Archive for January 2013

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.

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.

Zero Dark Thirty

January 20, 2013

banner_zero dark thirty bowdenKathryn Bigelow has directed excellent movies before, but Zero Dark Thirty deserves to be remembered as the film that established her as a master, worthy of inclusion in the ranks of the great filmmakers. Zero Dark Thirty runs two hours and thirty-seven minutes, and there is not one inessential moment in it, not one inelegant shot. It goes forward at a steady, easy pace, trusting us to keep up, spanning eight years of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden without losing a step. It also spends roughly its first hour focusing on squalid failure — the efforts on the CIA’s part to torture information out of detainees. The torture doesn’t work; it doesn’t lead to any intel that stops numerous subsequent attacks or that leads to bin Laden. People who claim the movie is pro-torture must have wandered into a different theater, or gone into the film determined to find justifications where there are none. In the actual film that I saw, the CIA gets nowhere until they stop torturing detainees.

But enough of that. The movie, written by Mark Boal (Bigelow’s collaborator on The Hurt Locker) based on his interviews with many figures involved in the manhunt, is structured almost like a police procedural: We know whodunit, but how can we find him? A lot of the film is talking heads in offices, but Bigelow keeps the scenes tight and urgent. The protagonist, the fictionalized Maya (Jessica Chastain), has worked for the CIA since the ink was barely dry on her high-school diploma. Bin Laden becomes her white whale, though we’re given no evidence of any personal injury done to her by al-Qaeda; we also avoid the usual dull scenes where Maya has to balance her job and some relationship. She is defined entirely by her obsession, her determination, and her intelligence. Maya appears before us as the sort of literary blank slate we can project ourselves onto. We share her frustration; we share her revulsion at the torture performed by her CIA associate (Jason Clarke), who otherwise seems an amiable sort (he eventually opts for a desk job, yearning for something “normal”).

Other than some truly shocking moments of terrorism here and there, and the nail-biting raid on bin Laden’s compound, Zero Dark Thirty is not an action film, yet Bigelow and Boal let their characters reveal themselves through action, or action not taken, or action expressed as decision. Maya herself is not going to the Abbottabad compound to plug bin Laden in the head personally, but sending Navy SEALs in to take him out is still her responsibility (“Bin Laden is there,” she tells one of the soldiers, “and you’re going to kill him for me”). There’s a great deal of strategy, digital espionage, even bribery. Like Zodiac, the movie feels like a thick book packed with fascinating data and anecdotes, though getting too hung up on what’s literally true on the screen is pointless. It’s still a movie.

Maya is a tough cookie, but by casting the pale, red-haired, rather fragile-looking Jessica Chastain, Bigelow makes the unstressed point that not all strong women are built like Lucy Lawless; they come in deceptively frail packages, too, and Chastain seems almost recessive at times, but then, at a moment of high frustration, her Maya lets fly with a volley of vituperation at a stonewalling higher-up. She may look waifish but you don’t want to get in her way. The men around her, and some of the women, are nonplussed by Maya’s absolute certainty that she’s right. Unlike the male bureaucrats surrounding her, she doesn’t worry about covering her ass. She’s a hero, but Bigelow and Chastain also establish that Maya’s very certainty in this murky moral universe is a little inhuman. Battle not with monsters, as they say.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t stand to the side and say “Torture is bad.” It assumes we know that, and it suggests that even if torture worked perfectly it would — or should — still weigh heavily on the American soul. In the climactic raid, we see men and women, bin Laden’s accomplices in hiding him — willingly or unwillingly, who can say? — shot down in front of their shrieking children. It’s ugly stuff, and those who want to see bin Laden ventilated in full gory Django Unchained retributive glory will be disappointed — it happens mainly offscreen. A key theme in Bigelow’s work has always been the ambiguities attached to violence and the mechanisms, psychological or artificial, people use to distance themselves from the hurt they’re causing. In that respect, Zero Dark Thirty feels like Bigelow’s magnum opus, the big one she’s been working towards for the last three decades. It links nicely with her previous films, like Hurt Locker, of course, but also the dystopian sci-fi thriller Strange Days and even Blue Steel, a cop movie about a woman trying to bring a psychopath to justice. Here she has delivered an epic that is thoughtful but isn’t sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought; it is robust, physically exact — it hums with the special electricity of smart people doing what they do best, although doing their best often leads to failure anyway. Not in Bigelow’s case, though.

The Impossible

January 13, 2013

the-impossible-movie-reviewOver 220,000 people died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The Impossible is the story of five people who survived. This family — a doctor, a businessman, and their three young sons — are Spanish in real life, but in this international production, written and directed by Spaniards, they are played by an Australian, a Scot, and three British kids. I linger on the film’s lineage up front because it has become something of an issue — it focuses on the suffering of white people in Thailand, the fourth hardest-hit country during the disaster — and I was prepared to be annoyed by it on that basis. In fact, many people from many different nations died in (or survived) the tsunami. And Maria Belón, the doctor played in the film by Naomi Watts, chose Watts for the role because Watts is her favorite actress.

Do I wish I lived in a world where $45 million is spent on a film about a Thai (or Spanish) family dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophe? Sure. But this is the film we got, and it’s a pretty good one. The tsunami strikes without warning about fifteen minutes into the movie, and director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) avoids jacking it up for disaster-movie thrills. Bayona puts more emphasis on the dazed viewpoint of Maria as she’s battered by the wave and swept off for what seems like miles before she manages to find her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland). The destruction is enormous, incomprehensible, and we wonder how anyone could have survived it on a moment-to-moment basis, never mind actually making it to civilization. Somehow, though, Maria and Lucas find their way to a village, and the badly injured Maria is uncomfortably hastened to the nearest overcrowded hospital.

Meanwhile, Maria’s husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) is desperately checking every hospital and body bag for Maria and Lucas (the other two sons seem to have made it more or less without a scratch). The Impossible then becomes about the apparently insurmountable logistics involved in getting this family back together. Henry had better hurry, too, because things aren’t looking so good for Maria, whose leg is terribly infected and who earlier vomits up some grotesque black thing — Bayona shows his horror roots here. A couple of bits when Henry finally finds the right hospital, and he and Lucas just miss each other in the hallways, are drawn out a little irritatingly. But it must be hard for filmmakers to resist playing on that kind of audience frustration.

Everywhere you look in the frame are death and suffering, but also compassion and people doing their level best to deal with the monstrous after-effects. Movies like The Impossible drive cynics crazy, but they put the lie to apocalyptic scenarios where it’s every man for himself. It takes a mature artist to acknowledge that life isn’t paranoid pulp like Mad Max, and to do it right and convincingly. Technically impeccable, The Impossible gives the brutal caprice of nature its due, never romanticizing it or demonizing it. Many wide shots give the sense of very tiny people living in a very large world that sometimes shrugs its shoulders and gets rid of a few hundred thousand of us. A terrible awe takes hold: We are all one geological or atmospheric quirk away from all of this being erased forever. The East Coast got a taste of this last October. There will be more, and there will be worse. Welcome to the new normal.

In opposition to this we have friendship and strangers banding together and family members trudging knee-deep in mud and corpses to find each other. The Impossible feels tough-minded about its subject in a way that elevates it above the usual Hollywood gibberish that finds inspiration in mass death. Fernando Velázquez’ score gets a bit thick here and there, especially since the visuals render it redundant. The family, with the help of Watts (an ace at suffering), McGregor, and the terrific newcomer Holland, comes across as a typical unit, amiably getting on each other’s nerves, bonded as much by irritable familiarity as by love. We feel there’s something there worth preserving. There are no big speeches; the dialogue is terse and, for long stretches, absent. Eventually, as Maria undergoes more surgery, we come full circle with a flashback showing us more of what happened to her; this is some of the most painful violence I’ve ever seen in a PG-13 movie, suggesting fleshly trauma instead of rubbing our noses in it. This flashback is vertiginous and horrible and oddly poetic. It’s an epic bad dream, a nightmare that shades into the morning after, when the real challenge begins.