"Watchmen" (Zack Snyder, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? The fact that there was a "Watchmen" at all is something sort of astounding, especially considering the heavyweights throughout the years who unsuccessfully mounted adaptations (among them: Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky). That it was as slavishly faithful to the source material as Snyder's version was, is almost beyond belief. Snyder lovingly recreates entire pages from the comic book (look no further than the opening sequence that shows the murder of former superhero The Comedian), with each panel serving as inspiration for a super-slow-motion moment in the feature film (the director's cut would eclipse the 3 hour mark, an even-more-extended version that included an animated version of the "Black Freighter" subplot, was even longer). Snyder included it all (the eternal-Nixon eighties setting, the owl ship, the glowing blue scientist Dr. Manhattan) adding only slight flourishes (an abundance of Snyder-approved ultra-violence) and alterations (the giant squid monster isn't included and, honestly, almost cripples the entire third act). If there's one thing that Snyder understood, without a doubt, it's how "Watchmen" should look. What remained elusive was how it should feel and resonate. It's like a child reading a thematically complex comic and simply being astounded by the visuals without thinking about what it actually meant.
Style, Substance, or Both? "Watchmen" is a really amazing looking movie and we've watched it over and over again for that simple reason (the history of Dr. Manhattan scene is one of our favorites ever – love the Phillip Glass musical cue), but it never ceases to frustrate. It's style without substance… and it nags. Why keep the eighties setting if you do so little with it? Was the "Dr. Strangelove"-esque war room really necessary? What's with the bad actors wearing historical characters make-up? And how long would the movie be if there weren't as many slow-motion shots? These are just a few of the questions that come up while watching "Watchmen," which will undoubtedly go down in the history of film as one of the most gorgeous missed opportunities ever.
"Moulin Rouge!" (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
How Does It Dazzle? Baz Luhrmann originally made his mark with this rococo conclusion to his nonstop "Red Curtain" trilogy (which began with "Strictly Ballroom" and continued with "Romeo + Juliet"), a series of movies so excessive that you thought they might spill off the screen and into the audience. With "Moulin Rouge!" he took everything he was developing with the previous films and pushed it to the brink, with more costumes and gags and melodrama than than several seasons of "Masterpiece Theatre," encased in an editorial style so schizophrenic that it would make the rapid-fire style of early MTV seem positively laidback by comparison. Adding to the sense of overkill is the fact that, while the movie is a period piece, Luhrmann decided to score it using songs (and bits of songs) familiar to contemporary audiences, in a kind of "mash up" approach that would predate the actual coining of that phrase by a good five years or so. Everything is more in "Moulin Rouge!," whether you like it or not, brimming over with embroidered additives and visual splendor (the color red has rarely been used as effectively). At the time, "Moulin Rouge!'s" boldness seemed almost revolutionary. Watching it today, it still kind of does.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. Like the best of these movies, the style and the substance are so intertwined that pulling one apart would cause the whole thing to collapse. For "Moulin Rouge!," without its style, it could have easily fallen into the category of limp soap opera. With its lavishness, though, it's something new, something bold, and something different.
"Transformers" (Michael Bay, 2007)
How Does It Dazzle? Michael Bay had always been someone who could make even the grimmest of subject matters (like, say, the bombing of "Pearl Harbor") sparkle like a Coca-Cola commercial, but with "Transformers," based on the beloved action figure/cartoon/comic book series, he kicked things into overdrive, creating a world so bustling with visual activity that you could actually watch a car transform into a giant robot and not only believe that it was happening, but you could count the individual car parts as they were being reconfigured into robot parts. The depth and degree that he used visual effects was something even the most hardened lover of animation had to realize was a pretty incredible feat. Things like the first time Optimus Prime transforms or the way that a scorpion-like bad robot leaps out of the desert sand, are genuine moments of awe and wonder, worthy of Steven Spielberg's executive producer credit. And this kind of techno-mechanical mastery is never more apparent than in the climactic battle sequence that happens at the end of the movie and takes place on the mostly deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles (compared to the level of mayhem that the subsequent movies produced, it seems kind of quaint now). There's a kind of crazed inventiveness that the sequels, for all of their heightened antic energy, can never eclipse (or even match).
Style, Substance or Both? Probably both. Sure, it is a movie based on a series of action figures. And while the series did devolve into a series of bloated, hyper-violent set pieces, the first film at least managed to merge the concept with something close to heartfelt – the feeling of attachment to your very first car. It's probably the most identifiably human movie in Bay's oeuvre in addition to being his most visually dazzling.
"Oz the Great and Powerful" (Sam Raimi, 2013)
How Does It Dazzle? Sam Raimi, coming off of his original "Spider-Man" movies (which weren't exactly boring-looking), tackled the world of L. Frank Baum's Oz, with 21st century technology and a visual palette borrowed from Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" (the two share a production designer and, of course, studio) but pushing things into much more extreme, overgrown territories. He makes the imaginary world of Oz denser, more textured, and more dangerous than it was in the original "Wizard of Oz," creating a lush fantasy world that seems easy to get lost in. Raimi basically took a class in 3D photography and it shows onscreen – there are some moments that are immersive in ways that few 3D movies actually are. Other directors would have been overwhelmed and perhaps swallowed up by the abundance of technological derring-do, but Raimi equips himself admirably – there's an appreciated lightness to the movie and that buoyancy is all Raimi and his winking references to the original film are welcome and witty. You can, apparently, teach an old dog new tricks.
Style, Substance, or Both? With 'Oz,' it's both, since for the first time ever you're truly able to go on the journey of someone who is walking into a fantasy world with all sorts of craziness jutting out at them. (Until, of course, the eventual Disney theme park attraction.) Raimi is singularly committed to capturing that experience and he does so wonderfully. You can practically feel the yellow brick road under your feet.
"The Cell" (Tarsem, 2000)
How Does It Dazzle? Like many of the movies on this list, "The Cell" takes place in an alternate dimension – in this case the dream world of a serial killer, who has another victim locked up. So a psychologist and FBI agent decide to descend into his subconscious to see if they can figure out where he's hidden his latest victim. Commercial director Tarsem uses a whole host of influences (everything from Metallica music videos to horror movies to French cartoons to Damien Hirst pieces) to achieve a disorienting sense of unease and dread, occasionally making things too glacial and beautiful to actually be horrifying. Still, there are a number of unforgettable sequences in "The Cell" and it was an aesthetic that Tarsem continued, in his incredibly wonderful fantasy period drama "The Fall," to his back-to-back mainstream movies "Immortals" (which has about 15 minutes of sheer brilliance and some of the best 3D ever) and "Mirror Mirror" (Bollywood-inspired and infinitely more enjoyable than the self-serious "Snow White and the Huntsman"). At the very least, "The Cell" is the most distinct son-of-"Silence of the Lambs" thrillers, one that takes adventurous visual and narrative chances while still hedging closely to the conventions of the genre.
Style, Substance, or Both? Total style. The first time we saw "The Cell" we wanted to rip one of the seats out of the theater and hurl it at the screen. In time we've mellowed and come to appreciate the orgiastic, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that Tarsem employs and admit, begrudgingly, that, for the most part, it works. It's just that it's also incredibly hollow and for all of it striking visual curlicues, it doesn't mean much of anything. Tarsem's grasp on long form narrative, even after "The Cell," remains rickety and uneasy.