Saturday, May 30, 2015

Give Us Your Worst, Part 26: Tank Girl

Welcome back to the twenty-sixth installment in our never-ending series looking through the back issue bins at some of the least respected, least loved comic book adaptations of all time.

I was in high school the first time I watched this, and I remember thinking it was pointless and idiotic. But that was a long time ago, and I certainly don't trust my memories or taste from that era. Besides, I've seen quite a few defenses of this movie since then, so I decided to see if it was better than I remembered.

I went in with an open mind, which ended up being a big mistake.

The premise is pretty straightforward post-apocalyptic fare. Governments crumbled, the world went crazy, evil corporate stand-ins run what remains of civilizations... you get the idea. Success or failure in this genre almost always comes down to the skill and vision of the director. Six String Samurai managed to deliver something great with one tenth Tank Girl's budget.

Tank Girl is, of course, based on a comic series from the late 80's and early 90's. I've never read an issue, but my understanding is that it's more or less built on punk sensibilities from the era. That's certainly what they tried to put on screen. The titular character is spastic, angry, and rebellious, though it's not actually clear what she's rebelling against or why. That's... pretty much inline with what I remember about the punk movement in the 1990's, actually.

The movie's villain is a ludicrously evil stand-in for the cruel, corporate stereotype once unironically referred to as "The Man." There's no rhyme or reason for his sadism, which is cartoonishly excessive. Oddly enough, there actually isn't any indication the world would be better off without him. If his company is generating water for this civilization, isn't its existence a net positive?

There's no depth or exploration of any of this here. Excluding slave labor, his company is staffed almost exclusively with expendable men in order to remove any lingering moral qualms over their deaths (he employs at least one woman, but he has her killed to demonstrate just how evil he is). Oh, and the men are extremely prone to threatening sexual violence against enslaved women. They're not alone, though: almost every male character - including allies and protagonists - attempts to exploit or sexually assault the two lead women, but when good guys do it, it's played off as clever banter.

I think they somehow wanted this to feel empowering, but it just comes off as exploitative.

A lot of the movie's apologists focus on the fact it's centered around two female characters who exercise agency and push the plot forward. While technically true, it's worth noting that, on their own, they're not particularly effective. Really, the movie's plot is resolved by a half-dozen male mutants, who are all stronger and faster than Tank Girl.

The movie tries to be subversive, but it's not clear what it's trying to subvert. Any environmental or anti-capitalist arguments come off as childish whining: if anything, sitting through this makes me more likely to go buy a bottled water.

Gender stereotypes? Tank Girl is given free range to psychotically kill her enemies without repercussions, a role typically reserved for male action heroes, so there's something to that. But this loses any real impact due to the movie's refusal to take anything seriously. The main character's friends and loved ones are killed before her eyes, and the sequence still plays out comically. She's threatened with rape and assault, but she seems to find the situation amusing. I suspect they were trying to invert the dynamic on who retained power, but the final result feels more like they're making light of these things.

Tonally, the movie is an incoherent mess. It's clearly trying to be surreal and funny, shocking and bizarre. Once or twice, it even succeeds, but the rest of the time it just feels sloppy and immature. The film clearly thinks it's hilarious that bad guys always miss and good guys always hit their targets: I think that joke was dead by the end of the 80's. Instead of coming off as clever, it sucks any tension or suspense out of the fights. When they try wedging in more outlandish gags (i.e.: Tank Girl grilling sausages in the middle of a gun fight), it just falls flat. When cartoon characters pull antics like that, there's pacing and a sense of the absurd. Here, they knew what they wanted to accomplish, but clearly didn't understand how to make it work.

Speaking of cartoons, there are a few short animated bits interspersed throughout the movie which actually are fun to watch, but mostly they beg the question why the whole movie wasn't made that way. There's also a random musical number stuck in the middle of the film as a joke reminiscent of the similar number in The Mask (which came out the year before, by the way). Only it worked in The Mask, and here... it was just embarrassing. Again, they wanted zany but got idiotic.

All of this is despite the two leads, Lori Petty and Naomi Watts, who clearly tried their best to deliver a worthwhile performance. Petty, in particular, attempts to own the twisted tone of the film and make this into something worth watching. If the director, cinematographer, and designers had a fraction of her skill and dedication, I think it could have been a very different movie. The movie had some real talent in front of the camera: it's a shame those behind the scenes squandered it.

Thanks to Petty, Watts, and the animated interludes, this is actually just barely in the better half of the twenty-six movies I've sat through for this series. It's also the second-best theatrically released superhero film with a female lead, right behind Halle Berry's campy Catwoman, but that's only because the other three were abysmally bad.

It'd be easy to say this was an overlong music video masquerading as a movie, but that's not quite right. This wanted to feel like an hour-and-half music video; but frankly, it couldn't pull it off.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

It wasn't that long ago I predicted this would fall somewhere around 45% on the Tomatometer, based on the amount of time that's passed between Beyond Thunderdome and this, as well as the ominous mid-May release date. I assume I don't need to tell you the film's more than doubled that with 98%. That's got to be some kind of record: I can't think of another R-rated 3rd sequel to a sci-fi movie which is that universally respected.

The film is, of course, pretty great. A sort of heavy metal return to classic epic filmmaking. A nuanced blend of a cartoonish setting that inexplicably retains more weight and substance than any recent film I can think of. A movie that trusts its leads to build complex characters through quiet reflection while cars blow up and bodies fly.

A film franchise named for and built around a male power fantasy that turns its attention to a female lead and makes us wonder whether Max was even real.

It's about damn time Theron got a chance to headline a science-fiction action movie that wasn't Aeon Flux. Given solid material, she demonstrates that she's in the absolute top-tier of this generation's action stars. Somebody get her a goddamn comic book franchise or something stat. She is badass in this thing, and yet she retains her humanity.

Hardy was pretty good as a stand in for Gibson, though the character's instability felt more forced. Structurally, his role was almost comic-relief, though that's a misleading description tonally. He was more a catalyst than agent, an innovative direction that served the film well.

The remainder of the human cast was comprised of a fascinating and bizarre assortment of mutants, sociopaths, and fanatics. They had some serious competition from the vehicles, though, which deserve equal billing.

Structurally, the film's plot was more constrained. Really, you're watching a sequence that would have taken maybe twenty minutes of an earlier Mad Max movie stretched into two hours. It never once felt long, though: the decompression allowed them to explore the world's depth rather than its breadth. The film never dwells on the religious, political, or cultural ideas it raises, but wisely weaves these throughout the run time. By the time the end credits roll, you have a broad sense of how these people live and what it means, but it's tough to point to individual sequences and credit them with the insight.

It's a beautiful movie full of action, comedy, and thought. Throw Speed Racer into a blender with Conan: The Barbarian and the previous three Mad Max films, and you'll get a sense of what they were going for here, though I don't really think that covers it.

Obviously, you need to see this on the big screen, if for no other reason than to see for yourself how the hell a 70 year-old director returns to the property that made him famous three decades after his last attempt and pulls off a critical response that would make Pixar envious.

In Australia, apparently making a movie like this is what passes for retirement.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Issue with Age of Ultron

At this point, I think there's more or less a consensus on Age of Ultron. As a collection of action sequences and jokes, it was a lot of fun. But as a cohesive story, it falls flat. That was certainly my take, and - based on a quick glance at the blurbs on Rotten Tomatoes - it seems to reflect what most critics thought.

Since I saw the movie, I've been thinking a lot about where it went wrong, and I've come up with a surprising conclusion. The way I see it, the main problem with Age of Ultron wasn't actually in Age of Ultron. I think it started in Iron Man 3.

Age of Ultron was too busy. It had too many characters and plot points to introduce, and it wound up stuffing two movies' worth of content into a single film. The thing is, they had a lot more than two movies to work with. Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe consisted of five movies (six, counting the upcoming Ant-Man), two seasons of Agents of SHIELD, and mini-seasons of Agent Carter and Daredevil.

Building an interconnected world on this scale requires multi-dimensional story telling. A Marvel movie needs to work as a self-contained chapter, as well as a part (or, in the case of Age of Ultron, a culmination) of one or more larger stories. Ideally, Age of Ultron would have worked on at least three different levels: a stand-alone story about established characters, a conclusion to "Phase Two", and the middle chapter of the Infinity War story. Oh, and might as well wrap up an arc encompassing Phase One and Two.

I'd argue it was a better cap to Phases One and Two than two alone, and it didn't really deliver a satisfying self-contained movie. Whether it works as a chapter in the Infinity War Saga remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have pulled its weight in terms of set-up.

But if they'd played their cards right from the start, I think the studio could have managed it all. They had plenty of space to develop the concepts they wanted to tell without it feeling cramped, but they didn't use their screen time to its fullest.

Iron Man 3 was the biggest missed opportunity. Without changing anything substantial, they could easily have used that film to introduce Ultron as a concept, simply by replacing the small army of AI suits with a small army of AI Ultron units. Change the "House Party" protocol to him activating a swarm of Ultron bots, and you could have set up the concept - and even the character - of Ultron two years before he turned on Tony. The whole Ultron thing wouldn't have felt nearly as rushed, leaving them with more time to expand the twins and Vision.

In their defense, Marvel was making Iron Man 3 before Avengers came out, so they can be forgiven for wanting to hedge their bets on the strengths of their shared universe. The first movie that started production after Avengers's success was Winter Soldier, the one movie in Phase Two that integrated qualities of both the shared universe and stand-alone movies. Based on what we've heard about Phase Three, Winter Soldier is probably going to be the template for stand-alones based off of established Avengers characters.

There was another missed opportunity, and that revolves around Agents of SHIELD. After a rough first season, the series has hit its stride. The episodes are pretty consistently fun, the characters are strong, and the writing is sharp.

This is a good show, but it's kind of wasted. I can understand why Disney didn't want them giving away the Hydra reveal before Winter Soldier came out, but for the life of me I can't fathom why Baron Strucker wasn't the season 2 villain. His bit part in Age of Ultron could have carried some weight if he'd been used in the show. Instead, he came off as an Easter Egg.

There's a lot of potential in Agents of SHIELD: the team clearly has the talent to turn out great work. Marvel should let them play a bigger part in the connected universe.

Phase Three's in a good place, even with the issues at the end of Phase Two. This is all new territory for film, and Marvel is still ahead of the curve. I just hope they learn from their mistakes, because they've certainly made a few.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

There are a couple different ways to look at Age of Ultron: as a movie and as an event. As an event, it was absolutely awesome. Dozens of fight sequences as good as anything we've gotten before, interspersed with snappy dialogue and some of the best new characters we've gotten in a while.

All in all, a fun time for everyone.

Things get a little more complicated if we look at it as a movie. It's still a good movie, mind you. In some ways, it's even a great one.

But the first Avengers was more than a great movie. In decade or so, no one's going to understand why it didn't win best picture; why it wasn't even nominated. They won't understand how critics were so fixated on a specific style of a specific kind of movie that they couldn't realize someone had just elevated an action/comedy to near perfection.

Age of Ultron doesn't hit the same levels, at least not across the board. Its main issue is with pace: simply put, the movie feels rushed. Characters are introduced at breakneck speeds, emotional arcs are shoehorned into unrelated plot points, and complex elements go unexplained. The tone is also wildly uneven: the dark middle clashes with the vibrant start and ending.

I loved this movie, but it's abundantly clear it should have been two films, not one. We needed to build up the twins as characters. We needed to delve into the Avengers as a team, both in terms of what worked and where they clashed. Instead, these ideas were pushed together: the team's internal problems were literally manufactured by the Scarlet Witch's magic. That saves time, but doesn't exactly set us up for a satisfying payoff.

Rumor has it there's an extended edition coming to DVD. Maybe that will correct some of the issues.

Fortunately, those issues don't cancel out the movie's many merits. Everyone's back from part one, of course, but the new faces are even better. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are awesome, but even they can't compete with Vision, who in turn is only the movie's second best character. First place, of course, belongs to Ultron.

The studio might have pushed the director into shoehorning in plot points, but Ultron dialogue is Whedon at his best. The character is menacing, but he's also playful, jubilant, and - for an evil robot bent on exterminating the human race - astonishingly likable.

More importantly, while there's a price to be paid by rapidly building up a universe, there's a benefit, as well. All those toys are in play now. We've got new heroes and a much more interesting world.

Ultimately, this one ranks as my fourth or fifth favorite Marvel movie. It's a hell of a lot of fun, but I can't seriously claim it's as good as either Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, let alone the original Avengers.

But it's definitely worth checking out in the theater. Though that should really go without saying.