Home for the Holidays, or, The Court of Owls

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BAM! BIFF! POW! OWL!

The recent Batman: Noir release (a format presenting seminal Batman stories in black and white inks without any color) of writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion’s The Court of  Owls has proven an excellent opportunity to revisit a story that has cemented its place as a Batman classic despite being less than a decade old.

The new Noir formatting of the story is not exactly the second format I’ve encountered this story in. I read it first as individual comic books, then as a nicer pair of hardcover trades. There’s an excellent version that is just Capullo’s original pencils and, of course, the academic, oversized Absolute Edition. Anytime the opportunity arises I find myself eager to reencounter Snyder and Capullo’s first Batman collaboration in a different light, as I consistently find myself drifting back to the tale once or twice a year. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, which I saw a dozen times in the theater because I was a high schooler on summer vacation and the world was my oyster and time had no meaning, Court of Owls is the Batman story I interact with the most.

But why?

There are plenty of Batman stories I love, but none that I inevitably meander back to with such frequency.

DC Comics already regularly markets The Court of Owls as a Batman essential alongside the likes of Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, but more than perhaps any other Batman story, Court of Owls has the mythological backbone of a near-universal rite of passage.

For those unfamiliar with The Court of Owls, the story concerns a Batman at the height of his prowess discovering an illuminati-like organization that has haunted Gotham’s past and is pulling the strings to manipulate the city’s future. Readers are introduced to a Bruce Wayne who can and does readily wax philosophic about Gotham. It is his city. He knows it to the marrow. He informs the reader of Gotham’s history, of Gotham’s architecture, of its heights and depths, and he does it with the sort of offhanded virtuosity one would provide an oral history of their closest friends and family.

And then he discovers that that knowledge is at best incomplete, and at worst an elaborate façade.

In The Court of Owls, Batman undergoes a rite of passage most, if not all, of us will confront at some point in our lives: the subversion of his perception of home.

Court of Owls challenge Batman by calling into question the structural integrity of what he believe Gotham to be. The worst part? Nothing about Gotham City has actually changed. The threat Bruce Wayne stumbles upon is one that dates back centuries. The adversary he faces is ingrained in Gotham and has been for longer than he ever can be. In grand, mythological fashion, Batman’s undertaking in Court of Owls mirrors the sort of realization that comes with hearing the unabridged, adult version of the history of the town you grew up in, or with returning home after that first semester away from college to find everything so different and so eerily similar. It’s a story about our relationships with home, about how home can define us, betray us and strengthen us, about how even when everything  we think we know about our home suddenly feels false the inherent truths we hold about our home can still ring true.

In Court of Owls, Batman, like each of us, has to contend with those aspects of his relationship with Gotham that are concrete and those that are fluid and the fact that what makes those aspects concrete or fluid may be entirely out of his control. It’s a struggle that is gorgeously rendered by Capullo in the story’s unforgettable middle chapters (originally published as Batman #5 and #6) in which Batman is stalked through his new nemesis’ stalking grounds.

I find myself returning to the Court of Owls time and time again because it so beautifully articulates and examines our relationships with home. It is Batman punching and kicking his way through the internal monologues we have when we return home for the holidays and wander through neighborhoods that suddenly seem so much smaller. It’s a batarang to that weird sensation of finding out some grown-up you knew as a kid is actually an utter jackass, or some mean old lady you rolled your eyes at was a saint. More than an excellent Batman story, the Court of Owls is an excellent human story, one that deals with the horrifying sensation of tectonic plates beneath our parents’ house shifting that we all find ourselves experiencing at one point or another.

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When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong, or, Blade Runner 2049

blade runner 2049

That flea collar though.

Look, I get Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of the Philip K. Dick Novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” is cool, but I’ll be the first to offer an exaggerated eye roll every time I see it at the top of a list of the Greatest Science Fiction Films of All Time. So when it came to the prospect of a sequel thirty-five years in the making, I wasn’t sure what I wanted as an audience member.

Was Blade Runner 2049 going to be a hip and modernized blockbuster take on the world of Rick Deckard and the Replicants, with bombastic effects for the kids and winking allusions to the original film for the fans? Was it going to be a kitschy pair of nostalgia goggles dogmatically adhering to the minutia of a cult classic, unable to see the forest for the trees? Was it going to be a collection of nifty set pieces and action sequences cobbled together with just enough ambiance to justify the name?

Given my lukewarm opinion of the original I wasn’t even sure what I wanted the film to be.

Ultimately, director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is defined by the aspects of Blade Runner it holds dear, for better or worse. For my money, it is almost without exception for the better.

Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that is a true spiritual successor to its predecessor. It doesn’t concern itself with recapturing the glory of Blade Runner’s most iconic scenes and lines. It’s too disciplined a film to get caught in the weeds of nostalgia. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a film desperate to recreate “Tears in Rain” it’s a stylish film on the vanguard of visual effects that meanders through a neon-noir narrative, refusing to indulge the full blockbuster scope of its own implications.

Blade Runner was no blockbuster, fiscally or narratively, and though it has gained a rabid following in the decades since its release, 2049 is careful to remain a sequel to the film that came out in 1982, rather than a response to the sprawling, aggrandized reputation said film has since garnered. It stays true to the noir roots of the original, presenting a science fiction story that hints at infinite scope but never gets too far off of the street. It recreates the lauded aesthetic and art direction established in the original without smothering itself in green screens. Hans Zimmer conjures a convincing enough facsimile of the contemplative, stylish melancholy of Vangelis’ score for the original without just dripping a heaping portion of synthesizers all over the proceedings.

Blade Runner 2049’s reverence for its source material runs far deeper than its most marketable characteristics.

It’s telling then, that where Blade Runner 2049 fell short for me was in its most marketable, bankable facet: Harrison Ford.

Blade Runner 2049 does not get made without Harrison Ford attached. This I understand. And Ford turns in a solid performance. But, where the film’s reverence for its Blade Runner’s sense of style and storytelling is admirable and disciplined, its reverence for its progenitor’s protagonist feels misplaced.

Rick Deckard is not Han Solo. Rick Deckard is not Indiana Jones. Though the character’s introduction in 2049 is given the sense of gravity afforded Han Solo’s “Chewie, we’re home,” the character has never generated that sort of fanfare. Several times the film feels as though it is trying to conjure a sense of “classic Rick” that isn’t really there because Deckard’s place in pop culture is at most concerned with his humanity or artificiality rather than any given character trait.

Blade Runner 2049 is at its best following Ryan Gosling’s K down a meandering existential rabbit hole, and while it’s awesome to see Harrison Ford reprise Rick Deckard, the script allows his character to hijack a film that was doing just fine on its own, rather than enriching it. But of course, an abundance of Harrison Ford isn’t exactly the most compelling complaint in the world.

2049 not only has a respect for its predecessor that is far from a given in sequels, it has the intellect and self-control to elaborate and explore characteristics that run deeper than a marketing campaign can touch. I didn’t expect Blade Runner 2049 to be the film it turned out to be, but I suspected I would like it more than the original and I at least predicted that much accurately.

Unfortunately, much as the the movie-going public of 1982 didn’t real give a shit about Blade Runner. the movie-going public of 2017 didn’t really give a shit about Blade Runner 2049’s disciplined reverence for Blade Runner.

Having been released over a month ago (look I got a lot on my plate), in hindsight Blade Runner 2049’s less-than-stellar commercial reception was perhaps inevitable given that aforementioned adherence to the heart and soul of a film that suffered the same fate, but I suspect that same adherence makes it likely to retain a strong, steadily growing fan base in the years to come.

I for one will be eagerly awaiting Blade Runner 2084.

 

Attack of the Clones, or, Noir Wars

With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story heading into theaters this Thursday evening I may never have a better excuse to write about one the Star Wars prequel films. Not one to let such an enthralling opportunity pass me by, I’m going for it! I’m not a hater. I’m not an apologist. I’m just a chill AF bro chatting about some stuff I found interesting in Episodes I-III. Does that make me a hero? I’ll leave that to history to blog about.

attack-of-the-clones

SIMULATED LENS FLARE ATTACK

If The Phantom Menace is a Shakespearean prologue draped over a Star Wars movie, Attack of the Clones is a Star Wars movie draped over film noir.
The second Star Wars prequel follows a single murder that should be a drop in the galactic bucket (that of Padme Amidala’s body double during an attempted assassination, supposedly at the hands of a disgruntled union) down the rabbit hole to schemes and intrigue of unthinkable proportions. Descending into that rabbit hole are our heroes, the calm and collected Obi-Wan Kenobi and his hotheaded young partner Anakin Skywalker, agents of a corrupted, though not entirely rotten, peace-keeping force.

The Jedi are by no means outright villainous in Attack of the Clones, but there is corruption within the order that runs deeper than being on the take. It’s the kind of philosophical corruption that evolves from being unquestioned and beyond reproach. When Obi-Wan maims a bounty hunter in a bar Anakin declares the situation “Jedi business” and the crowd immediately turns a blind eye. Faced with the prospect of a planet not found in the Jedi archive, Jedi librarian Jocasta Nu dismisses the thought outright. It’s this unquestioned, unchecked authority that leaves Jedi like Anakin Skywalker talking about implied mandates.

When we’re introduced to the Jedi in The Phantom Menace these zen badasses are already relegated to negotiating economic disputes, now they’ve immersed themselves even further into the small picture and are essentially acting as cops. The state of the Jedi Order in Attack of the Clones leaves the characters of Yoda and Mace Windu feeling like Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed, the beleaguered leaders working as best they can with the organization they have, even though they know it should be better than it is.

In characteristically noir fashion, our cops’ investigation ultimately leads them to a crooked cop, or in this case a crooked retired cop – Count Dooku, the fallen Jedi turned secret Sith Lord. Further illustrating the arrogance of the Jedi order, Padme surmises Dooku’s involvement in her attempted assassination like five minutes into the proceedings and is immediately disregarded. But alas the previously unquestionable Jedi are proven wrong. Count Dooku has turned on the Republic and is wielding the Separatist political movement like a red lightsaber.

Count Dooku’s Separatists are replete with the sort of moral ambiguity that is a staple of noir. They are undoubtedly our antagonists, but they’re also side effects of the crippling political gridlock showcased in The Phantom Menace. We learn that Nute Gunray’s crimes in the previous film have gone entirely unpunished and as a result he’s been allowed to commit further crimes, like the attempted assassination that sets the events of Attack of the Clones in motion. Nute Gunray and the Separatists’ ability to achieve what they do is a testament to the righteousness of the cause they cloak themselves in. The Republic is fundamentally broken. The government does not work. For whatever seedier ties the Separatist leadership boasts, the desire to succeed from the bloated, crippled husk of the Republic is rational, prudent even. No one is punished for the Invasion of Naboo and the lives lost because of it. If I’m a Republic citizen and I watch a precedent be set for unchecked aggression against other Republic citizens by an economic entity, I’m looking for an exit. There’s a whole other blog post to be written about Episode II and private interests hijacking the judicious desires of the masses for their own nefarious purposes. The weirdos we see cahooting about on Geonosis may be no good, but the political ideals they claim to represent are beyond reproach.

The Jedi Order proves no better. Anakin Skywalker boasts a similar moral yin and yang. He’s our hero. He saves the day. He slaughters a village of men, women and children in a fit of unchecked rage. In Anakin Skywalker we can see notes of the sort of monstrous protagonists that inhabit William Friedkin’s crime films.

All this ambiguity and mystery takes place in the shadow of war. Unlike the post WWII Los Angeles of many noir films, Star Wars Episode II takes place in the pre-Clone Wars Galactic Republic, but the effect is similar: like the L.A. homicide detective who never stopped being at war when it ended, Anakin Skywalker feels like a man who’s shown up for war before it’s even began.

And if I’m going to get really on the nose about it all, even the lighting is reminiscent of black and white noir film. Padme’s apartment and the Jedi meditation chamber are imprisoned in bars of light and shadow. Kamino, with its brutal fluorescent interiors and harsh gray climate, is basically a black and white planet.

But the noir heart beating at the center of Attack of the Clones is its plot: flawed heroes solving a murder and brushing against something vast and sinister in the process, a larger evil that ultimately eludes them.

Attack of the Clones may not be Blade Runner, but it’s noir elements are unmistakable, and they set Episode II apart from  the other films in the Star Wars saga. Assuming there isn’t a grizzled detective in Rogue One.

The Nice Guys, or, Old Man Noir

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Stylish AF

Director Shane Black’s new film The Nice Guys is the best movie to come out of 2016 thus far. It’s funny, fun, charming and boasts a cinematic duo for the ages in Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

The Nice Guys represents the refined, classy elder statesman every genre should aspire to become.

Fairly recently Steven Spielberg caused a flurry of internet activity by asserting that superhero movies were destined to go the way of the Western. I suspect the comment rubbed some fans of the genre the wrong way because it perhaps implied that it was little more than a fad destined to go extinct.

But the Western isn’t extinct. The genre is far from dead. It’s just older.

Where once Westerns drunkenly paraded through the streets every weekend arm in arm with their dime-a-dozen peers now they rear their heads far more sparingly, maybe at a holiday work function or neighborhood barbecue, with a sense of refinement curated over the decades.

Westerns are no longer an inescapable driving force in cinema like the superhero movies of today, but when a No Country For Old Men or Django Unchained pops up, cinema pays attention.

The same can be said of film noir. And what the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino have done for the Western, Shane Black has done for noir with The Nice Guys.

The Nice Guys is at once acutely aware of both the trappings and stereotypes of noir film and the tastes and temperament of the modern filmgoer. Like Drive or Inherent Vice, The Nice Guys manages to wield a self-awareness of its genre without leaning on parody or nostalgia. It’s an excellent entry in a canon of film that isn’t dead or extinct but, like the Western, just older.

Steven Spielberg is right, obviously. I mean, of course he’s right. That’s what happens to genres. It’s a life cycle. Marvel and DC can plan their films well into 2050, but they aren’t really the ones in charge. One day, with any luck, after an inevitable, embarrassing midlife crisis, the superhero film genre will age with dignity, let its hair grey a little, spend a decade finding itself, and turn out a few quiet, dignified, post-bubble films as good as The Nice Guys.

The Man, or, True Detective Season Two

Just a couple of happy campers.

Just a couple of happy campers.

True Detective’s second season was built on the Shakespearian adage “all the world’s a stage.” Its four protagonists were assigned a part to play long before we the audience ever met them, a role that they can never embody, an impossible ideal of masculinity that dares to be aspired to.

The Man.

True Detective Season Two holds up the myth of masculinity that so often drives the behavior of the modern man and in no uncertain terms shouts “this is not working.”

It’s hardly clearer than when Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro visits his father. Troubled over his difficult relationship with his own son, Ray sits beside his old man, who stews in regret and vice, before the televised black and white alter of Kirk Douglas hocking the masculine Hollywood nonsense that has two generations contorted into impossible poses as they desperately try to fit into a fictional mold they can never match.

Ray’s life becomes defined by a moment in which he pursues vengeance that isn’t his to have, but no person, no culture, no natural law would dare deny him. He commits a sin that knocks his entire existence off course because that is the character he is meant to play. He does what his father would have done, what a Kirk Douglas character would have done, what he is instilling in his son should be done. He does what The Man would do and his entire existence is derailed for it.

Everybody Loves Raymond

Everybody Loves Raymond

Yet despite seeping through generation after broken generation The Man somehow remains undeniable. Paul Woodrugh doggedly clings to the ideal at the expense of his own personal happiness and mental health. He possesses no shortage of evidence that The Man is not a character he can ever be happy portraying and yet he chases the myth like a greyhound after a lure, perpetually behind, sprinting just to keep up. It’s telling that Woodrugh seems most at ease in the moments he is least burdened by having to act his societal part: guns blazing, fighting for his life. Staying alive while outnumbered and outgunned proves a far more possible task for Woodrugh than becoming The Man he thinks he’s supposed to be.

Frank Semyon chases a similar lure, some nebulous, undefined state of achievement that’s only concrete characteristic seems to be that it is consistently beyond his current circumstances. Time and time again Frank has the opportunity to leave well enough alone and settle into a comfortable role, but settling is not what The Man does. The Man does not lie down, he presses on, The Man ascends via whatever cobbled-together means he can concoct.

Womanhood provides Ani Bezzerides no sanctuary from the toxicity of The Man. Her life is spent playing the character that could have saved her from a bleak childhood trauma. She lives every moment as if the next could see her brought back in time to relive the pivotal moment of her girlhood because what happened to her as a child would never have happened to The Man.

One way or another all four characters learn that the role they’re aspiring to does not work. The Man is not a person. The Man is not a human being. The Man is a fiction, a two-dimensional character unattainable beyond the eye of a camera. The Man doesn’t live a complete life. The Man is not fulfilled. The Man is not secure. The Man is make-believe.

The waning moments of True Detective’s season finale are quiet and hopeful. The Man has taken its toll, but there’s an understanding arrived upon. An understanding that The Man is an old way, a fading religion from a dying age, and in the season’s final moments there is the spark of potential for something new.

Though the imminent protagonists of True Detective’s presumed third season likely won’t get the memo.