Wednesday, July 30, 2008


With the release of The Dark Knight, 2008's "summer of superheroes" (say that three times my SLAUGTHERTORIUM!) comes to an end. So far, I've seen a workmanlike superhero movie (The Incredible Hulk), a superhero/Tolkein mashup (Hellboy 2: The Golden Army), an ebullient superhero movie (Iron Man), and a bleak, brilliant superhero movie (The Dark Knight). I realized, though, that I've so far missed the one superhero movie this summer that features an "original" hero with no comic book pedigree. So today I watched Hancock; let's call it the half-baked superhero movie.

I've long wondered why movie studios create their own superheroes rather than exclusively mine comic books for their material. A successful original superhero film would be a potential billion dollar franchise with no need to split the take with DC or Marvel. Hancock helps answer that question: the problem with creating a superhero out of whole cloth is the insurmountable challenge of introducing the movie going public to a brand new character, brand new powers, and a brand new creation myth while still providing your standard rousing action plotting. Hancock struggles with this problem throughout, hinting at a dense back story, but relying on blunt exposition that is at the same time overly explicit and maddeningly vague.

On top of all this, Hancock also tries to do the superhero deconstruction thing. This charges the film with the task of simultaneously building a fully realized superhero world while subverting it at the same time. It's a daunting mission for any filmmaker, not least Peter Berg, the poorer man's Tony Scott. The film fails for the most part, leaving a collection of interesting ideas that never develop or cohere. Every attempt to make sense of the muddy mythology just raises more questions, but not in a "let's deepen the mystery" way, more of a "boy, this is some annoying, scatterbrained mishmash," way.

Ignoring all the silly Hancock-orgin myth shenanigoats, the film asks some interesting questions: how would an all-powerful being deal with the essential isolation of his condition, how would the American public really react to the latent threat of an uncontrollable omnipotence in their midst? Answering these questions lead into some fresh, funny terrain before the film disappears up its own ass in the third act. Will Smith tempers his inherent Will Smithyness with some angst and a slight edge of menace. Jason Batemen is gold as always. Charlize Theron is...tanorexic. I just wish the filmmakers had concentrated their efforts on the stuff that they clearly had a good handle on, like Hancock's struggle to relate respectfully to people who he could kill with a flick of the wrist, rather than trying to tease out a sludgy miasma of character histories and undercooked relationships.

Score: 6.1

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

"Criminals aren't complicated" says Bruce Wayne and for the most part, he's right. At their core, most criminals, especially of the organized variety, are nothing more than supremely unscrupulous businessmen. As such, when The Dark Knight begins, the Caped Crusader's war on crime that began in 2005's Batman Begins has reached an equilibrium of sorts: the gang bosses try to extract as much money from Gotham through drugs and racketeering as they can, and Batman tries to stop them, with both sides battling for the souls of the city's police officers, judges and politicians. The question: will these bureaucrats be corrupted by the mob's money, or inspired by Batman's unyielding crusade? It's a straightforward, rule-bound dynamic, almost...boring. At least that's what a greasepainted, costumed freak calling himself "The Joker" thinks. He's not interested in anything as banal as money; he wants to upend every system of belief and code of behavior adhered to by Gothamites of all stripes, from city fathers to godfathers. Robbery, murder, arson, he commits these crimes with gusto, but they are not ends to themselves. No, the Joker wants to strip the veneer of civilization from the Gotham citizenry and enjoy the show as they tear themselves, and all of their illusions of decency, to pieces.

How do you respond to a malevolence such as this? That's the central question of Christopher Nolan's film, easily the best movie every made about the usually farcical or dull world of costumed superheroes. Like the best film of 2007, No Country For Old Men, The Dark Knight explores how people choose to engage with an absurd universe ruled by random chance and casual cruelty.

Bruce Wayne deals with the guilt, pain and fear that accompany such an existence by creating "the Batman," a heavily armored crimefighter without guilt, fear or pain. He escapes from the powerlessness of life by embodying omnipotence. He escapes from the meaningless of life by dedicating himself to one cause with total focus: justice and the meting out of said. In the short term, this means jumping from rooftops and striking fear into the Gotham criminal element through the liberal application of fists, batarangs, and keen detective work. In the long term, this means inspiring the citizens of Gotham through his example to live honestly within the system they profess to uphold. If cops would stop taking bribes and start taking down gangsters, Batman would be able to ride off into the sunset...if he could bear it. In the meantime, Batman can work out his demons by tuning up the demimonde. The cost of all this power and purpose is alienation and unresolvable internal conflict. Batman fights to defend the system, but he breaks the law with every ride in the Batmobile (no way is that thing street legal). His most important goal is to make Gotham's criminal justice bureaucrats honest guardians of the public trust, but his liaison with the Gotham Police Department requires Lt. Jim Gordon to ignore the law by failing to apprehend him. This conflict, coupled with the oppressive secret that Bruce Wayne must carry with him every day, make him utterly isolated from the system and the city he loves. It also keeps him from the woman he loves, Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, forcefully played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who knows his secret identity, and who refuses to be with him as long as "Bruce Wayne," the man she loves, is merely a front for the Batman.

When non-caped crusader District Attorney Harvey Dent takes office (and starts dating Rachel), with a promise to clean up Gotham using proper legal channels, Bruce Wayne sees the chance to retire his cowl for good. But not if the Joker has anything to say about it.

Most of the time in films, comic book villains seem to wear silly costumes for no more reason than...that's what villains in comic books DO. Heath Ledger's Joker is a different breed. Every sinister giggle, every guttural snarl, every nauseating lick of the lips, show the audience what the face paint and motley mean. For the Joker, every concept of humane behavior, from love to honor to dignity, and every human institution, is a fraud, a hideous joke people play on each other and on themselves. But nobody acknowledges this, and the Joker's mission is to let as many people in on the joke as he can. Ledger channels the manic nihilism of the character through a live-wire intensity and a parade of textured tics and vocal mannerisms, transforming him from a mere symbol of anarchy into a nightmare made flesh. The Joker is made even more compelling by the fact that he has a good point. Who among us hasn't been sickened by society's smug hypocrisy? There's a perverse pleasure in watching him torment pillars of righteousness like Dent, Gordon and Batman, using their principles as weapons against them, forcing them to reconcile the essential paradoxes of their natures through the gleeful application of savagery.

All of this angst and moral ambiguity plays out through a dizzying action plot that features some of the most purely entertaining and unnerving sequences in the Batman canon. the intensely focused performances of Ledger, Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart as Dent are matched by a dread-soaked atmosphere, propulsive direction, and a canny editing choices. Crucial events happen offscreen, forcing the audience to piece things together as they go. It enhances the Joker's seeming omnipresence and the sense that Gotham is slowly succumbing to chaos. A prominent feature of the film's score is a unbroken, atonal note that sings in the background whenever the Joker is about the strike. It's deliciously unsettling, and it reflects the nature of the movie as a whole: it's one long, sustained note of heightened tension and fear, with no prospect of release, even as the credits role. Similarly, the movie channels anxieties about terrorism and the ethical response to it without offering the comfort of resolution or pat answers. It's all accumulated tension, the only catharsis available in the amazing action scenes, with the knotty philosophical and personal questions left unanswered. You laugh, your jaw goes slack on numerous occasions, and you actually think a little bit.

The Dark Knight is a singular achievement; a comic book movie that treats its subject seriously, deftly develops characters, oozes relevance and still delivers the action and iconography that the genre demands. Ang Lee and Bryan Singer, let it be known: you are Christopher Nolan's bitches for all eternity.

Score: 9.5

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Pixar knows how to make a fucking movie. Ever since Toy Story, Pixar has consistently produced animated films that are enthralling to kids, enrapturing to adults, chock full of powerful themes, vivid characters, clock-work physical comedy and rousing action. Films like Toy Story 2, The Incredibles and Ratatouille are all-time animated classics. But, with Wall-E, the Pixar team, helmed by director Andrew Stanton, has created a completely unique, hauntingly powerful piece of pop art.

Seven hundred years after humanity abandons a trash-strewn, poisoned earth, Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Model, or "Wall-E," carries out his mission of turning massive piles of garbage int compact, orderly cubes, long after the rest of his robotic comrades have powered down. Hundreds of years of rooting through the detritus of civilization has given Wall-E an intimate knowledge of society, and his mimicry of human behavior has morphed, over time, into the makings of an authentic personality. Part of that personality is a yearning for interpersonal connection that explodes into intense longing when a hovering, ipod-like probe called EVE arrives on earth searching for signs of organic life. Neither robot can speak, so their tentative courtship is dramatized in wordless rituals, the boiled-down essence of romantic bonding. The result is rarest sort of cinematic alchemy, scenes that are involving, funny, and most impressively, offer insights into just what it means to be human, what we need from other people, and how we go about loving them.

As if it weren't enough that Wall-E offers soul-stirring transcendent peons to love, there's also powerfully hilarious satire of corporate stupefaction when the 'bots end up running around on the massive cruise ship in space where earthlings have been living since the environment death of earth. The image of morbidly obese, unitarded folks zipping around obliviously on hover-chairs along lighted pathways, drinking their dinners from giant cups, surrounded by a blur of video screens is cutting and funny in the bittersweet way of knife-trenchant observation. In between moving scenes of Wall-E and EVE and Pixar's particular brand of frothy, kinetic comedy, Stanton and company put together a bracing critique of modern techo-complacency and a rousing call for all of us to renew and enrich our relationships with each other and the world around us.

All of these subtly evocative touches of humanity and piercing social commentary, have a cumulative effect that makes the film's climax wrenching and harrowing and finally blissfully life-affirming. It's a singular accomplishment: a mass audience blockbuster that conveys a authentic emotions, a poignant call to conscience living, and the sheer power to leave the audience with a heightened sense of what it means to love and be loved.

Score: 9.4

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

When Guillermo Del Toro made the first Hellboy in 2004, he was still basically a horror film director for hire. Then, he made the critically ejaculated-upon film Pan's Labyrinth, which gave him massive artistic credibility as an auteur. It might seem puzzling on the surface that Del Toro would use his newfound clout to do a sequel to one of his mercenary jobs. Turns out, though, Hellboy 2, which Del Toro also wrote, is much more of a sequel to Pan's Labyrinth than it is to the first Hellboy. Sure, it has the same characters, cast and basic premise as Hellboy, which originated as a Dark Knight comic, but Del Toro is much less interested in developing the Hellboy universe than he is in taking the ideas that animated Pan's Labyrinth and injecting them with the ambition that only a summer blockbuster budget can provide.

Pan's Labyinth explored the idea of fairy tale creatures living secretly amongst humans. Hellboy 2 takes that premise and runs with it in audacious directions. One of the chief deficiencies of Pan's Labyrinth was best articulated by my good friend and retired archduke John Muther, "not enough monsters." Hellboy 2 corrects that with gusto. Pan's Labyrinth has a dude with two eyes on his hands. Hellboy 2 has a dude with, like, 30 eyes on his...wings! That's the main gag in Hellboy 2: taking Pan's Labyrinth's secret fairy folk and pumping them full of steroids, creating an unstoppable parade of magnificently inventive beasts. Del Toro's aim with all these impeccable CGI creations (and they really are impeccable- the creatures are all part of a seamless universe where the spell is never broken) is to ask the question: what if Tolkein's Middle Earth (or an off-brand facsimile of same) coexisted alongside the modern world? It's a gripping idea that pays off spectacularly in a few scenes: particularly the sequence where Hellboy blows the head off of a giant tree god and a corner of the Lower East Side slowly turns into a garden as the monster dissolves into moss and flowers. That one scene is a more poignant, majestic expression of Del Toro's vision of fairy tale wonder interacting with the mundane familiar than anything in Pan's Labyrinth. Unfortunately, Del Toro chose to shoehorn his personal vision inside the established framework of the Hellboy universe, which just doesn't have room for it. As a result, the fairy tale elements end up fighting for screentime with the same stale schtick and well worn conflicts that animated the first film: Hellboy struggles to come to terms with his uniqueness in the world, Hellboy fights with his bosses, Hellboy agonizes over his relationship with firestarter Liz Sherman, Hellboy cracks wise all over the place.

For all the wow moments, and there are more than a couple, Hellboy 2 never really comes together because Del Toro's world and the prefabricated Hellboy world fail to gel. This is a common pitfall when directors with ambition and a strong viewpoint tactle comic book fare. It's difficult for even the canniest director to avoid getting tangled up in the broad characters, inherently ridiculous dialogue and unavoidably clunky exposition that the genre requires. Still, even a mixed effort like Hellboy 2 contains more than enough eye candy and pathos to make me thankful that dudes like Del Toro are still willing to make a go of it.

Score: 7.8

Monday, July 07, 2008

Schizophrenic Double Features

This week, I watched both Wanted and In Bruges, two films about the world of hired killers that take radically different approaches to the subject. Wanted is practically a recruiting film for an assassination squad (or maybe the Army), with its whizz-bang action setpieces, sultry, gun-toting Angelina Jolie, and a general message that killing people is the surest way to raise your self-esteem and overall quality of life. It's a gas, man. In Bruges, on the other hand, deals with the aspect of killing people for hire that is almost completely absent in the vast majority of films about hitmen, especially Wanted: the guilt. In fact, the entire film is about Colin Ferrell coming into awareness of his own conscience after a botched hit. It's a wrenching character arc that it's hard to imagine would ever occur to Wanted's James McAvoy, who leaves a life of office drudgery for the fun and excitement of whacking bad guys. He never has to worry about guilt, because his targets are chosen by a secret code written into fabric weaved by a Loom of Fate! It occurred to me that watching Wanted and In Bruges back-to-back could induce thematic and stylistic whiplash. That made me think: are there any other potential double features of films that make dramatically divergent interpretations of similar material?

Glory and God's and Generals

The American Civil War: a crusade to abolish the wicked institution of slavery and assert to equality of all men, or a noble stand by god fearing Southern patriots intent on seeing their precious folkways unsullied by foreign interlopers? It's a debate that has defined the terms of discussion of the Civil War era, and you can play along at home by sitting down to watch these two films one after the other. Ed Zwick's Glory tells the story of the all-black 54th Massachusetts volunteers, who distinguished themselves in battle during the struggle for Charleston. The centrality of slavery to the cause of the war is never questioned as the soldiers work their way from being a ragtag collection of ex-slaves to a lethal fighting force intent on destroying the institution that largely defined their destinies. By the time the 54th sees action, the Confederate soldiers may as well have horns for all the hatred and violence they represent. Ronald Maxwell's Gods and Generals, on the other hand, gives the viewer four and a half hours of footage of pious, honorable Southern generals, including Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as they assert their righteous duty to defend their homeland. The only black folk in the film are Jackson's loyal servants, who of course, love him like a father and sho don't cotton to none of that "freedom" foolishness. Now, I'm hugely biases against the Confederacy in all things, but if you watch these films back-to-back and aren't fully convinced of the awfulness of the southern cause, then you, my friend, must be a huge fan of horrible, horrible movies and incredibly fruity musical interludes.

Signs and Independence Day

Things these two movies have in common: they're both about alien invasions, and they're both movies. That's about it. Independence Day is an epic action film that jumps across the country and the world, documenting the impact of a massive alien attack that leaves most of Earth's major cities destroyed. Signs is an intimate thriller about one families reaction to a mysterious, slowly escalating series of alien encounters, culminating in an alien attack on their home. The aliens in Independence Day use moon-sized death ships and lazer canons. The aliens in Signs use their bare hands and the poison gas that their hands emit. Independence Day seeks to capture the global sweep of such a crisis, while Signs wants to show how a small group of people, cut off from that bigger picture, make sense of the terrifying changes around them and seek to cope. There's even a subtle but significant difference in the two film's political visions. Independence Day makes a Franklin Roosevelt-style case for a robust government response to the catastrophic. Whether it's a Depression, a world war, or a genocidal alien invasion, there's nothing folks can't overcome if they work together under the inspiration of a charismatic leader. Signs displays a more Reagan-esque take on the efficacy of collective action: when the shit hits the fan, the government won't be there to help, not even your neighbors. It'll just be your family and your faith to get you through the night.

Kelly's Heroes and Three Kings

These two films take the same premise: soldiers in the waning days of a war sneak behind enemy lines to steal a bunch of gold, and spin subversive, seriocomic tales out of them. What's interesting is the different ways the two films are subversive. Three Kings, one would think, should be the more cynical of the two. It's directed by indie stalwart and crazy-person David O. Russell, makes a biting critique of American cynicism and self-righteousness during the first Gulf War and features some dazzling cinematography and use of unconventional film stock. Yet, the character arcs of the protagonists in Three Kings is utterly conventional: they set out to steal some gold, and after witnessing the horrors of Saddam's post-war suppression of the Shi'ite rebels, they discover their consciences and learn to fight for something bigger than themselves. Kelly's Heroes, made in 1970, featuring Clint Eastwood, and helmed by a dude whose last directing job was an episode of the show Archer before quitting Hollywood to become a plumber, manages to blow the doors off of a whose slew of war movie cliches. When Kelly and his band of misfits rush ahead of the Allied forces during the German collapse in WWII, they are wholly focused on nabbing a bunch of Nazi gold from a bank in France. And, as the film progresses, they stay completely focused on nabbing a bunch of Nazi gold from a bank in France. There is no soul searching, no devotion to country or a burning need to rid the world of Fascism. In fact, you get the distinct impression that if these guys knew about a stash of gold in a British bank, they wouldn't hesitate to try and steal it. These guys are the GREATEST GENERATION, the citizen soldiers who saved the world, and in Kelly's Heroes, they may as well be the James gang. Plus, the tank commander, played by Donald Sutherland, is a hippie...a hippie in World War Two! That'll rescrew your carburetor.

The Blob and The Blob

The original Blob from 1958 features a giant red Jell-o mold from outer space that devours everything in a small mountain town. It's a classic piece of cold war sci-fi, in which the threat of an external, homogenizing force is symbolized by a destructive alien. The 1988 remake, on the other hand, is a angst-riddled scream from alienated liberals trapped in Reagan's America. Here, the creature, much more viscous and prone to dissolving the flesh off of people's bones, is created as a result of covert military experiments in space, and government scientists want to capture it for use as a weapon. The other villain in the piece is a crazed millennial preacher who sees the blob as man's just punishment for his wickedness, and seeks to save it so that it can fulfill its divine purpose.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


All action movies are, on some level, wish-fullfilment for frustrated young men who really wish they could take a machine gun to work and blow away their boss or chase a bad guy down Mount Everest on rocket-propelled skis. Every man with testosterone flowing in his veins has some sort of desire to see his enemies lay prostrate before him, a busty young wench clinging to his know, caveman shit. And for the average domesticated American male, the only place to see their fantasies of violent domination come to life is the multiplex. It's usually a harmless form of catharsis, but Wanted takes the notion of action film-as-expression-of-latent-desire to ludicrious, possibly immoral extremes.

Wanted begins with bored office drone James McAvoy going through the soul-crushing routine of his life in a series of sequences that play like clips from Office Space remade by Oliver Stone. In case the viewer has missed all the sledge-hammer subtle hints that McAvoy is an ordinary, regular guy unhappy with his lack of significance, there is some helpful voice over from McAvoy TELLING the viewer how unhappy he is with his regular, ordinariness. Man, it sucks to be a 9 to 5 drone! If only a cat-eyed beauty would show up and whisk him away into a world of highly trained international assassins! Thankfully for our put-upon hero, Angelina Jolie, whose character is paper thin and seems to exist in the film soully as window dressing...grossly thin, heavily tattooed window dressing, shows up, hands him a gun, leads him through a training montage, and sets him loose to blow away the evildoers of Chicago with bending bullets. Now, McAvoy sheds the hangdog look and self-negation of his pathetic cube-dwelling existence. Shooting people from moving cars gives him a drive, purpose and joy for the first time. But there is no need to feel guilty about getting all of this satisfaction from killing: all of his victims have been chosen by the elite "fraternity" of assassins because of their threat to global order. How does the shadowy assassination team pick their targets? In what might be the single stupidest conceit in an action film since the flying bus in Swordfish, only less hilarious.

That's a running theme in Wanted: intensely stupid and ridiculous, but never quite stupid and ridiculous enough to be fun. The action sequences, helmed by Night/Daywatch director Timur Bekmambetov, are competently executed, and feature a few jaw-dropping stunts, but the heavy use of slow-motion and "bullet time" are beyond stale at this point, and the elliptical plot structure constantly blunts the film's momentum.

When the credits roll, the action scenes have failed to make an impression, leaving you only with a sour aftertaste. Not only does Wanted give the audience a delirious taste of vicarious violence, it also sells killing people with stealth and bad-assitude as a guaranteed path to personal satisfaction and validation. By the end of the film, McAvoy's increasingly smug voice-over is practically mocking the audience for not being assassins. It's enough to make you want to take a shower afterwards, and not just because you just spent money to watch a movie featuring a loom that tells the future. I'll repeat that last bit: there's a loom that tells the future in this movie.

Score: 5.6