Talking Movies

July 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Dark Knight

On this day ten years ago I saw The Dark Knight on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. Yeah…

“Where do we begin?” The Dark Knight is a sequel that expands upon and darkens an existing cinematic universe so successfully and unsettlingly that it ranks far above what one would think of as the obvious reference point The Empire Strikes Back and instead starts advancing menacingly towards The Godfather: Part II…

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan are very clever, as evidenced by their last collaboration The Prestige, and see greatness where others do not, as evidenced by reading the original novel of The Prestige. In The Dark Knight they have constructed a story that takes the mythology of the DC comic books and turns it into both high tragedy and violent mayhem.

Christian Bale is superb as Bruce Wayne who is quickly becoming a physical and emotional wreck after one year of being the Batman. What was intended as a short-term project to clean up corruption looks to be nearing its end with a final audacious swoop on the mob’s money-men. Bruce’s only chance of a normal life is slipping away though as his sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most winning), tired of waiting for Bruce, is dating the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wonderfully charismatic Aaron Eckhart who also communicates an underlying instability that could lead Harvey to places of great moral darkness). Bruce can only compete against Dent for Rachel if he can trust Dent enough to retire Batman and leave the crime-fighting to the legitimate forces of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Major Crimes Unit. However such plans are wrecked when the mob in their desperation at Batman’s success decide to fight back by hiring, in the Don Sal Maroni’s own words, “a two bit whack-job in a cheap purple suit and make up”…The Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, physical and unhinged – licking his lips like a snake sensing its prey, blows away the inert Jack Nicholson performance and retires the role for a generation if not all time. Oscars don’t go to films like this but Ledger’s performance here is worthy of consideration. His Joker is blackly hilarious and utterly terrifying, usually at the same time, and even his musical theme is chilling. The Nolan brothers cross many lines in depicting his psychopathic unpredictability. One of the taglines for this film was “Welcome to a world without rules”. Batman cannot understand Joker.  Carmine Falcone wanted power, Scarecrow wanted money, Ras Al’Ghul wanted order, The Joker? –  “I’m an agent of chaos”… His escalating mind games in the film move from straight crime with a superbly staged opening heist against a Mob bank, to terrorist attacks, to sick mass murder and beyond…

The Dark Knight is fiercely intelligent, ingeniously structured (to reveal plot details would be a sin) and gives memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble, while the twisted bond between Batman and Joker that exists in the comics finally receives a cinematic depiction. This is all incredibly realistic looking with 60% of the film shot on location and if seen on an Imax screen, as Christopher Nolan indeed shot it especially for, Gotham becomes a character in its own right with its cityscape lovingly captured in vertiginous shots. Written, played and directed with supreme assuredness this is one of the most gut-wrenchingly suspenseful films of the year that looks to 1970s crime thrillers like Serpico rather than superhero films for its modus operandi with its theme of police corruption. Indeed this is unlike any previous Bat-sequel, as can be seen by the difference between the grisly Two-Face in this film compared to previous camp interpretations, and is even tonally different in many ways to Batman Begins. Wanted may be the most fun blockbuster this summer but the Bat has captured the classy end of the spectrum with a film that combines meaty drama with explosive action.

You need to see The Dark Knight. Repeatedly…

5/5

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July 13, 2018

At least we still have… : Part III

The third entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’ is a marvel. I saw this sketch roughly a decade ago and rediscovered it recently, and couldn’t credit it how I could ever have forgotten it in the intervening years. Its 60 seconds are relentless in upping the ante with the constant repetition of ever more ludicrous alterations to the deal. The background shudders of laughter from Bobba Fett and the Stormtroopers are a joy, as are the particulars of Darth Vader’s humiliating alterations, and the icing on the cake is the voice of Lando himself, Billy Dee Williams, enabling all this nonsense.

‘Wrong Place Wrong Time’ reminds me of the sequence in Angel season 2 where an episode followed a villain who’d been disarmed by Angel in the season 1 finale and we saw the mundanity of pulling on shirts with one hand, looping pre-knotted ties over his neck, and looking in depression at his gathering dust guitar. But that this is not a Whedonesque fleshing out of a villain, but rather a Stoppardian absurdist tangent following the minor players in someone else’s story, with even more absurdity in its conception than that which Stoppard deployed when fleshing out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

What can one say about ‘Dr Ball MD’? Beyond that it is screamingly funny, and typical of the Robot Chicken approach to Star Wars. Take a ‘character’ onscreen for a few seconds in one Star Wars movie, give it a life of its own by granting it a personality combining Bones from Star Trek and Quincy ME, run up some idiotic 1970s TV show title credits, and then use this to mock the prequels and poke fun at moments in the original trilogy. And, once again, just like ‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’, all done within 60 seconds.

July 18, 2011

The Movies aren’t Dead, they just smell funny – Pt I

Mark Harris’ GQ article The Day the Movies Died has caused quite the stir this year.

Harris makes a number of interesting points in his article, which I’ll get to in Part II, but he also adopts a number of poses which I’ve criticised in the past. I was infuriated by the speciousness of his opening salvo which characterises the present as the nadir of cinema. His characterisation of the studio response to Inception is entertaining but his clinching quote “Huh. Well, you never know” isn’t real; it’s a characterisation by him of the studio response. I could rewrite that entire paragraph to end with my Groucho & Me in-joke producer character Delaney wailing “I don’t get it. I saw that movie twice and I still don’t understand it. I couldn’t even get a single trailer to properly explain it, according to people who understood it, so why did people go see it?”, and it might be just as accurate albeit more generous. If I added “And why did they see Inception and then boycott Scott Pilgrim?” it would be even more accurate. What’s frustrating is that Harris is better than this. He quotes uber-producer Scott Rudin, whose warning of the danger of betting on execution rather than a brand name is exactly what led to the studio shrug at Inception that Harris misinterprets. Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point. Would you like to have to explain to your shareholders how you bet $300 million on it not being at this particular point? There is no point in making a movie no one will want to see. Even when execution is perfect, as in the case of another whack-job concept from last summer, Scott Pilgrim, people may just not go.

Harris almost destroys his argument by the way he makes it. It’s an extremely cheap shot to list movies coming out in summer 2011 and summer 2012, not by their titles but by de-contextualised sneers based on their sources, before footnoting what the films are so that you can’t easily check which sneer corresponds to which film. This is the snobbery I questioned in my Defence of Comic-Book Movies run riot, and is incredibly inane bearing in mind that The Godfather would be ‘pulp fiction crime novel’, Gone with the Wind – ‘airport novel historical romance’, Casablanca – ‘failed stage play that couldn’t even get staged’ and The Empire Strikes Back – ‘sequel to a kids sci-fi movie’. Harris’ tactic can devastate 2011’s attractions when they’re listed as adaptations of comic-books, a sequel to a sequel to a film devised from a theme-park ride, two sequels to cartoons, adaptations of children’s books, and a 5th franchise instalment. But shall we parse that approach to listing Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, The Smurfs, and Fast & Furious 5?

The underlying assumption is that comic-book movies are rubbish because comic-books are rubbish. Never mind that Green Lantern was an enormously risky undertaking when he’s just complained Hollywood doesn’t take risks – I’ve read Green Lantern comics, no one else I know has, and many consider him to be the most ridiculous character in the DC Universe – a position tantamount to saying that execution doesn’t matter, only the source material, which is patent nonsense. Sneering at POTC’s origins is embarrassingly 2002; POTC 4 should have been sneered at because POTC 3 was an endless joyless bore that forgot everything that made POTC1 such fun. Sequels to cartoons are not intrinsically bad, something Harris unwittingly demonstrates by yoking together sequels to a charming animation and an unbearable animation. If Winnie the Pooh has no right to exist because it’s an adaptation of a children’s book we must also blacklist Babe and Watership Down, while The Smurfs is almost entirely dependent on execution. Any source can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Stephen Sommers could direct War and Peace and it would be awful, and titled War. PG Wodehouse didn’t apologise for knocking out another Jeeves & Wooster novel when he thought of an amusing storyline for them, and Fast & Furious 5 isn’t bad because it has 5 in the title – what is this, numerology?

Harris criticises summer 2011 for not having an Inception type wildcard. But does he really think people have concepts like Inception every day? What was the blockbuster people grasped for as a reference point for Inception? The Matrix. So, it only took 11 years thru the alimentary canal, as Harris puts it, for the success of the Wachowksis’ whack-job high-concept blockbuster to produce another successful whack-job high-concept blockbuster. But the lack of Inception in Space in the summer 2012 slate informs his dismissive roster-call whose lowlights are The Dark Knight Rises being a sequel to a sequel to a reboot of a comic-book movie, and Breaking Dawn: Part II being a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a YA novel. Harris’ logic appears to be (a) directors have no right to film all of a multi-novel cycle or (b) artistic integrity demands the cinematic Twilight story be left hanging. Neither of which persuades, while dismissing Nolan’s Bat-finale in such ludicrous fashion purely because of a dislike of comic-books undermines all his judgement calls.

Harris semi-apologises that some of these movies will be great, but surely he knows this apology is defeated by his prior cleverly contrived presentation of an avalanche of stupidity heading towards the multiplexes? He quotes a studio executive lamenting: “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is the screenwriting is apparently done by jaded supercomputers… The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this could go anywhere. I praised Win Win for the same quality. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The question is whether studio tactics, counter-productive market research, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself are all working against cinema by lowering the standard journeymen film-makers operate at…

July 12, 2011

…And Harrison Ford

I’m indecently excited at the notion that Harrison Ford has finally stopped clinging on to his leading man career and belatedly embraced just being ‘…And Harrison Ford’.

Ford was 35 when recurring roles in the Lucas-Coppola-complex finally culminated in his star-making supporting turn as Han Solo in Star Wars. He threw himself into leading man roles with gusto honing that roguish quality for comedy, romance and action in Force 10 from Navarone, Hanover Street, and The Frisco Kid, before The Empire Strikes Back codified his blockbuster persona. Its immediate successors, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner, showcased both his strengths and his versatility respectively. From that point on Ford balanced his Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters with more intimate films like Witness, Frantic and The Mosquito Coast, and even branched into outright comedy with Working Girl. The 1990s are when everything starts to wobble. He started well with a massive hit despite a terrible haircut in Presumed Innocent but followed it up with Regarding Henry, which, in retrospect, may be the tipping point.

Nobody wanted to see Ford in a quiet drama… He responded by belatedly taking on the role of Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, but neither of those films is well beloved either. Indeed The Fugitive was his last unqualified mega-hit blockbuster. At 52 in Clear and Present Danger Ford was getting a bit old for the all-action shtick, which he last successfully purveyed without in-camera apology in 1997’s Air Force One. Branching out into comedy with Sabrina and Six Days Seven Nights proved disastrous, the controversial turkey The Devil’s Own didn’t help matters, and by 2000 he was clearly struggling. His terrifically ambiguous turn in Zemeckis’ Hitchcock homage What Lies Beneath was meant to resurrect his leading man cachet after the unseen disaster of Random Hearts. Instead it led only to the unseen K-19: The Widowmaker, and the unwatchable Hollywood Homicide and Firewall. These all got cinema releases, but they weren’t must-sees…

The gambit of a 4th Indiana Jones movie seemed liked desperation, and it was. Ford was still good in the role but its welcome success wasn’t enough to get his leading roles in either immigration drama Crossing Borders or medical drama Extraordinary Measures into Irish cinemas. Nearly three years after Indy 4 he finally made into Irish cinemas again with Morning Glory, a reasonably popular film, but one in which he appears in an ‘…And Harrison Ford’ capacity, in a part that functions as a satirical commentary on his long refusal to acknowledge his star had dimmed. I didn’t know Ford was even in Cowboys and Aliens until I saw the trailer before Transformers 3, but it’s great news. It means he’s accepted that he can’t be the lead in blockbusters anymore, but that instead of sulking about it he’s shrugged his shoulders in the best Indy ‘I’m making this up as I go along’ fashion and realised that he still belongs in blockbusters.

He may have to accept Daniel Craig as the lead, but an awful lot of fun can be had as the wise mentor to the action-hero whippersnapper in blockbusters. Ford has finally relented and become the Henry Jones who sits in the side-car, not the one who rides the motorbike, and that’s something to cheer.

September 8, 2010

Salvage Operation: Reign of Fire

2002’s failed blockbuster Reign of Fire is not a good film by any means, but it does contain at least one genuinely great idea which should be salvaged for posterity.

In a post-apocalyptic world caused by the accidental unleashing of dragons from underneath London Underground the world as we know it has ceased to exist. Christian Bale and some other survivors live in small pockets of human resistance to the fiery reign of the dragons. In one early scene we see Bale and another adult entertaining the surviving children of their group by re-enacting Star Wars. Bounding about a make-shift stage like giddy children themselves they make light-saber noises as they swing wooden swords, a wheezing sound between lines when playing Darth Vader, and the old hand up the sleeve trick for Luke losing his hand, before the children en masse gasp in shock and disbelief at the line “No Luke, am your father”.

It is a hilarious and great scene in an uninspired film, not least because its idea is so telling. In the event of an apocalypse with only youngish men being left as the elders of a community it’s highly unlikely anyone would be able to remember all of The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Hamlet or Great Expectations but it is entirely (and disturbingly) plausible that a bunch of twentysomethings would between them remember most, if not all, of the dialogue and scenes of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Hurley writing the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back in LOST when he’s stuck on the island in the 1970s. It’s also entirely likely that the children they entertained with their physical theatre re-enactment would indeed lap it up. And furthermore while the notion that, in the event of an apocalypse, all of Western civilization and culture would be erased save for George Lucas is on the surface deeply troubling, on second thought it’s not so bad. Lucas after all was so heavily indebted to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in his initial drafts of his saga that saving Star Wars would in fact mean saving classic story-structures and archetypal characters with mythical resonance beyond the surface nonsensicality. And with resonant stories the past wouldn’t be lost…

And so Reign of Fire may in fact have contained one truly great idea amidst a sea of CGI dragon-fire and shirtless Matthew McConaughey. Who’d a thunk it?

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