A common criticism of Zack Snyder's films has been that he knows how to make something visually exciting, but when it comes to story and directing actors, notsomuch. After the release of Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood, many are wondering if the former Production Designer suffers from the same problem. The trailers were filled with stunning visuals but there was no real indication as to whether or not the movie would be any good, and is it turned out, quite a few thought it was her worst outing yet. And anyone who has seen Twilight can attest to the fact that while Hardwicke may have an eye for casting and star-making, she doesn't have a great knack for making those she casts actually act well. Is Hardwicke guilty of creating films that are visually heavy but light on plot, or is she more? And does Snyder get an unfair rap for relying so much on eye candy? Let's start from the beginning.
Screenplay: Nikki Reed
Style or Substance? Both. Oh debuts. How often you are the strongest. Catherine Hardwicke won many accolades for her first feature, which both demonstrated Hardwicke's trademark "disaffected youth visuals" and told a yes, mildly cliched but mostly harrowing story of troubled teens. Perhaps the substance part came mostly out of Nikki Reed's script, but whatever the reasoning, this movie worked on both levels and certainly affected me as a former teen dabbler in wrong-side-of-the-trackdom.
Dawn of the Dead
Screenplay: James Gunn (Based on the George A. Romero 1978 screenplay)
Style or Substance? Both. Style and substance were so intertwined in this movie, one would not have worked without the other. Part of the reason this movie was and is so innovative and exciting is how it was shot, the look/intensity of the zombies, the editing, and so on, but it's also rich with story and character -- and it's SCARY. REALLY. SCARY. And how about those opening credits? How about that opening sequence?! I get so excited when style meets substance on such a high level. I love this movie.
Lords of Dogtown
Screenplay: Stacy Peralta
Style or Substance?: Style. I remember Lords of Dogtown being entertaining at times, but what mostly comes to mind are the sun-bleached quick cuts, close-ups, and steady cam shots, providing an overall strong sense of visual realism, stemming from an attempt to re-create what stood out visually about the documentary Dogtown and Z Boys. But other than solid performances from Heath Ledger and Emile Hirsch (which I believe happened despite Hardwicke, not because of her), there really isn't much substance in this simultaneously heavy-handed and by-the-book film.
Screenplay: Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordan (Based on the Frank Miller graphic novel)
Style or Substance? Style. I honestly can't recall a single exchange of dialogue in this entire movie. Which isn't to diminish the accomplishment of said style. This movie is so visually jaw-dropping, I forgave whatever issues I had with the story. Sorry if that is blasphemy, but it's the truth. Granted, everyone would have been a lot more satisfied had the film been MORE than just an experiment in how to make something look as awesome as possible, but as a follow up to the nearly perfect Dawn of the Dead, I was not in the least bit offended when I saw 300. I thought it showed how far Snyder could go on a visual level and it got me jazzed about what he could accomplish in the future.
The Nativity Story
Screenplay: Mike Rich
Style or Substance? Neither. Harsh, I know. The only interesting parts of the film for me were the casting and the realism with which this particular story was shot, both of which are to be expected from Hardwicke and most likely why she was chosen for the job, but that's simply not enough. To be fair, I am uninterested in stories about Mary or Joseph so a filmmaker has to do a damn good job to get me to care. Unfortunately, that just didn't happen in the case of The Nativity Story.
Screenplay: David Hayter and Alex Tse (based on the Alan Moore graphic novel)
Style or Substance? Style. Sadly. Because the source material was one of those perfect entities that mixed important subject matter with a brilliant story, told in a way that fully encompassed everything its particular medium had to offer. The comic that all other comics worshipped. But audiences and critics were extremely disappointed with the results, accusing Snyder of using too much reverence in bringing the book to life (he re-created exact images from the page, just as he did with 300). But as angry as people got, I actually love it and think he tried to stay true, tried doing right by the fans while staying distinctly Snyder. And at the very least, the images alone are incredibly evocative; it was an emotional experience to see them come to life. Plus, he really tried to mimic the storytelling conventions of the book with his director's cut, infusing both Under the Hood and the Black Freighter into the finished product. But ultimately, I would only recommend the movie as a cool visual accompaniment to the graphic novel, and thus, despite my love for it, must say that style won out over substance in the end.
Screenplay: Melissa Rosenberg (based on the Stephenie Meyer book)
Style or Substance? Style. I'm not gonna be snarky here and say neither, as laughable as I found this movie to be, because I do respect its place in history and importance in grooming the next generation of fangirls, but this movie is much more about the way it felt, the actors, and the fact that it exists more so than the actual story. A story which, when you come right down to it, has been told before, and told better. The only reason this movie is eons better than the second in the franchise is because of Hardwicke's direction, because of the look and the tone. Forks' cold, grainy bleakness make it a character itself and that was all Hardwicke. Also distinctly Hardwicke was the spot-on casting matched with horrible acting, save Anna Kendrick, masterful enough to not be taken down with the rest of the cast.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Screenplay: John Orloff and Emil Stern (based on the Kathryn Lasky novels)
Style or Substance? Style. I enjoyed the crap out of this movie, but cannot deny that the gorgeous animation and Snyder stamp made on the Hero With A Thousand Owl Faces story are why. The visuals in this movie were absolutely breathtaking, and I kick myself for not having seen it in IMAX 3-D. If it's this gorgeous on Blu-Ray, I can't even imagine what I've missed out on. I don't think the substance was absent or the story bad, not at all, just well trodden. The style, however, was a grade above pretty much any other animation I saw last year. Here, Snyder's involvement and signature style elevated the otherwise pedestrian substance.
Red Riding Hood
Screenplay: David Johnson
Style or Substance? Style. This movie is certainly beautiful, and definitely meant for the emerging teenage fangirl market, but that doesn't mean it is without merit. Any movie that plays with the rules of werewolfism AND features Michael Hogan (Cl. Tigh for those of you who haven't watched Battlestar Galactica YET), Gary Oldman, and my new celebrity crush Max Irons has got to have some substance. A little substance? I liked this movie a lot more than, well, everyone else on the planet and for some reason, if there was ever a time for a young adult werewolf mystery fairy tale, that time is now. But at the end of the day, style wins out in Hardwicke's latest, in a big way -- it is without question her most beautiful movie yet, combining the style she's known for with something a little bit more heightened, saturated, deliberate, and classic. According to most critics, unfortunately, the meat of the movie just doesn't match up.
Screenplay: Snyder and Steve Shibuya
Style or Substance? TBD. From what I know at this moment, it looks as though style may win out. Surprise. But epic awesome style it will be. I tend to be more forgiving than my cohorts when it comes to Snyder, I must say. He is the real deal, which lots of filmmakers and actors who want your money pretend to be. Snyder is not pretending. He's a fanboy and he loves bringing the material he adores to life, whether pre-existing or original. He'd have to really screw this up big time for me to not like it. Important to note that this is the first time Snyder is directing something completely original, for which he wrote the story as well as part of the screenplay.
When you come right down to it, while both Hardwicke and Snyder often favor style over substance, there is a distinct difference between the two. One more or less means to. The other doesn't. With Snyder, his movies are so obviously heavy on the visuals, it becomes clear that this is a choice. That's how he has decided to define himself as a filmmaker and is OK with it. We know what we are getting out of a Zack Snyder movie. We know our eyeballs are going to melt and our insides are going to tingle. We know we need to see it in IMAX. And maybe, just maybe, he will at some point recapture the magic he generated with Dawn of the Dead and have the story match the visuals in excellence, but if he doesn't we are prepared for it.
With Hardwicke, the style stands out not because the visuals are so overwhelmingly beautiful that they've become her trademark, but rather because often the choices she makes in terms of projects just aren't very strong. She has a voice -- it's there, somewhere, but it's murky. And Red Riding Hood only confuses matters further. Will her upcoming Hamlet continue down the path of lush, fantastical visuals or revert back to the gritty realism we have been so used to from her before? Is Red Riding Hood an exception to the rule or the new rule?
What do you think? Will Sucker Punch be more than an exercise in the visual or, likeRed Riding Hood, continue the directors' trends of being more interesting when it comes to style than engrossing when it comes to substance?