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Can Comic Book Movies Be Saved?


After only 27% of Rotten Tomatoes’ critics — ratings are culled from their reviews  — gave favorable nods to Suicide Squad, hardcore fans rose up in protest, thinking that (like Donald Trump) things were rigged against DC’s roster of heroes. After all, DC’s characters are the old school gang, classic figures like Superman, Batman and the Justice League of America

Though it had a 135-million dollar opening weekend (the largest ever in August), the critical pack declared that it was, to quote one review, “terrible with a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing.” Salon’s writer called it “profoundly second-rate at every level of conception and execution.” 

But what was so second rate, the film or its critics? 

Between the two huge companies who own the characters that are the basis for these films, Disney-owned Marvel’s heroes (the ones in the comic books — remember?) has been favored by fans and critics alike. Its heroes, particularly Daredevil, Fantastic Four, the Hulk and even Spider-Man were written as outliers and misfits to American society. They are foreigners to humanity, created by atomic energy, a threat to the body politic. The X-Men are the ultimate outsiders, given that, as mutants, they’re next step in evolution, and depending on the writer, have been stand-ins for racial, religious, and sexual minorities. But hell, In Hollywood, this cast of characters has won the mega-audience lottery. Or so it has seemed.  

While DC is the older company, Marvel entered the cinematic race with a more robust effort; but DC has enjoyed more success on television. That may partially explain why Marvel seems to do it better. Their earlier mistakes have been lost to the past. So is the problem with critical expectations or with the lack of a discriminating fan base? 

For the most part, recent superhero pictures have been based on ensembles since the first X-Men on. Ensembles are great for building franchises but not necessarily for building character profiles. And some of these films have squandered opportunities to craft credible profiles by ladening on too many characters needed to set up future features.

Both Suicide Squad and Guardians of The Galaxy featured less well known characters which, of course, liberated the filmmakers from having the weight of the original stories and hugely familiar characters hanging over their heads. Though the hard core fan base may howl when these films diverge from the print/panel characterizations, it also gave the creators a chance to craft distinct variations — something much harder when that figure is Batman or Spider-Man. However this can backfire with a character like The Joker. In an effort to hype up the film, it seem like Jared Leto was the ultimate Clown Prince of Crime, when, to viewers, he came off like a desperate teen trying to shock his parents — thrown in as an add-on to an already huge cast.

These movies come closer to big-bruiser action films — where heroes shoots their way to victory — rather than to Hamlet. But they can’t just exist to be set pieces built on the presence of a super villain who offers an excuse to create elaborate fight scenes and destructive acts rather than effective plot development. Then it’s “time's up” and a way is found to end the movie.

Recent superhero films demand countless action scenes laden with ultra-violence because of a combination of forces: the needs of the studio’s bottom line; overseas sales to audiences uninterested in complicated characters or dialogue (with de-sexualizing alterations to appease Chinese censors), and appealing to kids (especially post - millennials with the attention span of a gnat) who have enough other media distractions. 

Superhero films are a source for new strategies to sell toys and t-shirts so they don’t have to offer complex personalities and narratives. Who needs originator John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad when all it takes is flashy colors and sexy marketing to sell an action figure?  No need for conventional development if core audiences don't require it. The whole genre has become more visually grandiose while becoming shabbier plot-wise. 

From this vantage point, neither Suicide Squad nor Batman v Superman were as mediocre as critics decreed. Captain America and The Avengers really weren’t that much better but Marvel gets more props because its heroes’ universe is better integrated on screen. The raft of films on both sides of the aisle full bombast with chaotic story lines have too many characters and subplots. 

Besides an occasional flip remark in Suicide Squad or Captain America: Civil War, what do we know about who these characters are other than through scant outlines? In both Deadpool and Antman, humor counter balances endless battles and acts of destruction. But that doesn’t necessarily make for real characterization. When Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool breaks the 4th wall between audience and scenario, critics and fans cheered but were the filmmakers bamboozling audiences to appear smart and clever rather than offer insight into this sociopathic killer? At least the raunchy sex scenes were a nod to Deadpool’s humanity — however perverse that it is.

These films have become more reductionist than ever. Let's rethink the assumption rather serve either fans’ expectations or a millennial’s need for speed. Maybe it’s time we see superhero films where characters fight evil but also worry about bills and affordable healthcare.The assumption is that there's no need to explain what superheroes do in a normal day or what challenges they face when not fending off super villains. When do they go to the bathroom or deal with flatulence?

Is counter programming possible in the age of 200 million dollar budgets? Can we do with less — less characters flying in and out everywhere — and more effort to show who these people are. 

So I suggest a few points of rescue:

  • Turn down the endless character barrage. Let the audience actually get to know the characters they're watching.

  • Alternate world-destroying super - villains with more ordinary but equally vexing criminals. The end of the world loses it's impact when it's the only objective villains have. 

  • Figure out how to make story lines more logical beforehand rather than makes fixes in the editing. Re-shoots only go so far.

Why can’t a superhero film have a plot as engaging as Sicario, or offer a human story like Josh Trank’s Chronicle — a much better superhero film before he made 2015’s Fantastic Four

When will a film give real life to the character and an emotionally rich backstory — not just apply expected superhero tropes?

Maybe it’s up to DC’s Suicide Squad sequel since it has so many rich personalities to really reveal what makes them all so crazy  in the next edition — especially Amanda Waller — and show how to do it better.

September '17 Digital Week IV

Blu-rays of the Week 

The Piano Teacher

One of Austrian master Michael Haneke’s most memorably disturbing dramas, this explosive 2001 character study introduces a repressed middle-aged woman still living with her mother whose masochistic side is displayed when she takes up with a younger man.
Haneke unflinchingly depicts a bizarre but all too real relationship usually kept hidden, and he has a willing partner in Isabelle Huppert, who gives another of her scarily authentic portrayals of women acting unlike most of us. There’s the usual superlative hi-def transfer from Criterion; extras are Huppert’s select-scene commentary, new Huppert and Haneke interviews and on-set footage.
The Flesh
(Cult Epics)
Another of late Italian director Marco Ferreri’s provocations, this 1991 entry centers around a desperate man who falls for a voluptuous beauty and cannot stand to be apart from her intense sexuality; so when she decides to leave him, he ends up stab….
Well, of course anyone who’s seen a Ferreri film knows where this is headed, so there are no surprises—except for the tin-eared use of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and Queen’s “Innuendo”—but Sergio Castellito’s lead performance and Francesca Dellera’s stunning looks keep us interested for 90 minutes. The hi-def transfer is not bad; extras include interviews with the two stars and director.
The Illustrated Man 

Innocent Blood

The Law and Jake Wade
(Warner Archive)
Based on Ray Bradbury stories, 1969’s Illustrated Man is a jumbled farrago of unrelated, supposedly scary tales, but the scariest thing is the tattoos covering Rod Steiger’s body, while Claire Bloom provides a dose of sanity in her too-brief appearance.
John Landis has always been a sledgehammer director, and even in his sporadically entertaining gangster vampire flick, 1992’s Innocent Blood, he can’t help but overdo everything, ruining the odd amusing moment and weird thrill. John Sturges’1958 The Law and Jake Wade is a compact western that pits Richard Widmark’s villain against Robert Taylor’s marshal amid the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. All three films have great new hi-def transfers; Illustrated extra is a vintage featurette.
Rare—Creatures of the Photo Ark
National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore has made it his life’s work to create a “Photo Ark”: a voluminous record of countless endangered and near-extinct wild animals that he’s tracked down in as many zoos, natural preserves, sanctuaries as he can—and even in the wild—and this three-hour, three-part documentary explores both his worldwide quest and the reasons why so many species are disappearing off the face of the planet.
Sartore’s pictures show off these beautiful creatures in their blazingly bright and colorful clarity, especially on Blu-ray.
Taken—Complete 1st Season 


Based on the popular movie (and its unnecessary sequels) with Liam Neeson as a former CIA agent who tracks down his daughter’s kidnapers, this new TV drama provides the backstory of Bryan Mills’ recruitment by a shadowy agency cabal to find international terrorists.
The first season’s 10 episodes are occasionally absorbing and exciting, despite a plethora of plotholes. The fine cast is headed by Clive Standen as Mills and Jennifer Beals as his CIA boss. The series looks exceptional on Blu; lone extra is a making-of featurette.
An air-traffic controller suspended after nearly causing a mid-air collision meets a beautiful young woman who was on one of the planes and tries to explore the significance of the time 2:22 in his subconscious and, soon, his everyday reality.
Michiel Huisman and Teresa Palmer have fine chemistry as the couple thrown together by bizarre circumstance, but they are dragged down by a ridiculous plot that grows more incoherent as it goes along. The hi-def transfer is excellent; extras include three behind-the-scenes featurettes.
DVDs of the Week 

The Stopover

(First Run)
Pop singer turned actress Soko turns in a feisty performance in Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s gritty drama about female French soldiers on their way home from Afghanistan who, while on leave in Cyprus, must deal with horny men—both their compatriots and the Arab locals who don’t often see Western women.
This fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of modern conflict demonstrates how cultural misunderstandings can proliferate among allies and foes alike.
Viva La Liberta
Writer-director Roberto Ando’s blunt political satire might be better appreciated in its homeland of Italy, where the Berlusconi regime is still fresh in the memory, but despite the presence of the great Toni Servillo in the lead—er, leads—as a disgraced politician and his replacement twin brother, the movie wanly attempts to puncture contemporary politics.
A few scattered bulls-eyes don’t compensate for treading such familiar territory without distinguishing itself from predecessors from The Great Dictatorto Dave.

Does "Ismael's Ghosts" Have Any Spirit?


An interesting opportunity for local cinephiles will present itself on October 13th and 14th with two screenings at the New York Film Festival of the director’s preferred cut of the new feature, Ismael’s Ghosts, by the extraordinary Arnaud Desplechin, a favorite of the Film Society of Lincoln Center programmers.

The work explores the chaotic impact of the return of the long lost wife—beautifully played by the luminous Marion Cotillard—of a film director—brilliantly realized by Desplechin axiom, Mathieu Amalric—who is embarking on a production. Her reappearance upends the lives of her father—the legendary New Wave actor, Laszlo Szabbo—as well as the filmmaker’s girlfriend—the remarkable Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a memorable role —while disrupting the new project and exasperating the line producer—Hippolyte Girardot, in a comic turn.

Ismael’s Ghostsis well-served by a terrific supporting cast: Louis Garrel as the director’s diplomat brother and Alba Rohrbacher as his wife, along with appearances by Jacques Nolot and Bruno Todeschini. The filmmaking here is uniformly fine, employing elegant dolly shots as well as liberal use of the handheld camera and dynamically edited. The film lacks the freewheeling hilarity of such comparable efforts as Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale, indicating that for all its splendid qualities, this may well prove to be a minor work in the director’s impressive œuvre.

Off-Broadway Review—Simon Stephens’ “On the Shore of the Wide World”

On the Shore of the Wide World
Written by Simon Stephens; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances through October 8, 2017
Ben Rosenfeld, C.J. Wilson and Tedra Millan in On the Shore of the Wide World (photo: Ahron R. Foster)
Simon Stephens’s ambitious plays include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which daringly got inside an autistic teen’s headspace thanks to Marianne Elliott’s astonishing Tony-winning staging; and Heisenberg, a routine May-September romance between an elderly man and a younger woman whose dullness was saved on Broadway solely by a luminous Mary-Louise Parker. 
In between sits On the Shore of the Wide World, a 2005 effort titled after a line from a John Keats poem, belatedly getting its New York premiere.
Three generations of the Holmes family muddle through their quotidian 21st century existence in the north of England. There are two brothers—teens Alex and Christopher (smitten with Alex’s new girlfriend, Sarah)—their parents Peter and Alice, and Peter’s own father and mother, Ellen and Charlie. 
After one of the brothers is killed in an accident, it sends shock waves through the family, and the bulk of the play deals with coming to grips with that loss by taking tentative steps toward rebuilding their lives and relationships.
The major problem with the play is that these are indistinct characters with muddled motivations and a manner that’s subdued to the point of being somnolent. Maybe Stephens is showing the ultimate British stiff-upper-lip sensibility, but when Peter mentions the death of his son to Susan, the mom-to-be whose house he is renovating, it’s the first time the audience has heard about it and it feels like cheating: why is such a momentous event handled in an “oh by the way” manner, and in a conversation with a relative stranger some weeks after it happened?
By omitting immediate reactions to the biggest dramatic incident in the Holmes family’s lives, Stephens shortchanges both the characters and the play they inhabit, ensuring that everything from that point is greeted with audience skepticism: the playwright is playing untrustworthy games.
Too often the characters are mere chess pieces placed by their author into contrived situations. When grandfather Charlie is rushed to the hospital with a seemingly serious ailment, it ends up being for purposes of obvious dramatic irony as his son Peter comes to visit and confess his lifelong love-hate for his own dad. 
And when Alice meets John, the father of the boy who accidentally killed her son, they embark on an improbable (but platonic!) relationship, replete with delicious home-cooked meals, that exists solely as an inelegant parallel to the equally unconvincing bond between Peter and Susan.
Since there’s little coherence in the story’s strands or emotional resonance in the characters, even a first-rate staging doesn’t help. Director Neil Pepe sensitively paces the action—there are many scenes, some brief, some lingering, in several locales (the canny set design is by Scott Pask)—and gets affecting performances by a mainly American cast whose British accents sometimes waver but whose grasp of these sketchy people feels more lived-in than they deserve.
Blair Brown is a subdued but transfixing Ellen, Peter Maloney his usual ornery self as Charlie, Mary McCann a riveting bundle of raw nerves as Alice, C.J. Wilson a trenchantly expressive Peter, Ben Rosenfeld and Wesley Zurick finely wrought as the brothers, and Tedra Millan just right as Sarah—this, her first stage appearance after she nearly stole Present Laughter from Kevin Kline, confirms her as one of our most promising performers, on and off Broadway.
On the Shore of the Wide World
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY

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