Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (Sam Liu 2009)

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is a crushing experience to watch as a fan of the work of writer/producer/director Bruce Timm. Timm, along with his various cohorts over the years, went well above and beyond the call of duty with their animated take on the DC Universe since 1992, crafting series that, while designed for children to watch, were crafted with an adult mindset that offered the depth and complexity that the best of DC Comics has provided over the years, due in no small part to focusing on character above everything else. It is a shame then to see Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, the latest in the series of DTV films aimed at an adult audience overseen by Timm, totally abandon this approach and embraces some of the worst tendencies of the comics that these characters originated from.

The premise of Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, based on the comic storyline written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Ed McGuinness, is that Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) has managed to rise to the Presidency and is attempting to hold the superheroes of America responsible to the country as a whole. While various heroes do agree to work for the new administration, two hold outs are Superman (Tim Daly) and Batman (Kevin Conroy), neither whom trusts Luthor. When a giant kryptonite asteroid heads towards Earth, threatening to destroy the planet, Luthor uses this as an opportunity to secure not only his own position of power, but destroy the Man of Steel himself in the process. One quick frame job latter, the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight are on the run, trying to bring down Luthor in the process.

The premise of the film is a solid one, ripe with opportunities to explore the characters and questions about the relationship between citizens and their government. Unfortunately, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies squanders such opportunities, resulting in a 67 minute long series of fight scenes that are barely held together by a poorly written script from Stan Berkowitz, who has written excellent episodes of the Timm produced Batman Beyond and Justice League.

The first major problem with Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is that the film almost exclusively targets an audience familiar with the comics. While the iconic nature of the characters of Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor do allow for some assumption of familiarity on the part of the audience, the film provides little to no detail on the past interactions between characters. Instead, for a film that supposedly is self contained and has no relation to any previous canon, it tries to glide by on having the actors from previous Timm produced series return to these roles. As such, little motivation or reason is given for the way in which characters behave. A key example of this (SPOILERS AHEAD) is Lex Luthor’s addiction to a combination of steroids and kryptonite. What should be a key part of the drama unfolding is given barely any screen time, being introduced late in the film and only as a reason to have Luthor act out in an increasingly insane manner. With a proper amount of time being given to develop this storyline, it might have proven interesting. Instead, it becomes bewildering as to why Lex would suddenly feel a need for drugs.

This shorthand is not only applied to the characters, but the world the film resides in as a whole. As the film starts, we are given a quick series of news broadcasts which cover Luthor’s rise to power, which seemingly results from America descending into a chaotic hell. Never mind the reason why that is though: the film never really explains. The images that are shown as part of this news cast are hilarious in how over the top they are, giving the impression that somehow this world is on the brink of transforming into the hell that the Mad Max trilogy is set in.

Worse, the film often has characters make decisions that are completely illogical just to move the story forward. The situation in which Lex frames Superman is the result of a public call on the part of Luthor to meet with the Man of Steel. For some reason, however, Superman agrees to have this meeting out in the middle of nowhere with nobody around to witness it. While Superman doesn’t need to be written as the hyper intelligent demigod that Grant Morrison portrays the Man of Steel as, Clark Kent is not an idiot who would make such an obviously ridiculous choice.

The most unforgivable failure of the film however is in its political commentary. While, as acknowledged, the film is lean on exploring its core political themes, when it does take a brief moment to do so, all sense of subtlety goes out the window as characters stop to make speeches about the nature of leadership. To call it didactic is an understatement. Furthermore, the commentary itself feels dated, reflecting many of the obvious criticisms made of the Bush administration. I know that the production on the film probably began long before Bush left office, but the nature of the problems facing both America and world has shifted greatly in the past year, and the film seems to be at least three years behind.

There are redeeming futures to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, such as the stellar animation and design, and the cast delivers on their parts just as they have in the past. Such features however do not save the film from being a crushing failure across the board, and serve as a reminder to the failings of the rest of the film.

When all is said and done, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is an oddity in the legacy of Bruce Timm. It will not detract from his success at all, but does bring into question the exact level of involvement he has with these DTV films, and where he was when the script for the film was approved. For fans, I would recommend a viewing, if only to satisfy curiosity, but keep your expectations well within check.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Greetings folks!

Small update on the blog. Hope to have the next review up by tomorrow night. Also, just a reminder: when posting, the message must be approved by me before it will show up on the blog, so worry not if it doesn't seem to work at first.

Take care all!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blue in the Face (Auster and Wang 1995)

Blue in the Face is the kind of film one wants to love while watching it, but at the end of the experience one finds that they can only appreciate the finished work. Blending episodic, improvised scenes with shot on video testimonials from real people from Brooklyn, Blue in the Face is an amusing if not overly insightful attempt to reflect on how a community shapes and is shaped by its own history and culture, and what manages to survive as the times change around such a community.

A sequel of sorts to Wayne Wang’s Smoke from the same year, Blue in the Face has no story, but instead provides a series of sketches surrounding those who find their way into the Cigar shop manned by Auggie (Harvey Keitel). The sketches range from everyday moments of life on the streets, to monologues, and even moments of the fantastic, as one character comes face to face with Jackie Robinson (Keith David). The film is far more jovial in tone compared to Smoke, and in its best moments, Blue in the Face is like a casual get together with some close friends. Nothing much happens, but the environment is warm, pleasant, and comforting.

The downfall of the film is the one that is typical of most episodic films: the ratio of great sketches to weak ones. The opening scene involving a purse snatching that is a simple bit of comic gold built entirely out of the ways in which characters interact and react to a fairly common event. Unfortunately, the more the film moves away from the everyday, the weaker the film becomes. Perhaps the worst offender is the scene involving Jackie Robinson which, while featuring wonderful performances, feels out of place in the world of the film. While I understand both the story and thematic reasons for the scene, the scene is overly staged and artificial, undercutting the sense of grounded reality within the film.

The Robinson story is not the only moment when this becomes a problem however. The film is full of celebrity cameos, which manage to range from inspired to feeling like a marketing gimmick. Jim Jarmusch, for example, appears as a man who has decided to quit smoking and wants to smoke his last cigarette with Auggie. Jarmusch works in the film unlike many others because he feels like he belongs in the neighbourhood of the film, managing to have chemistry with Keitel that allows their interaction to feel natural. Others however have a much harder time blending in. Roseanne for example, appears and quickly drifts into cartoonish behaviour in her performance, as does Lily Tomlin as a homeless woman looking for waffles; Lou Reed, speaking directly to the camera throughout the film, delivers a series of monologues about Brooklyn that only manage to be interesting in any way because it is Lou Reed delivering them, and Madonna manages to show up in a role that clearly had little point other than to work Madonna into the film. With each appearance, these stars manage to detract from the reality of the film and feel like a parade, making one wish that unknowns had been cast in those parts instead.

For all these faults though, I really love the world that both Smoke and Blue in the Face reside in. Laid back, contemplative, and welcoming, it is the kind of cinematic universe one doesn’t mind returning to time and again. I would hope that at some point, the filmmakers would return to the world of these characters, hopefully without the cameos next time.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Drawing a Line: A Problem for Film Fans

(Note: the following is my musings on a topic of interest to myself and current reflections on a recent issue. My goal in this was twofold: get the issue off my chest and to hear the responses of other individuals on the issue)

Let's talk about Roman Polanski for a second. There is no question that the man is a talented filmmaker, and has produced some very important and influential films over his career. Chinatown is one of the best neo-noirs made, and Knife in the Water is a tense masterpiece. As for The Pianist, it is one the best films about World War II made in the past twenty years.

That said, I own none of his work on disc and do my best to avoid it when I can, because the fact is, the man not only committed rape, but refused to pay the price for his crime by fleeing the country.

Yes, I know there are some issues surrounding the victim and the trial that are brought up to defend Polanski, but none of those address the fact that Polanski did commit the crime, and as an adult, should have known better. As great a filmmaker as he was and is, what he has done as a person taints his cinematic legacy. If I need to study his films, fine, but I am certainly not going to go out of my way to watch his work.

But you may ask then, what about John Landis? Didn't a man and children die because of him? Do you not watch his films? From my own research into the topic, I was only able to come to the following answers to those questions: Vic Morrow and two children did died on Landis’ set. The circumstances surrounding that event are murky, with several individuals other than Landis possibly being at fault. Landis was tried along with several others, and found not guilty. Given all of this, I had to decide if I felt comfortable watching Landis’ work, and came to the conclusion that I was.

Considering these two cases, it lays out the problem that film fans can face: how does one draw the line on issues involving the filmmakers themselves, and the viewing of their work? Am I a hypocrite for watching while refusing to watch Polanski films?

At this point, one would perhaps note that the art is separate from the artist, and that the artist should not be taken into account when viewing the art. Perhaps, when considered in strictly artistic terms, this can be the case. The film itself is but a mere object, separate from its creator, and belonging to many more than just one individual, from actors and writers, financial backers and also the audience.

What of the financial considerations in watching a film though? Does the purchase of a ticket or DVD not support the artist through royalties and possible future work? But do those who work on a film that are not the figure of contention deserve to lose out financially because of one man? Perhaps one does blame John Landis for Vic Morrow’s death, but Dan Aykroyd was one of the creators and writers of The Blues Brothers. Is it his fault that Landis may have been the cause of a man’s death, and is it Aykroyd’s fault for working with the man after the fact, especially when Landis was cleared of charges?

The truth is, if one examined the lives of everyone involved in the production of a film and used that as the basis to watch anything at all, chances are no one would watch anything. For example, if one refused to watch anything with someone who used drugs worked on the film, just about every film in existence would be off limits. What if the grip on a film was a murderer? Would their serving or not serving a prison sentence make any difference to the decision one would make towards watching the film? Or does it only matter when it is key talent: the director, the actors, the writers, and the producers?

It is a choice we all have to make and one where there is no real right or wrong answer. The only way I can address it is to try and satisfy myself with what I feel I can live with, as well all do. No more, no less. What one of us may be able to feel comfortable with will not be the same as another. I know of people who refuse to watch John Landis films based on the death of Vic Morrow. Am I a monster in their eyes for watching and owning his work? Not that they have ever said.

The main instigator of this post has been the recent release of Alfonso Cuarón's video for Autism Speaks, a video which I WILL NOT link to. The video is, frankly, a disgusting piece of work that vilifies autistic individuals and supports a group which ignores the very group of people which it claims to represent. It is a work of pure, inaccurate propaganda, a video that, had it appeared in a Paul Verhoeven film would have been considered a parody on special interest group videos. Sadly, it is all too real and meant in all seriousness.

Alfonso Cuarón, like Polanski, is a gifted filmmaker. Children of Men is an amazing bit of cinema, both in terms of storytelling and sheer technical achievement. However, while what Cuaron has done is not illegal, it is something that has the ability to have dire consequences for the people it misrepresents. Thus, I am once again left with a choice: to watch, or not watch, his work, or even give consideration to his work.

Now, I am not autistic, and I am sure as heck not even going to try and claim that I speak those with autism. I am also not calling for a boycott of Cuaron’s work. I do, however, know autistic individuals and know their feelings on the matter. I also know what it would mean to given consideration/money/etc. for his work would mean for myself, personally.

Maybe in a few years something will change. Maybe Cuaron will regret this video and do his best to try and correct this error of judgement. Till such a time however, his work just won't exist for me.

That's his loss and mine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (Harrington 1971)

There is no way a film like Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (Harrington 1971) could ever be made today. Dark, bizarre and filled to the brim with insane and morally questionable characters, Curtis Harrington’s 1971 film could only have been made by American International Pictures. The company, formed in 1956, specialized in lower budget genre films and famously released Roger Corman’s earliest and (arguably) best work. Despite the low budgets and commercial focus of the company, it often produced some surprisingly memorable films, and employed some highly recognizable talent in front of the camera and behind, such as Richard Matheson, Vincent Price and, in the case of this film, Shirley Winters.

Set after World War I, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? stars Winters as Mrs. Forrest, an American woman living in England. Left wealthy by her deceased magician husband, Forrest is mentally unbalanced by the accidental death of her daughter. Forrest’s mental unbalance is made clear in the opening scene of the film, as the audience discovers Forrest singing to the skeletal corpse of her daughter, which she hides in her home. In this state of psychotic guilt and loneliness, Mrs. Forrest employs a medium named Mr. Benton (Ralph Richardson) to hold séances to speak to her daughter.

Each year at Christmas, Mrs. Forrest holds a party for ten orphans, and it is at this point we are introduced to siblings Christopher and Katy (Mark Lester and Chloe Franks). Abandoned and trusting only each other, the siblings promise only to lie to others, a promise which manages to get them into trouble and keeps them off the guest list to Mrs. Forrest’s party. Christopher and Katy instead manage to sneak to Mrs. Forrest’s house on their own, only to be discovered. Rather than being angry, Mrs. Forrest allows the children to stay. However, during another late night séance, Katy enters the room just as Mrs. Winter’s asks for the return of her daughter, crystallizing in her mind the similarities between her lost daughter and Katy. Meanwhile, the imaginative Christopher begins to notice some peculiar activities about the house, prompting his own suspicious of Mrs. Forrest.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is a pitch black comedy with a strong dose of irony. Set after World War I, a war in which the world lost a supposed innocence as a result of the horrors witnessed, the film explores the ways in which individuals cope with loss through fantasy, and how such loss shapes their respective fantasy. Mrs. Forrest, with her husband and daughter dead, desires to preserve a state of childhood innocence and purity she assumes of children, beautifully illustrated in a speech she gives to the orphanage headmistress about why she makes her Christmas parties extravagant. Mrs. Forrest herself is the true innocent of the film, despite her extreme behaviour, desiring to love and be loved in return. The role is a meaty one for Shelly Winters, who manages to play the role at extreme levels without drifting into parody.

In direct opposition to Mrs. Forrest’s fantasy of childhood is Christopher. Hardened by the abandonment of himself and his sister, Christopher has developed a strong distrust of adults and combats them in any way he can, taking steps to ensure the future for him and his sister. In a particularly memorable scene, Christopher steals some of Mrs. Forrest’s diamonds by stuffing them into Katy’s bear, with the goal to sell them as adults should they never be adopted. This distrust of adults results in Christopher filtering everything through the fables he knows, particularly the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” envisioning Mrs. Forrest as a witch.

While Christopher expresses the fear that Mrs. Forrest may eat him, his key fear is the loss of his sister to Mrs. Forrest, who desires to adopt Katy. The battle for Katy thus becomes the battle against loss and loneliness, a demented battle in which both individuals lie and manipulate Katy for their own ends. While emotionally touching, the film never descends into sentimentality as the battle remains one between two individuals who totally misread one another and take extreme action in achieving their ends. I will not spoil the ending of the film, but the reaction of the victor to realizing they may have misunderstood the situation is a wonderful bit of deadpan gold.

The film has a beautifully surreal quality, utilizing the film medium’s ability to be both distanced from the subject of the camera while at the same time being fully brought into their point of view. It is a film of careful observation, as camera angles, music and editing technique are carefully selected to maintain an ironic distance from its subjects without drifting into the over detachment of later horror films such as Scream (Craven 1996), a film so in love with its own ironic cleverness that no level of investment in the characters or situation is possible. The production design helps immensely in this regard, making good use of the period setting to create a heightened reality through its theatricality while managing to maintain a level of authenticity. The film thus takes on the quality of a fable, though a fable for adults.

None of this is to say that the film is a masterpiece of any sort. There have been better films about delusional characters grappling with fantasy that feature more pointed humour, including the earlier film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Aldrich 1962) and the more recent Nurse Betty (LaBute 2000). However, the macabre, bizarre nature of Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is a pleasure to watch. Furthermore, unlike Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? does not feature a terrible performance from Joan Crawford in a lead role. Perhaps had Shelley Winters had starred alongside Betty Davis instead, I might be able to call that film perfect.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Leaving Comments

Hello again!

I just wanted to note something up front about the comment system. All comments first go through an approval system before appearing. This is to cut down on the spam and possible trolls. However, I have no intention of preventing opinions that disagree with my own from appearing on the site. Heck, I want opinions and points of view to challenge mine!

Also, please try and keep cursing to a minimum. I myself am trying to cut back on the cursing and believe we don't need it (at least too often) to make a point.

Lastly, no racial slurs, hate speech, etc, of any kind will be accepted. So don't bother trying.

An Introduction

If you are reading this, you are probably asking yourself a question: why does the internet need another film blog? The answer, my dear reader, is simple: it does not.

I need a film blog.

I currently live in a small town with very limited access to quality video rental stores and theatres. At age 25, I have entered into the teaching job market at a very poor time, and thus live with my parents till I manage to get up and about on my feet. To make some sort of cash, I work part time at store, allowing me to search for work and take interviews with greater ease.

What is most frustrating however is the lack of my fellow film fans and friends around to talk to. With nobody able to have a solid film conversation with, I have been struck with plenty to say and nobody to say it too. The end result has been my trying to hold conversations with family who simply do not care about film the way I do, nor understand why I love film the way I do. As much as I love watching films, I love thinking and discussing film more. It is half the fun.

This blog is thus a form of expressing solely for the sake of expressing my own thoughts and views, with the hopes of getting some feedback and a discussion going. It is not a blog based around reviewing the latest films in theatres (though I am sure I will do that often enough), but exploring whatever films, ideas and concepts interest me at a given moment. Classic films, new films, bad films, great films, whatever, I’m going to write about it.

So stick around, and hopefully you’ll find something of interest on here.