Monday, August 20, 2007

Quick Takes

Seen recently on DVD:

1) 300: To paraphrase a reference from Mark's recent column: how do you solve a problem like Frank Miller? How do you catch a cad and pin him down? This is a profoundly odd, yet interesting, piece of work. I didn't hate it like I did Sin City, as unpleasant, enervating and vaguely fascistic an experience as I've ever had in a theater; as opposed to the suffocating, adolscent nihilism of the Miller/Rodriguez film, where I felt enclosed by violence and macho preening of the imagery, the CGI artificiality of 300 took me out of the film, and made me see it as a surreally beautiful mosaic, as if Bunuel decided to make Spartacus. The idea that the film is somehow a propaganda piece (for either side of the war) falls a little flat: the work is so painted and inhuman, with its repetitious slo-mo battles and gleefully obtuse narration, that it became impossible for me to sympathize with or hate any of the characters: there are no "characters," only figures in motion, simulations of human interaction only slightly less robotic than Anne Hathaway. Doing his best poor man's Russell Crowe, Gerard Butler is fine as the Spartan leader (his past turn as the lead in Phantom of the Opera humorously shadowing all his lines about leading his men to a wonderously strange new world), posing in all the right ways and even getting some emotion expressed through haunted brown eyes and the occasional raised eyebrow. In many ways, it's an impressive achievement, but a strangely empty and uninvolving one: it's like the Rush of action movies, a prog-rock-cinema of visually striking and sophisticated technological wonder that in the end elicits more a shrug of admiration than any true affection (and like Rush, seems designed to appeal mostly to boyish tech-heads who judge quality by the size of the drum kit). Frank Miller is an often remarkable talent in comics (although less so in the last decade), where his work is an interesting play of different graphic traditions (including swipes from television and cinema), but I never get the sense he has much of a feel for movies (Joss Whedon is the opposite example: a born TV/movies guy influenced by comics, whose actual work in comics sometimes feels a little flat): is it enough that both Sin City and 300 have been acclaimed for their "faithfulness" (my netflix envelope even going so far as to highlight said faithfulness in its description)? Is translation simply a matter of slavish recreation? If so, why do we even need the film versions, when we can easily buy the comics at the shop? Or is the very flatness and distanced perspective of 300-- its odd mixture of rah-rah speechifying and bemused violence a reminder that, as Godard once said, what we see on the screen is "not blood, [but] red"--its own commentary on form and politics, our tendency to turn everything into a game?

2) Daredevil: Oddly enough, Miller remains (to my knowledge, anyway), uninvolved with the big-screen exploits of the hero through whom his initial reputation was made, despite the fact that those issues of Daredevil (158-191, 226-233) remain his single best body of work, the perfect balance of traditional superhero and noirish revisionism that he's been shooting for (to pardon the pun) ever since. As a colleague of mine said, that 1979-86 period (capped off with the magisterial Dark Knight Returns) was when Miller "still had an editor," and thus couldn't fully unleash the endless, increasingly empty sex 'n' violence fests that have dominated his more recent output. Daredevil, the movie, references Miller when it cheekily gives his last name over to one of characters in the film (other notable Daredevil writers and artists-- John Romita, Brian Michael Bendis-- get referenced in the same way, and it's the smartest thing in the film. Which tells you a lot about the film), but manages to miss the mark when it comes to getting his vision on the screen. This is not, in all honesty, a bad film-- there's a frantic feverishness to the visuals that works for this most tortured of Marvel heroes; it's fairly well-cast (more about that in a moment); it gets off a few good one-liners, and establishes some nice byplay between a few characters (with two rather glaring exceptions); and the action scenes are well-staged.

Its main problem is that it feels rushed, and heavily edited (the local DVD shop here in Cineville has only the theatrical version, although I'm told there's a longer, more interesting director's cut available), with characters gone just as they're introduced, key relationships (like that between Daredevil and Elektra) sketched in rather than fleshed out, and a resolution so sped through that it's as if director Mark Steven Johnson was told there was no more film stock left, and it was time to wrap things up.

The movie draws heavily on characters either created (Bullseye, Elektra) or heavily revised (Kingpin, Daredevil himself) by Miller during his two runs, but it lacks the operatic intensity-- the sense of a whole city quietly under siege by crime-- that was the heart and point of the stories; there's a fascinating series of dichotomies in this character (crimefighting vigilante/by-the-book lawyer, cynic/devout Catholic, devil/angel) that could make a great movie, and it's not really beyond the purview of a "comic book movie" to do so (Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films seem to manage the trick pretty well), but hardly any of that's here. In a way, the movie reminds me of the Catskills joke Alvy tells in Annie Hall: "The food here is terrible!" "Yes, and such small portions!"

Just a few words on the cast: Ben Affleck is fine. Not great, but better than I'd suspected (as he recently showed in Hollywoodland, he's got it in him to skillfully portray a man divided by a double life, if the movie lets him). Ditto Jennifer Garner, although she seems miscast as a Greek avenger. The movie does better by its supporting cast: Jon Favreau hits all the right notes of charm, loyalty and dorky humor as law partner Foggy Nelson; Joe Patoliano is counterintuitive casting for reporter Ben Urich, portrayed in the comics as much older, but he's fairly effective and always fun; and Colin Farrell is a delight as Bullseye, every bit the gleeful, insane bad-ass you could hope for. Michael Clarke Duncan is miscast as Kingpin: he never exudes the calm or menace, the sense of true power and grotesquerie that the character needs (he's too charming and likeable, and the film doesn't find a way to use those qualities ironically), but his final showdown with Daredevil is fun. Still, I wonder what would've happened if the original casting-- Edward Norton as Daredevil and Affleck as Bullseye-- would've gone through. Norton-- as shown in Primal Fear-- can play split personalities with ease, and Affleck might have been more comfortable with Bullseye's cocky antics and swaggering physicality. As it is, the movie's stuck in a cinematic purgatory-- neither good nor bad, just mediocre.

3) Breach: Fabulous. I was a big fan of Billy Ray's earlier film, Shattered Glass, and this new film doesn't quite measure up to that one (it's not as visually alive, for one thing: I know the muted grays are an effective metaphor for spying, but I missed the cluttered newsrooms and kinetic mise-en-scene of Glass), but it's still a very fine piece of work. Ray is a very, very good director of actors, eliciting strong performances from younger folk, in particular (Hayden Christiansen, Ryan Phillipe) who are often underwhelmingly wooden in other pictures. And he's superb with veterans like Laura Linney (a thankless role, but one she brings wistfulness and subtext to), Dennis Haysbert (gone from the screen far too quickly, but very winningly cynical when he's there) and especially, Chris Cooper. The trick of Cooper's performance is that he makes a reprhensible man almost sympathetic: the film might judge Robert Hanssen, but Cooper doesn't, simply playing him straight and with quiet calm and empathy, and forcing us to make our own decisions about his actions. This is a film about varieties of faith, including the cinematic form-- the bond or agreement between audience and text, and how that is expressed formally (in other words, who or what do you trust to get you through the next two hours?). Ray seems fascinated by process: how do things get put together, then slowly pulled apart? It's an almost clinical approach to melodramatic stories (massive plagarism, massive treason), but this underplaying makes the films, paradoxically, much more gripping and suspenseful than if they'd been done in a Michael Bay style: what other film's big "action" scene rests on which pocket to put a Palm Pilot in?

Finally-- no, I didn't see High School Musical 2 this weekend. Since I enjoyed the first one (no, I'm not being sarcastic), I will get to it eventually (and thanks to Boolise for the above link), as I am curious about the new exploits of Sharpay and Friends. What's that? It's really about Zac Effron and Vanessa Anne Hudgins? Nah-- eveyone knows the Cordelia is always more interesting than the Willow.

5 comments:

Joshua said...
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Mark Engblom said...

Great reviews, Cinephile! You bring Frank Miller's comics and the movies they're based on together in a way I haven't seen anyone else do quite as succinctly, avoiding the "too much detail" potholes most of them sink into.

You nailed the somewhat empty feeling of the movie 300, though I enjoyed the movie a bit more than you seemed to. Great perceptions.

Cinephile said...

Thanks, Mark! I always love the insights I get at your blog, so your kind words mean a lot.

UXAS said...

I found myself not liking DAREDEVIL at all when I first caught it on DVD. But then, for some reason I sat through it again when I happened across a showing on cable. It's interesting to watch if just to see all the bad choices that were made.

And yes, now that you mention it, it seems extremely rushed.

-Brandon Bragg

Cinephile said...

Uxas,
Yeah, there's part of me that's curious to see the director's cut, just to see if it's more fleshed out and interesting. But I don't know, in all honesty, if I'd want to sit through the narrative again. (:

Hope random panels returns soon! I really enjoyed that blog.