Sunday, November 06, 2022

Good and Bad: Decision to Leave and Black Adam

This was a double feature built out of potential necessity; the work week bled into Saturday and I had no idea how long Decision to Leave would be for theaters and figured I probably ought to see Black Adam both while it was on the fancy screen and before the spoilers escaped containment (though, to be fair, everybody had already figured them out as soon as word got out that there were surprises to be had). So, knock 'em out together, although ideally the times would have lined up so I started with the not-so-great Black Adam and ended on the excellent Decision to Leave.

Is the latest from Park Chan-wook a better movie than the new DC? Yes, obviously. But the why of it is kind of surprising.

First, it's just a delight to look at in a way that the likes of Black Adam generally aren't: It's a noir with bright colors and bold, solid shapes that point the eye at what you need to see after you take a moment to admire how it's all laid out. Compare to Black Adam, which fills the screen but almost randomly, borrowing things from the comics and having a few good ideas but almost throwing them together randomly. Dr. Fate in his helmet and suit on the one hand and Pierce Brosnan on the other are striking in their own ways, but they don't really seem connected. All the ordinary things in Decision seem chosen to work with each other and make a specific impression together; every single element in Adam seems to have been given to a separate effects house, none willing to do something especially bold, with yet another one compositing them together. It's capable, and they're animating cool things, but it's purely functional: DC needs Hawkman and Black Adam in mid-air, that's what they get.

More interesting, in a way, is the ethical universes they live in with regard to their murders. Decision to Leave is a noir and Black Adam is a superhero movie, but there's a solid set of principles at play in the former - as one character puts it, "murder is like smoking". Once you start (again), it's hard to stop, and even small compromises in that direction can destroy a man. Black Adam has Hawkman lecturing the title character about how heroes don't kill, but he never really has an answer to Adam's willingness to use lethal force - which could actually be an interesting thing to drive the film! - and the perspective on this wavers on what's convenient for the story right now. It's a mess, and doesn't lead anywhere by the end. Park gets that for moral ambiguity to matter, morality has to be important, but the guys making the DC movies don't seem to commit to that.

So, yeah, obviously the movie you expect to be better is better. But it's not just because it appeals to more rarefied tastes - in some ways, it targets a mainstream audience better than the blockbuster!

Heojil kyolshim (Decision to Leave)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2022 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Decision to Leave is so good that it's able to take the sort of perfect murder whose explanation would be the brilliant revelation around which a pretty good mystery story is built and use it as a final knife twist. It's kind of fantastic to watch play out, because Park Chan-wook has already spent the last act keeping the audience's interest through a couple rounds of the movie seeming to be over. You can do that, of course, when the film has been so consistently solid; it places the audience in a great place to say what the hell, we'll see where he goes with this.

It starts with detective Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and his partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) tracking down a couple fugitives, but they're soon called to the scene of another incident, where Ki Do-soo (Yoo Seung-mok), an experienced climber, has fallen off a cliff to his death. It could be an accident, but you look at the wife anyway, and while Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) seems like she could have motive - her husband is older and who knows what he demanded so that Chinese refugee could stay in Korea while he was with the Immigration service - she's well-liked and has a solid alibi. But she spots the insomniac Jang watching her - he only returns to his wife in Ipu on the weekends - and seems to welcome his fascination.

It's sort of flirting, really, although unusual in that the language barrier keeps either of them from being really clever with their words; Seo-rae learning Korean from costume dramas apparently has the dialogue not just simple but somewhat anachronistic. Director Park and his cast take advantage of that simplicity to quickly communicate the basics of the story and then invite the audience to watch it play out in the characters' expressions; one almost wonders if he's aware that much of his audience will be watching the film subtitled and wants that quickly digested so one's attention can return to faces and action.

The cast more than makes that a good gamble. Tang Wei plays Seo-rae as maybe not really intending to be a femme fatale but seeming to enjoy seeing how far she can push things when it comes to that. She's able to carry the tragedy that has followed her character, smile a bit as she puts how to get away with things in plain sight, and also seem like she'd be a catch for her dissatisfied pursuer regardless. Park Hae-il makes for a fine complement, casual with what's eating him up, good but fallible enough that his goodness itself doesn't have to be his fatal flaw, and playing well off Tang or anybody else he gets a scene or two with.

All of that good material being right up front makes this movie something that seems surprising: It's a fun thriller without ever crossing the line to where one feels like the case isn't being taken seriously, or where the escalation and reversals become too much to believe. Park regularly hits this sweet spot where the mystery matters, but there are quality comedic bits and earnestly odd characters, plus more crimes to discover, while somehow never crossing a line where one can't continue to feel enough sympathy all around to be ready to watch anything play out without getting detached. He's looking to entertain, but seldom taking shortcuts to make it happen.

On top of that, the movie is gorgeous. A thing about Park and his collaborators is that he often chooses subject matter that one might expect or even remember to be shadowy and dark but he actually shoots them with great clarity and fills the screen with bright colors. He'll lean into the more Hitchcockian moments by getting a little more playful with the camera and having the music go almost-Hermann, but he's not just cribbing; the film has half a dozen shots worth remembering and he seems to take real joy in not just cross-cutting, but showing people in different locations in the same room as they talk. Not running from cell phones and smart watches but not making them the focus seems like a point of pride.

Decision to Leave is a downright great little movie - a cut above most two-person thrillers but easy to recommend to even folks who don't go for art-house floor or Korean intensity.

Black Adam

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2022 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

Man, Jaume Collet-Serra directed this? That's surprising, considering that he's usually good for competent with the occasional flourish, but this is just a mess, all flourish and something like 50% action that is downright terrible about staging, editing, and using the superpowers of the various random C list DC Comics characters the writers apparently drew out of a hat. For how this movie has seemingly been in the works forever and has an interesting nugget or two to build around, it sure feels like something thrown together quickly.

Thousands of years ago, we're told, Qurac was the first city where power concentrated, before even Mesopotamia, but a mad king sought to mine a rare mineral, "Eternium", which led to a brave slave to rebel, eventually given superpowers by the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou). In the present of the DC Universe, historian Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) seeks to find this Champion's tomb before the Intergang forces occupying Qurac do, eventually freeing Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson), who begins fighting them off with lethal force. This gets the attention of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who dispatches a Justice Society team to bring him in: Leader Carter "Hawkman" Hall (Aldis Hodge); mystic Kent Nelson, aka Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan); nanotech-infused "Cyclone" Maxine Hunkel (Quintessa Swindell); and size-changing rookie "Atom Smasher" Al Rothstein (Noah Centineo).

There's the bones of a good movie here, once you scrape away the eagerness to put as much merchandisable or potentially spun-off DC lore in as possible: Adam is more than willing to meet his adverseries at their own murderous level while Hawkman and his team are either too detached from it as a life-and-death struggle or are constrained by how, once you've seen killing someone as a viable solution to a problem once, it may be again. On a meta level, this genre has often struggled with this - how many villains have fallen to their deaths because they spitefully wouldn't take the hero's hand, affirming that evil is self-destructive while leaving no reason to fear being on the bad side of someone with that sort of power? - and there's certainly no end of real-world conflict that inspires that sort of thinking. For all that the story centers the idea that Adam is willing to kill while the likes of Waller and Hall find that dangerous, it never gets into whether their concerns come from recognizing where vigilantism leads or being comfortable at the top of the food chain, and everyone from Adam to Adrianna to the Justice Society shifts their position between caution at where the use of violence may lead to "maybe you're just afraid to do what needs to be done" less because of their recent experiences than because that's what serves the next action beat.

And aside from that, this is the worst kind of superhero drivel in terms of overpopulating the movie with powerful characters who don't feel special, not really hitting a good balance between realism and fantasy, and the uglier "darkness is kewl" tendencies of a certain sort of comic book fan. The filmmakers seem to expect a lot more attachment to some of these characters and their backstories than they bother to foster. The plot is also built around a Macguffin that seems vaguely defined even after someone uses it, also featuring a grab for unearned heft with prophecy and perhaps the world's worst misdirection. It also never connects to Shazam!, despite that misdirection only working if you assume a parallel to Billy Batson.

(Let us also not carp too much about how Adam's tomb is hidden in an easily-accessible cavern with smooth floors and plenty of headroom that a child could have found at any point in the past 5,000 years.)

It goes down smoothly enough in part because these movies are loaded up with overqualified casts. Dwayne Johnson - who has been working to get some version of this off the ground since he would have been credited as "The Rock" - may not have been given a great script but seems to get that Adam is not just driven by rage but is also just smart enough to recognize that the immense powers he's been given de facto makes him sort of the authority he's got such good reason to distrust - his face is worth watching when the script isn't putting dumb jokes in his mouth. Aldis Hodge is a charismatic guy who always feels like he should be a movie star even in secondary and ensemble roles, and that's the case here, while Sarah Shahi does "regular person who doesn't shrink among titans" well. Quintessa Swindell and Noah Centineo are very likable up-and-comers, and for all that Dr. Fate is kind of sketchily defined, Pierce Brosnan makes the character feel like a veteran hero that the actor has been playing for years.

A ton of resources have been thrown at the film, though it doesn't necessarily feel smooth - the action choreography and editing is often shockingly clumsy, and some of the staging looks like it was done with the intention of a stereo conversion that either never happened or didn't get released in the United States. Combine that with a script that never quite hits the right balance between being about Adam and servicing the greater universe, and it's a mess, yet another example of Warner/DC showing that this isn't nearly as easy as Marvel makes it look.

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