06 March 2010

Well, THAT happened... (Elektra: The Hand & The Devil)

I was a rather avid comic reader in the early 1990s, an era now known in comic book enthusiast circles as "The Dark Ages," a time when exaggerated anatomy, darker stories, morally ambiguous new heroes, and unwelcome overhauls to heroes of yore were the norm. In short, I wasn't seeing the medium at its best. As such, from 1995 onward, my two longboxes of polybagged publications saw no new additions and about as much time outside of my closet. In fact, it wasn't until at least the year 2006, when the special features on the DVD for the Daredevil movie introduced me to David Mack, who would become my favorite comic artist. Also, I rather liked the Daredevil movie (enough to buy up anything with Mack's name on it, from Parts of a Hole through Echo: Vision Quest). I can't say the same for Elektra, and it seemed neither could aspiring director Chris Notarile; In searching for information on Frank Miller's Xerxes, a purported prequel to 300, I came across this short film, presented in full on IMDB:


Chris Notarile, on his own time, with his own money, created (almost singlehandedly) this 11-minute short film dramatizing the death, past, and resurrection of Frank Miller's red-clad assassin.

Rather than do a full, scene-by-scene breakdown (which short films tend to lend themselves to) I want to go into detail on what is quite possibly the weakest scene in the film, which is saying quite a bit given that the film is only 11 minutes in length. After Elektra is killed by Bullseye, there is a flashback to Matt Murdock's days at Columbia University, where he meets the lovely Elektra Natchios and becomes entranced by her. After trying to get her attention by dropping some of his books near her as he walks past, Matt realizes that he's not going to have a chance unless he does something about Elektra's omnipresent bodyguard. He takes out a multi-colored hackey-sack (which, it should be pointed out, is not made of rubbery materials and is therefore not bouncy in any way) which he then ricochets off two railings before knocking the bodyguard unconscious. What follows the shot of him putting this plan into motion by hurtling the ball off-screen are three long and drawn-out shots that no small budget and no brief filming schedule can excuse. The first shot is the first ricochet, the hackey-sack bouncing off a railing. Of course, not being a rubber ball at all, it doesn't so much "bounce" off the railing as much as it hits it and then falls to the ground. The exact same thing happens in the next shot, which is meant to be the ball bouncing off another railing, but since the ball didn't bounce off the first railing (instead, falling to the ground) the subconscious mental connection that's supposed to form ultimately fails to do so and causes a jarring break in the immersion. At first, I thought he just threw a second ball, as if working on his aim before launching a third ball at the security guard. is that however poorly constructed and edited the previous two shots were, they don't hold a candle to the debacle that is the shot of the supposedly-ricocheting hackey-sack "soaring" in front of Matt's face, depicted by the camera slowly panning left to right, with the hackey-sack resting at the bottom of the frame. The last shot is the sack hitting the security guard on the back of the head, thankfully bringing the sequence to its much-delayed conclusion.

It may not seem fair to say an entire film, however short, is brought down by a singularly weak scene, and that's not the case. This is overall a very bad short film, with the rent-a-cop knockdown just one of several examples of poor editing, mismanaged production values, and a total lacking of clarity of vision by its director.

If I had to say something nice about the movie, I could only point to a single frame, a shot of Daredevil crouched upon a ledge surveying the streets below. It's a brilliant image, but it's not cinematic in any way. It's certainly a far cry from the shot of Batman leering down on an alleyway in Sandy Collora's much-acclaimed fan film Batman: Dead End. Granted, that director's demo reel had a bigger budget, and Mr. Collora had far more experience in filmmaking than Mr. Notarile, but both directors take a more down-to-earth approach and give iconic heroes costumes that don't look like they came out of Stan Winston's studio yet rise above the look of cheap Halloween costumes.

The costumes look rushed and try way too hard to resemble their print-media predecessors. To top it off, Bullseye's costume is this ludicrous compromise between his original blue bodysuit and the trenchcoat-over-tanktop ensemble from the movie. It just begs the question: why pattern 2 of the 3 total costumes after the comics, but pull back on the third? The only upshot to these costumes is that they probably make it much easier for the actors to move around in during the fight scenes.

The fight choreography was horrendous and the camera seemed to wrestle with the dilemma of either zooming in tighter and risk looking like it's trying to disguise the actors' relative inexperience or keeping the shot wide and expose all the pauses and breaks that out the fight as staged. Instead, the camera stays at this odd middle distance that cuts off heads and legs and tries to center square on people's backs.

This is where I field defenses of not what film is so much as what it is trying to be:

"It's not trying to be Citizen Kane."
"They're just students."
"They had no money and barely enough time."
"No one told them to do this."
"It's a labor of love."

True, but despite these shortcomings this film can't even rise to the level of mediocrity.

Yeah, I should probably read fully the interview where Chris Notarile details the 40USD budget (spent on "materials, metrocards, and hot chocolate") so I can potentially get a better appreciation for what this film is and what it's trying to do, but this ignores something fundamental about filmmaking and perhaps about art in general: The end result must stand on its own.

I may not be an executive for a major studio, and my own skills as a director may be questionable at best, but I don't think I have to be in order to make a sound prediction for Mr. Notarile. Much like his Maniac Cop short (which I haven't seen, but don't feel all that enthusiastic about remedying), he's exhibiting his skills to try and land himself a major directing gig. If I were looking through demo reels, trying to handpick a director to helm my latest project, this wouldn't even make it into a "maybe" pile.

I'm not going to say "I could make a better film" because it's a bit of a faux pas for directors (aspiring or otherwise) to bash each other's work. That said, I do feel like I should re-enact the hackey-sack scene and present the video as a sort of critique-in-motion. Maybe that's mean, but I just can't overlook the shortcomings of this piece, low budget or not. The bar on fan films was raised years ago, long before Batman: Dead End, and Elektra: The Hand & The Devil misses it by a mile.
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