Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

So, this is what we’re doing now. We are bringing our superheroes to Earth, both literally and metaphorically, and turning them into unhappy humans who interrogate the meaning of their own power and develop strong opinions on how it should be used. We are screwing around with imagery that evokes 9/11 to suggest the damage that unchecked superhero powers can create. We are having beloved characters fight with each other for the thinnest of reasons. We are blowing shit up. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aspires to nothing less than to be the termination point for an one era of superhero films and, I guess, the departure point for another. Dawn of Justice begins with the end of Snyder’s Man of Steel, the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that tears apart Metropolis. Snyder includes shots of citizens fleeing billowing dust clouds on city streets that serve as a perverse kind of escapism, as if it would take aliens and nothing else to bring down buildings in a major American city. One of the casualties of the mayhem is a building belonging to Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) which is in the process of being evacuated when it collapses. Eighteen months later and Wayne still broods on the loss of his employees, though it’s hard to tell because in Dawn of Justice Affleck’s Batman is little more than a scowl and some high-end gadgets.

In the new DC Comics Universe, which Dawn of Justice is mean to kick off, “Justice” is a funny word. Neither Batman nor Superman seem interested in participating in a system of due process and accountability for those they apprehend. Instead both want to do exactly as they like and each finds the other’s methods over the top. Wayne is offended when Superman’s rescue of Lois Lane (Amy Adams, whom I feel I should remind you has five Oscar nominations) leads to the loss of innocent lives. This incident is told secondhand to the committee of a Senator (Holly Hunter) who is worried about Superman going bad, and the narrative distance means it’s hard to gauge just how out of control the situation became. Meanwhile Superman - in his Clark Kent guise, and here Kent is just a device to move the plot along - doesn’t like how rough Batman plays when bringing down low level hoods in Gotham. Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) are actually in pursuit of information held by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, who takes the camp out of this character for once) which might prove inimical to Superman’s interests. Snyder spends a great deal of time on Wayne’s search, a choice which pushes the film’s running time out to 2 and a half hours but also leads to Wayne crossing paths with Diana Price (Gal Gadot, warming up for next year’s Wonder Woman film). Wayne spends so much time sitting in front of screens that at one point he has a dream-within-a-dream, a scene which introduces another familiar DC character and also fails to suggest that anyone involved with Dawn of Justice possesses DePalma-like levels of psychological complexity.

Dawn of Justice could be as serious-minded as it liked and I would even forgive the violence if only Snyder had injected even a fraction of the joy that earlier Batman and Superman films possessed. That sentiment no doubt sounds like the carping of a man who’s angry that new toys don’t look like the ones he grew up with, but consider: we’re supposedly living in a time where films are being made and studios run by people who grew up as “geeks” or “nerds” and yet I don’t remember the last time I saw a superhero use his powers without considering the moral responsibility. (Maybe Ant-Man, but the pendulum began to swing somewhere around the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film.) Where is the joy of flight, or even the novelty of a utility belt? I couldn’t help but think about the children who were in the theatre where I was watching Dawn of Justice. I’m talking about the actual children, not the overgrown ones. They’ll never thrill to Christopher Reeve’s Superman saving lives at the Eiffel Tower or be confused by the emotional dynamics between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Instead they, and the rest of us, are treated to Martha Kent (Diane Lane) being terrorized by armed goons and Lex Luthor playing Doctor Frankenstein in the remains of a Kryptonian spaceship. The child sitting with his father next to me loved seeing Superman fly but grew oddly quiet during the civics lesson.

The extended climax of Dawn of Justice occurs in a series of empty buildings that Zack Snyder finds various to shoot blowing up or crumbling into rubble. It’s practically promised at the end that these sequences will motivate the action in some future DC film and that more heroes will be required to fight off new evil. Those films will no doubt have their audience, but they had also better matter much more than this one did. I didn’t care that Bruce Wayne wanted to kill Superman because this Wayne is barely a person. Christian Bale’s Wayne wasn’t the most fun guy, but you at least believed he watched a basketball game now and then. Dawn of Justice is the “high” point of the movement to replace the wonder in superhero films with sheer spectacle and debates about the uses of power. The idea that the people in films should be frightened of the heroes protecting them - a theme that has crossed a number of franchises - has never been less appealing or provocative than it is here, and with any luck we’re moving away from its repeated use in blockbusters. Oh, wait a second, 2016 still has films called Civil War and Suicide Squad yet to come. I’ll probably see them both, and so will you.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Some Thoughts on My First Murakami Novel

I’ve just finished reading Norwegian Wood by the acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Having heard Murakami celebrated for years - I worked in a bookstore for over a decade - and even mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner, I can report that Norwegian Wood is a novel that from what I can make out is far removed in theme and style from the author’s best-known works and was probably not a good choice with which to begin reading him. Set during the turbulent years of 1969 and 1970, Norwegian Wood is the story of the relationship between a student named Toru and a young woman named Naoko. The two had known each other for years before falling in love because Naoko was the high school girlfriend of Toru’s best friend Kizuki, who has committed suicide before the novel begins. Naoko and Toru take long Sunday walks through Tokyo, but soon Naoko withdraws and eventually becomes a patient at an odd sort of spa/hospital which Toru visits as his schedule permits. Toru becomes friends with Naoko’s older roommate Reiko during his visits, and she counsels him about Naoko and about his feelings for a free-spirited fellow student named Midori whom he has met back in Tokyo. To reveal more would be unfair, but the question of Naoko’s mental health becomes central to how all of the characters resolve themselves.

 It has been some time since I read a novel in translation, and the language barrier may account for some questions I have about Norwegian Wood and about Murakami’s work in general. I was planning to write a kind of insouciant “5 Questions about This Novel” post that I might have slapped up on Tumblr, but these are actually things I want to know before I pick up another Murakami novel.

 1. Characters in Norwegian Wood have a habit of saying exactly what’s on their minds. Is this trait a Murkami thing, a Japanese thing, and/or a translation thing?

 2. At one time or another the three central women in Norwegian Wood all want to sleep with Toru. Do Murakami’s other men do as well?

 3. Several characters in Norwegian Wood commit suicide. Again, there’s something here in Japanese culture that I don’t understand and I wonder if it comes up in other Murakami novels.

 4. Do Murakami characters refer to books and music as often as these characters do? Because I liked that. 

5. I was under the impression there was more “Magic Realism” in most Murakami novels. Is this true?

6. What does Haruki Murakami think of the “Shoshanna in Japan” storyline on Girls?

 If you’re a Murakami reader and can answer any of these question then you would be performing an invaluable public service.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (mild spoilers)

10 Cloverfield Lane is J.J. Abrams playing with us and doing it well. When the trailer appeared online a couple of months ago it wasn’t apparent if Abrams had produced a sequel to his surprise hit Cloverfield or if he was merely indulging a taste for surprises already displayed in Super 8 and the introduction of a certain smoke monster to a certain TV island. The finished product is a well-executed genre film that may (or may not) connect to an already established cinematic universe. After watching the film the inclusion of the word Cloverfieldin the title feels like quite a tease; producer Abrams and director Dan Trachtenberg (working from a script co-authored by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle) play to our love of the movie franchise while delivering something small, shocking, and mean.

We don’t know why Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her unseen fiance in the opening scene. Trachtenberg doesn’t let us hear the phone message she leaves him but instead plays the insistent score of Bear McCreary over shots of Michelle clearing out of her apartment. One stop at a spooky Louisiana gas station later and Michelle is waking up after a car accident in the well-stocked underground bunker of a man named Howard (John Goodman) whose intention seems to be to keep her alive. Howard tells Michelle she can’t return to the surface; a biological attack of unknown origin has left everyone dead. The bunker’s other occupant is a hired hand named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), a gentle sort who thinks Howard is to be trusted. The heart of 10 Cloverfield Lane is Michelle’s effort to find out if that’s true. A close-quarters film like this one is of course actor dependent, and Abrams and Trachtenberg have nailed casting with the pairing of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Winstead has wound up in more than a few horror films over the years, but she’s capable of much more - see Scott Pilgrim or her Oscar worthy turn in Smashed - and is perfect for what turns out to be a psychological duel. Her natural intelligence is well-matched with John Goodman’s richly detailed study in paranoia. It’s terrific to see Goodman’s turn his charm into something menacing; the more we come to understand Howard’s motivations the more his references to an absent daughter hint at a disturbing past.

The tension of 10 Cloverfield Lane is released after an act of violence, and your opinion of the ending is a function of your tolerance for ambiguity. We can reveal that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a good actress even when fleeing and fighting; in the unfortunate event that someone ever remakes Alien then Winstead would make a fine Ellen Ripley. It does seem likely that there will be more Cloverfield films at some point, and while Abrams’s desire to vary casts and tones is appealing it also wouldn’t be the worst idea to keep Winstead around. 10 Cloverfield Lane - a film we didn’t need and weren’t aware we wanted - is a pleasant diversion made with some craft, and in a film where there’s this much fleeing that is good enough for me.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The word “resources” gets used several times in the new Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. News producer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) winds up as a war correspondent in 2003 Afghanistan because her network’s resources are stretched due to the beginnings of the Iraq War. Later, a network president (Cherry Jones) ponders using fewer resources in Afghanistan because in the three years Baker has been there the story has become less vital to Americans. When thinking about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which Fey produced along with Lorne Michaels, one might regard it as a case of misspent resources. What could have been a darkly funny film about what war reporting does to people is instead a film in which the U.S. Military, other reporters, and the entire nation of Afghanistan serve as the supporting cast in the story of Kim Baker acquiring a backbone. Baker - the film is based on a nonfiction book by journalist Kim Barker - has almost no field experience when she arrives in Afghanistan and is dependent on her local guide Fahim, played by the very non-Afghan actor Christopher Abbott. Kim proves her courage and impresses a general (Billy Bob Thornton) by getting close-up footage of a firefight, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t a movie about military strategy.

The action of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot covers 2003 to 2006, years when Afghanistan receded from the American consciousness as the Iraq War increased in intensity. Kim gets some traction by reporting on gender issues, but Ficarra and Requa cut away from a scene in which a group of Afghan women get to meet Kim and express their concerns. Instead we get more of the frat house life at the journalists’ base, where Kim’s friends Tanya (Margot Robbie) and Ian (Martin Freeman) encourage her to get over her unfaithful stateside boyfriend (Josh Charles). There is also an Afghan politician (Alfred Molina) who it turns out is around only for plot purposes, since neither Kim nor anyone else seems that interested in what kind of country Afghanistan is becoming. Instead there’s a late twist - involving Kate getting Thornton’s general to commit men to a dangerous mission - that offers Kate an opportunity to advance her career; she doesn’t hesitate to seize her chance, though weirdly Robbie’s Tanya is judged for doing exactly the same thing. Tina Fey is mostly up to the role of Kim, though I never bought the idea that Kim was in danger of thinking the extremes of war zone life were “normal”. Whomever made the choice to make Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about Kim’s self-actualization did so at the expense of dramatizing the lived experience of soldiers and journalists on the ground. The result is a film that looks big and feels small, one that traded Fey’s comic voice for jokes about Muslim women covering themselves. WTF indeed.