I’ve aired it here before, and if I haven’t I will now: almost every comic book movie bores me to suicidal tendencies. They make zero narrative sense and are the most cynical kind of anti-art — soulless, silly, self-inflated money machines. They’re a cineplex pox.
That said …
A couple of weeks ago auteur Martin Scorsese volunteered his opinion about Marvel comic book movies. Here are his now notorious words, which sparked howls of defensive dialogue, mostly from comic book movie writers and directors (naturally):
“That’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
As one might exclaim in the cartoony Marvel universe: kapow!
Then, yesterday, Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese’s esteemed comrade in canonical ‘70s Hollywood, hurled perhaps a bigger grenade into the controversy:
“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. … I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”
Not enough? Lauded British filmmaker Ken Loach offered his two pence this week about superhero films:
“I find them boring. They’re made as commodities … like hamburgers … It’s about making a commodity which will make profit for a big corporation — they’re a cynical exercise. They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”
(What superhero movies do I like, you might ask? I love “The Dark Knight,” “Logan,” “Iron Man,” “Unbreakable,” and one of the early “Spider-Man” flicks, I can’t remember which one because there’s like 12.)
My niece and nephew, both teens, are watching Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” for the first time. They are in the basement, I am upstairs, web-surfing all things Tokyo. (Godzilla vs. Smaug? I’m in.)
All I hear are dragon shrieks and thunderous fire-belching that rumbles the floor and walls and surely rattles the television, making it shimmy and shake on its spindly base. (Wait. I am later told that Smaug the dragon is not in this “LOT” installment. What then was I hearing? Gollum’s hissy, phlegmy rasp? A bombardment of unbridled Tolkien imagination? Hobbit flatulence?)
I was well into adulthood when this first film in the “LOT” trilogy was released 18 years ago, and by then I wasn’t much for elves and wizards and hobbits. It’s all very childlike to me, which is also why I didn’t do backflips for “Game of Thrones,” though I mostly enjoyed that rollicking, bloody, gleefully nakedy, defiantly impenetrable series.
I grapple with most fantasy archetypes. I can barely do swords. Harry Potter, which arrived awfully late to the tournament of genre clichés, is a baffling bore, an embarrassing ecosystem of such contrived, feebly derivative Halloween, D&D and Renaissance Fair poppycock that my aversion to it is nigh boundless.
Wizards, wands, witchcraft, trolls, potions, flying broomsticks, spells, sorcerers, centaurs — such are the tropes of an impoverished imagination. Such is the desperation of a starved (and benighted) readership and viewership. It is expressly for innocents, naifs, children, the like.
My niece, bless her roving, fecund mind, rabidly adored Harry Potter a few years ago. We don’t speak of it, lest one of us goes bald from mutual hair pulling. I don’t know what she thinks of the Christlike Chosen One now, and I don’t want that information. The kids watch “Lord of the Rings” as I type, and I do not know what they think of it, as they’re in the middle of Middle-earth and all.
I hope they like it. It’s rather good; it’s just, at this late date, not my bag. Gandalf, “my Precious,” the hirsute feet, the Shire, Orcs — I’ve moved on. Yet I endorse it. And I’m not one quick to sanction fantasy flicks.
I think I need more fantasy in my life, despite my allergy to it and most things science fiction. (Exceptions: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); “Solaris” (1972); “Star Wars” (1977); “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977); “Alien” (1979); “Blade Runner” (1982); “The Fly” (1986); “Serenity” (2005); “District 9” (2009); “Moon” (2009); “Ex Machina” (2014).)
Nowadays dystopian scenarios are hijacking the fantasy and sci-fi worlds — from fashionable post-apocalyptica to ever-tedious zombies — with mixed results. Film-wise, dystopian zeniths are the visionary, crazily exhilarating “Mad Max” epics. (Other highlights off the top of my head: “A Clockwork Orange” (1971); “Brazil” (1985); “RoboCop” (1987); “Children of Men” (2006).)
In fiction, fine contemporary classics — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Road,” “Never Let Me Go” — chafe against new mediocrities like Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” which at its best reveals genre fatigue.
I’ll take dragons over such drags. A trio of trainable dragons lit up “Game of Thrones” with awe and grandeur and strange, scaly pathos. Smaug is a juggernaut, a fearsome, fiery Middle-earth monster considered to be the last great dragon of the realm. (Yeah, I had to look that up.)
I may be the sole fan of the crunchy 2002 dragon drama “Reign of Fire,” in which Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale combat a futuristic (totally dystopian) infestation of those winged, fire-spraying dinosaurs. The sheer force of its perverse and pummeling premise — not to mention top-drawer dragon action — dragooned me to full appreciation of this fantasy tale.
And what about comic-book superheroes? “The Dark Knight” (2008) remains an adult-geared masterpiece of mayhem and menace. One or two of the early Spider-Man movies are efficient. I like “Iron Man” (2008) and the profanely spoofy “Kick-Ass” (2010) — both are fast and funny — and, more so, the bleak, ruminative Wolverine installment “Logan” (2017). I have very little use for the rest of it.
From the basement, I hear Howard Shore’s strident, overbearing score, more earth-rattling noise, stadium-fuls of yelling, screaming and bellowing. Drama is happening in “The Lord of the Rings.”
And then: hush. The niece and nephew emerge from Lower-earth to the living room. The spectacle is over. We inquire.
Her: “It was good. I’m excited for the next part. I’m looking forward to the hobbit movies, too. This one is just really long.”
Him: “It’s exciting and there’s tons of fighting. but it’s more than three hours. Still, you don’t get bored.”
Length, damn length. This “LOT” runs a savage three hours and 48 minutes. Fantasy always seems to run interminably long (“Avatar”: two hours, 42 minutes), even when it doesn’t (“Legend”: one hour, 34 minutes). To binge all 73 episodes of “Game of Thrones” would take three days and 16 minutes, enough time for a weekend getaway to Bermuda.
But fantasy and sci-fi are all about girth and sprawl. Poundage of detail and characters, world-building and mythologizing is their very DNA, their showoffy M.O. Glimpse any fantasy novel worth its weight in gibberish; just don’t try and lift it.
Epic, capital E, is the primary aspiration. It’s all about blowing the mind, overwhelming the senses. For this skeptic, this mostly invites chronic eye-glazing. Fantasy does not stir fanaticism. This fanboy might have just become a fan-man.
What’s usually a Christmasy pastime, the year-end best-of list, is happening now, today, amidst the gruesome swelter of mid-summer. Movie best-of’s are mostly tiresome, self-aggrandizing exertions, but they seem worthwhile now because the year has already produced a trove of must-sees, pictures that are, largely, detergents to summer’s franchise flotsam.
So this one-time film critic has compiled a litany of bests, even if it’s strictly provisional. For instance, I haven’t seen — and I’m in no rush to see — “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” I’ve also, with regret, missed “Baby Driver,” “Raw,” “It Comes at Night” and “Graduation.” They’re in my crosshairs.
Meanwhile, from what I have seen, here are the top 10 films from the first half of 2017:
“Maudie” — Richly idiosyncratic and unbearably poignant, Aisling Walsh’s intimate biopic about an arthritic Canadian folk artist (played by an avian Sally Hawkins, who’s so fragile she seems made of twigs) and her unlikely marriage to a brusque fishmonger (the macho Ethan Hawke excelling out of his element as a human cinder block with jelly inside). A miniature about art and love, it’s simple, slow, aching, beautiful. (More about it here.)
“John Wick 2” — Oh. Yes. An explosion of Hong Kong-stylized mayhem, fueled by revenge and the ability to look impeccable while dispatching a fleet of attackers with the elastic, tentacular ease of the guy in “Oldboy” (who did it with just a hammer). Über-assassin John Wick (a simmering, sneering Keanu Reeves) is on another tear, engaging in non-stop, surgically choreographed street fighting and bullet ballets — Astaire and Rogers with knives and Glocks. Exhilaratingly bloody and pornographically suave, this exercise in arms and Armani is about as good as the first one. And, yes, Wick has another dog.
“The Wedding Plan” — After her fiancé abruptly dumps her, 32-year-old Michal, an Orthodox Jew, decides, demands, insists that she is going, God willing, to get married in 30 days — with or without a groom. A series of comic blind dates, goosed by bumbling despair, is a showcase for Jewishrituals and mating rituals, not to mention an array of sparkling performances. An American director would muck it all up with farce and bathos, and despite the rare feel-good sop, the film, by Rama Burshtein, stays true as a serious, delightful peephole into faith, Orthodoxy and the universality of companionship. A find.
“Get Out” — A scathing op-ed about American racism and race relations disguised as a bloody horror-thriller, Jordan Peele‘s ingenious what’s-it follows the relationship of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as it graduates to her bringing him home to meet the ‘rents. Hitch: They don’t know Chris is black. Rose assures her nervous beau that it won’t be an issue. Right. Peele keeps the boat rocking, with discombobulating tonal shifts and shocking reversals, as well as jabs of genre-apt violence. This disturbingly original movie also killed at the box office.
“A Quiet Passion” — A fine-grained Cynthia Nixon, alternately pinched and forthright, is 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in cinema bard Terence Davies‘ lushly elegant biopic of the reclusive writer, who deflects the twin tyrannies of sexism and religion with vocal mutiny and bridling impiety. Far from musty, the movie is an epigrammatic delight. Austenian, even Shakespearean, repartee festoons the crackling script about a bitter, celibate, sequestered genius who considers hers a “minor” life. “I would like some approval before I die,” she says. The world’s response is, well, heartbreaking.
“I Am Not Your Negro” — Raoul Peck’s cool, contemplative doc is based on a manuscript by James Baldwin about the lives and back-to-back assassinations of his close friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (He left the manuscript behind when he died in 1987.) Read by an eerily hushed Samuel L. Jackson, the material, catalyzed by riveting archival footage, traces all that was going down in the heat of the Civil Rights movement. The movie’s timely racial resonance makes it an excellent companion piece to last year’s astonishing “O.J.: Made in America.”
“Personal Shopper” — This offbeat drama is a risky mash of tones and genres, but out-there auteur Olivier Assayas is a daredevil, one of our most fascinating filmmakers, and he achieves wonders. He elevated Kristen Stewart in the entrancing “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and made the callow actress fly. Here she soars. This singular and sometimes freakily supernatural thriller about, yes, a personal shopper, boils down to: Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewart.
“Okja” — A Netflix flick by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”), “Okja” is a weird, witty and wild action-fantasy about a girl and her pig (think “Charlotte’s Web,” with a dash of “King Kong.”) The titular creature is a ginormous swine that looks more like a galumphing hippo. It has floppy elephant ears, nubby teeth and a tongue that flaps like a beach towel. Okja is a soulful pig, playful and protective, like a child’s canine BFF. But that’s where the joy ends. See, she is a genetically engineered “super pig,” bred by an American corporation for her delicious meat. And the company wants her, now. The spunky little girl who raised Okja for years is having none of it. Paul Dano sympathetically plays an animal liberation leader and Tilda Swinton is splendidly venal as the corp head. Jake Gyllenhaal? He’s the best human cartoon you never saw on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” The candy-colored affair is a harrowing, heart-cracking moral tale, whose message is: Free the pig!
“Logan” — Logan’s the non-mutant name Wolverine goes by, so you know heading into this Marvel Comics marvel that fearsome knuckle talons will retract like 12-inch switchblades and baddie flesh will be slashed and perforated. Logan (a ruffled, ripped Hugh Jackman) is in a pissy mood, a worn and torn X-istential hero who’s had it up to here. This is all he needs: A little mutant girl who happens to be blessed (cursed?) with the same weaponized fists — a distaff Wolverine who’s also a murderous wildcat when danger strikes. (Unfortunately, she forgoes Logan’s luxurious facial fur.) Writer-director James Mangold aspires to an impressive hard-R grit and gore and an almost “John Wick”-ian body count (impaling! beheadings!) in this bruising X-Men installment. The complexion is dark, the tenor aggrieved, yet there’s no lack of the bonkers excitement that galvanized “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The story is unencumbered by fussy superhero mythos, focussed more on family and past, with a bold stroke of unexpected sadness. This one’s for the grownups.
10. “Dunkirk” — Certain to go down as the most fulsomely praised picture of the year, Christopher Nolan’s alternately epic and intimate WWII drama isn’t quite as singular or special as you’ve been led to believe. Pity the poor war movie, which has to transcend hoary combat clichés while delivering the bloody, kablammy goods; which has to strive for rigorous tough-mindedness while furnishing the hokey uplift of victory to swelling orchestral strains. Nolan does his best with his mostly gripping, always picturesque telling of the celebrated rescue mission of some half-million Allied troops out of Nazi-surrounded Dunkirk, but convention gets in the way and a you’ve-seen-this-all-before mood settles in. Canned heroics and schmears of sentimentality lard the third act. But Nolan finally prevails for an impeccably staged war rattler of intermittent intensity. Yet let’s not get carried away. Some are calling “Dunkirk” Nolan’s masterpiece. It’s not. Both “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” er, blow it out of the water.
Honorable mentions: “A Ghost Story” — One of the most wildly original films I’ve seen in ages, this elusive drama about a ghost (a touching Casey Affleck, wearing, yes, a sheet with eye holes cut in it) who haunts while mourning for his still-living wife. Shot in dreamlike ultra-long takes and nearly wordless, David Lowery’s challenging, sensitive love story is a vision, and visionary. … “The Big Sick” — Not bad, not spectacular, Kumail Nanjiani’s smile-making rom-com with a dark undertow, featuring a fine Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter, is worth a look, and a chuckle. (More about it at the bottom of this post.)
Overrated: “The Beguiled” — Sofia Coppola’s uneventful snoozefest has the bounding verve of a somnambulist. Its 94-minute run time is a godsend.