Archive for Movies

After the Apocalypse

Coincidentally, I saw the movies The Road and The Book of Eli just a few days apart. They are two different and yet oddly similar visions of what the world will look like after civilization collapses. Men will be predators. Women will suffer. Roads will be left covered with cars. Cannibalism will rise. People will dress in mismatched clothing and gather canned food.

The Road is a far better movie. It is also very sad, which seems a not inappropriate response to the fall of civilization. The Book of Eli has a couple of major story flaws. It also has a character who is obviously under the care of a skilled post-civilization beauty salon that they somehow omitted to mention in the story, a jarring presence in the otherwise apocalyptic landscape. Still, I enjoyed both films.

The zombie film has become a way of metaphorically imagining our fears, which is also what we see in a film like 2012: this is the way the world could end. That doesn’t describe these post apocalypse films, in which the collapse of civilization is only alluded to very briefly and is not shown at all. What are these films about? They both seem to be trying to say something rather than just be a generic action movie.

Both films wind up being about faith. The Road is about faith in humanity, a faith which the protagonist has lost. The Book of Eli, as the name suggests, is about faith in God, a faith which the protagonist has but everybody else has lost. The films are about what you can believe in, who you can trust, after society has fallen apart.

Tying this idea back to my own bête noire, perhaps these films are trying to investigate faith without society because we are lacking faith in society. When you don’t believe in civilization, it seems reasonable to write a story in which there is no civilization, and you explore what you actually do believe in. Of course I’m overthinking this, driven by the coincidence of two such similar movies arriving in the theaters at close to the same time. I doubt there will be another serious post-apocalypse films for several years.

The metaphorical nature of these films is clear when you consider what a collapse of civilization would really be like. It would be nothing like what these films portray. We’ve seen Dark Ages before, and we may again. People didn’t wear mismatched clothing.

I can’t close a post about The Book of Eli without mentioning that it clearly draws on the beginning of The Canticle of Liebowitz, a still-excellent post-apocalypse SF novel.

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Daredevil Movie

OK, yet another comic book movie post. The Daredevil movie. It was bad. Don’t watch it. What I want to mention here is a particular way in which it was bad.

Daredevil was a not one of Stan Lee’s greater creations, and for many years was not a very interesting character. The reason Daredevil is well known today is that Frank Miller took over the book in 1981. He made it the best comic book on the market, and ever since then Daredevil has been a home for good writing and good art.

Unsurprisingly, the movie is loosely based on Frank Miller’s first overall story arc, a story which included the Kingpin, made Bullseye into a dangerous villain, and introduced Elektra. Parts of the movie are actually a shot-by-shot recreation of Miller’s panels (an idea which is done in much more detail in the Sin City movie, also based on a Miller comic book).

The problem is, the movie inverts the story, so that it makes no sense. In the comic book, Daredevil is a pretty straight superhero, a good guy. By day he is a lawyer who defends clients who need help, by night he protects people as a superhero. In Miller’s story, he meets Elektra, a college girlfriend who has become a ninja assassin (these things happen). There is a conflict between his feelings for her and his feelings about what she does, and as it is moving toward resolution Bullseye kills Elektra. Daredevil can’t really make sense of this, and slowly loses his judgment and his self-control. Daredevil eventually causes Bullseye to take a long fall, which puts him paralyzed in a hospital. The long story arc ends with Daredevil sitting next to the hospital bed, playing russian roulette with Bullseye with what turns out to be an unloaded gun. Going through this lets Daredevil prove to himself that he won’t kill Bullseye for what he (Bullseye) did, and he (Daredevil) regains his emotional stability.

That was a very short summary of a lot of comic books. In the movie, on the other hand, Daredevil is out of control from the start, acting impulsively and dangerously. He meets Elektra, falls in love, Bullseye kills Elektra, and this shock makes Daredevil act more sensibly and responsibly. Huh?

So the movie story is the reverse of the comic book story, and the movie story doesn’t make sense. Lord knows there have been lots of terrible book adaptations, but most of them at least try to keep the main point of the story in the book.

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Dark Knight

I’m going to join most people in saying that Dark Knight is a good movie. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is amazing. He manages to bring a layer of plausibility to the character while still being a homicidal maniac. You can almost believe that this character could exist. (I have to note that Roger Ebert’s review of the movie suggests that the Joker is telling the truth about being an abused child, but I think it’s pretty clear from the movie that the Joker was just, you know, joking. He may or may not have been an abused child; the movie doesn’t say.) (Ledger had a number of memorable performances, and his death is a real loss.)

The movie in general doesn’t pull any punches. It’s decidedly more intense than a typical summer movie, but the intensity is psychological rather than the route taken by most action movies: having bigger explosions. Of course, the Dark Knight explosions are still pretty big.

Still, while I recommend Dark Knight, I’m going to have to stay with Iron Man as the best comic book movie. Dark Knight had several problems as a movie. The story was too long and had too many moving parts. The Scarecrow was on screen for about thirty seconds and added nothing to the story. The ordinary people dressing up as Batman didn’t help the plot and I didn’t think they made the point that the story wanted; they didn’t show Batman as inspiration, they just showed crazy people. The Hong Kong sequence didn’t add anything that I could see.

I couldn’t suspend my disbelief about some of the plot; it’s always a bad sign when you start asking yourself during a movie whether something could really work (asking yourself after the movie is normal). The Joker was really crazy; you wouldn’t stay in the same building with that guy. And he didn’t care very much about money. So where did he get his henchmen? And how did he set up all those explosions? Did he spend weeks before the story started getting everything all arranged? The final confrontation in the movie was gripping and plausible and scary; the final decision made by the Batman, in some sense a minor point the movie was building toward, not so much.

For a very comic-booky criticism, Batman’s fighting style was all wrong. There’s just no way the guy in the movie could beat up all those thugs. He has to be both very quick and very strong, and the movie character was slow. The cape is also always a problem in the movies. In the comic books, although nobody ever mentions it, the cape is basically magic; it changes size at the whim of the artist and it never gets in the way. The movie has to have the cape so that it looks like Batman, but without the magic properties it doesn’t really work.

Final note: the movie had a preview of The Watchmen, a movie based on the excellent graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The movie pictures looked remarkably like the comic pictures. Unfortunately the comic book is very tightly written and very dense, and smoothly juggles several major characters. The plot barely makes sense, and the charm of the book is the details and the characterization. In other words, the comic is completely unsuited to be an action movie. It’s being directed by Zack Snyder. It doesn’t have any stars known for their acting, unless you count Billy Crudup, who is presumably going to spend most of the movie naked and covered by blue makeup. I don’t have high expectations for the movie.

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Wanted

Wanted was a fun if brutal comic book written by Mark Millar and illustrated by J.G. Jones. It came out at a time when Millar was finding his own voice after doing a lot of work with Grant Morrison. It tells the story of a general loser, Wesley Gibson, who discovers that he is the son of a supervillain and that he has inherited his father’s power to, more or less, kill anybody with a gun. The story is set in a world which used to be like a comic book world, but the supervillains used some sort of magic spell to eliminate all the superheroes and produce the world in which we all live today. The supervillains are still in charge behind the scenes. The storyline follows Gibson’s initiation into the society of supervillains, a battle between rival groups of supervillains, and Gibson’s brief reunion with his father who is not dead after all.

This was turned into a movie which recently came out, which I just saw. The movie drops all the supervillain stuff, judging, probably correctly, that it was too comic-booky. In the movie Gibson’s father works for a society of assassins who have special powers, mainly the ability to make bullets curve rather than go straight. The movie doesn’t make any more sense than the comic book, and, being quite a bit tamer, is rather less interesting. It’s not terrible, but it’s not worth going out of your way to see it. The special effects are admittedly pretty good.

The only thing which the movie shares with the comic book is some character names, the beginning, and, oddly, the very end. It was interesting–in fact, probably the most interesting thing about the movie–to see that the ending was the same, but inverted. In the comic book Gibson starts out as a schmuck and becomes a vicious thug. At the end of the story he addresses the reader directly, essentially saying that you, the reader, are the schmuck that he used to be, and that he now runs the world. In the movie Gibson starts out as a schmuck and becomes somebody who kills people for good reasons. At the end of the movie he addresses the viewer directly, mentioning the things he has done and scoffing at the people who used to put him down, and saying “what have you done lately?”

So in both stories Gibson turns into a killer. In the comic book he is clearly a bad guy. He is taking his revenge on the world. In the movie he is presented as a good guy. But in fact we don’t actually see him doing anything good. We see him killing people and seeking vengeance for his father’s death. When he talks to the reader of the comic book, the message is that you may be a schmuck, and people like Gibson may be controlling your world, but at least you’re not evil. When he talks to the viewer of the movie, the message is that you should stop being a schmuck and start killing people. Frankly, I prefer a dystopian vision than one which glorifies assassination as an escape from the humdrum daily life.

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Jackie Chan

Watching The Forbidden Kingdom the other day reminded me of Jackie Chan’s glory days, the string of movies from Project A to Drunken Master II or perhaps Rumble in the Bronx. It is unfortunately hard to see those movies in theaters these days; they used to be shown regularly in Hong Kong film retrospectives. In those movies, which combine light comedy with amazing stunts, Chan is essentially a modern day Buster Keaton.

Keaton is by far my favorite of the early silent screen comedians. His stories seem casually improvised but are clearly carefully planned and rehearsed. The plots are very sketchy. The core of the movies is Keaton’s remarkable athletic ability. In some ways the natural descendants of Keaton’s films are Gene Kelly’s dance movies: all the director needs to do is put the camera down and watch.

Chan’s more recent American films, like the Rush Hour or Shanghai Noon series, are much less interesting. The stunt work is toned down significantly and the comedy is more heavy-handed and basically pretty dumb. On the other hand, the plots make more sense–like Keaton, Chan’s earlier films don’t bother with much in the way of plot or character development.

Chan of course differs from Keaton in the use of Chinese martial arts. Keaton always ducks out of fights in his movies. In many of his movies Chan tries to duck out but fails. He is an excellent on-screen fighter, but unlike, say, Bruce Lee, often puts himself up against somebody who, at least in the story and choreography, is better. The fight scenes are fun but are not usually the best parts of his best films–the best parts are the other action scenes. That said, the fight scenes at the end of Wheels on Meals (with Benny Urquidez, a successful martial arts fighter in real life competitions) and Drunken Master II (with Ken Lo) are absolutely amazing.

It would be a real shame if Chan’s legacy in the U.S. is the films he made with American actors. Hopefully his earlier Hong Kong films will be the ones that are remembered.

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