Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Nightcast (Marco von Moos, 2007) Review

Movies on shoestring budgets often accept their limitations. A lesser writer/director might have looked at their accountancy sheet and opted for a drama or rom-com (which isn't to diminish these kind of efforts). Not so with von Moos, the Swiss director behind superhero adventure Nightcast, an homage to B-movies of the 90s. Of course, being a B-movie itself the look is spot-on (the film definitely reflects its budget) so what really matters is entertainment value and, for an independent filmmaker, style. Luckily von Moos and Nightcast have both.

The story focuses on Harry Brighton (Fabian Ramseyer), a police officer who is near fatally burnt when trying to apprehend the son of a Crimelord, Jack Wallace (Moos himself). The military turn him into a superhero and, after escaping, he joins a gang of underground rebels and names himself Nightcast in an attempt to regain his memory... and get revenge.
Nightcast, a masked avenger of the night, definitely has his heritage in superhero culture - both comic book and cinematic. Half Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990) and half Dark Avenger (Guy Magar, 1990, TV), by way of The Crow (Alex Proyas, 1994) and hinting at Wolverine (X-Men, Bryan Singer, 2000), the world created by Moos is a familiar one, but it never becomes a problem. Nightcast doesn't have a particularly distinct style, yet its hero feels fresh and the feelings of familiarity never overpower our response to the character and his plight. As a confessed superhero geek I understand Moos' frame of reference so it's to his credit that I never felt like I was watching the cogs working, or suffering a been-there-done-that routine. Part of the appeal is that, like Darkman, Nightcast isn't actually based on a comic book, TV show or existing franchise - it's not a sequel or spin-off. It simply uses a template and genre convention to mould its own fantasy, albeit cliched, world.
Or is it? The dialogue in the film is predictable and at times stilted - in fact, it can seem like it's following the Superhero Handbook 101. It gets to a point however, just after this exchange: "Do I need to worry?" "No. The next time we meet... will be the last." " You will take care of this problem?" "You can count on me father", where you wonder if there is actually a sly parody also at work. Nightcast feels definitively 90s, not just as an homage - but like it's actually from that time. The opening credits (fiery, arriving just after a scarred hand reaches from debris) are intercut between dramatic plot exposition; shady dealings and the evolution of our hero. It rattles along at a decent pace with some above-average direction (Moos has a definite sense of space for such a limited production budget and some of his camerawork is impressively stylish) but at the mid-way point, a small moment occurs which made me question the projection of the rest of the film. After a crucial shootout, peace is declared between Wallace's gang and the military. "Excellent. No pointlessly prolonged shootout" he declares, slimily. Postmodern nod or just a slip in the script? I can't be sure, but judging from the design and background of the movie, i'd say Moos is smart enough to know how his target audience will respond to the dialogue.
As a critic it's vitally important to review in context - therefore remembering that this is a deliberately B-level independent homage to a cinematic genre that was contrived and gimmicky in the first place. To knock the CGI or acting in Nightcast would be harsh; because it's well above average for most productions of this kind and fits the tone of the world being created. It's not in my interests to knock a filmmaker who is clearly doing his best with limited resources - because he's coming out on top. Go in expecting War Of The Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) with Daniel Day-Lewis style performing and you'll be disappointed. But that's not what the film is trying to be. It's a lovingly made homage, complete in its vision and bringing a unique sense of nostalgia, while being somewhat original. Not even Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002) (in my opinion a benchmark for the genre) had OSCAR-worthy character development, but it did have something in common with Nightcast. Action. Moos was sensible enough to hire Fabian, a gymnast and dancer, for the lead role and combined with his action sensibilities and perfect editing, it makes for a Hollywood rivaling spectacle. Watching Nightcast dispatch bad guys, without having a million cuts a second and abundant computer generated nonsense, is hugely exciting and the sequences are well choreographed and, vitally, believable. Sure, Nightcast takes place in an elevated, fantasy world. But we have to be able to relate to the character and respond to his actions. Moos doesn't make him fly, shoot webs, grow claws or hulk out - he just makes him fight with determination. It's great to see a hero driven by himself - not a predictably saccharine love interest (although a wife is involved), nagging aunt or even a sense of morality. It's a singular character arc. A mission.
Nightcast, of course, isn't perfect. But it's a really fun, well produced ride that will appeal and be familiar to comic book geeks and B-movie fans, while still retaining its own spirit and individuality. Its dialogue is sometimes cringeworthy but that's perfectly countered by the solid and well-filmed action sequences, which, while not on a par with John Woo, gives bean-counters like Michael Bay more than a run for their money.

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