Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Knight

The recent comic book movie boom, despite it's ubiquitousness and financial success, has a lot to answer for, as far as I'm concerned. Sure, quality has been fairly high this year, so far, but the level of storytelling generally misses the mark when most of the films are measured against the original source material. The X-Men movies gave us a cast of dozens, who were mostly poorly introduced and developed, and swapped scrappy little Wolverine for Clint Eastwood tall, good looking, get-them-gals-into-the-theater Wolverine. The Spider Man movies were more or less faithful to the stories, but somehow couldn't resist adding a thick layer of cheese to the material that was neither warranted or welcomed, in addition to bland, uninspiring casting choices for the two most important characters in the films. Superman Returns was almost a fine return to form, if it hadn't been so quiet and slavishly faithful to the old Richard Donner films. But then came The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's follow up to 2004's excellent Batman Begins, and I say, his masterpiece thus far.
The Dark Knight picks up directly from Batman Begins: Batman (Christian Bale) and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are quickly changing Gotham, keeping the mob on the run and backing them into a corner. But, problems are still there: amateur copycat Batmen are popping up, giving Batman more to worry about when fighting crime. Also, an unpredictable criminal mastermind known as the Joker (Heath Ledger) has been making the scene, and offers his services to the mob to rid them of Batman. Add to the mix idealistic DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who both helps and complicates matters by aligning himself with Batman and Gordon, and dating Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhal, ably replacing Katie Holmes from the first film). Things are going to get worse before they get better.....a hell of a lot worse.
It's been said that The Dark Knight is a writer's movie, and that's putting it mildly. TDK takes the standard script/act formula for a summer tentpole and smashes it to pieces. There are multiple story subtypes in the main theme, an unorthodox act structure, multiple climaxes (!), but Christopher and Jonathan Nolan make it all work. Nolan has acknowledged inspiration from Michael Mann's Heat, and it resembles that film in some ways (a high-profile bank robbery, archrivals, lots of attention to the supporting cast, really an ensemble piece at heart), but to say that it's a superhero version of Heat is selling it short. When I walked out of Batman Begins, my mind was reeling with all the possibilities that they could continue with. Nolan took all of those opportunities, and one or two I didn't think about. We see more of Batman, his tactical genius, his detective skills, and even him working during the day as Bruce Wayne, where Batman can't go. Gary Oldman's part is substantially expanded from the first film, as he gets to hit all the right notes for Gordon: hero cop, family man, Batman's greatest ally. As Harvey Dent, Aaron Eckhart nearly owns the picture for his portrayal as a man so inspiring that Bruce Wayne wonders if he could and should replace Batman as the hero Gotham City deserves. The film has a truly epic feel, yet the dialogue is pretty minimalist: I don't think there's a single wasted word in the script. There is no kid stuff to be had here: this is a superhero movie for adults, and it's tone exceeds other dark second acts (if they make a third.....) like The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers. The film is rated PG-13, but it felt R-Rated to me. A daring status quo is established at the end of the film that makes me want to see another to see how it will play out, if for no other reason.
The thing that got some extra interest for the picture, for better or worse, was Heath Ledger's tragic overdose earlier this year. Watching him in TDK only makes that sadder, because I had no idea how much potential he had. Had he not died, there would still be a lot of buzz about him because really, he's that good as the Joker. We see performances this incendiary only once in a great while. Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class. Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. Geoffrey Rush in Quills. And Heath Ledger does that here. When the Joker is onscreen, there is not a second in which Ledger isn't conveying a very palpable sense of danger and chaos that Jack Nicholson couldn't convey with his nonthreatening Joker from Tim Burton's Batman. With his unkempt hair, strange makeup, and Chelsea grin, he disappears completely inside the character (isn't that what an actor's supposed to do anyway?) The Joker seen here is the closest we've seen to the comics in terms of his unpredictability, threat level, and criminal genius, but with a touch of added anarchy. Nolan and Ledger did a fine job indeed of pulling the garish Joker into the "real world" nicely. It should be noted that Ledger does not overpower any other actor in the film, IMHO: everybody does solid, careful work with characters less outlandish than the Joker. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, respectively reprising their roles as Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox from the first film, get a lot done with very little screen time. If Alfred had a bigger role in this picture, I would say that Michael Caine deserved an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. Honorable mention also goes to Eric Roberts, for his portrayal of smarmy mob boss Sal Moroni.
TDK is a summer movie in almost every sense of the definition: while a lot smarter than the typical summer movie, it's no less fun. The ante is upped with several major action sequences that far surpass the very competent, but much smaller in retrospect, Batman Begins. TDK whizzes along at a breakneck pace that makes the two and a half hour film feel much longer, without actually dragging. Multiple viewings are practically required to really absorb the story, and its subtleties. Despite that, TDK is easily the most satisfying film I've seen in years. And now, there's no looking back. Comic book movies have no excuses for playing it safe now that this film has raised the bar, and given us the crime epic that a character as great as Baman deserves. This formula can be easily applied to other existing franchises. I don't believe that Sam Raimi put Spider Man through the wringer half as much as he could have, and the character wouldn't (and shouldn't) react by simply crying and turning disco, either. Give us X-Men that are the misunderstood freaks who protect those who fear and hate them, instead of the really, really, really, good-looking mutants. I want an Iron Man movie heavy on the political/military intrigue, ala Tom Clancy. Throw Tony Stark's alcoholism into the mix ala Leaving Las Vegas, and you have something potentially very powerful indeed.
The only caveat I have with TDK (if you can even call it a problem) is that it's a pretty hard act to follow, even for a filmmaker as gifted as Christopher Nolan. Still, I believe that he is capable of it. After all, he just gave me the superhero film I've been waiting for for a very long time now. I had absurdly high expectations for TDK, and it met them handily. This movie is Best Picture nomination (if not outright deserving of the prize) good, no joke. This is genre filmmaking on a level never, ever seen before. Still, I hope that Christopher Nolan can pull off a third act that at least meets this one in quality, if not beats it. It's because of that hope that I give The Dark Knight a 21.5 on the 22 scale.

Memorable Lines:

The Joker: "You see, nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If I told people that a gangbanger was going to get shot, or a busload of soldiers was going to get blown up, nobody would panic. Because it's all part of the plan. But tell people that one tiny little mayor is going to die and everyone loses their minds!"

Batman: "Why do you want to kill me?"
The Joker: "Kill you? I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, you... you complete me."

Maroni's Mistress: "It's too loud in here, we can't hear each other talk."
Salvatore Maroni: "What makes you think I want to hear you talk?"

The Joker: "Do you wanna know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can't savor all the...little..emotions. their last moments...people show you who they really are. So, in a way, I know your friends better than you ever did. Would you like to know which one of them were cowards?"

Harvey Dent: "The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

La Vie En Rose (or, La Môme)

Initial Reaction: Sacré Bleu!

As self-appointed foreign film specialist of TMBC, I bring you a French biopic about one of the most famed singers of France whose talent reached international renown in the 1950s and 60s. I think the reason that I enjoy biopics so much is because though I’m not really one to get interested in history or biographies, watching a film about someone’s life is totally captivating. These films offer very unique experiences, and I love being able to expand my horizons by feeling or seeing what another person has seen or felt.

Édith Piaf had a tragic, soulful voice which matched the things that happened throughout her personal life. From her childhood until her death, Piaf was haunted by misfortune and tragedy. For the most part, the movie spans her entire life, but not sequentially. It consistently jumps to different times in her life, which at first is a bit disorienting, but it’s pretty easy to catch on. As a young child, Édith went from living with her mother, who was a street singer, to her maternal grandmother, then her father, and eventually to her paternal grandmother who ran a brothel. For several years this was her home, and she grew close to one of the women there named Titine. Titine came to look at Édith as her own child, caring for her and encouraging her pray to Saint Theresa. During this time, Édith also suffered from an illness which gave her long-term temporary blindness.

Regardless of these things, Édith seemed to be happy and loved in this environment. But her bad luck came back full force when her father returned unexpectedly and uprooted her, bringing her with him where he worked in the circus as a contortionist. At first things seemed even more unfair than ever, since she wasn't even allowed to watch the acts and was forced to cook and clean for her father, but this is the first opportunity she got to experience what would be her love affair for life: singing.

One big plus for this film is the music. Mostly, the songs are being sung by Piaf herself, (a good choice by director Olivier Dahan) and aside from maybe the first number, Cotillard did a great job lip-synching. Piaf had a very unique sound and style, which was described as being “the soul of Paris.” I was ashamed to realize after watching the film just how famous Piaf was, not only in France, and I wasn’t even aware.

Now, in regards to Marion Cotillard and her performance in this movie: wow. I have a lot of respect for this actress, and she totally deserves the academy award she got. The amount of time she spent learning how to stand and sing like Piaf has got to be staggering, but she says herself that she didn’t only strive to copy the singer. She made her a real person, and embodied her spirit. Also noteworthy is that she acted as Piaf as a young woman, spanning the years until she is at the end of her life. This was when she was in her 40s, though because of extremely poor health, she looked more like she was in her 60s or 70s.

So, why should you see La Vie En Rose? While I think most will probably accept the fact that it's extremely well-done with one of the best acting performances ever, I don't think many are rushing to the rental store to pick it up. Here are some reasons why you should: the story of Piaf's life is really an incredible one. I've given you a small piece of her childhood, but her adult life is what really touches our human core as she lives, loves and continues on in spite of everything that would seek to drag her down. The music is wonderful...she is truly unique and not only performed, but sang with truth and spirit that came from her life. The film is extremely well-done, clearly fashioned with great attention to detail and a successful attempt to capture her story and her life. Finally, if none of these things appeal to you, Cotillard's performance should. I've seen her in other films before, but until I looked her up on the Internet Movie Database after seeing this movie, I didn't think I had ever seen her. She has thrown herself into this role, and in doing so has brought Piaf back to life, renewing interest in her legacy and allowing us the chance to connect with the experiences of others, no matter how far removed and distant those experiences may seem.

Rating: 18

La Vie en Rose is one of those stories that you keep thinking about after you see it. Édith Piaf is a French icon whose story and contribution to music should not go unnoticed. This movie doesn't seek to overly glorify her or paint things in ways that they didn't happen; it delivers to us a real person who, though she might not always be likeable, draws us in with her vibrant spirit, incredible talent, and tenacity, which kept her singing until her life was cut short. Mais, elle ne regrette rien.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Strange Days

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a system, or the inability for a system to do its work, will increase over time, eventually reaching a maximum at equilibrium. Now, to me, that’s a lot of gobbledygook; I just looked it up on Wikipedia. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats had a much simpler and more understandable way of saying it: things fall apart. Anything that’s set in motion will gradually break down, till there is no motion at all. Love fades, food rots, and our bodies continue their downward slide. So what the hell, let’s make a movie!

Strange Days is a film made in 1995 set around New Year’s Eve 1999, a time when the country is basically going down the crapper. Projections about the very near future are never a good idea, especially when they’re as radical as the ones in Strange Days. Granted, they’re not that the shape of the earth has changed or that we’re living in pods in outer space, but their just extreme enough to make people in 2008 snicker a little. A particularly funny moment was when there was a lament that gasoline was over $3.00/gallon.

It technically qualifies as a sci-fi movie, and here’s why. Central to the plot are illegal devices called SQUIDs. A SQUID is a device that goes over your head like a hairnet, and when you plug a mini-disc-like cartridge into the remote device wirelessly connected to it, you can have an audiovisual/tactile experience in first person, as if you are there. The cartridge is a recording taken from the cerebral cortex of someone also wearing a SQUID. People get hooked on it like drugs, and like some drugs, overuse of it makes you paranoid. Strange Days’s main character is a dealer of these black market devices named Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes). He’s an ex-cop now working on the wrong side of the law, but still basically a good person. Also in the story are his friend Mace (Angela Bassett), a tough-as-nails limo driver, Max (Tom Sizemore), his P.I. buddy, and Faith (Juliette Lewis), a singer/hooker who happens to be the (only) one that got away. The trouble starts when Lenny gets sent a mysterious “black jack” cartridge (the SQUID equivalent of a snuff film) depicting the brutal rape and murder of Iris, a hooker friend of Faith’s. Iris indicated that Faith might be in danger before she died, and because of his obsession with Faith, Lenny gets involved.

Strange Days is very story-driven, so I won’t reveal much more than that. The screenplay, written by James Cameron of Titanic fame, is smart and tightly wound, even though it doesn’t make sense in places and is slightly ridiculous. However, I’m not sure who Strange Days thinks it’s appealing to. It’s too violent, disturbing and swear-ridden to appeal to sci-fi geeks, and it’s too cerebral and futuristic to appeal to the meatheads that would like the guns and bad people in it. In the end, it winds up being a jack of all trades, master of none. Acting is competent from all involved, especially Angela Bassett. It strikes me that she would be perfect for the role of Storm in X-Men, and would do an infinitely better job than Halle Berry. Strange Days has far too long of a beginning, though, and consequentially clocks in at almost 2 and a half hours. The director (Kathryn Bigelow) could have trimmed the fat without taking out the punch or grit, which the movie had in spades.

It was a little too needlessly graphic and pessimistic for my taste, and I didn’t like the anti-society message the movie (perhaps subconsciously) seemed to present. It had a great premise, and the screenplay was intricate and intelligent with fantastic dialogue, though the plot holes eventually made it look a little like Swiss cheese. The cinematography comes from an age when CGI wasn’t the thing that it is now, but in this case, it’s a good thing. The set and costume designs (and lack of CGI) make the world the characters exist in eerily like our own, but fast-forwarded enough to still make it escapist. But overall, the problems Strange Days has make it difficult to recommend very highly. It’s definitely not for everyone.

Iconic lines:
“Cheer up. The world’s gonna end in ten minutes, anyway.”
“The issue’s not whether you’re paranoid. The issue’s whether you’re paranoid enough.”
“Two million years of human evolution and that’s the best you can come up with?”

22 Rating: 5

Particle Man

Monday, July 07, 2008

Love's Labour's Lost

I love Shakespeare. I love musicals. So obviously by putting those two together would send me to heaven. Well before we get to that, let’s examine the plot of Love’s Labour's Lost. Kenneth Branagh is at it again with an interpretation of the immortal bard. Again, our friend Mr. Branagh does not make Shakespeare into anything crazy. The language is the same; only this time he is mixing it with song and dance routines. Nothing crazy like contemporary dances, but those you would find in the classic musicals of the 40s or 50s. Which works very well since the movie is set in 1939.
Branagh brings us into the story with a newsreel reminding the viewer that WWII is very near entering France. While I applaud Branagh’s attempt to merge the story with a different time, the newsreels that occur throughout the film do get somewhat tedious. We are told that the King of Navarre and his 3 cronies have decided to shut themselves away for three years of intensive study. The biggest thing about this is that no women can be seen by ANY of the scholars or the King’s subjects, along with other crazy rules. Of course that oath is swiftly tested when the Princess of France visits with her 3 ladies in waiting. The oath takes a beating from him and his compatriots as well as by his subjects.
This movie was enjoyable. I feel that saying it was good would be exaggerating slightly. This movie had a lot of famous people in it but I don’t think that improved it any. As always, Nathan Lane delivers a top-notch performance as the court clown, and gets to sing and dance as well. For the “Men of Navarre” Kenneth Branagh is the most famous person with Matthew Lillard coming in a distant second. While I found Branagh convincing as the sarcastic and self-loving Berowne (yeah, like he really had to act), Lillard was horribly miscast. Although he can sing well enough, I guess, he does not come off as even remotely masculine. Even when wooing his Lady of France he seems to be trying to convince the audience and himself that he is not gay. The “Ladies of France” have as their recognizable star Alicia Silverstone. She does a competent job in conveying the princess, and despite her convincingly acting ditzy in Clueless, did not trip over the big Shakespearean words. Timothy Spall turns in a showing as the weird count. I think he was supposed to be whimsical, but is just plain weird and weird looking as well. Richard Clifford as Boyet is on the side of good this time as the servant to the Ladies of France. Last time I saw Mr. Clifford he was serving the evil and sulky Prince John in Much Ado About Nothing.
As I said before, I love both Shakespeare and musicals but I don’t know if they gelled together the way they were envisioned. Something about Kenneth Branagh in a wife beater trying to be all sexy while seducing Alicia Silverstone just does not do it for me. Nevertheless, the movie is an enjoyable musical romp with a few missteps thrown in. Obviously, I did not hate it enough to avoid buying it. I would have to go with a 9. I think there is one line in the movie that defines what happened. “Let’s face the music and dance.” This seems to be a good idea of director Branagh assessment of the situation. “Well, it is not going to be stellar, so let’s just have fun!”