Archive for the ‘Superheroes’ Category

Lady In The Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan, the kinda-sorta auteurist filmmaker who rocketed to above-the-title fame with a couple movies only to struggle critically over the tail end of the past decade, has a new movie coming out this summer.  It’s called AFTER EARTH and it stars Will Smith, one of the last dependable movie stars, and his son Jaden.  The movie is a sci-fi epic about a father and son who return to Earth in the deep future, long after the planet has been abandoned by humanity.  I included AFTER EARTH on my list of 2013’s potentially strangest movies, which is totally a dick move on my part.  I mean, how much have I done with MY life to be sitting here taking cheap shots?  At least this guy is out there making movies, and making them with some of the world’s hugest stars.  In my heart, I’m really not a so-called hater.

Quite the contrary in this case, in fact.  I think there’s a particular angst for movie lovers when we start following a talented filmmaker who then makes a severe right turn down the off-roads of unfulfilled or squandered promise.  It happened to me with Kevin Smith, for example, a witty, bold, and perceptive writer who I always hoped would take an interest in learning what to do with a camera, but it turned out he’d rather pursue other interests besides visual storytelling.  By contrast, Shyamalan never had a problem being cinematic, but he certainly grew overly enamored of certain tics that precluded concise and coherent films.  I would have liked to remain a fan, but at a certain point I had to decide that I didn’t want to follow these guys up their own asses.

So here’s a chronicle of me falling in love with another man’s talent, and then rapidly falling out of it.  I wrote most of this piece back in 2008 but unfortunately my mind hasn’t much changed since then.

NOTE: This will not include anything Shyamalan did before THE SIXTH SENSE, because I haven’t seen any of that stuff. I’m most interested in the Shyamalan of self-created myth & legend, the Shyamalan we have come to know in the past decade, the one who – like a young Bruce Wayne in his study who looked up at a bat and gained an instant career direction – looked up at the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK poster in his office and asked himself why he wasn’t making those kind of movies. That is the filmography I will be talking about here.

I also won’t be talking about anything after THE HAPPENING, for reasons that may soon enough become apparent.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) – This one came out of nowhere in the summer of 1999 and blew most people’s minds.  It was a ghost story with the emphasis on story.  The dramatic twist near the end actually deepens the experience, and it doesn’t hurt that it makes you want to re-watch the movie with the twist now in mind.  This is an extremely solid movie about faith and the after-life and how those intersect and overlap. Is it maybe even good enough to one day sit on a shelf alongside another one of the director’s inspirations, THE EXORCIST? That may be going a little far. But it does serve as an answer to the most vehement haters, the ones who, burned by his later films, have rechristened him F. Night Shyamalan:

Anybody wondering why they still allow this guy to make movies should re-watch THE SIXTH SENSE. It was a massive financial success achieved with an actually good movie. The people who make the decisions are no doubt optimistic that one day, this guy will do that again. (So am I, for the record.)

But the movie itself does indeed hold up to revisiting. To prospective screenwriters like myself, I also recommend reading it in script form, if you can track that down, because it’s still just as affecting on the page. This movie is so solid that it has a good performance by Donnie Wahlberg.  That’s directing, son.

The truth is that Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent is very real. Every movie he has made since THE SIXTH SENSE has contained varying degrees of that copious cinematic talent. Key word: “varying.” It’s why his filmography is so frustrating. He wouldn’t be so widely discussed if he wasn’t so capable.

UNBREAKABLE (2000)

UNBREAKABLE (2000) – I loved this one when it was first released. Saw it twice theatrically and a couple more times on DVD. So I hope that earns me enough leeway to suggest that it does not really hold up viscerally eight years later. It’s slow as a turtle attempting to moonwalk. Okay, hang on–

Here’s a rule: You can’t make a movie that’s more boring than real life. You just can’t. It’s why — to take a random and unrelated example — BROKEN FLOWERS was so disappointing to me. No matter how much Bill Murray you pour into a movie, you can’t slow a story down so much that you leave out the space for narrative.

Anyway, that’s why Shyamalan’s “deliberate” pacing falls so often flat. It also plays into the cardinal mistake Shyamalan likes to make of turning lighthearted subject matter — in this case superheroes — into a somber and ponderous suite of melancholy. It’s true that comic books themselves have been doing this for years, and now comic book movies are doing it too, so Shyamalan can’t be entirely faulted there.  In a way, he was ahead of the curve.

On an intellectual level, UNBREAKABLE still works. It’s an interesting approach to the standard superhero/supervillain origin story. I just don’t want to rewatch it ever again. Unless…

You know what would solve all its problems? If the once-rumored sequel were to actually happen. Because as it stands now, UNBREAKABLE feels like the longest first act ever.  I would definitely be curious as to what happens in the second UNBREAKABLE movie if it ever happened, especially since the second act is traditionally where the majority of the actual story takes place.  UNBREAKABLE doesn’t add up to much without its MR. GLASS STRIKES BACK.

Signs (2002)

SIGNS (2002) – Forget the fact that it’s kind of impossible to look at Mel Gibson anymore without off-the-screen baggage.  He’s fine in the movie, really.  It’s the movie itself that’s the problem.  This is where the storytelling problems infecting Shyamalan’s arsenal start to rear up violently. Shyamalan’s technical skill is still crazy-impressive – every scene where those aliens appear (or don’t) is freaky and great.

It’s the other stuff that just plain doesn’t add up in a coherent way — first and foremost that ending — and there’s been enough cyber-ink spilled on the subject for me to not bother to add to it. But the movie still made tons of money, and enough people still inexplicably say they like it, which is no doubt precisely how the first out-and-out blunder came to pass.

The Village (2004)

THE VILLAGE (2004) – Or as I call it affectionately: Cinematic blue-balls.

There’s nothing wrong with the original premise – colonial village is surrounded on all sides by a thick forest and maintaining an uneasy truce with the horrible monsters who live there – in fact that’s a great goddamn premise! And the way those red-cloaked spiny creatures are set up is chilling. Even knowing how things turned out, I still get chills thinking of their first couple appearances in the movie, and trust me, I don’t scare easy at movies. The first half of THE VILLAGE does the tough part and brings the fear.

So why completely subvert it for a corny twist ending? I’ll tell you how I figured out the twist after the first five minutes of the movie: “Okay, colonial village, bunch of musty old white people, how are they going to work in a role for the director, a modern-sounding East Indian guy, AHA! – it’s actually set in the present day!” And sure enough, there he was, and so it was. Sorry to ruin the movie, but you’d be a lot happier if you turned it off at the hour-mark anyway.

Lady in the Water (2006)

LADY IN THE WATER (2006) – Even worse, somehow.  Massive folly. Near-unbelievable, but I didn’t see it alone, so I know for a fact it really happened.

Reading Shyamalan print interviews is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m just fascinated by how someone so smart and talented can so often be so misguided. I may risk sounding like an asshole to say so, but I truly find it illuminating. For a while there, Shyamalan was fond of defending his work by questioning why so many people criticize him and not his movies. Seems to me that one way to avoid that is to take a break from casting yourself in your movies. Right? Kind of hard to separate the two when, in this case, you’re playing the pivotal role of the man who will write the book that will change the world, even though it will mean he will die a martyr. And you can’t be so naive as to think that notebook-toting, detail-oriented professional film critics won’t pick up on the fact that the only character to meet a gruesome death, in an entire movie about the act of storytelling itself, is the cranky film critic.

The same way that you can’t complain about the way that people are always trying to figure out the twist endings of your movies when you keep putting twist endings in your movies. Right?

I particularly liked how the title character spent very close to the entire running time curled up in the shower. That was exciting.

And Paul Giamatti had the speech impediment coming and going, and that Latino dude with the fucked-up arm… (Now I’m getting confused again.) The wolf made of grass was pretty cool though. (Was I high?)  Wikipedia tells me there was in fact a grass-wolf. It was called a “scrunt,” which really isn’t a great word to have in what was intended as a children’s movie.

The Happening (2008)

THE HAPPENING (2008) – Okay. Okay.

It’s starting to become apparent that the director may no longer be interested in suspenseful stories about the supernatural, and has in fact now evolved into the maker of really, really weird comedies.

If you go into THE HAPPENING in this spirit, you will not be disappointed. If you are looking for a creepy edge-of-the-seater, you surely will. Without giving anything important away (I want to leave the half-hearted yet still insane ultimate revelation to the bravest among you), here are some reasons why I enjoyed THE HAPPENING:

  • “Filbert.”  Let me explain: The main characters are fleeing Philadelphia on a railroad train, which inexplicably stops. Someone ducks their head away from the window, and the name of the town in which they are now stranded is revealed: Filbert. FILBERT! Duh-duh-duhhhhh! No, God, please, no, not…      Filbert! Filbert! Dooooom! I don’t even care whether or not I’m the only one who laughed at that, because it’s still funny to me. Fucking Filbert, man.
  • I was NOT, however, the only one who laughed when the construction workers started walking off the building. Everyone in my theater laughed at that.  It’s mostly because the plummeting crazies are played by dummies. And if we learned anything from The Three Stooges and Saturday Night Live, it’s that dummies are the greatest of all comedy props.
  • I don’t know who in all of Hollywood I would cast as a science teacher and a math teacher, respectively, but Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are not they. Likable and down-to-earth actors both, but far better casting for, say, the cranky gym coach and the wisecracking AV teacher. They do their best, but the dialogue they are given does them no favors.
  • I swear a couple times Shyamalan cuts away from the action to a reaction shot of Zooey Deschanel and it looks like she’s trying to suppress a crack-up. Shyamalan may not have noticed, but I’m sure I did.
  • Intentional laughs are in the movie for sure, to the point where it’s almost confusing when it happens – stay tuned for the scene where Wahlberg tries to relate on a personal level to a plastic plant. Expertly written and played, and I’m not being sarcastic at all.
  • Far and away Shyamalan’s best and most hilarious cameo in all of his movies to date happens in THE HAPPENING. If you end up going, please stay for the credits to see what role he played. It’s just got to be a joke. But one of those jokes that only the one making it gets; you know that kind.
  • The Lion Scene! Oh man, the lion scene. The lion scene is a horror-comedy classic of which an EVIL DEAD 2-era Sam Raimi would be chainsaw-wieldingly envious. Soon to be a YouTube staple, guaranteed.

So if you’re looking for scary, this is not your territory. Watch the news instead. But if you’re a certain kind of moviegoer in a certain kind of mood, grab a couple like-minded buddies and Mystery-Science-Theater away.

Now, I skipped Shyamalan’s 2010 movie, THE LAST AIRBENDER, because I didn’t think my brain could handle all the fart jokes I was destined to make about that title.  By every last account (except probably Shyamalan’s), I made the correct decision.  But I’m curious about AFTER EARTH.  Did the nasty thrashing he got over his last couple flicks make Shyamalan reconsider some of his more over-used quirks?  Does the presence of Will Smith, one of the most infallible choosers of successful projects of the last decade-and-a-half, suggest that Shammy has reclaimed his earlier mojo?  The AFTER EARTH trailer does not look overtly comical.  It’s somewhat well paced, and more importantly, it has hordes of monkeys in it.  That’s not any guarantee I’ll be able to stay away.

@jonnyabomb

MANKEY

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

For the sake of argument, let’s say I’m in love with this girl, and I’m hoping, somewhere in the back of my mind, that we’re maybe going to get married one day. That too, for the sake of argument, judging from the public bickering of many married couples.

But this girl is special, the kind you marry — she’s smart, funny, pretty, one-in-a-million. So, on this speculative day in the distant future, I’m standing up there at the altar, and everybody who we love in the world is there — my parents, her parents, all my best friends, hers, and the sun is shining and the angels are singing…

…And she walks in wearing a live armadillo on her head.

Like a full-on, Lady-Gaga-would-be-envious costume choice. An armadillo.  The armadillo is on top of my beloved’s beautiful head. And the armadillo is wearing a little bridal veil. And my girl, she’s loving it. And everybody else in the room is busy telling her she’s never looked more beautiful.

Now, I happen to believe she’s looked plenty better.

But what can I say? I love her. I love all of these people. They’re all so happy. Who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Maybe the meaning of true love is letting your favorite girl parade around with an armored mammal on her dome. I wouldn’t know. I’m the surly jackass who always ruins it by opening his big mouth.

This imaginary exercise is a deranged illustration of my main point: There are plenty of people who loved THE DARK KNIGHT RISES — smart people, good people, people of taste. I cannot, nor would I ever, tell anyone that they shouldn’t enjoy a movie they love. Hell, I wanted to love it too. Could you understand that, please, before you start telling me how wrong I am? I didn’t walk into that theater as a skeptic. I walked in as a lifelong Batman fan, and as a fan of Christopher Nolan (read my rave reflections on INCEPTION!) and his work on BATMAN BEGINS and in (most of) THE DARK KNIGHT.

But I found the third to be the least of the three.  It is my personal opinion that these movies have grown progressively less thematically coherent and structurally satisfying while their running time has grown more oppressive and their tone more dour. I have many reasons for my overall disappointment in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and I am about to list them all. Some of them are arguably a matter of personal preference, while others come from a perspective formed by my own experiences in filmmaking and storytelling. You certainly don’t have to agree with me. This is my take. Feel free to let me know where you think I’m right or wrong. I’m always willing to talk at length about Batman.

(Which is maybe one reason why that whole marriage-to-the-perfect-woman scenario described above has thus far remained hypothetical.)

NOTE: Spoilers abound. I’m assuming we’ve all seen these movies by now.

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The biggest problem, by far, about THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, is that we were promised a much more exciting movie than we got. At the end of THE DARK KNIGHT, Batman is an outcast, an outlaw, a fugitive. “Why’s he running, dad?” “Because we have to chase him.” Remember? “We’ll hunt him. Because he can take it.” Remember that whole thing? That dramatic shot of Batman taking flight, as Jim Gordon goes on about him being the “silent protector” — I’m bringing this up because some people seem to have forgotten about it, for example the guys who made the movie. THE DARK KNIGHT promises us a truly compelling scenario where Batman’s best ally, Jim Gordon, is forced to bring his entire police force to bear on tracking down the masked vigilante who supposedly murdered Harvey Dent, the city’s valiant district attorney.  It could have been THE FUGITIVE, but with Batman as Harrison Ford and Commissioner Gordon as Tommy Lee Jones. That sounds like a cool fucking movie. Why didn’t they make that movie? They had three hours and the gross national product of Mexico.

Instead, when THE DARK KNIGHT RISES opens up, eight whole years have passed and Batman has vanished. Bruce Wayne is a recluse. We don’t get to see a single second of the exciting chases and harrowing Batman-related escapes which may have happened towards the beginning of that timespan. He’s in a robe, with a cane. And a Caine. He’s quit being Batman. He’s quit on us. And not for the last time.

Let’s go at this mess character-by-character, starting with the titular case.

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The Problem With BATMAN:

Bruce & Alfred

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is so long it has time for Bruce Wayne to quit being Batman twice!

Okay.

Now.

I think I understand what this series of films is trying to do: To show the evolution of Gotham City away from very much needing a Batman, towards no longer needing him. To use Batman as a symbol, an idea, one that is greater than Bruce Wayne alone. I get that. However, this choice opens up two sizable storytelling problems:

1)  Dramatically speaking, the main protagonist drops out of the film for sizable amounts of running time. (It’s a Batman movie where Batman becomes a supporting character — or did you really buy a ticket hoping to see your favorite superhero hanging out in a hole in the desert for an hour?)

2) More egregiously, it goes against the one thing that makes Batman who he is, the one thing that sets Batman apart from all other superheroes: He doesn’t quit. Spider-Man might, temporarily. That’s his thing. Spider-Man wavers. Batman won’t, ever. Now Superman doesn’t quit, but he takes regular breaks. So does Captain America. So does Iron Man. So does Wonder Woman. Superman has a secret identity so he can have a personal life. That’s not Batman. Batman has a personal life exclusively to finance, enable, and justify his nocturnal activities. Batman never quits, never stops. His determination, his inexhaustible obsession, his monomania, his madness, these are his key defining characteristics.

Yes, that is evident in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, in the way he heals his own broken back to climb out of an inescapable prison, but that doesn’t to me excuse the fact that the movie opened with Bruce Wayne in retirement and it ends with him happily hanging out in a cafe with [someone we will get to in a moment]. Batman isn’t about happy endings and requited romance. If you want that, you can have any other superhero. He’s the Dark Knight. If a story doesn’t end with Bruce Wayne as Batman, it’s kind of defeating the essence of what makes the character interesting.

Even if I were to look at THE DARK KNIGHT RISES as an alternate-universe Elseworlds story, it still wouldn’t be my favorite one. Chris Nolan is a phenomenal filmmaker with phenomenal crews, and his Batman films are brilliantly orchestrated on a technical level, but that ending felt so goddamn false to me.  Ultimately, there are truer endings found in Tim Burton’s two BATMAN movies, where Bruce Wayne may have temporarily found romance (to satisfy the Hollywood beast) but still stands perched atop Gotham in costume in the final frame, and even Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN FOREVER, for fuck’s sake, which makes all kinds of mistakes, still has Batman and Robin running at the camera in the final shot. String me up and set me on fire for saying so, but these are the more satisfying Batman stories to me. They end truer to the character.

Quitter.

Quitter.

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The Problem With ALFRED:

WAAAAAAAAA!

WAAAAAAAAA!

He cries a fucking lot in this movie.  One might argue that all he gets to do in this movie is to cry.  At least in BATMAN BEGINS he got to whack a guy with some lumber or something.  Here he just lurches around Wayne Manor all weepy, and it isn’t any fun at all.  This objection may be a matter of personal opinion, but personally I did not sign up for a Batman movie filled with crying.  Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it doesn’t bother younger men than me.  Of course I don’t think crying is wrong, but I do think there shouldn’t be crying in a movie about people in superhero costumes.  I think that’s one of the few places it is justifiable to expect a surplus of stereotypical machismo.

2012 was a rough one for rugged manliness of the sort I grew up on. Ernest Borgnine died, Clint flipped out, and they put out a Batman movie with a fucking lot of crying in it. If I am watching a tear coming out of Michael Caine’s eye, it had better be because he just watched a porno with his niece in it. And if you don’t get that reference, it means you haven’t seen Michael Caine in GET CARTER, which is precisely the problem.

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The Problem With SELINA KYLE A.K.A. CATWOMAN:

When I heard that the third Nolan Batman movie would have Catwoman in it, what I wanted was this:

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

But what I got was this:

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

Can we look at it without the funny ears?  It’s a little easier to take that way.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

…Better. But not too much.

Anne Hathaway is a talented kid. (Kid? She’s around my age. Why do I write like an 80-year-old?) She was excellent in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, still her best role to date. But she reads onscreen, to my eyes anyway, like a young adult, at best. She doesn’t play as a full-grown woman. In the costume pictured above, she looks to me the way she looks in almost every other role I’ve seen her in: Like the most enthusiastic member of the high school drama club.  The role of Catwoman, as historically portrayed and as written here specifically, demands a grown woman, who has lived a life she both regrets and takes perverse pride in. She’s got something to prove, and interests to protect. She uses sex as a weapon and is far more dangerous than she looks. I saw that in Michelle Pfeiffer, for sure. I could have seen that in Halle Berry, if that CATWOMAN movie weren’t so bad. I don’t see any of that in Anne Hathaway. In Anne Hathway, I see an actress giving her all, which I appreciate, but all I see is an actress giving her all — not the character of Selina Kyle.

Even if you don’t agree that Anne Hathaway as Catwoman is horrendous miscasting, you will have a hard time explaining to me why Selina Kyle needs to be in this particular movie at all. Nerds of the world, you cannot rail on SPIDER-MAN 3, which had three popular villain characters crammed into an already-crowded narrative, and then give this movie a pass. If Nolan’s Batman films are about the evolution of Gotham City and Batman as a symbol, then where does this character fit in thematically? Why, if Bruce Wayne is in seclusion because Batman is no longer needed, does a lady jewel thief suddenly appear? And why does she have a hat with funny ears on it?

All of that aside, turning her into a love interest for Bruce Wayne, as this movie does, was clumsy and silly. I liked where the movie seemed to be headed, that Batman and Catwoman were alternately adversaries and allies and you never knew where she stood, both morally and even sexually (that one scene where she’s embracing her female sidekick had more interesting intimations which of course weren’t pursued.)

But no, instead, proving that infernal Billy Crystal right, they couldn’t just be friends. Against all common sense, they end up together, despite the fact that it seemed to only happen because the movie wanted to end with Bruce Wayne together with a lady, just because the other one [to be discussed momentarily] was no longer available. Think of it this way, guys (and girls) — if someone sold you out to a giant masked monster-man who broke your goddamn back, would you keep on looking for the good in them? Or would you maybe, particularly since you’re the world’s greatest detective, succumb to common sense and move on? Don’t answer that, Rihanna.

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The Problem With JIM GORDON:

James GordonWhile

Gary Oldman’s quiet-storm performance is probably the single most consistently great thing about this trilogy, I hate hate HATE HATE what they do with his character in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  First they shoot him and stick him in a bed for half a movie.  Then they have Joseph Gordon-Levitt show up to judge him a bunch.  Put him in the hospital and then have an entirely new character show up to complain about the stuff he did in the last movie.  That sounds like fun!  It’s not the most cinematic choice.  It’s not all that exciting.  This is one of those areas where Nolan goes too much into the idea zone and not nearly enough into the popcorn side of it.  Does anyone really care about the alleged conspiracy wherein Batman and Jim Gordon colluded to lead the city into believing that Harvey Dent died a hero? That they hid the ugly truth, which is that Dent went insane and became the murderous Two-Face?  Who cares?  Who cares?  Who cares?  You who love this movie — do YOU care?  Really?  Don’t lie to me now.

At least Gordon gets a new police sidekick in this movie.  Foley!

FOLEY!

FOLEY!

As awesome as it would be to see Detective Axel Foley swagger into a Batman movie, this Foley is played by Matthew Modine.  It’s always nice to see Matthew Modine, although if this movie is really long enough to have space for actors from PRIVATE SCHOOL, I really wish they would have made room for Betsy Russell.  (As Poison Ivy?)  You may think I’m being too silly and maybe I am.  You know what else is silly?  A Batman movie that is so long it has time for a complete story arc for a secondary tertiary quaternary quintinary character.

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The Problem With BANE & “MIRANDA TATE”:

Bane Miranda Tate

Not gonna draw this one out: In THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, we spend an entire movie being introduced to, and watching everyone intimidated by, Batman’s most powerful adversary yet, the monstrous yet silly-voiced Bane (Tom Hardy). In the last few minutes of the movie, we find out that big bad Bane is not much besides a lovesick stooge, subservient to the woman who spent the rest of the movie until now being Bruce Wayne’s love interest, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).  Not only has the movie’s main villain been neutered, but he’s been replaced with a character we liked until this moment.

That’s some M. Night Shyamalan shit right there.

An audience should not spend the last few moments of an epic trilogy re-adjusting to a new major villain.  That is not dramatically satisfying.  I appreciate the attempts to link the enemy from the first movie (Liam Neeson as Ra’s Al Ghul) with the final movie, but — to me — it ultimately feels crowbarred in there.  It’s almost exactly like how Jeremy Irons’ character in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE turns out to be Hans Gruber’s brother — neat trick in a Storytelling 101 kind of way, but not particularly emotionally involving (a fact which DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE deals with in a much craftier way).  I don’t care — in this movie — about Talia’s quest to avenge her father anymore than I care about the Harvey Dent conspiracy.

Which is too bad, because I automatically prefer Marion Cotillard, both as a love interest for Bruce Wayne in this movie, and as an actress in general, to Anne Hathaway.  Cotillard was arguably the best thing about PUBLIC ENEMIES and Nolan’s own INCEPTION, two movies I liked a lot better than this one and not coincidentally because they gave her more to do.  THE DARK KNIGHT RISES doesn’t need Catwoman.  It doesn’t.  What should have happened was that Nolan and his writers should have axed Catwoman entirely, and spent all that now-available screentime bolstering the Talia character.  Give us more time to know her and care about her, then her betrayal stings more.  Or better yet, make her the villain much sooner in the movie.  Even put in her in some kind of a Catwoman suit, if that makes the geeks happy.  There are ways to make that work.  (Bats are flying mice, so only a cat can stomp them out — or whatever. I’m spitballing but my spit is better than their shit.)  Instead, you have not one but TWO disappointing and underwritten female leads.

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The Problem With JOHN “ROBIN” BLAKE:

Robin Quivers.

Robin Quivers.

It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt!  He’s terrific, of course.  What’s wrong with this movie is not his problem. Then again, if that was supposed to be a New York accent, he’s not entirely blameless either.

My main issue with this character is that his presence turns THE DARK KNIGHT RISES into an origin story for a movie that we will never see.  That didn’t work for me in Ridley Scott’s misbegotten ROBIN HOOD, and it doesn’t work for me here.  As much as I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (good God, can you imagine how annoying it’d be with any other young actor in the role?), I still resent the fact that he’s taking away what should be Christian Bale’s movie.  It should be Batman’s movie.  It should be Bruce Wayne’s movie.  And Jim Gordon’s movie, but I already mentioned how intolerably Blake shits on Gordon.  This is already the longest post I have ever written, so I don’t need to repeat myself.  There is no way I can be satisfied with a Batman movie that ends with Batman quitting, so don’t on top of it ask me to get excited about some sassy kid taking over for him.  Especially if that inherit-the–mantle follow-up movie is — by definition — not ever coming.

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The Problem With DR. CRANE aka THE SCARECROW:

Scarecrow

Cillian Murphy is a terrific actor, and it’s cute that they keep giving him cameos.  But this is supposed to be the realistic take on Batman, isn’t it?  So isn’t it just a little silly that the Bane army of terrorists allow an escaped lunatic to preside over a court where he gets to sentence rich people to death by walking on thin ice?  I’ll answer that: It is silly.  It’s one of the silliest sentences I’ve typed in a long time, and I type a lot of silly sentences.  I venture to say that this is a scene that would better fit one of the Joel Schumacher movies, and with that, the point is made.

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The Problem With THIS DOCTOR:

Tom Lennon

He’s played by writer/comedian Tom Lennon.  It’s just a quick little cameo, you argue.  What can it hurt?  Well, no offense but this dude is not exactly a good-luck totem for movies.  Enjoy his IMDb page!

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Look, I understand why so many people love these movies.  Batman is the coolest character in all of popular culture.  Nolan’s movies treat Batman with the seriousness he deserves.  But it’s not the seriousness he needs right now.  After BATMAN & ROBIN left such an epic stink in all six of everyone’s senses, Christopher Nolan restored Batman’s dignity with a solid injection of seriousness.  It was a valiant achievement.  But in the short time between BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, we have been bombarded with superhero movies, most of which swiped Nolan’s approach.  So now we’re awash in superhero movies that take themselves way too seriously.  And since it obviously couldn’t counter them, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES instead annointed itself as the most super-serious one of them all.  And for a movie as riddled with conceptual mis-steps as I have argued that this one is, that is deadly.  There is nothing more pretentious and intolerable than a B-minus student who carries himself like a valedictorian.

So those are all of my qualms.  You don’t agree? Fire away!  That’s what comments are for.

____________________________________________________

But.

I don’t want to tear something down without being willing to build it back up. After all: Why do we fall?

So let’s do another speculative exercise. This one is a bit more realistic than me getting married. This one has me as an insanely-wealthy, cigar-chomping (because why smoke a cigar when you can chomp one?), tuxedo-wearing big-shot Hollywood producer.

Here’s how it’s going to go:

My friends at Warner Brothers are gonna gather up a ton of money, and we’re gonna head over to the Formosa in order to dump huge bundles of cash on our first-draft guy: Quentin Tarantino. As far as I’m concerned, Quentin can do whatever the hell he wants to with it. He’s a comic book guy, but not the kind who’s overly worried about “staying true to the comics.” Staying true doesn’t mean the kind of literalism that only pleases the obsessive-compulsives with small libraries of Jim Aparo art in their attics. It means capturing the spirit of the character. I want the next Batman movie to be scary, I want it to be funny, I want it to be cool. I just want it to be crazy. I want it to be good, of course, but even more than that, I want it to be crazy.  I want it to be the work of a lunatic. I don’t actually expect Tarantino to ever go near a major-studio superhero movie, but in this alternate universe, he’s the kind of extreme artistic change the character could use.

Then I want Joe Carnahan to take that script and shoot the fuck out of it. I love Joe Carnahan above the majority of young directors out there, because he’s a guy who can do realistic criminology (NARC), and he can do colorful-crazy (SMOKIN’ ACES, THE A-TEAM), and he can can cover great big mythological emotional terrain too (THE GREY). Like Christopher Nolan, he’s a versatile filmmaker of many splendid talents, but most importantly, on top of all the technical requirements, he can do humor and emotion.

So that’s the dream director. Now here are a few casting notions:

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Batman

BATMAN/ BRUCE WAYNE:

Colin Farrell.

Colin Farrell.

Because we need to go lighter than Bale did it, but we still need a solid dramatic actor. I wasn’t always sold on Colin Farrell as a star, but then I saw THE NEW WORLD, MIAMI VICE, IN BRUGES, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, THE WAY BACK, HORRIBLE BOSSES, FRIGHT NIGHT, LONDON BOULEVARD, and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS. Anybody who can do all of that in five years can also do Batman. And probably even deserves to.

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Alfred

ALFRED PENNYWORTH:

Ray Winstone.

Ray Winstone.

Because there would be no fucking crying.

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Gordon

JIM GORDON:

Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti.

Because I don’t even have to justify it with words for you to know I’m dead-on with this one.

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Ra's Al Ghul

RA’S AL GHUL:

Daniel Day-Lewis.

Daniel Day-Lewis.

Because in the comics, the character Liam Neeson played has been around for many, many lifetimes, so I like the idea of Daniel Day-Lewis getting to play all of his historical roles — Hawkeye, John Proctor, Abraham Lincoln, Newland Archer, Bill The Butcher, Daniel Plainview, and so on — in one movie. And he’d better like that idea too, because otherwise there’s no way this dude is doing a Batman movie.

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Talia

TALIA:

Sarah Shahi.

Sarah Shahi.

Because that’s a movie star waiting to happen.

______________________

Catwoman

CATWOMAN:

Michelle Monaghan

Michelle Monaghan.

Because she could easily have been cast in any of the female roles in any of the previous three Batman movies, and probably should have been.

______________________

Joker

THE JOKER:

Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle.

Because it’s time for a Joker who’s actually funny, and here is not only one of the funniest people on the planet, but also someone who I bet could pour genuine emotions like rage and pathos into his nearly-superhuman funniness if he were somehow persuaded.

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Two Face

TWO-FACE:

John Cusack.

John Cusack.

Because he can do caustic and scary-smart better than anyone, and he’s actually a fairly large dude, all of which make me wonder why he hasn’t played a villain in a huge-scale action movie yet.

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Penguin

THE PENGUIN:

Warwick Davis.

Warwick Davis.

Because if all six LEPRECHAUN movies have taught me anything, it’s that this guy is fully capable of playing a deranged and disturbing villain. I’m not even at all kidding.

______________________

Strange

PROFESSOR HUGO STRANGE:

Christopher Plummer.

Christopher Plummer.

Because this is one of the oldest villains from the comics (at one time rumored to be in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES), and it’d be so cool to have a great older actor holding it down.

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Riddler

THE RIDDLER:

Johnny Knoxville.

Johnny Knoxville.

Because if it was up to me, I would re-envision The Riddler as a kind of Joker copycat. So I thought of an actor I like a lot and one who is funny, but not nearly as funny as the guy I chose to play The Joker.

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Poison Ivy

POISON IVY:

Amber Heard.

Amber Heard.

Because hotness. And because DRIVE ANGRY.

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Killer Croc

KILLER CROC:

Dolph Lundgren.

Dolph Lundgren.

Because the role needs a giant and one who can handle carrying all the prosthetic make-up on his back. And because he has proven to be the single best Expendable so he’s earned it.

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Clayface

CLAYFACE:

Dwayne Johnson.

Dwayne Johnson.

Because again, a large man is needed and there are only so many large humans with acting ability.

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Ventriloquist

THE VENTRILOQUIST:

Jeff Dunham.

Jeff Dunham.

Because I’d truly love to see Batman punch him in the face.

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Scarecrow

THE SCARECROW:

John Hawkes.

John Hawkes.

Because after how scary he was in WINTER’S BONE, anything’s possible.

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Mr. Freeze

MR. FREEZE:

Jonathan Banks.

Jonathan Banks.

Because look at him.

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KGBeast

KGBEAST:

Scott Adkins.

Scott Adkins.

Because of Boyka, obviously.

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Mad Hatter

THE MAD HATTER:

Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp.

Because he, also, has played this role before. Which is why he, also, deserves a punch from Batman.

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Maniac Cop

MANIAC COP:

Robert Z'Dar

Robert Z’Dar

Because why the beautiful fuck not?

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And there you have it.  That’s my bigger, better Batman movie.  Am I crazy?  Most definitely.  But maybe we could use a little crazy right about now.  What would you rather spend three hours at the movies with — reality?

@jonnyabomb

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Sometimes movies like X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE make me sad, because they give me time to reflect on how all the money going into these huge-budget movies could have been spent on important and worthwhile things like medical research, or wildlife conservation, or food for the needy, or reimbursing me for the allotment of my meager salary I used to purchase a ticket.

Let me back up:

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (which I am now going to refer to only as WOLVERINE, in order to keep my word count down), is the supposed origin story of the previously-mysterious, eternally-popular mutton-chopped mutant from the Marvel comic books and the three previous X-MEN feature films.  It’s meant as a prequel to that trio of movies, explaining how Wolverine got to the point in which we initially meet him at the beginning of 2000’s X-MEN.  As usual, Wolverine is played by Hugh Jackman, in a performance that has very little to do with the source material, but with an Eastwood-esque charisma that, for a while at least, had effectively anchored this increasingly unwieldy film series.

I had some hopes going into this movie because its initial screenplay credit goes to David Benioff, the novelist who wrote the books The 25th Hour andCity of Thieves, and the short story collection When The Nines Roll Over (all highly recommended).  On the other side of seeing this thing, I can’t believe that a single word of Benioff’s draft was used.  Or maybe he did write it after all, but only after being hit in the brain with one of those ‘amnesia bullets’ that wipes Wolverine’s mind clean in the penultimate scene.  (Sorry, I ruined the ending.)  Wolverine is lucky to have the amnesia though.  If this was my origin, I wouldn’t want to remember it either.

Look, I’m not by nature a negative guy; I know from first-hand experience how much effort goes into making any movie, no matter how it turns out, and I have no interest in denigrating the hard work of anyone involved.  However, in the interest of honesty, and in the hopes that something can be learned from the experience, here are some quick [amnesia] bullet points to explain why X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is – an understatement here – no classic:

Will Ferrell proved that this doesn't work.

Will Ferrell proved that this doesn’t work.

*  Shockingly clichéd dialogue.  If the humor was intentional, they would have called it AIRPLANE.

“You look like a man fixin’ to do a bad thing.”

“Colonel, this is turning into a disaster.”

“All of their strengths, none of their weaknesses.”

(Actually, I know exactly where they took that last line from – an earlier Marvel movie called BLADE!)

Blade

*  Incoherent action geography and by-the-numbers plotting.

But toothy yelling? We got that on lock.

But toothy yelling? We got that on lock.

*  A charismatic performance from Ryan Reynolds, who dominates every early scene and, naturally, is punished for it by being removed from the movie for an hour, only to return at the end with his mouth sewn shut.

Ryan Reynolds

*  Dominick Monaghan and Kevin Durand, both so good on Lost, also unnecessarily wasted.

"I've got a bright idea: Get me the fuck out of this movie ASAP!"

“I’ve got a bright idea: Get me the fuck out of this movie ASAP!”

*  An atrocious debut performance from Will.I.Am, who also has an atrocious number-one hit right now.  He’s a double-threat!

"Look on my silly cowboy hat, ye mighty, and despair!"

“Look on my silly cowboy hat, ye mighty, and despair!”

*  A complete lack of continuity with the X-MEN movies goes without saying, but I was still hoping that they’d at least TRY to explain how the great actor Liev Schreiber would one day become a pro-wrestler.

Sabretooths

*  Unintentional laughter abounds in this movie.  I listed the times when I laughed out loud:

1.  Opening credits freeze-frame on Liev Schrieber as Sabretooth, bounding like a bunny rabbit though a SAVING PRIVATE RYAN homage/ D-Day flashback.  Really, any time he jumps around the movie is almost worth the cost.  Hysterical.  Not meant to be.  But hysterical.

Sabertooth

2.  Naked CGI Wolverine jumping into a waterfall.  (Hard to explain and we don’t have the time. None of us here are immortal.)

Nuditay

3.  Aunt May and Uncle Ben, from the SPIDER-MAN movies, cameo as the kindly old couple who take Wolverine into their home.

(Not actually them.)

(But maybe.)

(If not, it’s Ma & Pa Kent for sure.)

Old Folks

4.  Adamantium bullets, Wolverine’s only weakness.  He’s a werewolf now.

Wolferineman

5.  The Blob gets his name from mis-hearing Wolverine when he addresses him as “Bub.”

(So how come Wolverine calls Gambit “Blob”?)

Blob

6.  Ryan Reynolds’ sad eyes when he reappears as Deadpool with his mouth sewn shut.

Sad Eyes

7.  Patrick Stewart cameos as a weird old guy who invites a group of kids into his helicopter.  Creepy!  (Imagine if I hadn’t seen the other movies yet and I didn’t know why this was happening, seeing as how the movie doesn’t really explain it.)

Patrick Stewart

Again, apologies for the spoilers, but not really.  If you’re an emotionally mature adult and you haven’t yet seen this movie, I’m actually helping you.  I’m saving you time and money.  This is a bad movie, not that it brings me any joy to say so.

I recognize that this movie wasn’t made for me.  Clearly.  It was made to swallow up the allowances of thirteen-year-old boys and to sell overseas to foreign audiences that will hopefully get better dialogue on their subtitles.  A movie like WOLVERINE only has to be just good enough to meet those standards, and not any better than that – that’s just how business works.  It also should be acknowledged that the movie isn’t made for girls either (let alone women) – the only female character in the entire movie exists solely to get killed (twice!) so that the title character has his excuse to wreak bloody vengeance all over the place (but not too bloody, since it has to come in under a PG-13 rating so all the kids can get in.)  The movie’s not sophisticated.

Still, it could’ve been.  I’m a comic book guy.  At least, I was, for my formative years.  I appreciate the artistry and energy of superhero comics, and for some time I was wrapped up in the compulsive appeal of them also.  I read all the X-Men comics throughout the 1990s, although that wasn’t necessarily a golden era for comic books.  That decade was dominated by flashy yet hollow characters such as Gambit and Deadpool, who coincidentally have been crammed into this WOLVERINE movie.  Comic book fans know what I mean when I say that X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is like a shoddily-drawn issue of a spinoff X-Men comic – it has some of the characters you like in it, and it’s got explosions, so you’re gonna get your fix.  But you will not remember it as fondly as you do the better issues.

It would be a copout, though, to suggest that this is the best we can expect.  Look at SPIDER-MAN 2.  Look at THE DARK KNIGHT.  Look at the LORD OF THE RINGS movies.  There is a precedent for huge-budget movies of this sort that still manage to engage a large audience emotionally and tell a coherent story cinematically.  It takes a monumental amount of hard work and good luck, but it can be done.

In fact, one just opened.

Star Trek (2009)

Given the choice, absolutely go see the new STAR TREK movie.  You don’t need to be a fan of the series from before.  I’m not, never was.  Although I guess I am now!  JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK is that good.  I have a minor conflict of interest here, in that I know, have met, and very much like some people behind the scenes, but that will only hinder me so far as to stop me from writing a full-length rave review.  I admit that I want to see this movie storm the box office so that nice people get paid and the rest of us frequent a quality movie, but if I didn’t truly think it was good enough to recommend, I wouldn’t.  It’s a really fun time at the movies, and a much better way to forget your troubles than an amnesia bullet.

@jonnyabomb

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

This quick list was born out of an email conversation I’ve been having today.  If someone had me at gunpoint and I had to name the characters who I think are the all-time coolest, this is what would happen.  I’m not sure why anyone would need to pull a gun on me to get such a list, since I’d obviously provide it for free… but the point is:  This list might have been a little different with more time to reflect on it, but I kind of like the immediacy of such a thing.  There’s an honesty to it.  When I’m asked what I think is cool, this is what’s at the tip of the tongue of my brain.

In other words, don’t waste your time arguing with it.  Let’s be friends.  But I WOULD love to hear your own favorites, so feel free to shoot me your own top 10!

#1.

#2.

#3.

#4.

#5.


#6.

#7.

#8.

#9.

#10.

 

I already wish I made it twenty.

Hit me below, or on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

On March 16th of this past year, I attended a screening at the 92Y Tribeca of BODY SLAM (1986), attended by its director, the literally legendary Hal Needham.  BODY SLAM was the last theatrical feature he directed, and probably not his best, although it was still a whole mess of fun, like pretty much everything else he’s ever done.  Now, Hal Needham is arguably best known to the mainstream as the director of THE CANNONBALL RUN, but that really is only a small part of what makes him a Hollywood legend.

Honestly, I sat in awe through most of the Q&A after the movie, since I know more than most people do about Hal Needham’s career, and still I knew only a little.  Hal Needham doesn’t have a household-auteur name like Spielberg or Scorsese, but rest assured that his is an essential career in American movies.  If you look over his list of credits, you will see that he worked on over a hundred films in the stunt department, whether as a coordinator, actor, or stunt performer, or some combination henceforth.  Here is a partial list of movies with his vital contributions (I’m sticking to the ones I personally have seen or else we’ll literally be here all day):

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, DONOVAN’S REEF, 4 FOR TEXAS, MAJOR DUNDEE, OUR MAN FLINT, BANDOLERO!, 100 RIFLES, LITTLE BIG MAN, RIO LOBO, THE NIGHT STALKER, THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO., WHITE LIGHTNING, BLAZING SADDLES, CHINATOWN, 3 THE HARD WAY, THE LONGEST YARD, and THE END.

Before getting into directing, Hal Needham was Hollywood’s number-one go-to stunt man. He made over 300 movies and broke over 50 bones.

Here are some other facts about Hal Needham, which I excitedly sent out on Twitter after meeting the man in person:

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Hal Needham worked on THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and was in the bar fight in DONOVAN’S REEF.  Both alongside John Wayne & Lee Marvin.

(Here’s a pair of Hal Needham bar-fight scenes:)

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Hal Needham jumped from one airplane to another, mid-flight.

Not Hal Needham. But it could be.

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Hal Needham drank with Billy Wilder.

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Hal Needham was best pals with Burt Reynolds and lived for fourteen years in his guest house, “rent-free.”  This was during the time when Burt Reynolds was the biggest box-office draw in the country.  Reportedly, it was exactly the party it sounds like.

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Hal Needham got paid $25,000 to drive a car straight into a concrete wall.  “It was easy,” he told us.

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Hal Needham escaped a Russian invasion and lost his hearing in an explosion in Czechoslavakia.

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When Hal Needham talks about the Rat Pack, he refers to Sinatra, Martin, and Davis as “Frank, Dean, and Sammy.”  BECAUSE HE KNEW THEM PERSONALLY.

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Hal Needham broke the sound barrier in a car.

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Remember the blonde who drives the car with Adrienne Barbeau in THE CANNONBALL RUN?

Hal Needham did that too.

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Hal Needham gave Jackie Chan and everybody else who does it the idea to run the blooper reel over the end credits.  I asked him if he ever saw ANCHORMAN, specifically the end credits, which hilariously just rerun the blooper reel of THE CANNONBALL RUN.  (Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, along with their protegee Danny McBride, are obviously familiar with the Needham catalogue.  EASTBOUND & DOWN is a reference to the theme song of SMOKEY & THE BANDIT.)  Hal Needham told me he hasn’t seen ANCHORMAN, but would check it out.

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Many of the above stories are written about at length in Hal Needham’s autobiography, STUNT MAN!

That’s Hal Needham on the cover, by the way.  You’ll recognize him because he’s on fire.  (He said it didn’t hurt.)

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When writing about Hal Needham’s accomplishments, it starts to feel like making up Chuck Norris Facts.  The difference?  Hal Needham is a badass for real.

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At the screening and Q&A, Hal Needham was a great sport, and a great, great storyteller.   The crowd was cool and asked about almost everything I would have asked.  So most of my questions were about THE VILLAIN.  (Hal Needham started Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career!)  THE VILLAIN is a little-remembered comedy-Western which Needham treated as a live-action Tex Avery cartoon.  Arnold plays the well-intentioned but dopey hero, Handsome Stranger, Ann-Margret is at her all-time most luscious as Charming Jones, and Kirk Douglas plays the Wile E. Coyote styled black-hatted title character, Cactus Jack (which is sometimes the title of the movie in some markets).  Paul Lynde has a very funny cameo as Indian chief Nervous Elk, and Western-movie veteran Strother Martin plays the excellently-named Parody Jones.  Look guys, I’m not gonna argue that this is a great movie in the classical sense, but goddamn did it make me laugh.  And I really shouldn’t have glossed over just how attractive Ann-Margaret is in the movie.  It’s about as good as a lady can, possibly.

BODY SLAM is equally silly — like THE VILLAIN, probably second-tier Needham — but it has plenty of moments.  This was at the peak of pro-wrestling’s popularity in the 1980s, and it’s easy to see why a stuntman like Needham would feel an affinity for pro-wrestlers, who are also under-appreciated athletes.  Like John Carpenter, he also saw the star power of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who was famous in the wrestling as a ‘heel’ but in movies like BODY SLAM, THEY LIVE, and HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN* — *the greatest movie title of all time — made a thoroughly likable, blue-collar, and naturally funny (also very, very Canadian) protagonist.  Most of BODY SLAM is concerned with the antics of Dirk Benedict’s character, as the fast-talking, somewhat shady promoter who takes on Piper’s character as a client.  It’s also concerned with ogling Tanya Roberts, as the love interest prone to wearing very, very, very small bikinis.  I was way into all of that as a kid — Dirk Benedict was on The A-Team, of course, and I knew Tanya Roberts from Charlie’s Angels and SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE.  Throw in Billy Barty, Sydney Lassick, and Captain Lou Albano, and there you go, another [very strange and occasionally awkward] party.  The wrestling scenes are great, though.  I’m also a big fan of the Latin-freestyle theme song, though a saner person might not be.

Can’t find a trailer, but here are some clips from BODY SLAM:

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That’s Hal Needham, man.  He likes to make movies with pretty girls and silly gags, some amiable shit-talking and braggadocio, and a couple big crazy stunts.  If he wasn’t so busy jumping from planes and trains, he could have been a big hit as a staffer at MAD.  He’s not one who’s out to change the world with his art.  He just wants to brighten up your day.  Sometimes that’s a noble cause.  I know I’m someone who believes it to be.

In the end, there was little I could say to the man besides “It’s an honor. Your movies have given me and my friends a lot of happy times.”  I don’t tend to get overly excited about meeting famous people.  I had a fun run-in with Stan Lee once, and meeting Clint Eastwood was a highlight, but yeah I will admit this was a really cool experience.  For a Yankee born and bred, I’m a huge fan of the work of this man who is quite possibly the most successful Southern filmmaker of his era.

I’m finally posting this tribute officially because I read some good news for once:  It was announced today that Hal Needham is getting an honorary Academy Award for his decades of pioneering stunt work.  (Read about it here and here!)  It’s well-deserved, especially considering how the ‘major’ awards show so little appreciation of the value that stunt performers bring to action cinema.  We wouldn’t have most of our favorite movies without them.  They literally risk their necks for our entertainment.  (To be fair, they do usually pull the babes also.  It’s a trade-off!)

Hal Needham is one of the most prolific stuntmen ever to work in American movies, and as a director he created some endlessly enjoyable party movies.  Obviously I’m willing to praise his work all day, but it’s great to see that he’s finally getting his due from his peers, his industry, and other fancy people in tuxedos.

Me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

The current reporting is that James Gunn may be up for writing and directing a big Marvel movie.  I can’t possibly think of a weirder choice, which of course automatically interests me.  Here are my thoughts on James Gunn’s last feature, SUPER, or as it’s known in Japan, SUPER!:

Superhero movies are the mainstream now.  You know what that means.  Sub-genre!  Specifically:  Stories about ordinary people who put on crime-fighting costumes despite not having superpowers like Superman or Spider-Man.  In the past three years alone, we’ve seen at least four of these movies:  DEFENDOR (2010), KICK-ASS (2010), SUPER (2011), and, um, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).  (There’s also China’s still-mysterious INSEPARABLE, but I still haven’t managed to see that one.)  DEFENDOR probably has the most perfectly-cast lead actor (Woody Harrelson!) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES has the highest special-effects budget (explosions!), but overall, the award for purest artistic vision has to go to SUPER.

If you need to, you can read what I had to say about KICK-ASS here.  It wasn’t too friendly.  I don’t like to dwell in that not-nice space, but I’ll raise one point as a means of comparison.  The main problem with that movie was that it violated its own “real-life superheroics” premise by exaggerating every real-life moment for either comedy or “coolness”, at the expense of story and character.  SUPER doesn’t have that problem.  SUPER really is one for the freaks.

Rainn Wilson (best known for The Office on TV) plays Frank Darbo, who lives alone with a broken heart.  The woman he loves (Liv Tyler, very sweet) has taken up with a new man (Kevin Bacon at his greasiest).  The new boyfriend is a creep and a drug dealer.  Frank is a loner and a Jesus freak.  He has visions (weird, disgusting, Lovecraftian visions).  Spurred on by a marathon viewing of his favorite religious programming (“The Holy Avenger”, a very funny Nathan Fillion) and an awful hallucination like something out of Possession, Frank has a revelation.  He decides to make things right.  He decides to make himself a costume.  The symbol on his costume is his own mask.  It’s a brilliantly inane choice.

That Frank is a religious kook actually makes his decision to become a costumed crime-fighter oddly believable.  What else is the Bible besides dramatic stories of good versus evil?  The Bible was superhero comics before there were superhero comics.  Frank puts on a mask in search of bad guys.  People have done stranger things in the name of religion.

All of this is done with a light touch by writer/director James Gunn.  The film opens with an animated title sequence, introducing all the movie’s main characters to an upbeat pop-punk song, which culminates in a choreographed dance number.  The casting of Rainn Wilson, best known for a long-running comedic role, also helps with the brisk, playful tone of the movie.  Even when dark events befall our hero, we’ve been protected from the start by getting too upset or grossed out or shocked.  At the same time, don’t mistake the movie’s tone for whimsy:  That Frank has religious, romantic, and revenge-based motivations makes his choices less whimsical and more, well, realistic.

The kind of violence that happens in SUPER is worth noting.  Frank uses a monkeywrench on his adversaries.  Why the monkeywrench?  Because it hurts them, a lot.  There isn’t symbolism.  When people get shot in the universe of this movie, they suffer or die.  That’s usually what happens when you get shot.  As goofy as this movie can be, I appreciate that there are consequences to violence.

SUPER is also the rare movie in the genre willing to deal with the weird sexual side of all this costume stuff.  It’s appropriately awkward.  Frank gets a young sidekick, played by Ellen Page, who is so excited by what he’s doing that she keeps after him until he allows her to help out.  Only she has different reasons:  She’s turned on by all the pipe-hitting and the costume-wearing.  And she keeps coming on to him.  If you’ve ever wanted to see the culmination of the superhero/sidekick relationship, this is your movie.  I can’t say it isn’t disturbing, though.  Ellen Page has a little bit of a “young Jennifer Connelly” thing going on here, but it’s “Jennifer Connelly in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, LABYRINTH, or PHENOMENA“, not “Jennifer Connelly as an all-the-way-grown woman” — it’s more than a little uncomfortable.  It would feel wrong to desire her.  Frank certainly does.

I’m telling you, this is an interesting movie.  It feels more personal than the usual superhero stuff, and by all accounts it is.  SUPER is also highly quotable, in a very offbeat way.  Here’s one exchange, on the topic of Batman’s friend Robin:

“What the fuck is a Robin?”

“A bird.”

“Why the fuck is he a bird?”

“…Because he’s loyal.”

Whole movie is like that.  People trying to make sense of these odd conventions we’ve all learned to take for granted, twisting them in different positions, looking at them in a new light, saying strange and funny stuff.  I dig it. You might too.

Let me know on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb