Archive for the ‘comic-book’ category

Little Vampire

September 5, 2021

little vamp

Sometimes we want a movie that isn’t going to make us worry too much, and the amiable French animated all-ages fantasy Little Vampire falls squarely in that category. It’s good-hearted and has abundant charm, though not a lot seems to be at stake (no pun intended). Essentially it’s about friendship and finding one’s way, packed with enough monsters and goth beauty to keep fans of (early) Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro happy for a while. At times it feels like a pilot for a TV cartoon, as indeed it was, in 2004; it began life as a comic by Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) and has nothing to do with the books of the same name that spawned a 2000 comedy (with Jonathan Lipnicki) and its 2017 animated remake.

Aside from the comics, all of those adaptations, including the 2004 series, seem to take the vantage point of the human boy who befriends the vampire boy. Here, the vampire boy is front and center, going back to the comics’ perspective. We begin with Pandora and her little boy pursued by the arrogant Le Gibbous, who wants to sacrifice them to a giant monster. They’re saved by the skeletal Captain of the Dead, turned into vampires, and taken to a big house full of monsters. The house is hidden from Le Gibbous by a magic dome, and no one can leave. After a while, the Little Vampire gets bored and meets an orphan boy by way of doing his homework — which takes him out of the Captain’s protective dome.

There’s always something to look at, and the narrative never stops moving; occasionally the film pauses to take in the spectral elegance of the Captain’s pirate ship floating across the sky, but mainly Little Vampire is paced and structured to hold kids’ attention. Sometimes I was reminded of Adventure Time, whose menagerie included vampires and other beasties. The imagination on view here is playful, prodigious. The monsters, including a Frankenstein’s-monster-like critter named Marguerite (voiced by Sfar himself), aren’t really scary — they’re ooky and spooky in the Addams Family mold, the sort of mischief-loving ghoulies any right-minded kid would love to hang out with.

Sfar and cowriter Sandrina Jardel have plenty of affection for all their characters (well, except maybe the giant slimy behemoth at the beginning). There’s a happy ending for just about everyone, and that’s never in doubt. And again, if you’re in the mood not to be challenged or stressed out by what’s meant to be a slight, friendly light-dark fantasy (the vampires don’t kill, they steal blood bags from the hospital), Little Vampire may just be your cup of ichor. Sometimes we can tell where the animation has to cut corners, and sometimes we see where the money went. There’s some fine swashbuckling between the Captain of the Dead and Le Gibbous. Sfar and his team originally envisioned a digitally-animated feature, but they ran out of money, and had to fall back on traditional cel animation, which has (there’s that word again) considerable charm.

If this feature does well enough to justify it, I’d be glad to see a streaming series along these lines and revisit this family of misfits and monsters. I won’t mind if Sfar dials down the fart and poop humor a notch, but this branch of Sfar’s creativity has powered 52 episodes of French TV. It could well provide fertile ground for another series. There’s unspoken personal pain in it, too: Sfar, who lost his own mother when he was four, has created a reality in which the young hero gets to live with his ageless, immortal mother for all time — along with all sorts of weirdies that seem designed to give kids from 8 to 80 the giggles.

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez

February 12, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-02-07 at 5.49.08 PMOn a lot of levels, Les Daniels’ 1971 book Comix: A History of Comic Books in America tweaked my ideas of what comics could be. Spain Rodriguez’ anti-bourgeois underground comix hero Trashman was a particularly sharp tweak. Here, relatively early in my experience of superheroes, was an artist with the heart of a biker and the soul of a revolutionary who created an anti-hero, nonwhite to boot, that didn’t care whether larger society approved of him. Down these mean streets a man must go, who is himself quite mean and tarnished but not afraid. Spain may not have been mean — one of his comics stories shows him hesitant to kick a biker adversary when he was down — but he was often the first to admit he was tarnished.

Directed by Spain’s widow Susan Stern, Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez is a portrait of a man who didn’t take well to being told what to do from the right or the left. Neither did most of Spain’s contemporaries in the pages of the seminal Zap comic, such as R. Crumb, Robert Williams, or the recently departed S. Clay Wilson. Many of the male underground artists weathered pointed criticism by feminist comix creators and/or historians (Trina Robbins, who is both, is interviewed here); of them all, Wilson, with his fixation on filthy outcasts and pirates hacking off limbs and genitals, was perhaps the most glaringly “problematic.” So why did Rodriguez, whose depictions of women were relatively benign, take such heat? An unhappy reason begins to fade in: Rodriguez was the nonwhite guy in a collective of pale guys, and his work had a political consciousness that afflicted the comfortable without much bothering to comfort the afflicted.

Stern’s film is about as neutral as it can be, spiced up with archival footage and copious examples of its subject’s art. It doesn’t come near Terry Zwigoff’s masterpiece Crumb, though maybe only because Spain’s life doesn’t offer as much baroque family stuff to work with. In Crumb, you can see for yourself what skewed young Crumb’s perception and drove him to get out. Bad Attitude gives us an artist who seems to have arrived fully formed. Like many of his generation, Spain grew up on the grotesque EC line of horror and crime comics in the ‘50s, and those fed his warts-and-all aesthetic as much as anything. Spain’s comix are highly entertaining, especially his autobiographical biker stories, though I’m partial to his street scenes, masses of humanity moving through boxes of lights and buildings. It’s hard to envision a Spain comic that doesn’t have streets in it, usually littered with junk and billboarded with actual ad art snipped out of magazines. The underground artists were all about drawing stuff you’d never seen in comics before, and that could mean perverse sex and it could also mean just the usual detritus you kick out of your way walking through the city, stuff you wouldn’t see in Superman or Fantastic Four.

Either way, the underground artist was after a more authentic way of representing the world as he or she lived it, and that was certainly Spain’s M.O. (Cancer finally took him in 2012 at age 72.) Spain may not have “gotten” feminism (but struggled to understand it and its evolution all his life), but the ladies all seemed to dig him. (A few, including Stern, pose holding a Spain drawing of their younger, more zaftig selves.) The movie assures us that Spain may not have been 100% enlightened on every progressive topic, but he wasn’t unwilling to learn. His man-eating heroines like Big Bitch are essentially Wonder Woman filtered through Spain’s wish-fulfillment of women as powerful, sexy icons.

Seeing your subject as more than human is, sadly, a kinder way of dehumanizing than seeing your subject as less than human. In both cases the subject isn’t quite human. It’s a common thread in art, but not, I would guess, out of any conscious hatred or need to deny humanity; the artist just naturally has a different take on what humanity is. The highlight of Bad Attitude focuses on one of Spain’s slice-of-life anecdotes about the time he and some buddies encounter a gay guy in the park (who pleasures at least one of them) and then beat him up and “roll” him for his dough. Spain just presents the story without comment — “This is what happened.” In the story, titled “Dessert” and collected in the Fantagraphics Spain volume My True Story, Spain mostly stands apart from the abuse and witnesses it. Should he have intervened? Sure, but he didn’t. He recounts it for us but doesn’t tell us how to feel about it or about him. The last panel of the comic, though, shows the bloodied but unbowed gay guy saying “I can’t wait to come back again next week.” So the joke is on his abusers, who only got what was in his wallet but didn’t take anything important, didn’t stop him from further pursuit of illicit fun. That Spain not only gave the gay guy the last word but imagined a sympathetic way for him to flip the script makes Spain, I think, a great artist who was honest about the failings of humans but not nihilistic. Neither a good nor bad attitude, then — just realistic.

Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020

ww84Kristen Wiig is raring to give a classic large-scale performance in Wonder Woman 1984. Her character, the terminally awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva, sits with rage born of neglect. Barbara gets a chance at real power, and it turns her into a monster, literally: she further elaborates that she wishes she were an apex predator, and she becomes Cheetah, a cat-like villain. But why a cheetah? At least in Batman Returns, Catwoman had a cat and was saved by a bunch more. Barbara likes leopard print, so … okay, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Wiig would have an easier time of it in a movie that foregrounded her more, but the script brushes Barbara off as much as her colleagues do. She doesn’t even get a decent final scene, just a protracted fight that turns Wiig and star Gal Gadot into clashing CG figures.

This is not a good movie, and it’s not a bad movie. Wonder Woman 1984 is enormously ambitious, overlong, sincere, sloppy, trying to do something profound with somewhat silly ingredients. I much enjoyed 2017’s Wonder Woman (which like WW84 was directed by Patty Jenkins), but I think I feel a fondness for the sequel that I don’t for the original. The earlier film had the purity and sharpness of a drillbit; the new one, to put it outrageously mildly, does not. It has large things on its mind, some of which are accidentally relevant to the current moment; its message is that we should wish for the common good. An ancient stone comes across Barbara’s desk care of the FBI; it turns out to have the power to grant people’s wishes. Everyone wishes for self-serving things; even Wonder Woman uses her wish to bring back her long-dead soulmate Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Eventually Cheetah draws blood, Wonder Woman’s powers are ebbing, and nuclear bombs dot the sky.

That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air; Jenkins drops more than a few of them, but not the ones that mattered to me, the emotional beats. There is another villain here, the bull-slinging television personality Max Lord (Pedro Pascal), who gets ahold of the wish-giving stone and absorbs it into himself. Sometimes WW84 wants to be about geopolitics, and sometimes it wants to be about relationships, and sometimes it wants to be about this magic stone that does weird things to people. It refuses to decide to be about one particular thing, and I grew to like that — indeed, WW84 is a terrifically likable movie. It doesn’t hate anyone, not even the skunky Max, who goes around granting wishes in exchange for power. But something has to give, and when we don’t get certain connective scenes featuring Barbara/Cheetah to give us more of a grounding in the process of her descent to villainy, some of the emotions the movie triggers in us get short-circuited. The narrative bumpiness can read as indifference to Barbara, and to us.

Then again, there’s a scene early on where Wonder Woman (in her day-to-day persona Diana — the name Wonder Woman is never spoken here, though, as in the first film) goes out to lunch with Barbara and they talk about love and loss and loneliness, just like two grown-ups in a film for grown-ups. Jenkins handles stuff like this with aplomb, and is equally good at the action insofar as the special effects allow. It’s the story beats that a superhero movie seems to require that get muffled or half-assed, as though Jenkins weren’t interested in them; we’re not particularly either, but every so often a chunk or bit of orphaned story will bob, chewed and dead, to the surface, and it’s disconcerting. Some people will come away from WW84 confounded and hostile, seeing it as the latest example of big-movie big-money assault on coherence.

I understand that response, and the movie doesn’t make it easy to get on board if you’re not on right at the start. But the Young Diana Chronicles prologue hooked me (I’m not sure it has a thematic link to what follows, but it sure is fun), and soon after came a goofball heist right out of comics and movies of the ‘80s, and I was in love. I always wanted more, not less. A four-hour cut of this thing sounds fine to me. As it is, it feels like they shot a six-episode Wonder Woman series and then hacked it down to feature length. Like I said, Cheetah suffers the most from what I presume were some pretty heavy cuts, although there’s a subtle detail that leaves the door open for Cheetah and, more importantly, Wiig to come back. It’s not as though Wonder Woman ever had many big recurring villains aside from Cheetah, anyway. But — and this question goes to the movie, not to the comics, which answered it — why a cheetah?

Verotika

May 17, 2020

verotika A word of caution before we proceed. Some bad movies are, as they say, “so bad they’re good.” Others are just excruciatingly bad. And then there’s Verotika, the directing debut of metal musician Glenn Danzig, based on his comic books. And I’m realizing that there’s no way to describe this film that will not make some of you want to see it. I could list the endless parade of inept choices, the dialogue, the acting, the effects … Even viewed with a drunk crowd of friends, Verotika will cause pain. It was made with a great deal of sincerity, that much is clear. Danzig believes in his film. That it has become a cult film begging for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment does not make it less hazardous to your brain and soul. You have been warned.

Verotika is a horror anthology, meaning that instead of making one unwatchable short film, Danzig has made three and glued them together like a cinematic human centipede, shitting and eating shit. If the stories have a common thread, it is the kind of story one can film with a cast largely made of sex workers or similar purveyors of meretricious cheese. Most of the killing is done by female beasts; two out of the three villains are female, preying mainly on other females. It’s all part of the movie’s sub-Heavy Metal aesthetic that drenches well-endowed horror vixens in gore. None of this is uncommon in low-budget horror, which so often has to make do with what it has, and if what you have is a band of strippers and literally vats of fake blood, the result is Verotika. What’s different here is that Danzig doesn’t seem to know we’ve seen all this before. He thinks he’s really showing us something.

The first story, “The Albino Spider of Dajette,” concerns a prostitute with eyes for nipples. Her nipple tears transform a spider into a six-armed killer the police dub “Le Neck Breaker” (the story is set in Paris). Le Neck Breaker breaks les necks, all women victims, before the police finally catch up to him and plug him with lead. How anyone can make a bonkers premise like this so flat and stupefyingly dismal is beyond me, but Danzig manages it.Next up is “Change of Face,” about a stripper with a scarred face; she deals with this by killing pretty women, removing their faces, and hanging them on her wall. The press calls her either the Face Collector or the Face Ripper — Danzig apparently couldn’t decide. Finally, there’s “Drukija, Contessa of Blood,” wherein the titular woman bathes in virgins’ blood (pronouncing “virgin” to rhyme with “Bergen”). The virgins are always nude, of course, and Drukija is often topless. A virgin tries to escape, gets caught, is beheaded; Drukija adds the head to her collection of heads. Oh, and all the segments are introduced by Morella, who plucks out women’s eyes and calls us “darklings.”

If you wanted to imagine a movie fed on adolescent fantasies grounded in comic books and movies flooded with gore and T&A, what you imagine will undoubtedly be more entertaining than Verotika. That’s because Danzig takes his material so grindingly seriously he drains the fun out of it along with the blood. Danzig hasn’t learned that you have to insert comic relief or the audience will laugh at whatever else presents itself, and that’s why the movie is gaining purchase as a doofus party item. There are problems with camera movement — one time you can see the camera jiggle — and the middle segment, about the face-stealing stripper, is often bisected by harsh horizontal flare beams, sometimes three or more in a shot. I don’t know why. Neither will you.

Something like Verotika really tests me, because I have grown to believe that there can be value in even the most moth-eaten, bereft crap. Someone cared enough to make it, and there can be accidental moments of art and revelation. I refuse, for instance, to call Ed Wood’s films “bad”; no films so passionate, and with so much to express, can be called bad. Verotika might be passionate in that it scratches Danzig’s itch for babes and blood, but it really doesn’t express anything except that itch, over and over — the movie is repetitive and, finally, dull. It takes a lot of doing to take a movie full of the sort of things teen hetero boys love and make it so lifeless and dreary. Was Danzig even aroused by his own film? Russ Meyer filled his movies with buxom women, and you could feel he loved them so much it hurt, and therein lay the art. What does Glenn Danzig love so much it hurts? Women covered in blood, apparently. But he doesn’t have the art to make us love it, too. He just pulls it out again and again, flaccidly.

Joker

January 19, 2020

joker-sequel-officialWatching Joker belatedly, I understood quite clearly why it got so many Oscar nominations. For what it is, it’s gorgeously assembled, with a ragged jewel of a performance by Joaquin Phoenix at its center. The problem is, well, what it is. Joker is set in Gotham City (read: New York City when you hate it; Metropolis is New York City when it’s energizing and teeming with good culture) circa 1981, and garbage is rotting on the sidewalks in its saggy tons. Joker got eleven Oscar nods, and it deserves eight of them. The grimy, soul-grinding milieu is realized with all the talent and vision $62.5 million can buy (while we realize that a movie like this not connected to a superhero franchise would have to make do with a fraction of that bankroll), and yet aesthetically the film is built to caress the eye and ear. The first half hour or so, establishing damaged wannabe-comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) and his uncompromising misery, is top-shelf filmcraft.

Unfortunately, there’s still an hour and a half to go, and Joker ends up repeating itself and lap-dancing its same handful of nihilistic points again and again. Even Phoenix eventually runs out of tricks until we can’t distinguish Arthur’s actual behavior from the iconic, narcissistic behavior (that now-famous stairway dance) in his head. We sit and diagnose Arthur: he’s a mama’s boy who suffered childhood abuse that may have rattled his brain to the point that he emits paroxysms of inappropriate laughter. The way Joker ties into the larger Bat-universe is fairly stupid; Bruce Wayne’s moneybags father Thomas (Brett Cullen, replacing Alec Baldwin and essentially doing Alec Baldwin) is an insensitive jerk, a tough-on-crime elitist who calls poor people “clowns” and is running for mayor. How is he connected to Arthur? Well, he is but he isn’t. It’s that kind of candy-ass movie, toying with big plot moves and then rescinding them.

Despite the supporting cast doing more or less what they’re asked — including Robert De Niro as a talk-show host Arthur fixates on — the movie is handed to Phoenix, and he does amazing things with his physique and voice. He commits fearlessly, and it’s a shame that people have to sit through, ultimately, a failure of a movie to see the performance. Phoenix triumphs over the material — who couldn’t? The material seems to have been conceived for him to triumph over it. The talk about Joker’s biting big chunks from Martin Scorsese, specifically Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, is a little overblown. If anything, Joker shares more DNA with Abel Ferrara’s 1979 Driller Killer, in which the cold reality of the mentally ill being dumped onto the streets due to lack of funding was more disturbing than the gory drill-killings. Same goes here: again, if someone wanted to make a real drama about such issues that had nothing to do with DC Comics, it’d have to be made for couch change. Sadly, it doesn’t much matter that the topic is addressed in a big hit, because it isn’t really addressed so much as made into background.

An army of talent has been marshaled here to fashion a beautiful piece about a pismire. It’s loaded with artistry without itself being art, and the primary reason is that Todd Phillips, its nominal director, isn’t a director. Oh, he knows how to get usable footage for fake-outrageous mainstream comedies like the Hangover trilogy. But he can’t really shape material so that it means something or earns the horrible associations it may dredge up in some viewers, and it keeps backing away from anything truly explosive. Like The Dark Knight Rises, it demonizes protest (what the hell drugs was Michael Moore on when he praised this thing for its politics?) and finally takes no stand. It just takes this rambly, inchoate semi-narrative about a fractured psyche and pushes it out there on a toxic exhaust cloud of irony. I don’t usually pick on movies for violence they may or may not inspire, but Joker is the sort of interiorized, subjective work that doesn’t show Arthur’s life for the rancid squalor it truly would be; it just tries on the kinds of grim and gritty pirouettes and outfits that appeal to real Arthur Flecks. But, unlike a true work of art (like those two Scorsese classics) that would drive me to its defense, Joker is all pose. It says nothing about Arthur or his victims or his brutal world. Nothing.

The Kitchen

November 17, 2019

kitchen Based glancingly on a mediocre comic book, The Kitchen is the middle panel in an accidental sisters-are-doin’-crime-for-themselves trilogy, bracketed by two better-received films — Steve McQueen’s Widows, from last year, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, from this past September. Nobody, I think, will advance the argument that The Kitchen is the neglected masterpiece of the trio, but I would like to recommend it anyway; its pleasures are piecemeal, having more to do with acting firepower than with the unconvincing quilt of clichés that calls itself a story. The narrative glides by, and writer/director Andrea Berloff doesn’t seem very concerned with the moral import and emotional costs of it all, but the cast is.

The lowlife Hell’s Kitchen Irish mobster husbands of our heroines — Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss — are sent away in 1978 for armed robbery, leaving the women to fend for themselves. The head of the local mob, a glowering creep, refuses to allot the wives enough money to live on — protection money isn’t coming in. So the women take over collection, positioning themselves as reasonable and less toxically masculine alternatives. But as one of the goons eventually tells one of the women, “You’re worse than we ever were.”

Which is debatable, and a movie in which the women gain power because they’re outwardly nicer and retain power because they’re not actually all that nice inside would be interesting, but The Kitchen isn’t really that movie. All the routine rise-of-the-criminal scenes are there, the fanning out of dollar bills, the respect paid, the pivot towards legit community service, the casual and empowering finality of the bullet. But when it comes time to slog through the crime-does-not-pay sermon, the movie lacks conviction. It’s difficult to prompt the audience to root for the violent awakening and self-realization of an abused woman and then turn around and condemn that process.

The women are murkily written; only the acting brings some cold clarity. Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy protects her kids, Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby has been made ruthless by her hard life and abusive upbringing, and Elisabeth Moss’ Claire is a battered wife turned assassin. Kathy’s relative compassion comes from her relatively stable life; her jailbird hubby is no prize but not as bad as the others, and even her loving Irish dad is still around. There’s an idea here — take enough anchors of humanity away from a woman and you have yourself a very fearsome adversary — but it just sinks into the pudding along with anything else potentially interesting here. The Kitchen is a moderately competent crime flick and that’s all it is. Given the cast — and not just pained McCarthy, disdainful Haddish and born-again corpse-carving werewolf Moss — it could’ve been much sharper.

Yet a film fan shouldn’t go through life without seeing what the actors — also including Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, and Margo Martindale in a ‘70s hairdo she clearly got from my grandmother — do with some of the whiskered situations. Bill Camp, for instance, gives us an Italian mobster so confident in his power he can afford to be pretty mild-mannered. Martindale functions as the sort of ogre the heroines are in danger of becoming, but she’s terrific at it, snapping out insults like firecrackers. There really isn’t a bummer in the cast, though I think Ruby calls for a brand of coldness that Haddish can’t persuasively convey — good news for her conscience (she may be too good-hearted to play anything different believably), bad news for Ruby, who too often reads as emotionally null. A character is taken out with an impersonal abruptness that sort of works as comeuppance but comes across as a betrayal of the character’s portrayer. We’ve followed the person through blood and triumph, and past a certain point the movie seems to lose interest in the person morally, and some other characters, too — they’re just damned to hell, I guess. But up until that point, there’s some painfully fine stuff.

Aquaman

March 31, 2019

aquamanWhy did Aquaman — whose hero was once a laughing stock among nerds and mundanes alike — become an ATM to the tune of $1.15 billion last Christmas? I have a theory. The movie looked spectacular enough, yet dumb enough, to be the biggest college-stoner event in years. Kids were home on holiday break, chortled to one another “Let’s get baked and go see Aquaman,” and so it was done. Those watching it sober alone at home may find the movie’s peculiar blend of macho-man musk and self-aware camp a bit harder to swallow. Towards the end, when heroes and villains faced off underwater astride various sea creatures and everything was going kaboom, I felt myself starting to turn into an eyelid. There’s only so much unreal stuff happening in an unreal environment I can watch before I figure I might as well be watching Tom and Jerry, which was funnier and shorter.

To be fair, every so often director James Wan’s thirst for hyperbolic images pays off big. There’s a terrific shot of two heroes diving off a boat swarming with toothsome sea monsters while a lightning bolt cleaves the night sky behind them. The visual shows a talent for unearthly, savage beauty. There’s more like it, but not much more, and most of the two-hours-plus (about 130 minutes plus credits) is clotted with repetitive too-muchness like the endless battles of that climax. How many hapless, anonymous fighters can we watch tumbling ass over teakettle and slamming heavily into things before it all becomes meaningless? Many of the bad guys thusly slammed by our hero, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), should be dead on concussive impact but aren’t. The action has no stakes.

Arthur is a “half-breed,” son of a surface-dweller (Temuera Morrison, easily the film’s rumpled-human highlight) and an Atlantean (Nicole Kidman). His half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, having fun going very large) is a resentful wretch who wants to unite the kingdoms of the deep against the humans of the surface. Arthur, the hero with a foot in both worlds, is the Chosen, the One — if you’ve read/watched enough fantasy fiction you’ve seen every narrative beat here. The images are supposed to make the difference, but other than the aforementioned bits of inspiration, Wan’s visual imagination doesn’t go much beyond “cool.” Atlantis and its many denizens, some humanoid and some not, are just the usual craggy castles and trashy, mean-looking monsters we’ve been looking at for twenty years. Let’s not talk about the characters’ computer-generated hair, forever floating prettily underwater but never wafting into anyone’s face.

Momoa is a bluff, passionate presence, whose Aquaman is more or less the DC equivalent of Marvel’s Thor. They enjoy melees, enjoy being heroes — they are not, as I like to say, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Once in a while, Momoa lets out a gut laugh or barbaric yawp that cements him as that rare thing, a king you want to have a beer with. A king and a fool — a Falstaff with a six-pack. Without someone as thick and grounded as Momoa at its center, Aquaman probably wouldn’t work — it would drift off into droning video-game cut scenes. His love interest, Amber Heard as the smart, tough Mera, has a couple of good fleeting battle-lust moments but is otherwise … Amber Heard, a dead spot on the screen, saddled with the movie’s least likely wig. Willem Dafoe is here, looking lonely and demoralized, knowing that if he gets to do At Eternity’s Gate he also has to do this shit to keep the lights on.

For a movie about the wonders of the deep, Aquaman is at times almost a globe-trotting epic; a segment takes place in Sicily, possibly because the filmmakers wanted to sun themselves there (who wouldn’t?). As has become common, the movie’s aspect ratio changes depending on whether a sequence opened up for a big IMAX screen or was composed for standard widescreen; cleverly, all the expansive IMAX scenes are underwater, all the surface scenes vertically cramped. The effect is to train our eyes and our subconscious to reject the dry world in favor of the wet world. Unfortunately nothing goes on down there aside from the usual bang-bang, although it was amusing to learn that in the deep — where people can talk to each other — seahorses whinny and sharks growl. Aquaman needed more of the kind of imagination that gives us whinnying seahorses and growling sharks. Instead it just gives us more whinnying seahorses and growling sharks.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

March 17, 2019

spiderman There are times when the mostly rightly-acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a bit much — mainly towards the end, because the movie is also a bit long. I can’t get mad at it, though. Its too-muchness is almost all creative; it has an abundance of ideas, invention, color, visual and verbal wit. It’s an overflowing package — I would say “generous,” except that at a certain level of corporate involvement, the word has a whiff of panem et circenses. Due to cross-marketing synergy, the soundtrack is spangled with recording artists from the 2010s; future generations of movie-lovers, if any, may smirk at the film and tweet “OMG #so2010s,” the way ‘90s movies are now pegged immediately by the presence of the Wallflowers or No Doubt.

Until its shoulder touch becomes a little grating, Spider-Verse is good raucous fun — fluid and fast, though swollen with incident. If nothing else, it’s a wet finger held up to the winds of where animation is now, technically. The movie keeps up a constant visual whiz-bang that would have been unimaginable, and maybe neurologically unreadable, twenty years ago. (And 1999, you’ll remember, gave us the visual game-changer The Matrix.) The animation here is used for its nearly endless potential to deliver images, sequences, transitions impossible in live action. Some of it continues techniques the Fleischer brothers were using a hundred years ago; some of it pushes the lateral editing of Natural Born Killers forward a few steps. Spider-Verse is the present and future of its medium, and it was rightly awarded at the Oscars accordingly.

The technical flourishes help to sell the story, which really couldn’t be told as easily in live action. We’re in Manhattan, or Sony/Marvel’s Manhattan, where Spider-Man exists but Iron Man and the X-Men don’t. (Don’t ask.) Peter Parker (voice by Chris Pine) wears the spider-suit, swinging around and fighting crime. He’s been at it for about ten years — he’s 26 now. Fortunately, teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) gets bitten by a radioactive spider himself, and gains many of Peter’s same powers plus a couple all his own — he can turn invisible and zap his enemies with electricity, though he can’t yet control those things. Spider-Man’s adversary the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to open a portal to other dimensions, and his experiments, led by Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), pull a bunch of alternate-universe Spideys into Miles and Peter’s realm — Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Peni Parker, an older Peter Parker, and, last but not least, Spider-Ham.

The nice thing about Spider-Verse is that a viewer young or old can come to it pretty clean of prior experience with Spider-Man. All the alternate Spideys are from the comic books, but you don’t need to have read any of them — I haven’t — to enjoy the characters here. Each Spider-Variant’s origin story is recounted in quick, nimble shorthand, and you get a sense of each one’s personality and demons — they’ve all suffered bereavement of some sort. Even the Kingpin, rendered as a white monolith inspired by artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s expressionist take, has a motive grounded in grief: his blameless wife Vanessa and son witnessed him beating up Spider-Man, fled, and died in a car accident. The Kingpin therefore wants to access universes in which his wife and son are still alive. Another villain, Prowler, turns out to be more sympathetic than we first assume. Marvel’s super-foe roster is generally full of bad guys/girls who aren’t evil for the hell of it — they have tragic flaws.

All the Spider-People join forces to defeat Kingpin and his minions, and in the resulting whirligig of action some of their individuality gets lost. It’s ultimately Miles’ story — I suppose we need to thank the superhero genre for creating a context for a young hero of African-American and Puerto Rican extraction. (Without the superpowers Miles would probably be the protagonist of an indie flick you’d have to drive into the big city to see.) Spider-Verse is inclusive and welcoming of diversity; its wildly divergent heroes get along, united by their similarities of origin and skill set. It is everything a specific, noxious breed of sexist, racist, humorless alt-right fanboy despises, and its success should be celebrated on that level. As for me, I’m glad I saw it, I might revisit it in the proper mood, and I admire it as a glistening piece of pop art. But its corporate pizzazz chills me a little. A good way to milk a franchise for even more sequels and crossovers and merchandise than would normally be possible is to introduce alternate universes into it. Suddenly you have much more licensable content, and if an actor wants more money for a sequel, you just bring in an alternate version of the character for a less pricey actor. With great power must come great responsibility to the shareholders.

Deadpool 2

August 19, 2018

deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead-girlfriendThe Deadpool movies are more or less the only superhero films I’ll sit still for these days. Filthy and irreverent, splattering the camera lens arterially with great gusto, these are not remotely elegant examples of what the medium can do, nor are they conceived as such. They’re parties, all winks and grins and farts and jostling elbows. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) their raunch and gore and in-jokey tone, the movies occasionally achieve real pathos, as in Deadpool 2, when the eponymous anti-hero (Ryan Reynolds) mopes around suicidally after his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) exits the picture early on, or when new antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim ass-kicker from the future, reveals his true motivation for trying to kill burgeoning, unhappy mutant teen Russell (Julian Dennison).

Some deaths and agonies are a lark; others are to be mourned or avoided. Hypocritical? I prefer to think that Deadpool 2, despite its meta clownishness, has a grasp of conflicting priorities. The plot demands that a bad character not be murdered by a character poised on the line between good and evil; however, there’s nothing saying the bad character can’t die some other way, preferably abruptly and hilariously. That’s not really a spoiler, because at a Deadpool film you know anyone who deserves an ignoble reduction to a fine red mist will get one. Because nothing in the movie is actually real, and because the moviemakers (Reynolds gets a cowriting credit along with original Deadpool scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) know this, there’s a freedom to play, to bend reality.

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) uses the CG palette to turn the movie into a roughhouse live-action Looney Tunes romp. It’s easy to create amusing chaos with a character cursed with bad luck, but how about a hero — Domino (Zazie Beetz) — whose superpower is good luck? An entire concussive sequence follows Domino as she casually sidesteps certain death at multiple turns, and it’s a lot funnier than misfortune plaguing someone relentlessly. (Unless it’s the lottery winner in Final Destination 2. Nothing will ever be funnier than that.) Deadpool himself has a healing power that renders him pretty well unkillable, though the same can’t be said for other members of Deadpool’s team X-Force, including regular guy Peter (Rob Delaney) — whose function here is similar to the comically bland human Stu in What We Do in the Shadows — and an invisible hero called the Vanisher, who brings us one of the film’s many cameos, references, and gags. (A subtle one is Deadpool’s fixation on a song from Yentl, a musical by Barbra Streisand, who’s married to Josh Brolin’s dad.) I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them, and Deadpool 2 may well be funnier for viewers who get the joke about “a guy who can’t draw feet” (a common fan complaint about Rob Liefeld, the original Deadpool’s co-creator). But as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the fun here doesn’t depend on a grounding in nerd trivia.

Famously, Reynolds hungered for years to play Deadpool, even settling for playing a ridiculously muted version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Now that he’s on his second outing with the preferred iteration of Deadpool, Reynolds still seems grateful and happy to be a part of this unexpectedly lucrative franchise, which, being a 20th Century Fox enterprise and not helmed by Marvel/Disney (well, until this past July, when Disney slurped up Fox), is off to the side with the X-Men, playing in a goofball backyard far away from Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest. Deadpool seems to take place in a reality where people watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the DC Universe movies, or maybe it’s just Deadpool, whose powers might include the ability to comment on all entertainment, including that which features himself — or features Ryan Reynolds. (Keep watching through the end credits.)

The movie spreads its fun around; not only white hetero males get to bring the pain. Aside from Domino, there’s the very welcome return of the deadpan-hostile Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who turns up with her new girlfriend Yukio (I assume a variation on Yukio from The Wolverine). The casual and, dare I say, mature way the movie handles NTW’s sexuality — there are neither jokes nor hubba-hubba leering — is refreshing and good-hearted. And despite all its hip mayhem, directed both at anonymous thugs and at well-thumbed pulp tropes, Deadpool 2 is also good-hearted. It doesn’t strike me as nihilistic or even cynical (the way some parts of the Kick-Ass movies and, God knows, their source comics did). It doesn’t want to punish you for enjoying the boomies and the splats and such spectacles as an enormous prisoner-transport vehicle tearing through cars like a bullet through wet Kleenex. It just wants to have a disreputable doofus good time and share it with us.

Black Panther

May 13, 2018

blackpantherThe entire bloated, interlinked, resource-eating Marvel Cinematic Universe may have justified itself by having made possible Black Panther. It’s a rich and shining tapestry, in deep African reds and golds and purples. Being a Marvel movie, it is unavoidably corporate and Manichean — might makes right in the eternal war of Good and Evil. Fortunately, the artists behind Black Panther are interested in how one defines good and evil. Is it that hard to be good if you’re a royal, a member of the warrior elite of a technologically advanced society (Wakanda)? And if you grow up the resentful, brutal product of living in a much poorer society that resents and brutalizes you, can you truly be described as “evil”?

Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole make Black Panther a battleground of philosophies — isolationism vs. generosity, revenge vs. justice, even vibranium (the element that gives Wakanda its power) vs. Jabari wood. It is never at any point black vs. white, or African vs. Caucasian, even though one of the villains is white (he is shown to be an equal-opportunity slimeball who will ally with and then betray whoever can most benefit him in the moment). Unlike the unredeemable adversaries of the DC universe — the unreachable anarch the Joker, the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor — the rogues’ gallery at Marvel tend to have some shading, some humanity, even if appalling humanity. And the heroes are often impeded by guilt, doubt, hubris. Thus, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned king of Wakanda, represents a kind of naïvete born of privilege; his opposite, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), came up outside Wakanda’s embrace and has a more bitter view of the world. Erik often makes good points, and T’Challa sometimes sounds fatuous.

Wakanda represents what the whole of Africa might have been without colonizers — an African-American’s warming daydream of a black Shangri-La, unmutilated by whites. It’s a dream of superiority, too; Coogler and his artists take command of a medium that has spent far more of its history demeaning people of color than not, and they make sure this example of the medium gives us people of color who are demonstrably smarter and tougher than anyone else. (There’s a white CIA agent, played by Martin Freeman, who is generously made a brave and competent fighter.) That an empowerment fable on this level — a $200+ million sci-fi fantasy opening in 4,000 theaters nationwide — is only thinkable due to its association with a larger, otherwise pretty pale-skinned corporate concern is probably not the sort of irony Marvel fans would appreciate. Yet Black Panther may ultimately stand apart from its wider mythos the same way Wonder Woman did.

Considering the strain he must have been under — here you go, a massive blockbuster all your own; try not to disappoint Marvel or the black audience; no pressure or anything! — it might be too much to have expected Chadwick Boseman to manage anything other than a noble performance, with occasional brushstrokes of rage and grief and one or two fleeting bits of humor. (I look for the sequels — don’t worry, there’ll be some — to let T’Challa and Boseman have more fun.) Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, knows he has a juicy wounded-martyr role and rips into it with gusto, thoroughly enjoying playing a large-scale villain on an enormous canvas. Boseman more or less gives the movie to Jordan and to the many beautiful, brilliant women surrounding him: Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright. The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, could give the Amazons in Wonder Woman a rough time of it.

Wakanda is heaven, a dream of unity and equality of all kinds — though I imagine we’d have to wait for Black Panther 3 or 4 to find out how LGBTQ people or the disabled are treated there. Wakanda feels like the perfect land we all should have had, a utopia (though one ruled by a techno-warrior class). The place has great beauty, but it doesn’t look like much fun, truth to tell; it looks like a stolid land of solemn traditions and tests of strength, its loyal subjects pledging to defend its borders from the outside world. (And a benevolent monarchy is still a monarchy, no?) In a much-discussed quote at the end, T’Challa tells the United Nations, “In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” It’s hard not to hear in that a rebuke to … well, you know. Somebody.