December 14, 2007

Cast & Credits
Robert Neville: Will Smith
Anna: Alice Braga
Ethan: Charlie Tahan
Zoe: Salli Richardson
Marley: Willow Smith

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Richard Matheson. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence). Opening today at local theaters.

By Roger Ebert

The opening scenes of "I Am Legend" have special effects so good that they just about compensate for some later special effects that are dicey. We see Manhattan three years after a deadly virus has killed every healthy human on the island, except one. The streets are overgrown with weeds, cars are abandoned, the infrastructure is beginning to collapse. Down one street, a sports car races, driven by Robert Neville (Will Smith), who is trying to get a good shot at one of the deer roaming the city. He has worse luck than a lioness who competes with him.

Neville has only his dog to keep him company. He lives barricaded inside a house in Greenwich Village, its doors and windows sealed every night by heavy steel shutters. That's because after dark the streets are ruled by bands of predatory zombies -- hairless creatures who were once human but have changed into savage, speechless killers with fangs for teeth. In his basement, Neville has a laboratory where he is desperately seeking a vaccine against the virus, which mutated from a cure for cancer.

The story is adapted from a 1954 sci-fi novel by Richard Matheson, which has been filmed twice before, as "The Last Man on Earth" (1964) starring Vincent Price, and "The Omega Man" (1971) starring Charlton Heston. In the original novel, which Stephen King says influenced him more than any other, Neville cultivated garlic and used mirrors, crosses and sharpened stakes against his enemies, who were like traditional vampires, not super-strong zombies. I am not sure it is an advance to make him a scientist, arm him and change the nature of the creatures; Matheson developed a kind of low-key realism that was doubly effective.

In "I Am Legend," the situation raises questions of logic. If Neville firmly believes he is the last healthy man alive, who is the vaccine for? Only himself, I guess. Fair enough, although he faces a future of despair, no matter how long his cans of Spam and Dinty Moore beef stew hold out; dogs don't live forever. And how, I always wonder, do human beings in all their infinite shapes and sizes mutate into identical pale zombies with infinite speed and strength?

Never mind. Given its setup, "I Am Legend" is well-constructed to involve us with Dr. Neville and his campaign to survive. There is, however, an event which breaks his spirit and he cracks up -- driving out at night to try to mow down as many zombies with his car as he can before they kill him. He is saved (I'm not sure how) by a young woman named Anna (Alice Braga), who is traveling with a boy named Ethan (Charlie Tahan).

He takes them home, and she explains they are trying to get to a colony of survivors in Vermont. Neville doubts that such a colony exists. I doubt that she and the boy would venture through Manhattan to get there. Yes, she has doubtless heard his nonstop taped voice on all AM frequencies, asking to be contacted by any other survivors. But we have seen every bridge into Manhattan blown up as part of a quarantine of the island, so how did they get there? Boat? Why go to the risk?

Never mind, again, because Anna and the boy import dramatic interest into the story when it needs it. And director Francis Lawrence generates suspense effectively, even though it largely comes down to the monster movie staple of creatures leaping out of the dark, gnashing their fangs and hammering at things. The special effects generating the zombies are not nearly as effective as the other effects in the film; they all look like creatures created for the sole purpose of providing the film with menace and have no logic other than serving that purpose.

"I Am Legend" does contain memorable scenes, as when the island is being evacuated, and when Neville says goodbye to his wife and daughter (Salli Richardson and Willow Smith), and when he confides in his dog (who is not computer-generated, most of the time, anyway). And if it is true that mankind has 100 years to live before we destroy our planet, it provides an enlightening vision of how Manhattan will look when it lives on without us. The movie works well while it's running, although it raises questions that later only mutate in our minds.

REVIEW: I Am Legend

Posted Dec 14th 2007 12:01AM by James Rocchi

''When I started in movies, I said, 'I want to be the biggest movie star in the world.' The biggest movie stars make the biggest movies, so (my producing partner James Lassiter and I) looked at the top 10 movies of all time. At that point, they were all special-effects movies. So Independence Day -- no-brainer. Men in Black -- no-brainer. I, Robot -- no-brainer.'' -- Will Smith, Entertainment Weekly, "Hollywood's 50 Smartest," Nov. 28, 2007

And that's a fairly loaded turn of phrase, because to many movie fans, 'no-brainer' better describes the scripts and direction of Independence Day, Men in Black and I, Robot than it does the decision to star in them. And before seeing I Am Legend, a third Hollywood version of Richard Matheson's 1954 book following in the footsteps of 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man, the specter and spectacle of Smith's track record in big-budget science fiction loomed like a dark cloud. I walked into I Am Legend cautious and underwhelmed, with Smith's past genre efforts in mind; I staggered out of I Am Legend impressed and enthused and a little wrung-out after a well-executed and perfectly pitched demonstration of brute-force big-money horror-action film making. I'm hesitant to say how well I Am Legend will endure the test of time, but while you're watching it, you're caught in an iron grip, moved and manipulated and carried away by film makers who know exactly how to make you sink into our seat with dread. I shivered and tensed throughout I Am Legend, and at the end of the credits, I was dumbstruck to learn it was PG-13; it felt far more gripping and grim and upsetting than that rating would suggest.

I Am Legend opens with a TV newsblip, as the disarmingly unpolished Doctor Krippen explains that she and her team have found a cure for cancer by re-engineering potent viruses to attack it. The cure works; it works every time. Dr. Krippen (played by an uncredited actress whose name I won't give, but she's perfect) smiles, nervous and nerdy in her moment of triumph, and then a title jumps us Three Years Later. We see Manhattan desolate and quiet. The tunnels are flooded; the bridges destroyed; cars rust and molder as weeds crack through the pavement; some buildings wear plastic sheeting like a burial shroud. And then we see one car -- just one, a Mustang GT -- racing through the ruined streets.

The driver's Dr. Robert Neville (Smith); Neville was a doctor for the U.S. Army, a virologist. Now, he's a survivor. He may be the last one. He and his dog Sam forage and worry, with all of New York as their empty playground during the daylight. Night time, as we gather from Neville battening down iron hatches over his doors and windows at the dimming of the day, is a different story. I Am Legend has almost no voice-over, and does its best to keep exposition to a minimum, both of which add to the slow-poison sense of dread in the movie. When Sam's raced into a darkened building chasing a wounded deer during one of their daytime excursions and Neville hesitates to follow, the only thing to explain the stakes to the audience is Smith's performance and the storytelling choices of director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) as a frightened Neville sneaks through the dark, desperate to find Sam and even more desperate to get out. Smith is a charming star, but he's not charming here; watching him in I Am Legend, he's constantly sad, scared or lonely; Neville is constantly at the edge of madness or the brink of death. And Smith, to his credit, turns a character that could have been an off-the-rack collection of action hero clichés into a real and affecting performance. If we believe I Am Legend's flights of dark fancy, it's in large part because Neville believes them, to the trembling core of his soul.

And Neville should be scared; flashbacks and current events explain to us that the Krippen Cure became the Krippen Virus, and literally decimated the human race; any who survived live on as seemingly mindless, colorless, blood-hungry revved-up predators that burn at the touch of the sun. Neville is one of the minuscule fraction of humans with natural immunity to KV, but that scattered and struggling group was swiftly wiped out by the monsters as near as Neville can tell. Neville is still trying to find a cure -- he mutters "I can fix this" repeatedly as he walks the ruined world -- but he's hardly hopeful. He thinks he's the last man alive, facing an army of mindless monsters. He's wrong about a lot of things.

Regrettably, if a monster movie is only as good as its monsters, then I Am Legend loses a few points for the execution of the KV-creatures. Making every appearance of the creatures computer-generated animation (with scattered exceptions of make-up and models in specific shots) means that the KV-creatures begin to look a little too similar, a little too familiar. When the creatures swarm, you can almost hear the mouse-click sound as they're copied and pasted over and over again, an army of the identical. And while the 28 Days Later adrenaline-zombie aesthetic may be overly familiar, it still works in scenes where the howling half-human KV-creatures race towards murder -- and Akiva Goldsman and Mark Protosevitch's script always makes the level of threat the creatures present scary, even as Lawrence leans on every B-movie trick in the book. One of the best things in I Am Legend is how firmly things go from bad to worse to far, far worse like an elevator to hell, smoothly oiled and gaining speed on the way down to the depths. Goldsman and Protosevitch also fill the film with tiny, quiet details -- an abandoned apartment is posted with public health warning from the beginning of the plague; Neville's working his way through the 'G' section at the video store; Neville's bunker-brownstone is decorated with pilfered masterpieces. And while the script may have a few groan-inducing moments where subtext is spoken as text, there's nothing here to compare with the worst moments of modern big-budget sci-fi, whether the staggering stupidity of Independence Day or the clumsy cloying closure of Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

Lawrence had the good judgment to fill his technical staff with professionals, from cinematographer Andrew Lensie (King Kong, The Lord of the Rings films) to second-unit director Vic Armstrong, whose stunt and action-director work makes him legend in and of itself. (Armstrong's resume ranges from Bond to Blade, Superman to Starship Troopers, and his work here is top-notch.) Not every decision Lawrence makes is perfect -- one of Smith's forays into Times Square is shot hand-held, which feels curiously distancing, subconciously implying that the Last Man on Earth is being followed by the Last Cameraman on Earth -- but at the same time, the film's mix of present-tense (in fact, very tense) action and flashbacks is well-handled and engrossing. As I cautioned before, I don't know how well I Am Legend will hold up on repeat viewings, or over time -- but while it's happening, I Am Legend is a slick, scary, superbly made action/science fiction/horror film with a lot more art, heart and smarts than you'd expect.

Review: I Am Legend is Decent but Way Too Short

Will Smith in Warner Bros. Pictures' "I Am Legend"
Warner Bros. Pictures

You know, I figured I would hate this film. The trailers for I Am Legend have been nothing short of odd; the early word on the film was dismal; and there were rumors of the ending being re-shot less than a month ago. All in all I figured it would be a bit of a disaster. So perhaps those low expectations made this come off better than it would have otherwise. Whatever the case, this bad boy is fairly watchable and I won't even be bitter when it banks a large payday this weekend.

The story is based on the novel of the same name, though I'm told by those that have read the book that the stories are so dissimilar as to be considered different works. In this, the movie version, Will Smith is Robert Neville, the last man left on Earth. He's a scientist, and I believe an Army Lieutenant Colonel to boot. The movie jumps back and forth to explain what happened, why he's the only man left... and what Neville is trying to accomplish in the present day.

What really works here is the suspense level. It's difficult to ascertain what's going on, so every corner and dark shadow is filled with dread. Will Smith does well here too: he's a man beset by troubles, clearly coming unglued after years of solitary living in New York City. That's the other cool portion of the movie, imagining a giant city, and what would become of it without people. Evidently you'd get to hunt deer from a sports car! They should have cleared out Brooklyn years ago, eh?

What doesn't work is the depth and logic of the situation. With regards to the depth, there isn't any, this movie flies by at a brisk 92 minutes. It's no wonder they are adding the first six minutes of The Dark Knight on to the front of the film. Which leads to the problem of logic. There are many situations here where you think, "Hmm, I hope they explain/elaborate on this." But nope, whoooosh, it's on to the next setup. It works for keeping the tension up, but not so much for keeping you engaged.

With all that said I'm moderately recommending this film to you and yours. You could do worse on a holiday afternoon. You may roll your eyes a time or two but you probably won't yawn. The film moves well, and the only thing I'm truly appalled by here is the marketing. They've taken pains to hammer home that Will Smith is the last man in NYC, only the film really isn't about that. They should have said "It's just like Die Hard, only with less people!" It would have been more honest, and probably wouldn't have gotten this film so much bad press. As it stands I Am Legend is a decent flick - just not worthy of the book, and not worthy of much thought past the time you spend in the theater.

REVIEW: The power of trailers is legend

Phelim O'Neill
Friday December 21, 2007
The Guardian

The Dark Knight
Batman returns... The Dark Knight

If you go to see Will Smith starring in the big-budget adaptation of Richard Matheson's influential apocalyptic vampire novel, I Am Legend, at an Imax cinema, you'll see some spectacular scenes - but perhaps not the ones you were expecting. You'll see an armed robber tear off his mask to reveal an even scarier visage: his whitened cheeks bearing scars cut from the corners of his mouth, with a crude, red smear of lipstick. This terrifying apparition, taking up all of the colossal Imax screen, marks moviegoers' introduction to the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger.

If you've read I Am Legend or seen the previous movie adaptations (The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man), then you'll recall that Batman's nemesis has thus far been conspicuous by his absence. That's still the case, sadly, but Warners has tagged on to the programme seven minutes of its new Batman movie, The Dark Knight (six minutes being the introduction to the Joker, with the rest made up from snippets of key sequences), way ahead of the movie's July 2008 opening date.

This experiment marks the convergence of two trends in film marketing. Firstly, the practice of delivering exclusive footage with another film. You may recall the fuss when George Lucas's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace trailer hit cinemas. In the US, for many weeks, you could only view it in theatres playing the Denzel Washington thriller, The Siege. Washington's pre-9/11 piece of scaremongering had nothing in common with Lucas's space opera - yet screenings were packed with Star Wars fans who had paid admission simply to catch the two-minute trailer before leaving en masse as the main feature unreeled.

The Phantom Menace trailer leads us to the second of the new marketing schemes. Trailers are traditionally, by and large, as misleading and dishonest as they can legally be: they cut together the best shots of a film without giving anything close to a true representation of what it is about. So now, usually on the internet, it's becoming common to release a few minutes, often from the movie's opening, to give the audience a proper taste of what to expect. This has worked exceedingly well for films with impressive opening sequences that seemed almost tailor-made to stand alone and leave viewers wanting more, such as the remake of Dawn of the Dead or Joss Whedon's feature version of his cancelled TV show Firefly, Serenity. Perhaps that was always the intent.

It was definitely the intent this time: director Christopher Nolan was clearly looking for the big bang of the Imax trailer effect when he made The Dark Knight. Four of the film's big action scenes were filmed in the format, a first for a blockbuster. The air was sucked out of the room by a collective gasp from those attending the preview in London recently as Gotham city appeared in razor sharp detail on a 20-metre screen.

So what has the Dark Knight footage done for the buzz about its parent film? Apart from anything else, it has silenced any doubts viewers might have had about the controversial casting of Ledger as the Joker. It may not sound particularly vital, but the core fan groups of genre - and particularly comic book-adapted movies - are incredibly vocal on the internet and can be merciless on a perceived casting mistake or thematic alteration from source material long before cameras have even stopped rolling. The effect such criticism has is palpable: the studios have run scared since the demolition job did on Batman & Robin in 1997. And one happy side effect for Will Smith? It may just give I Am Legend the extra push he needs to survive a box office apocalypse.

REVIEW: I am Legend

So, is it third time lucky for Richard Matheson’s acclaimed 1954 novel? Anyone who’s read I Am Legend will already know that cinema has not been kind to his masterwork. Vincent Price hammed it up in 1964’s The Last Man On Earth, while Chuck Heston was watchable in 1971’s The Omega Man. Yet neither flick managed to capture the novel’s finely tuned suspense, or its depiction of one man’s psychological nightmare after a virus has turned the world’s population into vampires. Alas, Francis Lawrence’s (Constantine) version is little improvement.

To its credit, it does at least try. The superior first half sees Will Smith give a convincing, angsty performance as Robert Neville, a scientist trying to find a cure for the hordes of Infected swarming the Earth. His only companions are a gaggle of mannequins and a dog, who not only gives the Fresh Prince someone to talk to, but also helps him hunt the iffy CGI deer now roaming the deserted streets of Manhattan.

As Neville goes about the day-to-day business of survival in this new New York, Andrew (Lord Of The Rings) Lesnie’s dazzling cinematography overshadows his every move. Bathed in a champagne glow, the Big Apple has rarely looked more eerily beautiful. While many of the effects are achieved through CGI, real location filming in sealed-off sections of New York lend the film a believable air.

Sadly, this only lasts until we catch our first glimpses of the Infected. Moving with that daft super-speed that can only come from a hard drive and about as scary as a pack of boy scouts after too many M&Ms, the virus-carrying creatures are nowhere near as threatening as they should be. They’re also unintentionally amusing, head-butting everything in sight like demented football hooligans. Factor in the syrupy moralising (via Bob Marley, of all things) of the film’s final scenes and I Am Legend emerges a valiant effort, annoyingly undermined by a misplaced faith in its computerised bad guys and a script that stutters halfway through. Read the book instead.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

MODERNIST MONTAGE: The Obscurity of Vision in Cinema and Literature

Writer: P. Adams Sitney
Columbia University
Press, 262 p, 1990
Modernism (Literature)
ISBN 0231071833

These are the front and back covers of this highly recommended book.

BOOK: The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture

Karen Jacobs
Cornell University Press
Modernism (Literature)
426 p, 2001
ISBN 0801486491

The Eye's Mind significantly alters our understanding of modernist literature by showing how changing visual discourses, techniques, and technologies affected the novels of that period. In readings that bring philosophies of vision into dialogue with photography and film as well as the methods of observation used by the social sciences, Karen Jacobs identifies distinctly modernist kinds of observers and visual relationships.

This important reconception of modernism draws upon American, British, and French literary and extra-literary materials from the period 1900-1955. These texts share a sense of crisis about vision's capacity for violence and its inability to deliver reliable knowledge. Jacobs looks closely at the ways in which historical understandings of race and gender inflected visual relations in the modernist novel. She shows how modernist writers, increasingly aware of the body behind the neutral lens of the observer, used diverse strategies to displace embodiment onto those "others" historically perceived as cultural bodies in order to reimagine for themselves or their characters a "purified" gaze.

The Eye's Mind addresses works by such high modernists as Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and (more distantly) Ralph Ellison and Maurice Blanchot, as well as those by Henry James, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nathanael West which have been tentatively placed in the modernist canon although they forgo the full-blown experimental techniques often seen as synonymous with literary modernism. Jacobs reframes fundamental debates about modernist aesthetic practices by demonstrating how much those practices are indebted to the changing visual cultures of the twentieth century.