Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sex and The Swamp Thing

I have new piece over at Tor.com about Alan Moore's legendary run on THE SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING from 1983 to 1987. I really don't think that comix get much better than Moore's work with artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben on this series. Together this creative team turned SWAMP THING from a horror story into a densely layered and emotionally resonant romantic fantasy. Moore expanded Swampy's universe and his mythic meaning. He also gave him a sex life that remains unparalleled in most superhero comix.

I am sure that for some readers this transition was a bridge too far--for some the whole thing must have seemed too trippy, weird, indulgent. And I mean to take nothing away from the work of writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson (both of whom I greatly admire), who created Swamp Thing.

I'm not interested in whether Moore's Swamp Thing is better or worse than the iterations of the character it either succeed or preceded. I'm interested in what he did on his run. I think it ranks among his best work and can stand alongside such acknowledged masterpieces as WATCHMEN and V FOR VENDETTA. Check out the piece "Sex and The Swamp Thing" over at Tor.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ENEMY (2014)

I've been having a good time at the movies over the last few weeks. One of my favorite new films is ENEMY, a kind of slow-boiling surrealist thriller from director Denis Villeneuve, based on the book by Jorge Saramago. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a history professor (the movie never says, but he has that adjunct look to him) named Adam Bell who discovers, quite by accident one day, that he has an exact double walking around. His double (also played, in a bit of seamless moviemaking magic and topflight acting, by Gyllenhaal) is a callow Z-list actor named Anthony Clair.

The plot involving doubles has been done many times, probably to greatest effect in Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE. Kieslowski took "the double" as way to dramatize one of the central tragedies of life--that we have but one life to live. The idea of the double is so strangely haunting because it taps into some fantasy part of ourselves--that "who would I have been if I had been born somewhere else" mind game we sometimes play.

ENEMY is a darker look at this idea, though, because it puts the doubles in opposition to one another. Both Adam and Anthony have reason to want to escape their lives. Adam is depressed, stuck in a job that is just a loop of giving canned lectures to bored students, and stuck in a go-nowhere relationship with the lovely Mary (an excellent Melanie Laurent) that consists of sex and little else. Adam, meanwhile, has a pregnant wife named Helen (an equally excellent Sarah Gadon) who doesn't seem to trust him--in fact, she doesn't even seem to like him very much. We suspect that both Mary and Helen are right to be unhappy with these men. Adam is empty, incapable of joy or any real happiness. And there's something that's too aggressive about Anthony, something too entitled and angry.

One can't help but thinking that Adam and Anthony might, together, form one whole man. Maybe that's the appeal of "the double" plot--the sneaky suspicion that we're all missing something. What if all those questions we ask ourselves in private--Why can't I be smarter? Why can't I be more assertive?--what if those questions could have a physical expression? 

In some ways, ENEMY reminded me of the 1948 HOLLOW TRIUMPH starring Paul Henreid. In that film, an ex-con on the run from the cops stumbles across his double and decides to murder the man and steal his life. ENEMY takes this kind of ridiculous plot and embraces its lunacy by approaching the material with surrealist flair. This is not a "realistic" movie in any sense. There are visions here that appear randomly like something out of David Lynch, or even further back--there's a spider here that reminded me of the "god as spider" vision in Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY. And the final scene of this film, which I would not dare ruin for anyone, made me laugh with unexpected joy at its boldness.

Every movie sets its own rules for an audience. ENEMY requires both a rapt attention and an up-for-anything acceptance. I found those things very easy to provide. This is a great time at the movies. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Captain America

I'm not going to devote much space to writing about CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER because I'm busy with other things. I did love this movie, though. For my money, it's a great popcorn flick--a big, ridiculous, consistently entertaining blockbuster. I wish the modern Hollywood had space for more kinds of films (smaller, smarter, deeper), but if we're going to be saddled with flashy superhero movies for the foreseeable future, then this is the way to do it.

I wrote about Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011.

I also did a piece at Tor about the Ed Brubaker's original Winter Soldier story line in the Captain America comic book series.

Lastly, I want to link to this excellent review of the new film from Michael Burgin at Paste. He pretty much nails it on the head. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NOAH (2014)

I don't know why I wanted to see Darren Aronofsky's version of the Noah's Ark story. Maybe I still had some leftover good will from BLACK SWAN, which I loved. Maybe I just wanted to see that big ass boat and the CGI flood.

What makes it odd for me to see this movie is that I don't like biblical epics. There's just something about them that throws up an especially daunting obstacle, an obvious artificiality that is trying so earnestly to be real. Biblical epics are campy in the worst way. The actors speak in English accents no matter when or where the story is set. They walk around in clothes that always seem too clean and too machine-made. Worst of all, despite their absurdity, the films tend to take themselves too seriously. 

For their core audience, though, this balance of absurdity-to-seriousness is the key component. The biblical epic is to cinema what the Easter passion play at a Baptist church is to live theater--it sucks, sure, but for its audience it's essentially quality-proof. The message matters more than the form.

Yet NOAH is an interesting piece of work. For one thing, it's an adaptation of the story of the flood as found in the book of Genesis rather than a wax museum recreation of events. Aronofsky and his longtime cowriter Ari Hendel use the biblical account as a jumping off place for a fantasy story. (This will be a problem for people who consider the story of Noah to be a literal historical fact that must only be recreated with a certain precision--though since the story in Genesis is little more than a sketch of preposterous events, notions of precision here are subjective.) What the filmmakers have produced here is quite interesting.

Aronofsky's Noah is very much in keeping with the obsessed protagonists of his earlier films, from the math genius gone mad to the ballerina, uh, gone mad. Noah chases his vision of the end of the world, which is rendered in some powerfully effective scenes. The filmmakers also do a fine job of teasing out disturbing elements of the Noah story that rarely get much play. There's a great scene of Noah sitting, cold and silent, among his animals in the dripping ark as his family begs him to let in some of the screaming people being dashed to death by waves outside their doors. In the last third of this film, he becomes the de facto villain of the piece (though the film lamely keeps a real bad guy hidden in a storage compartment for no good reason other than to have a fistfight at the end). Convinced that mankind must die and that only the innocent (the animals) must survive, Noah determines to murder the child of his pregnant daughter-in-law. It's pretty dark stuff, but it seems fitting. Aronofsky's Noah is seized in an "end of mankind" fever--which makes him a perfect protagonist in our eschatological age.

Most biblical movies stink for the simple reason that they tend to be geared toward audiences more interested in biblical fidelity than dramatic impact or cinematic ingenuity. I'm reminded of a something Roger Ebert once said about some Civil War movie--that it was made for people more interested in the Civil War than in movies. That nicely sums up the problem with most biblical movies. The conventional wisdom that "the book is better than the movie" is never more true than for people who consider the book to be the unerring Word Of God. One wonders, then, what the point of the movie could possibly be.

The only reason to make a biblical movie, it seems to me, is to take an ancient story and try to see it with new eyes. Love them or hate them, movies like Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW or Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST were startling interpretations of biblical texts that reframed the central story of Christianity in different ways. (Pasolini used it as a Marxist parable. Scorsese used to to explore the fraught relationship between body and spirit. Gibson cast it in almost psychotically fundamentalist terms.) Say what you will about Aronofsky and his new film--taking the story of Noah and using it to explore our current day obsession with the end of the world is a daring experiment.   

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Maybe I should go back and give William Friedkin another chance. Sometimes you have to warm up to a filmmaker. I came to Friedkin in what I assume is the usual way, through his hits. But I've never been a big fan of either THE EXORCIST or THE FRENCH CONNECTION. It's not that I especially dislike either film, it's just that they didn't leave much of a mark on me. 

A few years ago Friedkin's KILLER JOE did leave a mark on me. It damn near scarred me--which, I gather, was the intention of such a wickedly funny and disturbing piece of work. (Quick side note, KILLER JOE is the movie that should have won Matthew McConaughey his award).

Now that I've finally caught up to Friedkin's little seen 1977 jungle epic SORCERER, I can happily report that it is a masterpiece. It's every bit a Friedkin film--gritty, physical, dark. If you haven't seen it, be on the lookout for it in theaters. Friedkin has recently restored it and brought it back to the big screen with a Blu-Ray release on the way. You don't want to miss it. It's the director at his best. 

It is an adaptation of the novel LA SALAIRE DE LA PEUR by Georges Arnaud, which was previously made into the film THE WAGES OF FEAR by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Friedkin's film is fully his own, though, departing in many ways from the Clouzot film. He begins his story by following three disparate men as their lives fall apart. There's Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a French businessman whose life goes into a tailspin when his business goes bankrupt and his partner/brother-in-law commits suicide. There's Kassem (played by Moroccan actor Amidou), an Arab terrorist who is on the run from the Israeli military for his part in a bombing. And there is Jackie Scanlon (a never-better Roy Scheider), a hood from New Jersey who makes the mistake of trying to rob a church bingo game run by a gangster's brother.

These men all make their way to Porvenir, a nowhere village in the jungles of South America, where they work for an oil company. When a well explodes 200 miles away, the company decides to hire drivers to transport some highly-explosive nitroglycerin across the jungle to put out the resulting well fire.

There is not a boring moment in SORCERER, though the film is deliberate in setting up each of the these plotlines. While most films would have begun in the jungle, Friedkin doesn't even get to the jungle until well into the film. This kind of pace-setting has crucial payoffs because we get to know the men. They don't have "back stories"--they just have stories, each of them, for why he has found himself in this terrible place.

Of course, the big payoff is the epic journey across the jungle and Friedkin doesn't disappoint. In the film's most famous scene, the men attempt to drive their giant sputtering trucks across a crumbling wooden bridge. This scene is picture making of the highest order--visceral and nerve-racking. 

The whole film is a triumph, really. It actually deserves the overused term "existential" because it is a film about survival in its raw state. It's something else, too. From the lush, sweaty cinematography to the weird, off-kilter score, to the note-perfect performances of all of the cast SORCERER achieves the goal of being Pure Cinema. It's the best time I've had at the movies this year. Hell, it's one of the best times I've ever had at a movie.

So, yeah, I guess Hurricane Billy Friedkin is pretty damn great.

PS. Check out this site dedicated to the film. A lot of good stuff here.