Friday, October 25, 2013

The Invisible Man (1933)

In a few weeks it will be the 80th anniversary of the 1933 theatrical release of Universal Pictures' The Invisible Man.  I just revisited it while crashed out on the couch, wrecked by the cold that finally caught up with me this week.  There's way too much to love about this spectacular movie.  But I'll keep it brief. 

Directed by James Whale, who made history with Mae Clarke and Karloff two years before with Universal's Frankenstein, The Invisible Man was Claude Rains' first American film appearance.  For my money, his turn as an obscure chemist become a deranged freak of science gone awry gives us the most charismatic screen villain of all time.  His maniacal rants, explosive rage and giddy, giggly homicidal sprees foreshadow later iconic villains like Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter and Jack Nicholson's and Heath Ledger's Jokers.  That would be enough to earn Rains a place of honor in the annals of cinematic horror.  But I think that, in a way, his performance surmounts what later actors accomplished.  This is largely due to the fact that he gets it all across with only his voice and a pair of pajamas. 

Rains is Jack Griffin, an unknown laboratory researcher whose dreams of scientific prestige lapse into megalomania as the chemical formula responsible for his invisibility -- his intended legacy -- slowly corrupts his mind.  Dangerously unhinged and desperate for an antidote, Rains radiates sinister intensity, alternating between delusional speeches about ruling the world with invisible armies and hysterical mirth as he cavorts in the nude, running amok, compulsively destroying property and wasting innocents left and right in a slapdash reign of terror.  Rains treads a razor-thin line with stupefying nonchalance.  He's funny but really quite disturbing.

Of course I wasn't there in 1933 to join everyone in seeing it for the first time (oh for another of H.G. Wells' fantastic devices, a time machine!), but 80 years of changing trends and conventions somehow take nothing away from the film's eerie energy.  Even through my crass Netflix looking glass and foggy flu goggles, Rains is mesmerizing and his performance feels fresh and surprising.  And it bears repeating: his portrayal would likely have the same impact in a radio format.  We only see Rains' face in the film's tragic final frame.  Virtually everything remarkable that he brings to the film he accomplishes with his voice.  It's hard to overstate what that says about his sheer magnetism.  You can't take your eyes off him.  And it's hard not to find yourself secretly rooting for him.  Maybe that's just me.

Here's a highlight reel.  But if you like nice things, don't spoil the high points and just watch the whole thing instead:

Fun fact: In the film, Griffins' former mentor, a respected chemist and father of The Invisible Man's perpetually hysterical love interest, is played by Henry Travers, the avuncular, earthbound angel in Frank Capra's 1946 It's a Wonderful Life.  But enough about Christmas.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

I saw Man of Steel last Friday night.  I haven't digested it adequately but I'm happy just to say the following and leave it at that.  There are no overt spoilers below, but I vaguely imply some secret story content.  Fair warning. 

The movie is a testament Hollywood's refinement of the art of making bloated or muddled stories into cinematic experiences so spectacular that they dull your senses and leave you not wanting to think too hard about what you've just been through.  It could just be my starry-eyed infatuation with the character, but I wanted to invest in what was happening.  And I almost did.  There really are some exhilarating and emotionally resonant moments.  The movie is hardly garbage, and that's what ultimately made the experience so frustrating.

However, a catastrophic characterization blunder in the climactic scene and the film's gross weight in every sense ruined what was an otherwise promising reboot.  No one takes these kinds of movies, and this character in particular, more seriously (in every good and bad sense) than I do.  But Man of Steel really makes me doubt whether we haven't finally run the superhero genre into the ground.

The movie buckles under its own excesses: it's too brooding; it's too long; it's (inevitably, these days) too encumbered by CGI; and it makes too many concessions to the dismal century we live in.

Now of course you can "re-imagine" iconic characters like Superman in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons.  Batman, for instance, should keep pace with the world.  The character is made for reinvention.  This is partly because the character is of this world.  He is mortal.  Moreover, he's a tragic character, conceived in senseless violence and essentially belonging to its insane trajectory, destined to ride it right into the grave, even as the symbol he embodies transcends the fate to which the man behind it must be subject.  That's why Christopher Nolan's vision fits so well, why he was the right choice to helm Batman's latest cinematic incarnation, and why he was right to kill the character off at the end (shameful, incredible, perfunctory pandering and ass-covering during the final moments of The Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding).

But Superman's strength consists in being fundamentally different.  As the archetypal "strange visitor from another planet," he is not of this world.  We permit him the moral absolutes that the world as we actually find it won't permit of us.  We can do this because there should be a place for indulging our impossible ideals.  Their impossibility is less poisonous and confounding when it can be given free reign in an escapist fantasy.  An icon that dirties his hands to the extent that Nolan/Snyder's Man of Steel does cannot be the symbol of hope the film sets him up to be.  His uniqueness is lost, which is bad enough, but so is his therapeutic value to people exhausted by moral and spiritual compromise. 

Introduced in 1938, Superman is a creature of the American Century.  To me, anyway, he belongs alongside Norman Rockwell and New Deal civic idealism.  And if "alongside" is too close for comfort, he ought to stay in the neighborhood.

Of course, these are quaint artifacts of a naivety we've supposedly outgrown.  And we can't recapture that time and its way of expressing its guiding ideals.  It's gone and we shouldn't nurture the silly hope of recovering the lost innocence of a pristine, golden age.  That kind of romanticism is unhealthy if anything is.  So I don't mean to suggest that the character of Superman should be reverently preserved.  The plain fact is that changes in how our shared icons are expressed inevitably reflect changes in our own collective self-understanding.  So it's never a question of whether to alter an icon, only a question of how far and why.

But we need untimely heroes in our popular mythology, if only as a counterpoint to the prevailing cynicism and weary resignation of an age of rabid state surveillance, shrill, talking-point politics, class polarization, austerity, child soldiering, drone warfare, and a host of other demoralizing horrors brought home by the daily headlines.  We may have to settle for Weber's iron cage, in the end, but we should not be so eager to allow Nolan's grim, ashen ambiance to colonize every corner of our imagination along the way.  We should resist it, but we need help.  And far from helping to cultivate hope in this enterprise, Man of Steel all but ignores the moral stakes of responding to "terror" and apocalyptic violence in kind.

This is irresponsible.  Of all our modern mythological figures, Superman is perhaps best suited to mobilize a defiant idealism in the face of the world as we find it.  This is so given his star-spangled, insouciant and optimistic origins.  The film abandons these qualities at super-speed, and that's where it misses the mark by the widest margin with the worst consequences for us.

Nolan's Dark Knight films helpfully suggest that our highest and most uncompromising ideals, say those of "truth and justice," may not be able to withstand a careful, realistic accounting.  Maybe The Dark Knight is right to suggest that our world isn't ready for "the hero we deserve," that "the truth isn't good enough--sometimes people deserve more."  Or maybe The Dark Knight Rises is right to suggest instead that the truth should be allowed to "have its day," however ugly and destructive it turns out to be.

The Dark Knight films take these difficult possibilities seriously by showing how much is at stake in the questions they raise.  Batman and Jim Gordon pay a high price for the gut-wrenching decisions they make, and the cost is personal.  They agonize over them long after the deeds are done.  This is because, like real actions undertaken by real people, they have lasting and unpredictable consequences.  Man of Steel ends with a gut-wrenching decision followed by a vacant smile, some cheap laughs and a shrug. 

This review gets a lot of things right.  The movie was indeed joyless.  But this one really nails it, right down to calling out Snyder's utter failure to learn anything from Alan Moore, and hence from the best of the storytelling medium he's cashed in on, not just once (with Watchmen) but, now, twice, with his handling of Superman.

What a disappointment, partly because the film really does get a lot right.  The casting, for instance, was exceptional overall.  But even here there's a fatal flaw: Amy Adams was really uninspiring as Lois Lane, a character with as much potential for dignity, style, humor and brass as any you'll find in our pop culture pantheon.  And her onscreen chemistry with Cavill's Kal-El/Clark Kent rivals this for non-starterdom, which is saying a lot.

There's been a lot of enthusiastic talk about how much Henry Cavill looks the part of Superman.  There's no denying that, and he does fine as the troubled loner and reluctant savior that a lot of modern comics make the character out to be.  It's cool when he punches shit over and over.  And to me it ends up being about as thoughtful and inspiring as that sounds.

I recall Christopher Reeve's remark that, from his point of view, Superman is a pacifist, and I can't help wondering how many tickets you could sell to modern audiences with that approach to the violence and destruction to which the character is inevitably forced.  I don't know what John Q. Public deserves these days, particularly given how happy he seems to be to settle for movies like this.  But at the risk of overusing the reference, I wonder whether Nolan/Snyder's Man of Steel is the Superman we really need, or just the one we think we do.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Batman (1943)

“BAT-MAN, yes BAT-MAN: clad in the sombre costume which has struck terror into the heart of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld!”

My multi-volume VHS copy of this Columbia Pictures chapter play, released eighteen months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, kept me from offing myself throughout middle school.  The Batman mythos was still embryonic only four years after the character’s comic debut.  But this serialized tale, his earliest celluloid incarnation, shoehorns it into the war effort.  The results are mixed, but so are my feelings about everything.

The Dynamic Duo appear as operatives for the U.S. government rather than independent vigilantes.  Their daunting task: to foil a sinister agent of Emperor Hirohito, mad scientist and would-be Japanese Colonel Sanders lookalike “Dr. Daka,” whose evil ministrations reduce high-profile Americans to freakishly strong but mindless playthings christened as “Zombies” in his electronic laboratory.  His ultimate aim: to acquire vast quantities of radium for the construction of an atomic “lethal mechanism so destructive as to make retaliation by [the enemy] impossible,” thereby ensuring his nation’s victory in the war (sound familiar?).

The series is notable in part for introducing story elements that later became iconic.  Most importantly, it was here that the public first encountered “The Bat’s Cave,” Batman’s subterranean headquarters whose secret entrance is Wayne Manor’s grandfather clock.  Prior to these films, Batman housed his vehicles and equipment either in an “underground hangar” never actually depicted in the magazine or comic strip, or in a dusty old barn somewhere on the Wayne estate grounds.

This earliest version of the Batcave is pretty modest, consisting of a small stone room “hewn from the living rock of the mountain,” featuring a single desk, some filing cabinets and a bat emblem mounted on the wall.  This “strange, dimly-lighted, mysteriously secret Bat’s Cave” (quoth the narrator) is basically a study, though in later episodes an adjoining crime lab is revealed.  At any rate, great things have small beginnings.  And it’s better than a damn barn.

Other artifacts from the era have aged more gracefully, but the show has a certain charm.  At any rate, its shortcomings were entirely lost on me after I discovered it on a dusty Suncoast shelf in the mid 90s, so I refuse to acknowledge them now.  And I think the main theme prefigures Danny Elfman’s brooding score for the 1989 film.  I won’t say what nocturnal capers were inspired by my adolescent infatuation with it.  Just know that if you do not watch it, we’re finished.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike (2012)

 So, using internet magic, I digitally borrowed the sequel to that Atlas Shrugged movie that came out in 2011.  Evidently this one, subtitled "The Strike," was released last October.  Who knew?  I guess the AV Club did, because they wrote this in late December:

The irony of Part II’s mere existence is rich enough: The free market is a religion for Rand acolytes, and it emphatically rejected Part I at the height of the Tea Party movement.

The version of the sequel I acquired has Swedish subtitles, which is the part of the story that I found makes the most sense from the point of view of philosophy and economics. The production values approach TV miniseries grade. From an ideological standpoint, it's even more laughably infantile than the first one, which is saying a lot. But it departs from, and improves upon, the first installment in that not all the villains are played by hideously ugly and disheveled actors, though the heroes are still uniformly sexy and well-groomed.

Also in the plus column: the digital effects aren't half as bad as reviewers made them out to be. But the complete casting turnover and the obvious budgetary nosedive in this sequel do draw an awkward amount of attention to how defiled everyone associated with the first film must have felt.

But if you can keep your lunch down, for all its staggering irresponsibility and hilarious inadequacies, there's something almost quaint about this comforting escapist fantasy of entitlement.  Beyond the infomercial ambiance, something about it recalls the bygone smut of a simpler time, when prodigious bush and a hirsute, nude male ass were more then enough to get you sprung.