Monday, December 15, 2008

i left the house twice this week...

Well, I'll be damned. In the past few days, I've seen both "Synecdoche, New York" and "Punisher- War Zone" and I gotta say, I preferred the Punisher movie. Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" certainly has some very sincere and very real things to say about our ("our" meaning each of us, as individuals, but like universally) obsession with death and our ever decaying bodies, but it manages the express this in the least sincere way possible. Like most Kaufman-related projects, it's drenched in a nauseatingly self-impressed cleverness, made all the more unbearable by the fact that it's the most realistic moments in the script that work the best, inspire the most idenification, the most humanity. Is it an intentional ploy to distance the viewer from the material, maybe some kind of subconscious cop-out? I've never before seen a movie about a character (here, Philip Seymour Hoffman as theatre director Caden Cotard, preoccupied, as said, with death and his own gradual decay, unable to provide emotional satisfaction for the women in his life, unable to fully realize his creative vision, self-sabotaging all the way, often feeling like he never changes as everything around him does, realizing everything too late) I could relate to so much that resonated emotionally so little. Of course, I've never really cared for this particular school of post-MTV metamovie by Kaufman and his fellow cleverer-than-thoughs Spike Jonze (get a real name, dick) and Michel Gondry...

That said, I don't really like most comic book movies, either, despite loving comic books. They tend to take themselves too seriously (witness the recent "X-Men" and "Batman" film) or not seriously enough. Some are just plain fucking awful ("Daredevil"). Some are better than others (I enjoy the "Spider-Man" movies more or less, and despite popular opinion I got into Ang Lee's "Hulk" and mostly dug Bryan Singer's "Superman"), but most of them don't really work for me. Comic books are, of course, just different than movies, what you gain in motion by adapting the medium to the big screen, you lose in insight- the literary aspect of comics, the narration and thought balloons, as well as the continuity, the worlds of the comic built over decade upon decade of stories. (Of course, I'm talking about superhero comics here. Indie comics have more-or-less fared better cinematically with flicks like "Ghost World" and "American Splendor," though I found "Art School Confidential" to be quite lame, even the "Flaming Carrot"-inspired superhero parody "Mystery Men" is better than the average superhero flick...)

Comics, superhero comics, and I think this is something that gets lost in the funnybooks these days as well as the films, are also fun. Not big budget movie rollercoast popcorn fun, but fun in their own special way. They're colorful and no matter how seriously we take them, there's always something kind of campy about men and women in costumes who save the world on a regular basis. It's a good kind of campy, it doesn't detract from the artistic merit of the work, when the work has artistic merit, it's just a defining factor of the genre, and the medium. Of course, many writers have used comics to interrogate these generic conventions (Grant Morrison's "Animal Man," Alan Moore's "Watchmen") but some of the best comics just embrace them (most of the stuff Geoff Johns has been doing lately, especially his "Superman" and "JLA" stuff, plus, y'know, most comics from before the mid-1980s). Anyway, back to point, comic book films don't do a good job of striking a balance for me, they're all either too serious, or too silly.

Except Lexi Alexander's "Punisher War Zone," which is silly in just the right way. Basically a high-tech, yet somewhat lo-fi, splatter film, "Punisher War Zone" is more than anything I think I've ever seen (except maybe some animated stuff, "Batman the Animated Series" or "Justice League Unlimited," my two favorite adaptations of comic book characters in other mediums) a cinematic representation of a comic book. Elements of the "Punisher" mythos are adapted quite faithfully, really the changes are minor, but this basically could have been lifted from a 1980s "Punisher" comic. It's hyper kinetic and ultraviolent with some smart but not exceedingly clever touches of tounge-in-cheek humor, from the Punisher's near-Satanic entrance bathed in red flare light to his knock-down, drag-out gouging and biting fight with a psychotic gangster in the delapitated men's room of an abandoned hotel. If you don't mind extremely violent movies (and if you do, why are you reading this blog, unless you're my dad or something, in which case- hi dad!), it's pretty relentlessly entertaining. And if you have some familiarty with, and any kind of affection for, "Punisher" comics (again, I say, of the 1980s, because aside from the recent Matt Fraction-scripted "Punisher War Journal," that's all I know, I never read a Punisher book in the 1990's, and I couldn't get into any of the more recent Garth Ennis stuff, I find his writing, in "Punisher" and other books, far too abrasive and excessive for the sake of being excessive, much like Charlie Kaufman's cleverness for the sake of being clever- what do all these motherfuckers have to prove?), there's an extra bit of satisfaction that, rather than completely re-writing the story and adding some winking references to comics continuity, the filmmakers here actually seem to have some...respect? or something for the source material, or at least they adapt it, not only the story, but the spirit of the material, the tone and style, with really only minor changes to the comics.

I dunno, it's not Antonioni, but it works, it works really well. In some ways, the film and it's devotion to just being consistently over-the-top, reminded me in a positive way of pre-Hollywood John Woo flicks like "The Killer," which, in being trasnlated, is perhaps a bit more sincere and less self-aware, but has the same of kind of aggressive aimability balanced more-or-less perfectly in tune with scene after scene of brutal violence. Oh, and "Punisher War Zone" is violent, almost hilariously so. There's certainly something to be said for the visceral quality of the film, as the Punisher not just shoots and stabs but punches, chokes and stomps every criminal in his path with extreme prejudice. It's occasionally shocking but it never verges on torture porn, perhaps because the auxillary characters are so broadly drawn, and perhaps because the Punisher is played so likably, dare I say, soulfully, by Ray Stevenson.

I guess in a postmodern world you take sincerity where you can get it, which is no doubt why "Punisher War Zone" sat with me so much more comfortably than "Synecdoche, New York." Rather than relying on devices or trickery, the comic book film barrells through with a firm, confindent knowledge of what it is and what it wants to do, and succeeds in doing that with nothing extraneous (in firm opposition to the kind of overblow, everything-and-the-kitchen sink films of Michael Bay, Tony Scott and their ilk), and in that respect, if nothing else is an admirable picture, and fortunately also a very fun one, so that's that, I guess.

Stay negative and keep coming back for more (I initially typed "me" instead of "more," how's that for a Freudian slip?), you bastards...

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