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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (1/29/13) 4:05am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week, owing to lazy.]

Movies:  Batman: Year One, Batman: Under the Red Hood, The Dark Knight Rises, Captain America: The First Avenger, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
TV:  <none>
Books:  <none>

Batman: Year One
This is Bruce Timm's animated adaptation of the classic Frank Miller graphic novel.

This is actually one of my favorite movies I've seen in some time.

I'll start with something that might seem minor: the art direction.  I absolutely love the art direction in Year OneBatman: the Animated Series has a sort of time-scrambled quality, with 40s cars somehow coexisting with art-deco architecture, the Internet and VHS tapes.  And you can tell Year One exists in that same universe, but in the chronology, it's about ten years before the animated series.  So for this film, the set it in this universe's version of the late 80s.

But again, it's still got a strongly timeless quality.  It's not beating you over the head with "OMG 80S LOOK HERE ARE NEON COLORS AND PLASTIC STUFF AND OMG LEG WARMERS".  The costumes, if anything, have nigh-imperceptible nods to the period.  The era comes through more strongly in the car designs, which are very clearly late-80s (and mostly the sort of cars you'd drive if you didn't have a lot of money back then).  Occasionally you see hat-tips to the period in the background, like a sign that says "vhs and beta rentals".  And the soundtrack especially nails the period -- but again, it's not just using cheesy signifiers.  Instead, Christopher Drake creates a moody, synth-heavy score that feels like how the animated-series themes would sound, filtered through 1987.

I realize this is an odd thing to lead with, especially since, like any Frank Miller piece, this is about manly men manning the hell out of their manliness, and also whores whores whores whores whores whores.

But the strong art direction here ties into the main strength of the film: how well it builds a *world*.  In this film, evil is not some moustache-twirling villain, though Gillian Loeb serves as a handy kingpin.  Evil is banal.  Evil is routine.  Evil is just how everyone in Gotham goes about their business.

The moment that really brought this home for me was when two officers have Bruce Wayne surrendered at gunpoint.  There's a tense moment that stretches out for a bit... and then one of the officers shoots.  Bruce goes down.  And there's a low-key, mundane little exchange between the cops: "Why'd you shoot him?  He wasn't moving."  The other, petulantly: "Well, y'know... he was *gonna*."

A world in which that happens, and in which that's normal, is a world that extends far out beyond the frame.  I seriously have to point to The Wire for a better example of implying a whole system out there that's gone corrupt.

And the movie's format (which slavishly follows the graphic novel's format) really helps out with this.  By showing us different vignettes over the course of that year, it can hint at a much larger mosaic that contains all these individual stones.

The verisimilitude of the story also helps -- Year One keeps finding storylines where you know what genre stories always do, and finds another, more realistic direction it can go.  Bruce Wayne catches a kid miscreant who's about to fall off a fire escape.  What happens?  His two small-time-hoodlum buddies start beating on Bruce Wayne.  This feeling of "oh, it went a realistic route" especially applies to the love triangle between Gordon, his wife, and Essen.  Yeah, Gordon would do something stupid.  And then he'd screw up his courage and admit it.  And then he and his wife would find some way to work through that.  This is what grown-ups do.

So again, it feels like a world that goes beyond the frame.

Beyond that, there's not much to say.  Bryan Cranston does amazing work voicing Commissioner Gordon.  The storyline is simple, straightforward, and effective.  There are plenty of situations where Miller strives to set up the manliest possible actions he can imagine.  It finishes exactly where you expect it, with the Joker making his first appearance.

But you sense that, after that conversation ends and the credits roll, things keep going in Gotham.  It's just your one-year window into that world that's ended.

Batman: Under the Red Hood [spoilers]
This is the Warner Brothers adaptation of the story arc of the same name.

This is sort of the opposite of Year One.  That one went broad, using pieces of narratives to construct an across-the-board picture of what Gotham was like when Bruce Wayne first returned to it.  This one goes narrow, using one continuous narrative to focus in on the balance between three characters: Batman, Robin, and the Joker.  Whereas Year One goes into the past of the Gotham that I'm used to, Under the Red Hood looks into the future, where Batman has a head-mounted video recorder and the bad guys apparently have lightsabers.  Year One gives us intimations of Batman's future; Under the Red Hood demonstrates how there's now way for him to get away from his past.

But all in all, I was less impressed with Under the Red Hood than I was in Year One.  The world-building feels much weaker, partly because the format doesn't allow for as much world-building as Year One's did, and partly because it's much harder to construct a futuristic-Gotham from whole cloth than it is to hint at a 1980s version that viewers of a certain age will find familiar.  Both films use CGI, but it feels more tasteful in Year One -- an effective cost-saving measure for depicting cars and trains and the like -- whereas in this one it feels more meretricious and "look at meeee I'm doing CGI!".

And honestly, the central story didn't engage me much.  For the first half, it was run-of-the-mill "a new baddie is in town, and oooooh who is it?"  It's only about halfway in, when we see that it's Jason Todd, that the story really *means* something.  And even then, it never really grabbed me.  I mean, the question of "why doesn't Batman just *kill* the Joker?!" is an obvious one, and as such, it's been (if you'll pardon the pun) done to death.  The big sucker-punch reveal -- that Jason Todd was going to finish off the Joker once and for all, because for some incomprehensible reason, Batman wouldn't -- just made me think, "Oh.  That old chestnut."

Also, there wasn't nearly the voiceover firepower that Year One had.  The most recognizeable name was Neal Patrick Harris, who did bring a fun, impish snarkiness to Nightwing.  However, he sounded a lot like Jensen Ackles, who voiced Todd -- to the point that I spent about the first third of the movie suspecting that Nightwing was also the Red Hood.

I guess I'm lucky that I didn't approach this story as the fans did.  I'm told that killing off Jason Todd was a massive, heart-wrenching, shocker of an event in the DC Universe -- perhaps one of the most significant plot points in the endless history of Batman -- and effectively "rolling it back" in Under the Red Hood felt like a betrayal.  "Ha, ha, you were a fool for caring about this, now we're retconning it so it never happened, SUCKA!"  Instead, I watched all the exposition impassively, as they explained & explained & explained how this didn't actually contradict canon.

So, it was entertaining enough, and it was interesting to see a different take on Gotham and on the kind of stories one tells about it, but Under the Red Hood didn't really move me.

The Dark Knight Rises
As still more research for Fandom, I watched The Dark Knight Rises to prep for our Batman show.[1]

The more I watch genre movies, the more I realize I may just be done with genre movies for the time being.  Specifically, I often get very bored with the villains.  The villains, as characters, rarely make sense to me.  As far as I can tell, these villains wake up in the morning, shower, brush their teeth, look in the mirror, and ask themselves, "How can I use my magical omnipotence today to do the arbitrary things that the screenwriter wants to happen in this world?"

And so it is with Bane.[2]  What does Bane wants?  Ah, well, he has a plan!  A plan that involves, uh, let's see, destroying Gotham, obviously, because of... oh, I don't know, reasons.  And creating a little island nation, and -- what, there was a nuclear bomb he wanted to get hold of?  But really it was just so he could put Bruce Wayne in a prison, so that, I dunno, he could say "neener neener neener, I'm destroying your city, ha ha ha" for a few months?

Look, I'm sure there are explanations -- long, long, wearying explanations -- as to why this makes perfect sense in the DC Universe.  But while watching the movie itself, I just rolled my eyes that I was watching yet another arbitrary villain making our hero jump through arbitrary hoops, as the movie tried to make some muddled point about the 99%, the Occupy movement, and the iniquitous divisions of wealth in modern society.

Meanwhile, I again suspect I'm too old to watch the fighting in genre films.  I keep thinking, "Well, now you've got tinnitus.  And now you'll have three years of physical therapy, and after that, a pronounced limp.  And now you need facial reconstructive surgery, and the other guy has probably broken the smaller bones in his fist."  And yes, for one stretch of the film I did think, "No, backs don't heal like that."

That said, it's still a good movie, and it's still entertaining.  While there was no action set-piece as engrossing as the upturned Mack truck in The Dark Knight (and I frequently wondered aloud why nobody had shot Bane in the head), the action sequences were engaging.  I was happily surprised to see another "fight in variable gravity" sequence (à la Inception) open the film.

The acting was spot-on again.  I could have happily watched a spin-off story about Alfred or John Blake or Commissioner Gordon or Selina Kyle (*swoon*), just because the characters felt so genuine and detailed.  As for Batman himself, I had only two objections.  First, the ending felt 'off' to me.  Yes, it makes sense *structurally* for Bruce Wayne to give up the cowl by the end of the story.  But it didn't feel *earned* to me.  Nothing happened to Bruce that felt like it would undo a lifetime of mental illness and leave him happily cruising the Riviera with Miss Kyle.  Second, I can no longer watch Bale as Batman without flashing back to Abed in Community.

(But that latter point is more just my own personal problem than an objection to the film.)

I guess this brings be back around, one more time to Year One -- I would have happily watched a lot of stories about day-to-day events in this particular version of Gotham -- even the "lawless city-state" version of Gotham.  The overall story -- that of Talia's revenge, and Bane's... whatever he was doing, and Bruce Wayne somehow getting over having to be Batman -- didn't grab me, but I was eager to see everything else that was going on.

I look forward to whatever Christopher Nolan and his increasingly-repertory-like players turn their considerable talents towards next.

Captain America: The First Avenger
This is the film based on the Marvel Comics character, featuring Chris Evans as an American super-soldier who fights Nazis.

To my surprise, the first thing I want to say about this movie is that it doesn't feel superfluous.  Sure, money-wise, it may just be a simple and effective way to capitalize on a known Marvel proprety, in an entertainment environment where superhero films have become economically viable.  Story-wise, it doesn't reinvent... well, much of anything, really.  But this movie knows what it's about.  It knows that what's unique about this property is this 40s-style sense of decency.  And instead of turning around and abandoning that quality, they embrace it -- and in so doing, they make a movie that feels different from other superhero movies.

Sure, the big "wow" shots are probably the ones involving the Tesseract and the fanciful weaponry and the giant fight scenes.  But I think the one that matters is just Steve Rogers in 'sickly wimp' mode, throwing himself on what he thinks is a live grenade, to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.  The depiction of *that* sort of valor engaged me.

Other aspects were less engaging.  Despite another excellent performance from Hugo Weaving, I just didn't care about the Red Skull.  Yeah, world domination, okay, fine.  And yeah, the weird face is a nice gimmick.  But I think I never really relish a villain unless (1) they have a point of view that makes a twisted sort of sense, or (2) they *themselves* relish being villainous.  I wasn't getting either of those from the Red Skull, who wants to take over the world because of, I don't know, reasons, and who goes about it with grim, tiring efficiency.

I felt equally dismissive towards the love story.  Peggy Carter (had to look up the name) makes sense for the story -- sure, she'd be a proper military woman who falls for the Captain due to his basic decency -- but hell, I can't, from the screenplay, describe anything else about Carter, and Hayley Atwell's performance, while it delivers what's on the page with perfect competence, doesn't add anything in beyond that.[3]  Honestly, Steve seems to have a stronger relationship with Sgt. Barnes in this film.[4]

So what this meant is that I was indifferent to a lot of the stuff I was supposed to care about the most.  The big showdown between Captain America and the Red Skull felt a little dull.  The big love story between Captain America and Peggy Carter left me cold.  I took more interest in the secondary characters.

It was neat, seeing how they worked as hard as possible to make it possible to tell everyone on the Captain's team apart while giving them as little dialog as possible.  I also loved Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine character.  Yes, it's kind of hilarious that the story *feels* like it's saying "ooh, we can't offend Germans here with all this Nazi-fighting, so we'll introduce a German character in a sympathetic role".  But Tucci does wonders with the few small speeches he's given, and his situation -- a scientist, having seen the Nazis overrun his homeland, feels he has no choice but to wage war against his own country -- feels interesting, and different, and engaging to me.

The end of the story is a nice twist, and of course necessary so that this film joins up with The Avengers.  But this did lead to that plot disease where the movie *has* to reach some particular ending for logistical reasons, instead of coming to the conclusion that feels natural for that particular story.  So it feels like the plot is being forced into a direction, instead of going there of its own volition.

I mean, consider the basic plot:
Steve Rogers wants to be a soldier.
He's put in a secret program.
They make him a super soldier.
He is used for publicity.
He frees a bunch of soldiers from Hydra.
He destroys all of Hydra's bases.
At the last minute, he stops Hydra's attack on the east coast. 
And finally...
I just don't think anybody looking at that would say, "Oh, well, of course," and finish that list with "And finally, Steve got frozen in a big chunk of ice for seventy years."  Apart from the run-of-the-mill "put a clip from the end at the beginning" gimmick, I don't think anything in this movie even foreshadowed that.  There wasn't thematic, like (say) if the guys had talked about how great it would be to live in a world that they'd saved, and what they were looking forward to coming back to.

So all in all, it wasn't an amazing movie, but it had some lovely little details, and really, there's a lot to be said for a movie having some basic reason to exist in the first place.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
This is the second Sherlock Holmes film from director Guy Ritchie, featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role.

I had low expectations for this film.  The first movie was a brainless action romp that didn't even understand what "the game is afoot" actually means.[5]  I figured that ideally, this one would just retread that, maybe with some fun fistfights along the way.

And I think that's pretty much what I got.  Again, its sense of mystery-solving didn't go much deeper than "Sherlock gets the next batch of clues (shown in trippy ramp-up/ramp-down-o-vision) that gets him to the next venue".  Again, it feels like we're playing "Sherlock Holmes: The NES Game" and plodding forward from level to level to level.

Moriarty got a moment of mild interest -- I like the notion that he sees WWI coming, and only wants to be in place to sell lots of bandages and ordnance when it does[6] -- but generally, Moriarty has always struck me as the ultimate "unearned intelligence" character.  He does whatever random things will make the plot go, everyone around him remarks at how brilliant they are, and ta-da! you've written a character who's a genius.  Again, I see villains as plot devices rather than people.

I felt like this movie did the annoying thing that sequels usually do: it retreads the first film.  The first film, to the extent that it had an emotional storyline, was about Watson feeling annoyed with Holmes, who in turn felt threatened by Watson getting engaged.  The sequel, to the extent that it has an emotional storyline, is about Watson feeling annoyed with Holmes, who in turn feels threatened by Watson getting married.  *sigh*  Okay.

But on the other hand, criticizing A Game of Shadows for not having depth, novelty, or a broad bench of characters is a bit like kicking a dog for not being better at calculus.[7]  Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies are *about* Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law looking awesome in stylish period garb, hinting at teh ghay, visiting fabulous far-flung faux-Victorian locales, and getting in action-movie fights in them.  And the film accomplishes all of these goals admirably.

And there were things to like beyond that.  I like how realistic and lived-in the bitchiness between Holmes and Watson feels.  I *loved* Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, and would happily watch a spin-off about his adventures.  And I loved that Watson is slowly catching onto Holmes's methods, and the climax of the film in fact hinges on his ability to do so successfully.

I take notes as I watch things.  My last note for this movie was, "Leave him dead at the end, you COWARDS."  But of course, they couldn't even *pretend* that Holmes had sacrificed his life to kill Moriarty.  Never mind the emotional weight it would give to the story -- it would be a cash-losing *downer*.  Plus, we need to guarantee to paying audiences that yet another film is in the offing.  *sigh*  This is a cheap world, where nothing really costs anything, and nothing really hurts, and nothing really matters.  Even the apparent death of Irene Adler feels inconsequential.

This is just a couple hours of pleasant Victorian cosplay.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
This is the Edgar Wright adaptation of the Bryan Lee O'Malley comics series, about a twenty-something who has to fight seven evil exes to be with the girl of his dreams.

I spent a lot of this movie thinking, "thank god I didn't date at all in my twenties".  This is probably the wrong moral to take away from this film.  I imagine I'm supposed to find the awkward mistakes of youth endearing, and I'm supposed to relate to the times when, somehow, things go alright and you're just happy.  But instead, this movie was pretty much wall-to-wall cringing recognition -- "Oh GOD that was me at 22" -- and a sigh of relief that I hadn't inflicted that on anybody.  And, at the same time, there's the melancholy of knowing that things never worked out for me, romantically.[8]

So this movie made me feel a bit down, looking back on my own life.

I still liked the movie, though.  (Yay, paradoxes.)  First off, it was a fascinating stylistic exercise.  Edgar Wright borrows continually from the comics format, with split-screens emulating manga-esque panels, with onomatopoeia floating in three-dimensional space, with space twisted and distorted whenever it might suit a comics artist to do so.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but at all times, it's doing something new and unique: you see any five seconds of Scott Pilgrim, you instantly know you're watching Scott Pilgrim.

Fortunately, all the post-production razzle-dazzle is in service of planting you, as firmly as possible, into Scott Pilgrim's head, and viewing his world from his perspective.  (Thus my constant cringing: "Right, *that's* what it's like to be twenty-two.  Oh dear god.")  The constant video-game references did this especially well for me -- the games referenced are mostly those of *my* youth, and I pretty much dropped gaming cold-turkey around age 17.[9]  The world of video games is always locked away somewhere in the early 90s.

As with a lot of movies I watch these days, I find myself more interested in the world they create than in the storyline.  This is ironic, since if a production has *no* plot, it rarely holds my attention for longer than three minutes.  But I loved the little moments that expanded this funhouse-mirror version of Toronto, like the hints at a subspace highway system, or the Vegan Police (who excitedly high-five as they head off to their next call).

And honestly, it never felt like this movie's storyline *went* anywhere -- it felt more like "Scott's an ass, Scott's an ass, Scott's an ass, Scott's an ass, Scott MAGICALLY FIGURES OUT HE SHOULD STOP BEING AN ASS!, Scott's not an ass."  I'd say that Scott Pilgrim *absolutely* needs its "seven evil exes" as an organizing principle, because the journey that Scott goes on doesn't cohere on its own.  But defeating evil exes?  That at least *feels* like progress.

All of that sounds like I'm slamming the movie, and I really don't mean to slam the movie.  It's wonderfully inventive, it's visually *alive*, and it's like I've just had this crazy dream that I was 22 again, only living in Toronto.  I just can't help prodding at any movie's structural bits and tsk-tsking if I find them in any way unsound.

(Side note: I'm really happy to see Kieran Culkin continuing to do good work.  He had a great role in The Mighty in the late-90s, and it's good to see him not disappear into some TMZ nightmare.)

For next time:  I'll catch up on some stuff I've already taken in -- series two of Sherlock, a trade paperback of Queen and Country,  and some old radio-serial episodes of The Shadow.  Hopefully after that I'll move on to working my way through a re-watch of the Harry Potter films.

[1] As it turned out, I kind of botched my preparations -- the show was very heavy on 60s Adam West Batman and Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, neither of which I re-watched for the show.
[2] Whenever I type this, I will always momentarily think "Bain".
[3] Compare this to Tommy Lee Jones, who takes a standard-order "superior officer" character, and tweaks it with his trademark, hangdog, world-weary bemusement.
[4] ... and no doubt fanfic writers are exploring that very thoroughly even now.
[5]  It's "game" as in "animals", and it's "afoot" as in "it's tromping around on all fours".
[6] ... though I'm reminded of the old quote about blackjack: something like, "If you have an eidetic memory, exhaustive patience, and a brilliant deductive mind, you can make money at blackjack.  But if you have those qualities, you surely have easier ways to make money."
[7] I'm paraphrasing one of my favorite Roger Ebert quotes here, from his review of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard.
[8] So basically: "I wish I had dated in my twenties."  I am large, I contain multitudes, etc.
[9] I learned to play guitar, and I suspect my brain decided it didn't have room for *two* hobbies that involved obsessively-repeated finger movements.[9b]
[9b] Yes, add your own joke about sex here.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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