Archive for July 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke

July 30, 2016

killing_joke-640x356There’s a whole lot to unpack in Batman: The Killing Joke, an animated effort shown in theaters for two nights before its debut on DVD and Blu-ray this week. Based on a lionized 1988 comics story written by Alan Moore (Watchmen) and drawn by Brian Bolland, the movie supposedly asks, as the comic did, why some people respond to trauma by going mad while others get stronger. Moore’s story did this by setting up the classic antagonists Batman and the Joker as two men deformed by grief in their own ways. One man became a hero, determined to make sure no one else was murdered in an alley like his parents were. The other man became a supervillain, an anarch cackling at the cold cruelty of the universe. Dark as Batman is, he’s essentially an optimist — he believes his holy war on crime matters — while the Joker is a nihilist.

Whatever depth survives into the movie comes from Moore’s script — a script he himself disavowed years ago, uncomfortable with its grimness and with the way it handled Batgirl, a.k.a. Barbara Gordon, the crimefighting daughter of Batman’s tacit colleague on the Gotham police force, Commissioner Gordon. The Joker disables Barbara with a bullet to her spine, then kidnaps her father and torments him with photos of her naked and in anguish. Why? To prove that anyone is only “one bad day” away from being a basket case like the Joker, who on top of being disfigured also lost his wife and unborn child in a random accident.

The Killing Joke comic is rather short, so the movie pads things out by devoting its first full half hour to Batgirl. Screenwriter Brian Azzarello invents a smooth gangster who calls himself Paris Franz, who’s obsessed with Batgirl. When she isn’t trying to catch Franz, Batgirl is mooning after Batman and, eventually, having sex with him on a rooftop under the watchful eye of a gargoyle. Aside from being pointless, this extended prologue makes the story about Batgirl, a focus and emphasis it was never designed to bear. Yes, Moore later regretted what he’d done to Batgirl (with DC Comics’ enthusiastic editorial indulgence, creepily enough), and the way his story uses her as a way to test her dad’s mettle is unfortunate at best. But expanding her role before the story proper begins doesn’t add any weight to her suffering; it just turns the story into The Sorrows of Young Barbara, first sexualized by Franz, then rebuffed by Batman, and finally brutalized by the Joker.

It’s good, though, that a post-credits scene sets Barbara up as Oracle, a wheelchair-bound but brilliant and powerful hero who fought crime via computers for years after her injury. And there’s little quibbling to be made about the vocal talent here — Killing Joke reunites Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong, who respectively voiced Batman, the Joker, and Batgirl in The New Batman Adventures. There are some Easter eggs for longtime Batfans, such as a monitor in the Batcave showing various iterations of the Joker over the decades, nodding to Nicholson and Ledger. If you don’t expect this Killing Joke to pack the wallop it did when you first read it 28 years ago, it’s smoothly rendered. Once it gets to Moore’s story, it’s slavishly faithful, which means it eagerly reproduces every element that has struck readers as problematic for the last few decades (including its continuing insistence on referring to the dark ride Commissioner Gordon takes as a “ghost train”). Still, as with the animated adaptations of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, if all you ever wanted was to see the iconic Batman story in motion, here it is.

One other thing: Batman: The Killing Joke is rated R (for “bloody images and disturbing content”). It’s not the first DC superhero film to be so classified: the “ultimate edition” of Batman v Superman released on Blu-ray a couple weeks back earned an R for increased violence. This sort of thing — age-restricted versions of superheroes that began as kids’ entertainment — is what Alan Moore came to disdain, though his own work popularized the trend towards grim and gritty. More off-putting than the violence here — which, aside from a bloody head shot here and there, isn’t much worse than in the PG-13 Dark Knight Returns — is a moment when a gangster refers to the Caped Crusader and Batgirl as “Batman and his bitch” (an addition by Azzarello, not Moore). Not to sound paternalistic, but I think young girls who like Batman (and Batgirl) and might want to see this movie can probably wait a few years before hearing that particular insult. They’ll be hearing it soon enough and often enough. They don’t need to hear it in a movie about a man — or a woman — who dresses as a bat and fights crime.

Cell

July 3, 2016

cellWatching his friend George Romero make his zombie films, Stephen King may have thought it looked like such fun that he decided to write his own, in the form of his 2006 novel Cell. Ten years later, it is now a legit zombie film, co-scripted by King himself, though it hasn’t turned out to be much fun. King’s premise is that a cell-phone frequency has turned people using the devices into marauding killers. They’re not quite zombies, not as we’ve come to define them; they’re more like the rage-filled berserkers in Romero’s The Crazies, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, or Garth Ennis’ comic book Crossed. In short, they don’t eat flesh, but they do enjoy making more of themselves.

The first reel or so of Cell packs a spiraling, whoa-man-what-the-hell-was-that punch in the gut. We meet comic-book writer/artist Clay (John Cusack) at a Boston airport, with everyone glued to their cell phones. Fairly rapidly, and with no explanation or preparation, the situation goes pear-shaped. People start frothing at the mouth and attacking anyone they look at; Clay barely escapes to the subway, where he meets operator Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) and decides to beat feet out of the city in search of his little boy and his estranged wife. Now, nobody in Romero’s zombie masterpiece Dawn of the Dead needed a sappy motivation like I Gotta Find My Kid; it was sufficient that they merely wanted to stay alive, and they were wrought well enough that we agreed that they should.

Cusack and Jackson also co-starred in 1408, an earlier King adaptation; the consensus is that 1408 is the better film, though I hardly see how it could be worse. Cell swipes every po-faced survivalist horror template — much walking around, picking up other survivors (including Isabelle Fuhrman as a teenager who had to kill her own cell-afflicted mom), searching houses, finding guns aplenty, none of which is locked up. Many of the attack sequences, ineptly staged by director Tod Williams, are hyper-edited into frenetic image salad. Our heroes keep meeting weirdoes like Stacy Keach as a headmaster who delivers a nice juicy infodump and Anthony Reynolds as an ice cream van driver delirious from sleeplessness who keeps something quite different from ice cream in his vehicle.

King loves his mysterious Manson-esque avatars of evil, here giving us an off-brand Randall Flagg in a red hoodie who seems to be the leader of the “phoners.” This Walkin’ Dude appears in everyone’s nightmares and seems to have manifested in Clay’s graphic novel. Do I have to read the book to find out why? The movie is little help. Cell doesn’t hide much under the hood, no commentary on how everyone’s umbilically attached to their phones (not even any on-the-nose satirical snarks like the ones in Dawn of the Dead about the mall being an important place to the zombies). It’s just another cut-‘em-if-they-stand, shoot-‘em-if-they-run splatter movie with a techie twist, and not even a cautionary twist.

Keach’s headmaster hypothesizes that the “phoners” are the next evolutionary step, the sort of dumb-ass thing you expect eggheads in this kind of movie to opine. We never do get a decent explanation for why this is happening now, what started it, and what the “phoners” and their leader want aside from milling around in flock-like circles. Cell is empty and meaningless, though it’s gloomy and slow-moving enough to feign some philosophical weight. Jackson files one of his quieter performances, while poor Cusack is stuck in a role with almost no humor or charm. As I write this, Cusack has just turned fifty. Once a quick and forceful kickboxer, he seems to have slowed down quite a bit — there’s a shot of him running that made me worry about his lumbar region. I want to see him in movies for years to come — just not in movies like Cell.