Archive for the ‘comic-book’ category

Snowpiercer

July 5, 2014

20140705-190719.jpgThe morosely spectacular Snowpiercer shouldn’t be taken literally. Here is an allegorical science-fiction epic that unfolds aboard a massive train, streaking through the snow-clotted wasteland that used to be civilization. (In July 2014, the movie tells us, we pumped some super-coolant into the atmosphere to curb global warming; it worked too well. Oops.) The poorest folks are stuck in the “tail” of the train, while the one-percenters live it up near the front. A few brave 99-percenters, led by Chris Evans as the bearded, sullen Curtis, decide to move ahead car by car. That’s the movie. It is a thing of pure cinematic beauty, the movie you want in your deck when arguing for the artistic potential of action films. If you must, it’s Runaway Train meets Brazil — Kurosawa and Gilliam, together at last.

It can’t be coincidence, either, that Snowpiercer features a character named Gilliam (John Hurt), an ancient sage minus an arm and a leg, for reasons we eventually discover. Some of the details in the world-building here are so odd they feel about as realistic as anything else; like the director Bong Joon-ho’s previous breakout hit The Host, and indeed like much of South Korean cinema, Snowpiercer is a highly unstable mix of action-flick grimness and surreal monkeyshines. Tilda Swinton, for example, trots into the proceedings with horse teeth and ugly glasses as an officious marshal who explains that the poor are a shoe, and therefore do not belong on the head. Even she looks normal, though, when we reach the train car where children learn the wonders of the man who built the train, a lesson as told by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who packs a machine gun and trills happily at a piano.

Snowpiercer rattles and hums with visionary life, front-loaded with economical character moments, as The Host was, so that by the time we reach the action, it means something. Violence is not cool or a joke to Bong Joon-ho; it ruins lives and cuts down characters we’ve come to like. This sets his work aside from, and high above, the glib head-bashing in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. The fights are not cleverly choreographed — they’re clumsy, gnashing affairs. Bong is more interested in the microcosm represented by the train in each of its cars; a close reader will probably eventually devote more thought to the relevance of the compartments, which lead inexorably to the Kurtz of the piece, Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s architect and god of the engine. Ayn Rand would like him.

Most action films today go down in a bitter, indigestible lump, like the protein blocks we see the poor passengers subsisting on here, made out of ground-up cockroaches. The new Transformers atrocity serves up dead roach chunks from sea to shining sea. Snowpiercer tastes and chews like the steak enjoyed in the engine room, nutritious and full-blooded, made of hearty red meat. If the movie were playing on more than a relative handful of screens nationwide, Chris Evans would get deserved props for a haunted anti-hero much removed from Captain America, and the terrific Song Kang-ho, star of The Host (and again playing Go Ah-sung’s father), would take his place as a wooly icon to shelve alongside Toshiro Mifune and Runaway Train‘s Jon Voight.

The reason so many of us critics are going slightly nuts over Snowpiercer is that, like many foreign films, it does so effortlessly what Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to do. It tells a simple story swollen with symbol and meaning, side dishes which we can either feast on or disregard. It’s edited not for inane adrenaline but for emotional impact, suspense, dread, awe. This hurtling microcosm, cleaving through an uninhabitable void, is a world unto itself, filled with desperate heroics and callous escapism and everything inbetween. As for the gentle-faced Bong Joon-ho, he is very much in the Guillermo del Toro mold, a storyteller who burrows around in genre and tries to expand it from within. Bong has also assumed the mantle of Terry Gilliam in more ways than one: For his troubles, and his vision, distributor Harvey Weinstein has punished Bong’s film by releasing it in a trickle. Bong refused to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer, so Weinstein has made it so that most of the people who would like to see it on the big screen — where it demands to be experienced — won’t be able to. Weinstein should no longer pretend to care about film, and Bong should no longer do business with vulgarians like Weinstein.

300: Rise of an Empire

March 9, 2014

300-Rise-of-an-Empire-Spoilers-EndingIn 300: Rise of an Empire, this most testosteronal of movie franchises passes into the ungentle hands of women. On Greece’s side, there’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), the Spartan widow of valiant Leonidas from the original 300. On Persia’s side, we have Artemisia (Eva Green), naval commander and all-around vicious warrior. It’s one of the movie’s many failings that Gorgo and Artemesia never have a scene together; they may never have met in actual history, but the film makes such blithe hash of history anyway that an exchange between Gorgo and Artemesia, their words so hostile that their speech balloons in a comic book would have icicles hanging off them, wouldn’t have made much difference other than to add some welcome female camp to a movie loaded with manly camp.

This 300 isn’t exactly a sequel to the first, since its story unfolds before, during, and after the legendary Spartan attempt to hold off the Persians. So it has an unavoidable whiff of “Here’s something else that was happening.” It’s essentially a sidebar to the main story. It’s based, we’re told, on the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller, who also wrote/drew the original 300. Xerxes hasn’t actually come out yet, but, we’re also told, it should show up in comic-book stores sometime this year. I assume Miller made some sketches and preliminary pages available to the filmmakers, as well as the basic plot, but what’s missing here is the graphic charge that made Zack Snyder’s original movie good eye candy for a while. Under the direction of Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire tries hard to follow in Snyder’s footsteps — plenty of speed-ramping slow-mo action — but it just comes across as an imitator.

The heroes here are the Athenians, led by stoic beefcake Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) at sea. The Athenians aren’t as hardcore as the Spartans — remember the Spartans razzed them as “boy-lovers” in the first film — but they still love Greece and freedom, and that’s pretty much all there is to them. The Persians, ruled as before by hulking Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), want to crush Greece, and Artemisia, born Greek but traumatized as a child when Greek soldiers “raped and murdered her family,” wants to seduce Themistocles onto her team. Their resulting sex scene is probably the most ludicrous such thing I’ve seen in a film since Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan went at it in a pool in Showgirls. It doesn’t work on noble Themistocles, though. Afterward, Themistocles does the walk of shame back to his men, while Artemisia presumably does the ancient-world equivalent of eating cookie-dough ice cream and blasting Alanis Morissette.

Laughable as the sex scene is, it at least provides some comic relief, as opposed to the brutal ludicrousness of everything else in the movie. People (mostly Persians) get carved up practically nonstop, impaled, dismembered, stomped by horses. Their blood floats lazily in the air in lackadaisical digital blobs. Is it because the carnage is so stylized that 300: Rise of an Empire got through the ratings process with an R instead of a teen-prohibitive NC-17? If a mere slasher movie boasted this much splatter, it’d have to go back to the editing room many times before qualifying for an R. The problem is, this movie is a mere slasher movie. You go to slasher movies to see psychos slice up teenagers, and you go to the 300 movies to see Greeks slice up Persians.

Sketching in Artemisia’s backstory, the movie seems to want to zip past her motivating rage — uh, your heroes the Greeks raped her mom and killed her dad — as quickly as possible. Eva Green, who between this and Dark Shadows is developing into an actress with a definite taste for outré roles, keeps the rage front and center anyway, becoming by far the reason to sit through the film. Lena Headey, too, does her share of grief-stricken seething. That the movie thinks we’re more interested in faceless men shredding faceless men than in watching these two formidable women is proof that nobody on the creative team (including Zack Snyder, who gets a co-screenwriting credit) was really at the wheel. If some network were to make an entire series about Artemisia and Gorgo — maybe they team up to fight crime, I don’t even care — and the actresses returned to play them, I would sit for every episode five times each and join the show’s goddamn Facebook fan page.

Thor: The Dark World

November 10, 2013

thor_new_still_official1Tiresome as the Thor movies can be, they occasionally yield oddball beauty on a level that you can only see in a movie that cost one hundred and seventy million American dollars. In Thor: The Dark World, for instance, there’s a gorgeously rendered Viking funeral (never mind for whom), and an evil red substance called The Aether that gooshes around in mid-air, and a “Dark Elf” named Malekith (Christopher Huddleston) who looks like a cross between Legolas and Count Orlok and who wants the Aether, but can’t have it because it flows in the veins of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). There’s also a bit when Thor (Chris Hemsworth), our hammer-wielding hero, gazes out at the stars, and there’s just a hint of Kirby Krackle to them — one of the visual trademarks of legendary Marvel artist Jack Kirby, who helped create Thor and so much else of the Marvel universe, and whose heirs will get the following percentage of this film’s mighty profits: zero. Just a reminder.

So Jane’s been Aetherized, and Thor must protect her from Malekith while making sure that the Convergence of the Nine Realms goes off without a hitch. Got it? Heroine has something, bad guy wants it, good guy fends off bad guy. Got it. You need that simple thread to hold onto, because Thor: The Dark World, like so many other superhero sagas, clots its arteries with a great deal of plot cholesterol. The plot, indeed, relies on endless plotting to keep itself going — people are always scheming, and not just Thor’s trickster-god brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). For some reason, Thor has to go behind the back of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to save the day, and this involves brawling with a good many Asgardian soldiers who are just doing their jobs, trying to get through the workday without having to chase some idiot in a spaceship. It also involves putting a large amount of trust in Loki, who, as wryly played by Hiddleston, is much the best reason to see the movie.

These Marvel movies may be full of pomp and circumstance — one legacy left by bombastic, alliteration-smitten Marvel co-creator Stan Lee — but thank Odin they have some humor, unlike the mopey, overlong DC epics we’ve been getting. Kat Dennings helps bring the proceedings down to earth as Jane’s BFF and assistant Darcy; her snark is just what’s needed in this fantasy-sci-fi behemoth that straddles worlds. Other women in the film, from Asgardian warrior Sif (Jaime Alexander) to Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo), get to kick some ass, and Jane’s physics aptitude helps save the universe. It takes a while for this big machine to creak into motion, but once it’s headed for the finish line it involves everybody on every conceivable level — nobody sits on the sidelines, except maybe Odin, though Hopkins is still in full impressive roar, bellowing at Loki, “Your birthright” — the final “t” spat out like a dagger into his bad son’s heart — “was to die!”

If I don’t sound overly enthusiastic about most of the new Marvel movies, it’s partly because they blur past, leaving scraps of ghost memory. Nothing much is, or can be, at stake because we know Thor can’t die — not when Chris Hemsworth is under contract for another Thor film and two more Avengers films. (Not that superheroes ever die for long in the comic books, either.) Good must always defeat evil resoundingly, though not enough so that the villains can’t return for a sequel or two. And what’s Thor’s weakness? That he’s in love with a mortal woman, and so his loyalty is torn between two realms — that’s about it. He’s a bit impetuous, and does stuff against Daddy’s orders, but things turn out okay, so hubris is not his fatal flaw — if anything, it’s having a father who thinks he’s always right but isn’t. But again, Thor puts a thoroughly visually-imagined fantasy world on the screen, and doesn’t lumber around in it like Peter Jackson dawdling in Middle-earth for three more movies. It brings some awe and brawny excitement into comic-book cinema. I just wish these Marvel-verse movies weren’t so nerdishly interconnected that we feel as though we’re not getting the whole story until all 674 films have come out. It’d be nice to be able to skip one, once in a while, but by this point we’re too deep into it; we have to see it through until Iron Man 12 or Avengers 9 or whatever.

The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book

August 30, 2013

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To acknowledge Robert Crumb’s 70th birthday today, I’m hauling the following 1998 review out of mothballs.

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Watching Deconstructing Harry recently, I realized that Woody Allen had come as close as anyone to putting the sensibility of R. Crumb onto the screen — certainly unintentionally, but the similarities are striking. All the Crumb trademarks are there in Allen’s film: the self-loathing so extreme it crosses the line into narcissism; the obsession with women as fetish objects; the compulsion to spew one’s demons out through one’s art; the indifference to the pain this spewing might cause others. The resemblance is even physical; with their milquetoast features and Coke-bottle glasses, they could be brothers.

Allen’s and Crumb’s career arcs intersect neatly — both men started out with cartoonish humor and gradually got deeper and darker — though I don’t believe that Crumb would be a Woody fan, or vice versa. (They’re too alike in the wrong ways.) But Allen, by virtue of writing, directing, and acting in movies (not to mention the Soon-Yi thing), is much more a household name than Crumb, who remains a titan among comics artists and fans but — even after the brilliant 1995 documentary about him — still isn’t nearly as recognized as he should be.

Many of you know Crumb even if you don’t know Crumb: He’s the one who did the “Keep On Truckin” logo you saw everywhere in the ’70s, and he created Fritz the Cat, appropriated in 1972 by Ralph Bakshi for the notorious X-rated animated feature of the same name. Both Fritz and the Truckin’ logo make appearances in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book, a gorgeous new 250-page retrospective of the life and work of America’s greatest living cartoonist. (Not entirely accurate: born in Philadelphia, the disenchanted Crumb moved to France in 1991.)

Packaged by Kitchen Sink (a longtime underground-comix publisher) for Little, Brown, this collection serves as a crash course in Crumb’s work. (Only with a cartoonist as insanely prolific as Crumb could a 250-page book be a tiny sampling.) Editor/art director Peter Poplaski has done a respectful job, colorizing Crumb’s b&w pages in subtle hues that generally don’t drown his intricate cross-hatching. Despite its title, this is too nice a volume (and too pricey: $40) to leave on a coffee table at the mercy of nachos and soda-can condensation rings. The second description fits better: it’s an art book.

Aided by a sort of narration by Crumb (who contributes hand-written pages of autobiographical anecdotes), the book flips through 40 years of Crumb’s life as an artist, from his homemade comics done with brother Charles (one of the two we met in the documentary) to his psychedelic phase in the ’60s to his France sketchbooks. One theme remains constant: the need to escape reality, and then to define and mirror it, through fantasy — first cheerful and childlike, then progressively sexual and nihilistic. He’s done wonderful pieces on popular music through the ages and biographical strips about blues legends, but his scabrous, uncensored material about sex and women is what’s usually remembered.

Crumb has never been a friend to feminists. His attitude is quite well summed up in this rant from a 1970 strip: “Would you like me to stop venting my rage on paper? Is that what you’d like me to do, all you self-righteous, indignant females? All you poor persecuted downtrodden booshwah cunts? … Well, listen, you dumb-assed broads, I’m gonna draw what I fucking well please to draw, and if you don’t like it, FUCK YOU!!” This rant shows a fine writer at work (it’s almost poetic in its slow-burn rhythm); it also shows maybe not the best human being. His art resolves this duality — he’s an alchemist making gold out of venom.

Even though he’s been married for two decades to Aline Kominsky (herself a cartoonist who is, if anything, even more self-loathing than Crumb) and has a daughter with her, Crumb’s ambivalence about women is still obvious. The book highlights his infamous Devil Girl, the character that appeared in his infamous strip shown in Crumb (she loses her head and the “hero,” Flakey Foont, finds her more attractive without it). We see that strip here, plus a life-size sculpture of her, and I couldn’t help noticing her eerie resemblance to Aline.

Okay, if he’s sick and sexist, why is he important? I could say that his work offers an unblinking view of sickness and sexism from the inside, but that would diminish it (just as it would diminish Dostoyevsky). Crumb gives his id free rein, following any lead, no matter how dark or repulsive, no matter how bad it makes him look. This in itself doesn’t equal art, but Crumb’s work has the added benefit of being funny — often appallingly funny, but still. And he has a Swiftian eye for the telling satirical detail. He nails Joe Sixpacks as ruthlessly as he skewers upper-middle-class intellectuals. He drags everyone down into the shit, and he makes sure that he doesn’t get away clean, either. (He’s a little better-looking than his uglified self-portraits would indicate.)

Perhaps the best testament to Crumb’s power is this: When we got a copy of the book at our library, our custodian — a 60-year-old guy who usually favors only books about World War II and had almost certainly never heard of Crumb — sat in the break room with his nose buried in the book for an hour. Now, explicit sexual material only makes up about ten small panels and three full-page illustrations in the 250-page book. So it can’t just be the dirty stuff that kept him busy for an hour. I think the sex might have caught his eye, but he kept reading to see what other stuff this bizarre character had done. As The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book proves, Crumb has done a lot of other stuff indeed.

Kick-Ass 2

August 17, 2013

kick-ass-2-mindy-macreadyThe problem with being shocking is that you can only shock once. 2010’s Kick-Ass packed a fair amount of shock for those who hadn’t read the comic book it was based on. Here was a high-school boy, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who took to the streets in costume as the self-styled superhero Kick-Ass and found that fighting crime was grubbier and bloodier than it usually was in the comics. Here also was an eleven-year-old moppet, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who rattled off unprintables and drenched entire rooms with the arterial spray of gangsters. The whole affair was a winking satire of what the superhero genre had become, in comics and in the movies.

But, again, this sort of thing can only be fresh once. The Kick-Ass comic’s creators — writer Mark Millar, artist John Romita Jr. — turned out two sequels to the first series (Hit Girl and Kick-Ass 2), and are currently cranking out a third. The comics, trying to top the original story, have gotten progressively nastier. The movie Kick-Ass 2, based on elements drawn from the first two follow-ups, softens those elements considerably. Gone, for instance, is a scene in which Kick-Ass’ nemesis (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who went by Red Mist in the first film but has rechristened himself the Mother Fucker, guns down four little kids and goes on to rape Kick-Ass’ girlfriend. The movie, showing more satirical wit than Mark Millar did, short-circuits the rape before it begins, and no little kids are harmed. In some ways the movie is more ruthless: the Mother Fucker will not be back for Kick-Ass 3.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, Kick-Ass 2 does deliver spatially clean action set-pieces that build nicely and sometimes, as when a fearsome brute called Mother Russia deals with a pack of cops, outdo what John Romita Jr. drew. (The use of a lawnmower in particular made me happy.) The Kick-Ass movies have also succeeded in attracting eccentric stars for support: the first film had Nicolas Cage as Hit Girl’s doting superhero dad, and here we have Jim Carrey, obviously enjoying himself at the time despite his post-Sandy Hook misgivings later, as a superhero team leader named Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey satirizes this gravel-voiced born-again-Christian hero but doesn’t ridicule him — in his way, the Colonel is a man of honor trying to redeem his past as a mob enforcer. When Carrey leaves the movie, a substantial amount of energy goes with him.

The movie is most interesting when Hit Girl, now living with a cop guardian and trying very hard to be a nice girl named Mindy Macready, navigates the social pitfalls of high school (she’s fifteen now). Hit Girl has always been a bit softer onscreen than on the page, because Chloe Moretz projects the warmth and charisma denied her comic-book predecessor, and she’s fun to watch here when trying to cope with mean girls in the cafeteria. The least interesting character continues to be poor benighted Kick-Ass himself, who functions here only as a target for the Mother Fucker’s vengeful fury. He often gets lost in the crowd — many of the folks on the Colonel’s team, like Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) or the parents looking for their missing son, are far more intriguing. They do it, like Batman, out of pain; Kick-Ass didn’t.

The Kick-Ass franchise has been a reliable piggy-bank for Millar and Romita, though it might not look as bright on Universal’s books — Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t seem to be packing ‘em in on its first weekend, and might peter out much as the Mother Fucker does. The comics haven’t been particularly inspiring either — just more of the same foul language and slice ‘n’ dice and political correctness used as a piñata. Some things just shouldn’t be ongoing concerns, and perhaps the satirical world of Kick-Ass is one of them. The first Kick-Ass comic and the first Kick-Ass movie said that the concept of superheroes is absurd, an idealistic bubble that pops bloodily against the sharp edges of reality. Once you’ve said that, what can you say that isn’t merely saying it again louder?

The Wolverine

July 28, 2013

2013-movie-preview-the-wolverineWhen writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller collaborated on the four-issue Wolverine mini-series in 1982, it was more or less immediately received as the definitive Wolverine story, and in many quarters still retains that status. It took the X-Men’s runaway fan favorite and gave him new depth and vulnerability while keeping his mystique. In the story, Wolverine, or Logan, goes to Japan, where his old flame Mariko has been forced into marriage to an abusive weasel. The real villain of the tale is Mariko’s father Shingen, who gets into a teasing wooden-sword fight with a drugged Logan. About to lose the duel, Logan pops his razor-sharp adamantium claws to defend himself, and Logan’s narration explains that Shingen has manipulated this whole encounter to make Logan look cowardly in front of Mariko: “I couldn’t dishonor myself more in her eyes if I tried,” Logan mopes.

There’s nothing comparable to that painful moment in The Wolverine, which takes bits and pieces from the Claremont/Miller story — the Tokyo setting, some character names — but goes afield for a more sci-fi narrative in which Logan (Hugh Jackman) saves a Japanese soldier, Yashida, from being obliterated in Nagasaki in 1945, then is summoned to visit the now-dying man decades later. Yashida has become the head of a major tech corporation, and he has been trying to cheat death; Logan, with his mutant power of instant self-healing, may be the old guy’s ticket to immortality. Mariko now becomes Yashida’s granddaughter, and there’s no love or even much affection between her and Logan. So basically Logan is pulled into the story not by his heart but by a guy who’s afraid to die.

There’s also some gibberish involving a character named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who takes away Logan’s healing powers by breathing toxic fumes on him or something, and embedding some sort of spider around his heart. The movie does bring in the assassin Yukio (Rila Fukishima), who in the comics fell in love with Logan and was jealous of his sappy attachment to Mariko, but here comes across as a sexless anime cosplayer with a bright red wig. I don’t know how you start with such a simple, effective story as the Claremont/Miller series, take out whatever’s interesting, and throw in stuff that doesn’t belong in this or any story.

The director-for-hire here is James Mangold, who started out telling small, human stories (Heavy, Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, Walk the Line) and in recent years (Knight and Day and this) just seems to have given up. In Marvel Comics’ heyday, there was a cynical maxim: “You don’t work for comics unless you work for Marvel.” Nowadays it’s more like “You don’t work for Hollywood unless you work for Marvel.” The sequence most people will point to as a highlight unfolds atop a bullet train going 300 miles an hour, with Logan and various assassins stumbling around trying to stay attached to the roof with knives or claws. It’s fun, and contains some of the rare levity in an otherwise humorless movie, but it’s just there as an action beat; it doesn’t establish or strengthen character. All that money, all those CGI techs working into the night, and it doesn’t pack a fraction of the impact of a wooden-sword battle between two men in the comic.

So instead of working Logan’s emotions, the movie seeks to make him vulnerable by sapping his powers of healing. This means he gets shot and stabbed a bunch of times, but still doesn’t die. It also means that he somehow doesn’t bleed to death every time he pops his claws, which emerge from the backs of his hands; we’re to understand that in his usual mode, the flesh heals around the claws when they’re out and seals up again when he retracts the claws. The climax involves a huge Silver Samurai also made out of adamantium, and by then the movie has abandoned pretty much any interest in making this a story about Logan, or a story about anything.

Boldly photographed (by Ross Emery) and scored (by Marco Beltrami), The Wolverine at least looks like more of a real movie than the awful previous solo Logan effort, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. By virtue of basing itself glancingly upon one of the seminal Wolverine stories instead of one of the most useless and uncalled-for Wolverine stories, the movie gets comparatively high marks, but only because it follows such a stinker. And this is yet another comic-book movie in which dozens of people are slashed and stabbed to death and we see nary a pinprick’s worth of blood. In his early days, when comics still had to abide by the violence-phobic Comics Code, Logan had to get around becoming a mass murderer by subduing his enemies in more oblique ways. But in a PG-13 movie, apparently it’s perfectly fine for Logan to shish-kebab everyone within reach, as long as you don’t show the thirteen-year-olds of America what those claws would actually do to a human being — or to the powerless Logan’s hands, for that matter.

Man of Steel

June 16, 2013

man-of-steel-box-office-02If we’re keeping track, the real meat of Man of Steel comes about an hour and a half into it — the public and massively destructive face-off between Kal-El, or Superman (Henry Cavill), and some evil emissaries from his dead home planet Krypton. The brawlers all have superpowers in our Earth atmosphere, and they pummel each other, at full concussive speed, into buildings, fuel tanks, water towers, and many other things destined to be written off by the insurance companies covering Metropolis and Smallville. The effects employed to achieve the devastating collateral damage are, for the most part, unimpeachable; gazing at the wreckage of downtown Metropolis, we’re looking at the equivalent of about 50 9/11s. And that’s before Superman even throws down with the evilest of evil Kryptonians, General Zod (Michael Shannon).

Before all the carnage, Man of Steel goes by in an indistinct blur. It’s not that it’s simply fast-paced; this is something else. It’s paced as if what we’re watching were an afterthought — as if it didn’t matter, as if it were just lip service to get us to the destruct-a-thon. The movie flips half-heartedly through the key narrative beats: the death of Krypton, preceded by Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) packing him off in a spaceship; Superman’s childhood in Kansas, where he’s adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) and named Clark; the introduction of intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who, in this telling, seems to know Superman’s identity before he fully does. All the pieces are there, but they’re put into place in a rushed and offhand way that denies anything any weight or emphasis.

This has not previously been a problem with director Zack Snyder, whose geek sensibilities and visual fetishism (he adapted the graphic novels 300 and Watchmen) have made him a whipping boy among fanboys and critics alike. At his best, when he’s allowed to ease up and slow down a bit, Snyder can create sequences with mood, heft, visual flair. But in Man of Steel he’s barreling through script pages — maybe keeping the movie down to a reasonable length was an issue, though it still clocks in at two hours and twenty-three minutes — and he never establishes a tone. Superman’s flashbacks to his boyhood in Kansas are distributed piecemeal throughout the film, so that an idyllic vision of a way of life that nourished the young Kal-El, a world whose best values he can plausibly vow to protect against his own species, never takes hold.

This sort of machine is inhospitable to actors. Henry Cavill, a face unfamiliar to most American moviegoers, is amiable enough but isn’t allowed to show the wit or the sincerity of Christopher Reeve’s Superman. Casting up-and-coming cult-actor favorite Michael Shannon as Zod seemed at first glance like a fine idea, but Shannon has too much of an earthbound urban cadence, and I detected some distaste on his part when he had to deliver lines like “Deploy the World Engine,” or whatever the hell Zod says to do with the World Engine. The World Engine is meant to turn Earth into a planet friendlier to Kryptonians, which apparently means messing with gravity to lift hundreds of cars off of a busy city street and then slam them down again, like the wrath of a spoiled kid tired of his toys.

In movies, if you can do anything, it’s harder to make it mean anything. I can watch Zod hurl Superman into one, two, three skyscrapers with one mighty throw, but for all the thudding apocalypse of the sound, the mayhem doesn’t suggest any true mass, momentum, inertia — the basic physics that ground action in the world we know and make it interesting. The trailers for Man of Steel promised something almost mystical — they stole their tone from Terrence Malick, of all filmmakers. Not that I was expecting the movie to be anything like Malick, but it might’ve been something intriguing to shoot for; Christopher Nolan, after all, patterned his Batman movies on Kubrick and Michael Mann. A movie about the clash of gods should feel more epic, more awestruck, less in a hurry to get to the next uninspired plot point. This might’ve been Time-Warner’s chance to make the riskiest blockbuster ever attempted, a pure-cinema experimental film — a two-and-a-half-hour fight scene. Maybe Snyder was right; maybe nothing else mattered for that first ninety minutes, or matters in the new cinematic paradigm.

Iron Man 3

May 4, 2013

357553-iron-man-3-pepper-potts-gwyneth-paltrow-armors-up-in-new-teaserCan you name a third film in a franchise that was better than the previous two films? You’d probably have to go deep — A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, perhaps? — but Iron Man 3, despite my misgivings as someone who yawned through Tony Stark’s first two adventures, turns out to be deft summer entertainment, cheerfully amoral (I’ll get to that) and lightly coated with terrific little bits of comedic business. The difference here, it’s clear, is director/cowriter Shane Black, whose scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout still hold up as winking macho fantasies. Black doesn’t take much seriously unless it involves a hero trying to rescue or avenge his loved one. Everything else is fair game, all in fun, the clatter and concussion of action tropes as syncopated as the dialogue.

Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is up against some heavy hitters this time: exploding, supercharged assassins — juiced up with some form of nanotech called Extremis — who do the bidding of a shadowy, preening terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). The Mandarin, probably the most durable of the rather forgettable rogues’ gallery in Marvel’s Iron Man comics, is sort of tossed aside in this movie, in a wittily cynical fashion that almost reads as subversion. Black doesn’t take mustache-twirling supervillains seriously either. Mostly, the movie is a matter of Stark up against amputee war vets whose exposure to the putatively healing Extremis has made them aggressive and vicious. Someone in a bad mood might find Iron Man 3 unforgivably callous and thoughtless, especially after the events in Boston, where we saw real terrorism, real explosions, real amputees.

But the combination of Shane Black and Robert Downey Jr., which worked a treat in 2005’s little-seen but well-loved Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, wants only to put you in a good mood — especially if you were there for the ’80s and ’90s action bonanzas from which Black emerged. Right down to its holiday setting — every scene is sprinkled with festive (and patriotic) Christmas lights — Iron Man 3 is a slick late-’80s throwback, with a bad guy (Guy Pearce) whose mullet and glib smile recall Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight in Real Genius, except this real genius is bent on domination via manipulating the terrorist market. (Kilmer, of course, was also Downey’s co-star in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.) Black expands his boys’ club a bit, though — one of the more fearsome Extremis brutes is a woman (Stephanie Szostak), and even the unfortunately named Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark’s loved one, gets to administer some beatdowns. Iron Woman!

If the thought of William Sadler and Miguel Ferrer — two character-actor favorites of the action era this movie fondly references — as President and Vice-President puts a spring in your step, welcome to Iron Man 3. (I wish Black had time to throw in Michael Ironside or Tom Atkins, just for me.) The rapport between Stark and fellow armor-wearer James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) likewise calls back to Riggs and Murtaugh. The action, framed by legendary cinematographer John Toll, is clear and crisp and satisfying, harking back to the days when directors felt it was important for us to see what was happening to whom, and where. (I’d advise skipping the 3D on this one — it works just fine in plain old 2D, and the colors most likely pop better.)

Downey is as blithely smug as he usually is in these hefty franchise events, but with Stark suffering Post-Avengers Stress Disorder, Downey has something new and likable to play: the current reality of gods and monsters has tweaked Stark’s head a little — he’s no longer the biggest kid on the block, and he’s a bit more humble. Technology, too, smacks him down to size, and at the end, after a symbolic fireworks show casting off tech support he no longer needs, we feel that Stark has grown up, left his toys behind. While we wait for the loud climax we have diversions in the form of witty banter between Stark and various admirers (including a fatherless kid who’s around just long enough not to wear out his welcome), and Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley making meals of their sinister dialogue, and Rebecca Hall, looking like an odd amalgam of Liv Tyler and Scarlett Johansson (Betty Ross! Black Widow!), as a botanist and former Stark one-night stand. The theme of the movie seems to be that the past — whether a woman scorned or a nerd snubbed at a New Year’s Eve party — will come back to bite you, and that extends to ghastly experiments on war veterans and destructive technology that can be used against its maker. For all its snark and lighter-than-air pyrotechnics and aesthetic, the movie has a bit more going on under the hood — or helmet — than it’ll get credit for.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 2

January 26, 2013

tumblr_m69dwjDU5Q1qduoquo16_r38_500Frank Miller’s original series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was plenty violent, but it was also strangely bloodless. There was a bit of bloodshed, but mostly the wounds and gashes were sanitized, as they probably had to be back in 1986 in a medium still widely considered kiddie stuff. The second part of DC’s animated adaptation of the series, however, is decidedly not for kids. It’s rated PG-13, as was its predecessor, but it’s full of gore and pain and trauma. (It also has a streak of hope, and faith in the social contract reasserting itself in times of crisis, that the young and cynical Miller possibly couldn’t quite bring himself to emphasize too much.) The final showdown between the aged Batman and the knife-wielding Joker (who doesn’t seem to have lost a step despite having been locked away for a decade) is thick with splatter and agony in a way Miller’s linework wasn’t.

I razzed Part 1 a bit for feeling rushed and anticlimactic, but Part 2 delivers the goods. It picks up directly where Part 1 left off, so you need to have seen the previous 77 minutes before sitting down for this one (or have the Miller comics committed to memory, as I do); there’s no “Previously, in…” stuff. Batman is still a fugitive, chased by new Gotham police commissioner Ellen Yindel and shadowed by Superman, who’s been reduced to being government muscle — we see ol’ Supes fighting in a skirmish the U.S. is involved in, casually killing hundreds of Russian soldiers. This annoys the USSR, which fires a nuke and causes a nationwide blackout. Miller anticipated not only the chaos of Katrina but the community spirit in the wake of Sandy, and the adaptation leans a little more towards the latter (though I’m sure Part 2 was in the can before Sandy struck).

It all leads to the big face-off between Batman and Superman, and the adaptation expands on the battle considerably, as though the animators couldn’t resist pulling out all the stops (Batman using barrels on the ends of his arms to batter Superman, for instance). What this approach gains in kick-ass energy, it loses a little in the sad gravitas Miller brought to the fight; the original half-a-page image of Batman punching Superman (seen below) is rightly iconic, and on the page you can linger over it and feel its power, but as animation it flashes by in a second. In terms of plot, the adaptation is mostly faithful, right down to the guest appearance by a one-armed Oliver Queen (aka Green Arrow), who helps Batman at a crucial moment with kryptonite-tipped arrows. Oliver is an old-school government-hating lefty who throws in with libertarian Batman against thoughtlessly fascist Superman.

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The politics are a little weird (that was a feature of a lot of ’80s escapism, as in Rambo and Red Dawn); the story yearns for manly, incorruptible authority to challenge weak, corrupt authority. On the other hand, Miller welcomed the shift of power from male to female, as witness the newly female Robin and the noble if misguided Yindel. The Joker seems to have a gay thing for Batman, though, like Javier Bardem stroking 007 in Skyfall, Joker might only be playing that up in order to bug his adversary. Then there’s Bruno, a pre-op, post-op, or possibly non-op transgendered thief working for the Joker; she packs a big gun and has swastikas tattooed on her large silicon breasts where her nipples should be. I should remind you, this is rated PG-13.

A sequence in which the Joker massacres a theater full of people (at The David Endochrine Show, with the Letterman stand-in voiced, in a witty bit of casting, by Conan O’Brien) may pull some viewers up short post-Aurora. Later, when the Joker is loose at a carnival, he doesn’t get to kill a bunch of kids in the adaptation as he did in the comics, a mercy for which post-Newtown viewers may be grateful. Miller anticipated a lot of national traumas (a plane hitting a building in the wake of the nuclear blackout chillingly prefigures 9/11), and in the DVD’s extra feature some of the adaptation’s makers correctly describe the epic story as “heavy.” This second part does pack on the darkness and grotesqueries in a way that feels more, well, Milleresque than the first part did.

In the end, taken together, you have a 153-minute version of what many consider the ultimate Batman tale. It neither improves on nor disgraces what Miller achieved; it is, I suppose, a workable supplement, and by the very nature of its source it’s probably the wildest, messiest Batman story yet to be told in the animated medium — at least until someone gets around to Miller’s All-Star Batman & Robin, which is a whole other kettle of crazy fish.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1

September 21, 2012

Ever since it debuted in 1986, some of us have been eagerly awaiting a film version of Frank Miller’s seminal comics series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Set in a hellish near-future where a 55-year-old Batman has been retired for ten years, the series redefined the character not only for its generation but for every generation thereafter. Taking Batman back to his grim, dark roots, Miller wiped away any traces of the campy ’60s TV show. Almost every Batman movie, from Tim Burton’s 1989 effort right up to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises last summer, found inspiration in Miller’s interpretation. It’s almost as if we’ve gotten a Dark Knight Returns adaptation piecemeal over the years; to cite just one example, an older and weaker Batman’s emerging from an eight-year retirement to blunder over-confidently into a fight with a physically more powerful foe in Dark Knight Rises comes right from the Miller playbook. So at this point, an actual adaptation seems redundant, and yet here we are with the first of a two-part animated take on Miller’s material (the DVD and Blu-ray hit stores next week; part 2 is promised next spring).

Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Bob Goodman stick very close to Miller’s narrative, in which Batman comes out of retirement first to deal with a resurgent Two-Face (plastic surgery to fix his acid-scarred face hasn’t helped his psyche), then to fight the gigantic, razor-toothed leader of the large and remorseless “Mutant Gang.” Miller’s series ran for four 48-page issues — the third and fourth issues pit Batman against the Joker and Superman, respectively — so this first half is essentially throat-clearing before the operatic finale. The pacing seems abrupt and rapid (the film crosses the finish line at just 77 minutes, including end credits), so that Batman’s conflict with Two-Face — which is supposed to emphasize that Batman can no more escape the demons that drive him than Two-Face can escape his own — seems like almost a prologue.

Whenever possible, the animators have stayed true to Miller’s sometimes idiosyncratic character design, though the figures in motion have an unavoidable rushed, Saturday-morning-cartoon cheesiness at times. The opening scene, which introduces Batman’s daytime persona Bruce Wayne in the middle of a stock-car race, doesn’t inspire confidence: the animators clearly saved money on the stiff movement of the cars. Elsewhere, more money and time obviously go into Batman’s various fight scenes, particularly his final showdown with the Mutant Leader. In general, though, Miller’s linework and compositions were so cinematic that they unfolded before our eyes as a breathless yet epic action movie, something the animation here can’t hope to duplicate.

The voicework is uneven; Peter Weller makes an imposing if monotonous Batman, while Ariel Winter adds some much-needed snark as Carrie Kelley, a bored teenage girl who becomes Batman’s new Robin. The filmmakers give Robin a much more active presence in this first half than she had in the corresponding Miller issues, and there’s even an added scene in which she saves a couple from a mugger. The other major female character is Ellen Yindel, who’s taking over the job of police commissioner from the retiring James Gordon. Carrie gets the importance of Batman, Yindel doesn’t, but she’ll learn.

Since the filmmakers also include all of the debate that raged around Batman in Miller’s story, it lays bare Miller’s mildly fascist leaning (for which some members of the comics press took him to task). Everyone pro-Batman is smart and brave, everyone anti-Batman weak and hypocritical; the film even includes the guy in the man-on-the-street interview who says we must be patient with criminals, then adds that of course he would never live in the city. For Miller, city life — constant co-existing with the violent underclass — equals a sort of bitter conservative pragmatism. In the comic, this could be enjoyed on the level of satiric caricature, and the different viewpoints could be argued, but in the movie a pro-Batman commentator’s views are toned down to be less offensive (“Hope he goes after the homos next” becomes “Hope he goes after my landlord next”). Miller at least acknowledged that some people could support Batman for the wrong reasons.

The comic could be admired as one medium striving to be another — a summer-blockbuster thriller (something like Nolan’s films). The film reduces the comic to, well, a cartoon. Yet I’m interested in what they do with the second half, which is even darker and more ambiguous in its politics. Maybe they’ll stick the landing, but they’re off to a bumpy start.


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