Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)

Bruce and Clark's excellent adventure 

Let's get a minor issue out of the way first: Zack Snyder's latest atrocity is, well, atrocious--basically an adaptation (the fourth if you include Christopher Nolan's trilogy) of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, to the point of quoting images (pearl necklace pulling apart*), lines of dialogue ("I believe you"), entire sequences (the famed faceoff between our eponymous crimefighter and the Big Blue Schoolboy).

*(Pearl necklaces have become such a tired allusion ("yes, I too have read the Batman classic!") that any time I see a string I feel the urge to shove them up where pearls don't shine).    

As source material go Miller's book isn't bad; his vision of an aged Bruce Wayne rising out of retirement to confront an apocalyptic future is wittily drawn and written, with a strangely myopic look--most of the story is told in tiny sixteenth-page panels that reflect the hero's narrow paranoid viewpoint. But Snyder slashes away much of the history between Wayne and Clark Kent, has them meeting here for the first time; when the promised showdown happens (the Man of Steel vs. a two-legged Subaru) it's not the inevitable climax to years of bruised friendship and simmering resentment but a contrived grudge match between two strangers. Without the context Miller so skillfully established, this finale to his masterpiece has the flattened look and feel of a comic book.

Then Snyder shoehorns in the Death of Superman storyline (a more bathetic less skillfully made comic by far) and the whole monstrosity goes swirling down a toilet bowl, shuddering. Dramatically speaking the fight should be between crimefighter and Schoolboy: Snyder spends an hour building up both characters, legends in the DC pantheon, then allows the fight to fizzle out midway--and for what? The chance to trade blows with the world's ugliest fetus, digitally (if not imaginatively) rendered, and blessed with the ability to deliver the occasional thermonuclear fart.

As far as looks go Snyder continues the grey-on-grey scheme he adopted for Man of Steel, ignoring Lynn Varley's voluptuous amber-and-sunset palette. Occasionally he livens up the imagery with a fireball here, a conflagration there, to the point that you'd think every building in Gotham and Metropolis were reduced to rubble, and that rubble set on fire--but there's no modulation much less variation to the grim declamatory style (add to this Snyder's tendency to edit incoherently, and his overuse of grandiose slow-motion to the point of tedium*). Visually as well as emotionally the movie's monochromatic; in stuffing several storylines' worth of tragic events into two and a half hours, it's also unintentionally comic--you feel alternately bored and contemptuous, sometimes both at the same time.

*(But what of John Woo and Sam Peckinpah? The former I submit uses far more imaginative action choreography, captured with coherent camerawork and editing--the slow motion not only clarifies the action but adds a touch of grandeur, of poetry (helps that Woo has something poetic to shoot (Chow Yun Fat's flour-smeared face spattered with blood, for one) not just more artfully arranged concrete rubble; also helps that Woo's sound design is as creative ("Somewhere Over the Rainbow" anyone?)). As for Peckinpah--fuggedaboudit. He marries slow motion to an editing rhythm so distinct Snyder has to stand on tiptoe to touch it with a fingertip)

Of course (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie, which I don't recommend!) even the movie's tragedies are temporary. This being a franchise any death implies eventual resurrection, foreshadowed by the sight of our favorite metahuman in advanced state of desiccation (image courtesy of--you guessed it--The Dark Knight Returns), recovering under the sun's warming rays. By the movie's halfway point you know Clark and Bruce will kiss and make up; by the two-thirds you know Clark's mother will be rescued; by movie's end you know the lightweight villain at the root of it all will be brought--fluttering and twittering--to justice. You know we haven't seen the last of The World's Greatest Super Dullard--he's got at least a dozen more movies to make, billions in boxoffice to rake in; death for him doesn't mean much more than a peaceful nap in a sealed pine box, to be awakened refreshed and renewed next summertime.

But the quality of the latest superhero mashup is as I said a minor issue--more interesting is the fact that the movie is a commercial success, despite all the poor reviews. A turd polished and pushed hard enough will sell, apparently, helped by the Batfans' long-simmering hunger to see Bruce beat the snot out of Clark (however clumsily realized) on the big screen. 

But if that's true of inferior material, what about its opposite? Opening in Manila on the same weekend is Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery), Lav Diaz's four hundred and eighty-five minute Berlin Silver Bear-winning epic about the 1896 Philippine Revolution, featuring fictional characters from Jose Rizal's classic novel El Filibusterismo. A wonderful film (at least I thought so) but at eight long hours the picture was granted only a limited release--an estimated thirty theaters, doing maybe forty screenings. So why are many of the screenings well-attended, some sold out?

Perhaps I'm too cynical, but it must have helped that a major sutdio like ABS-CBN (through Star Cinema) was behind the film's opening in many screens (usually Lav's pictures do well in foreign festivals, then end up playing on only one screen in Manila), and that they promoted the hell out of the film for the past month (Take the Hele challenge!). It helps that historical epics, particularly epics that cover this specific period in our history sell big. Perhaps it also helps that they played the religious angle, proposing an eight-hour film as a penitential act on Black Saturday, the way we spend Holy Week watching King of Kings (168 minutes) or Ben Hur (212 minutes) or The Greatest Story Ever Told (260 minutes) to uh expiate our sins. 

Tacky, I suppose; a demeaning way to promote one of the Philippines' best still-living filmmaker, I suppose--but if it works it works. If big studios can turn one of the most mediocre pictures I'd seen in years into a huge hit, then a local studio turning a forbiddingly long and leisurely paced film into a small success I see as consolation, compensation, payback, whatever. Not the first time this happened in Manila either; Michael Winterbottom's Jude enjoyed good revenues when it was promoted as "the movie where Kate Winslet of Titanic fame bared her buttocks"--people flocked to see the renowned rump, stayed to watch one of the best adaptations of Thomas Hardy in recent years. Crass commerce, sublime cinema; I've yet to see stranger bedfellows.  

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