Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Writer makes disappointing directorial debut. Also, dog bites man...

Directed by Garth Ennis
Starring Tank Jones, Lauren Alonzo, and Kate Kugler

Synopsis: The survivors of a crashed American chopper in Afghanistan face a greater threat than the Taliban when they are set upon by a seemingly invulnerable army of the undead. And then the SAS shows up...

I blow hot and cold on Garth Ennis. On the one hand, he has written some great and compelling comics (Punisher: The End, Punisher: The Tyger, Preacher, Hitman). On the other hand, he's a writer whose aesthetic interests I increasingly find hard to separate from his limitations. He writes the foul-mouthed badass & the strong, stoic man of action very well, but writes characters he doesn't agree with or respect as the most contemptible straw men. And sometimes his admiration of tough men making hard choices easily shades into fascism.

So, Garth Ennis making his directorial debut on a short film about soldiers in Afghanistan encountering a supernatural power more evil than the Taliban? Oh, and produced by the people at Avatar (a company that, for every good book it puts out, puts out seventeen stolen from Warren or Alan or Garth's commonplace books)? If it wasn't for the fact that chances to see this outside of Comicon were going to be rare, I probably wouldn't have lined up for it. And a small part of me hoped that Ennis, pushed into a new medium, out of his comfort zone, might do something interesting.

Unfortunately, Stitched isn't even an intriguing misfire. It's just a bore.

The writing isn't the problem, though what comes across on the comics page as clever exposition feels awkward coming out of a real person's mouth sometimes.

The bigger problem is that Ennis just doesn't have a grasp on how to do film. His time as a comic book writer has clearly taught him how to think visually, but the fact he doesn't have to execute those visuals means that good ideas are botched. The carnage of a previous battle that the soldiers stumble across is filmed in such a flat, matter-of-fact way that it comes across as a joke more than a horrific moment. And not a dark joke, but a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker joke.

A better example is a sequence of the soldiers climbing a hill. The soldiers are shot from behind and below as they ascend. It's a good idea either to sell the tiring nature of their trek or to give a mythic image to these tired warriors. In practice, the shot is framed and lit with the minimum amount of attention possible, and instead looks like a series of asses jouncing up a hill.

But the biggest problem is that Ennis can't direct actors. While it's hard to assess from the IMDB resumes of the stars how talented they are, the fact that all the line-readings are given with a similar lack of inflection, as if the scripts were handed to them five minutes before the shoot started and they were told this was merely a read-through. While Jones and Alonzo are poor actors, a special Razzie should be given to Kugler, who manages the amazing feat of being both dull and infuriating in her portrayal of a shellshocked PTSD soldier as a whiny teenager whose parents aren't letting her go to the mall.

Note to directors: stylized dialogue requires special attention to actors to make it work. Note to Garth Ennis: your dialogue is stylized.

If I sound so annoyed, it's because the monsters at the center of the short film are so fascinating. They're similar to zombies in that they are slow, stupid and can't use tools. And like traditional zombies, they're dangerous due to their numbers and tenacity as much as anything. But the visual, of creatures with every hole in their face (eyes, nose & mouth) stitched shut, who stumble along like the Templars from Tombs of the Blind Dead, is amazing. And Ennis' conceptual twists on these creatures (they can't be killed with a shot to the head or severing of the spine, for example) suggest a fascinating mythology.

But all of that is hidden inside a boring, indifferent film whose main purpose, at this point, is to serve as an extended trailer for the inevitable Avatar Press ongoing. Color me unimpressed.