Archive for the ‘Good Vs. Evil’ Category

You know why this is showing up here now.  This is here because, try as I might, there was no way I was going to be able to let 2012 pass without any comment on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  That will be up soon enough.

But first, my thoughts on 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, since it was one of the first movies I ever wrote about online.  As far as the public record is concerned, I never have gotten around to writing anything about 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS, though maybe I should.

What follows is a condensed version of two separate posts I wrote on the same movie — you’ll see as you read it how, even in 2008, I was trepidatious about voicing any reservations about such a critical and popular prize-hog.  As some have since found out the hard way, my initial instincts weren’t too far off the mark.

People were in a frenzy over these movies before they even arrived in theaters.  And then things got even worse.

For some reason, while many people seemed to be comparatively lukewarm on BATMAN BEGINS (I loved it, by the way), there are many who seem to take THE DARK KNIGHT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES even more seriously than they do those two presidential elections that happened in 2008 and 2012.  Let’s put it this way:  I’ve never met an “undecided voter” when it comes to Nolan-Batman fans.

Maybe it’s fitting that fearsome madness should erupt around a character who primarily exists as a storytelling prism by which to examine madness and fear.  But he’s also a character whose best stories involve conquering those twin demons, and that, I think, is why he means so much to so many of us.

So these are my opinions about some Batman movies.  That’s all they are.  You can agree or you can disagree.  I’m sure I’ll hear about it either way.

 
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The Dark Knight (2008)

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan.

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Tommy “Tiny” Lister.

About THE DARK KNIGHT, an ocean has been said.  My pontifications may be just another drop in that ocean, but it’s a pretty damn sincere drop.  I love Batman.  Have done ever since I was shinbone-high.  This is a character close to my heart, so what the hell, here it is, my two cents on THE DARK KNIGHT:

Mostly, I totally loved it.  There were a lot of great moments, and when I say great, I mean astounding.  I can’t recommend strongly enough that this one be seen on IMAX, where the full-screen city establishing shots and most of the action sequences reclaim that overused word “awesome”.   And hard as it is to do nowadays, ideally one should go in knowing as little about the plot as possible, because this movie has the power of surprise.  I did as good a job as I could do of blocking out such knowledge prior to the fact, but it wasn’t easy.  The pre-release thunder was deafening.

And it’s great.

But it’s not perfect.

It comes so close.  THE DARK KNIGHT is the most like Icarus of all superhero films; it just almost touches the sun.

We all know by now what’s so incredible and superlative and timeless about this movie – Heath Ledger’s uniquely intense and committed portrayal of the Joker, about which I can write absolutely nothing that hasn’t already been said by more influential writers; the portrayal of Batman by Christian Bale, just as good yet way underrated by comparison; Wally Pfister’s crystal clear cinematography, even more breathtaking when seen on IMAX screens; the deceptively simple, sharp production design by Nathan Crowley; the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard — a marvel of simplicity with its ominous theme for the lead character (that cresting wave of just two notes) and its even more ominous theme for his nemesis (that dirge of just ONE note) — and of course, the overall vision of Christopher Nolan, a director uncommonly interested in big ideas and engaging the widest possible audience with them.

By all rights this should be my favorite comic book movie ever, and in many of its many incredible moments, it almost seizes that title.  But the flaws hold it back, for me.  They are sizable flaws or I would not have honed in on them.  There are three in total.

1. Two-Face coming up out of nearly nowhere.

Everybody noticed this problem; that’s how you know it’s a problem.  The movie did a great job setting up valiant district-attorney Harvey Dent’s rise and fall, but then abruptly fast-forwarded him into the murderous Two-Face in the third act and [spoiler] killed him off.  Why?  Because somebody had to die.  SOMEBODY had to pay for [spoiler] what happened to Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Obviously there was initially a plan to keep the Joker in these movies, so when real life events cruelly made that impossible, it was apparently deemed necessary by the powers that be (whether they be the Nolans or the higher-ups) that the other major villain had to die.  This is part of the weird, hypocritically-puritanical morality of big-budget Hollywood movies.  For some reason, the vast majority of these major comic book movies don’t seem to be narratively satisfied until they have blood; until they kill off a villain at the end.  The Jack Nicholson Joker, the Danny DeVito Penguin, the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin, the James Franco Green Goblin, the Alfred Molina Doctor Octopus, and so on — all killed off, even at the weighty expense of the merchandising opportunities of the future.

So now this new Batman franchise has the terrible conundrum of having killed off a well-developed villain character onscreen, when the remaining well-developed villain character survives onscreen but has been tragically lost offscreen.  (Don’t get me started on how awful that situation is.)  And now the fans are heatedly debating which villain from the fifty-years-stale rogues gallery should be dusted off for the inevitable sequel.

My humble suggestion?

Forget Catwoman.

Forget the Riddler.

Forget the Penguin.

PLEASE forget the Penguin.

Forget them all, and let the Nolans create an entirely new villain.  You know they can do it.  They made Ra’s Al Ghul compelling, and who besides the most devoted fans and the working comics folk remembered him before BATMAN BEGINS?  A new villain is the answer.  The most important character in this series has always been Batman, and the first two movies have been built around him.  The next one should follow suit.

2. The vacuum where a love interest should be.

The other major problem with THE DARK KNIGHT, and I hate to say it because I really have liked her in other movies, is Maggie Gyllenhaal.  The character is what it needs to be, but the performance is a dead zone.  If the smart, sarcastic, lively Maggie Gyllenhaal from STRANGER THAN FICTION had shown up for THE DARK KNIGHT, than there wouldn’t be a problem.  But here she seemed entirely disengaged, apathetic, bored.  I didn’t believe for a minute that both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent would be so into this dull woman, and I didn’t feel her loss to be as tragic as it very much needed to be.  On a narrative level, this movie needs the audience to fall in love with Rachel Dawes so that when we lose her, we understand why it sends Batman on the path he takes at the end.  In that role, neither actress who’s played it has cut the mustard.

Why do these comic book movies have so much trouble finding an equally compelling female lead?  Strong man need strong woman.  Would we care as much about STAR WARS if Carrie Fisher didn’t bring cojones to Princess Leia?  I don’t think so.  Don’t cram a love story into my Batman movie if you can’t make me care about the lady involved.

Without that, no, you don’t have the greatest comic book movie ever.  You have a very good comic book movie, but not The Greatest-Ever Comic Book Movie. That’s hopefully still to come.

Do I have a suggestion?  Yes.  Just off the top of my head:  Michelle Monaghan continues to strike me as an easy answer to a whole lot of problems.

3. The mumbo-jumbo.

This is a tough argument to make, because it’s one of the things I appreciate so much about the Nolan approach to these movies.  These are films built to house expansive ideas, about fear and heroism and governance.  I respect that.  It’s a far nobler thing, in every way, than the standard overheated empty-headed blockbuster.   In a world of TRANSFORMERS movies, I can’t believe I’m about to complain about a movie being too smart.

But it gets to be a little much, I think.  For my tastes, anyway.  There’s SO much talk, so much speechifying.  It’s not as if the terrific action scenes don’t make up for it, of course, but I feel like the movie is weighted down with a lot of weighty talk.  Nowhere is this clearer than the prison barge scene, where the Joker threatens to blow up one of two ferries, one carrying civilians and one carrying inmates.  After several fraught moments of dramatic pauses and much debate, the inmates make the first move to act — but properly.  This is all very well-written and I do get what Nolan is trying to do — to portray the city of Gotham and its people as much as their caped protector.  But, to me, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a long, very talky sequence in the middle of what, at its core, had better be an action movie.

In this movie, everybody’s got a whole lot to say about masks and capes and chaos and order and family and legacy — does anybody else feel like they’re auditing an undergraduate lecture in moral philosophy being given a guy in a Batman costume, or is it just me?

The Dark Knight (2008)

In light of these three not-minor complaints, I quietly suggest that this DARK KNIGHT is not exactly the perfect movie I heard tell of before I went in to see it, that best-of-year, best-of-decade, flawless masterpiece to be raved over for the last couple weeks and onwards until eternity.  It’s a strong B-plus.  It’s a flickering A-minus.  There’s just a little bit of all-the-way excellence missing there.  However: I do still feel that if we are yet to see a perfect Batman movie, Chris Nolan will be the one to deliver it.  This time around though, my eyes, mind, and butt, and the A-plus grade of the movie itself, coulda used about twenty minutes shorn from the run-time.

And I’m going to stop there for now, because we’re on the internet after all. Here on the internet, people get threatened with death, or worse, for writing less offensive sentiments than the simply suggestion that THE DARK KNIGHT may not actually be the be-all and end-all of superhero movies.

Trust me when I say that I do not fear death, but nor do I much see the need to, before my time, invite death over for a chat about politics.

Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

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If you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, then congratulations!  You’ve seen the greatest movie ever.  But even if you’ve seen every Western that Sergio Leone made (which you really ought to), you’ve still only scratched the surface of the vast reserve of wonderfulness that is Italian Westerns.  Another Sergio – surname Corbucci – made some of the best-regarded of those movies.

Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE is about a mute gunslinger nicknamed “Silence” (Jean-Louis Trintignant, maybe not a household name but a terrific actor and still starring in major movies at 82), who tries to help a small community who have been besieged by a band of vicious criminals, led by the cooly genocidal bounty hunter “Loco”, played by the ever-disturbing Klaus Kinski.  Loco collects dead bodies like a hunter collects pelts, while Silence only kills in self-defense – to be fair, he does provoke a lot of dickheads to draw down.  That way it’s legal.  Silence kills bad guys.  Loco is the worst guy.  Inevitably they’re going to meet up.  Sounds like a movie we may have seen a few times before, right?

Not quite.

The main element that drew me to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY when I first saw it, the element that got me into Italian Westerns for life, and the element that THE GREAT SILENCE has in abundance, is the otherworldly quality of it all.  There’s a beautifully weird disconnect that happens when Italian filmmakers use international actors to shoot stories about the American West in (usually) Spain.  THE GREAT SILENCE is one Italian Western that doubles down on the otherworldliness.  The story takes place in Utah, on a wooded frontier blanketed with snow – even the horses have a hell of a time getting anywhere.  The characters are bundled up in layers of animal hides, brown and grey spots in an oppressive blanket of whiteness.  And the score by Ennio Morricone is one of the most haunting you’ll ever hear, even by the haunting standards set by the maestro.

THE GREAT SILENCE will stick in your guts, and that’s good because it leaves you with a few things to think about.  Corbucci wasn’t the most political of Italian-Western directors (that’d be the third Sergio, Sollima), but there is some clear subtext here if you’re interested in looking for it.  It may or may not mean much that the voiceless hero is a Frenchman – maybe Trintignant was just plain the best guy for the job – but I’d say it certainly means something that a blond, blue-eyed German is the monster of the piece, and Loco’s every action in this film bear out that hunch.  His monstrousness is familiar, is all I’m saying.

Moreover, it says plenty that the romantic interest, Pauline the vengeful widow who sets Silence on his collision course with Loco, who is the man who killed her husband, is a black woman – Vonetta McGee, who went on to star in several grindhouse-friendly films including BLACULA,DETROIT 9000, andSHAFT IN AFRICA, and in my well-educated opinion is only second to Claudia Cardinale in the ranks of most beautiful women ever to headline a “spaghetti” Western.  Race isn’t an issue to Silence, who proves his open mind by engaging in probably one of the earliest examples of interracial love scenes on film, but it most certainly is to Loco, who, in addition to his many other crimes, is blatantly racist.  Corbucci couldn’t be drawing the line between good and evil any more clearly, which is why the movie ultimately becomes quite literally a punch in the heart zone.

Non-spoiler warning: THE GREAT SILENCE has probably THE down ending of all time.  I’m not going to get into it, but trust me on this one.  It’s almost unbearably sad, but it’s also resolutely unique and entirely unforgettable.  If you think you can handle the heartache, then I couldn’t recommend this movie any more highly.

THE GREAT SILENCE is screening from Sunday September 9th through Tuesday September 11th at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.  This is the world’s only surviving 35mm print.  If you want to see this movie theatrically, this is the time.

@jonnyabomb

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This little review appeared in different form, elsewhere on the internet, quite a while back.

 

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I saw The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters when it was doing a one-week run at the Nuart, and I laughed my ass off.

 

Literally.

 

I mean, there was only a little bit of ass left back there.  It’s since grown back (with a vengeance), but the fact remains that this is a very, very funny movie.

Long story short:   Just as historic underdogs like Rocky Balboa and Daniel LaRusso had done before him, suburban schoolteacher Steve Wiebe takes on the world when he goes after the recognized champion.  But instead of boxing or karate, Steve’s chosen sport is… competitive Donkey Kong.  Apparently, the world of competitive classic arcade video gaming is very real, and very much still an ongoing realm of controversy, aggression, and spite.  Sure, Steve is a little bit nutty, but by the standards of humanity introduced by this movie, he’s shockingly normal, the kind of generous and likeable all-American everyman you probably know and root for in your own life.

 

Meanwhile, the Donkey Kong world champion is a guy named Billy Mitchell, and he is an absolute douchebag.  I could sit here (on my drastically-reduced-and-since-regrown ass) and at length explain why, but instead I will show you Billy’s picture, which is what you would find in a dictionary if you looked up the word “douchebag.”

 

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Billy seems like the kind of guy who pays for weekend seminars with Frank T.J. Mackey.

I feel like Kevin Bacon would play him in the live-action remake.
But anyway, back to Billy.
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Note the too-tight black jeans, the maroon blouse, the garish tie, the feathered mullet, and the judgemental “you’re an asshole” expression he constantly wears.

 

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See, Gloria knows what I’m talking about.

 

Life isn’t as simple as movies, and it’s probably true that Billy Mitchell is nowhere near as nastily geeky as he comes off in this movie.  It’s true that even a documentary filmmaker can have a heavy bias, and by the very nature of introducing a camera to reality you are never entirely capturing reality anymore.

 

But the fact remains that Billy Mitchell couldn’t come off much worse in The King Of Kong, and pitting him against the underdog Steve Wiebe is very much the archetypal high school movie come to life: popular kid versus new guy in town, although ironically Steve is the jock and Billy is the nerd.  But Billy is also relatively wealthy, with his own hot sauce business, an obedient wife with comically huge breast implants, and the devotion of a small army of King Kong acolytes who hang on Billy’s every sneer.  It is so amazing to watch Billy be such an unrepentant dick, and to watch how all the beta-nerds flock around this mulleted alpha-nerd.  Do these guys have mirrors?

I am forever fascinated by people who have absolutely no self-awareness or self-doubt.  There’s a certain purity to people who have no idea how ridiculous they look or sound, and it’d even be a respectable quality if this kind of insistence on self above all else doesn’t so often lead to wrongness.  You have to be able to laugh at yourselves, folks. No one is right all the time; not even your humble narrator. Well, I swing a more righteous bat than most, but I’ll still cop to being wrong several times a day.  You have to.  Or you don’t, but then you run the risk of being a guy like Billy Mitchell, which means that someone might someday make an unflattering documentary about you.

Also, Billy Mitchell talks about himself in the third person, which is very amazing.

Since The King Of Kong first came out, it has justly grown in reknown as one of the more entertaining documentaries of recent years.  It’s led to a lucrative TV and feature directing career for its director, Seth Gordon, who still periodically suggests that a Hollywood remake is forthcoming.  I think the documentary is great enough on its own, but if they make it, I recommend Kevin Bacon as Billy Mitchell, Jimmy Fallon as Steve Wiebe, and Robert Duvall as Walter Day.

 

This movie is worth searching out.  Trust me.  By the time those credits roll, it’s as satisfying a movie experience as you could hope to see.  I feel like standing up and cheering every time I watch this thing, and I don’t even give a shit about video games.  The best part about it, if the story captures your interest, is knowing that the debate over Donkey Kong world champion still rages on to this day.  Steve and Billy and tons of nerds like them all over the world continue to fight for the all-time high score on Donkey Kong, and every once in a while you will hear brief news stories about who has overtaken who.  Isn’t that somehow reassuring?  The story never entirely ends, and there are still battles to be fought and won.   And so it goes, good versus evil, on and on as we march towards Valhalla.

Talk to me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb