Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Dark Knight

Looking back on director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, the Joker is clearly the standout villain. Partly that's due to Heath Ledger's electrifying and terrifying performance, but it's also what the character does to Batman. To steal a phrase from Star Trek, he doesn't kill Batman (Christian Bale); he hurts him. Yes, Ra's Al Ghul shaped and tempted the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins, and Bane is the man who broke the bat in The Dark Knight Rises, but in retrospect, they feel more like obstacles to overcome. There's was never any question that Batman would rise to the challenge of facing them; he would not give up.

Meanwhile, in The Dark Knight (2008), the Joker makes Batman blink. Their first big fight concludes when the Joker stands in the middle of road against the oncoming Batpod, refusing to move, and Batman swerves and crashes, saved only by the presence of soon-to-be Police Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Ra's and Bane are both strategists, but Joker is insane enough to die to prove a point; he has no agenda or goal other than chaos, the complete antithesis to Batman, who is about order and justice.  When Batman and Joker have a face-to-face discussion in the police interrogation room, the Clown Prince of Crime gets inside the Dark Knight's head, taunting with the knowledge he has no weapons or threats that would work against him. This monster shakes Batman to his core to the point he at one point is willing to give up the mantle, lest he go down a dark path to stop him.

The Dark Knight picks up some time after the events of Batman Begins. Batman, Gordon, and a new ally, idealistic District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are putting the squeeze on Gotham's organized crime. Bruce Wayne is becoming optimistic he can retire the Batman persona and settle down with his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), even though she's now with Dent. In their desperation, the mob turns to a new figure in Gotham's criminal underworld: the Joker. Joker immediately begins calling out Batman, threatening to kill people every day he doesn't reveal who's under the mask.

When you compare all three Nolan Batman movies, it becomes apparent the central running theme is symbols and the messages they inspire. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman for two reasons: to frighten the city's criminal element and show the people of Gotham there is reason to hope. In The Dark Knight Rises, the series concludes when Batman inspires the police to literally take back the city from crime after a period in which Batman's absence left a void and another symbol was torn down.

The Dark Knight begins (after an opening bank heist by Joker in which he kills all his accomplices) with Batman encountering copycat Batmen while wrapping up a loose end from the previous movie. These vigilantes use guns and wear hockey pads, not exactly what Bruce Wayne meant when he said he wanted to inspire people.  Meanwhile, the Joker is the criminal response to Batman, the escalation, the evil the Bat inspired (albeit unintentionally). His plan is all about tearing down symbols of hope and justice. To him, life is a cruel joke, and he wants to expose everyone as being as evil and twisted as he is. By unmasking Batman, he'll reveal him to be fake, and by going after Harvey Dent, Gotham's "white knight," the clean, uncorrupted hero Batman could never be, the Joker can destroy the people's hope and soul.

The downfall of Harvey Dent and his transformation into the scarred Two-Face is well known to comic book fans, and it's handled much better here than it was in Batman Forever. Unlike Tommy Lee Jones, Aaron Eckhart is not a cackling, goofy Joker-clone but a pained and tortured soul who becomes twisted. We witness how good and just he was and how he believed in never selling out, which makes it all the more tragic when he becomes warped and vengeful. He flips the coin, and he sticks with the outcome no matter what.

Unfortunately, and we're about to enter SPOILER territory, Nolan once again unceremoniously does away with an interesting villain he's built up by killing off Two-Face in the end. I'm of two minds about this. Thematically, it makes sense, and it pays off in The Dark Knight Rises because Gordon and Batman elect to make Dent a false symbol of justice. When the facade is exposed, Batman is forced to become the symbol himself, so there's a nice arc, making for a satisfying conclusion to this story. That said, I, like plenty of comic fans I'm sure, wanted to see an entire movie with Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face. His transformation occurs only in the last 40 minutes, and even then, he only has a few scenes. Two-Face is one of the greatest Batman foes, but here, he's ultimately just the Joker's greatest victim. END SPOILER.

For the first two hours, The Dark Knight is arguably the best of the Nolan Batman movies, but it grows cumbersome in the last half-hour. I said in my Dark Knight Rises review the third entry probably has the most plot holes and contrivances, but The Dark Knight likely has the one of the most unlikely developments. Near the end, Joker rigs two ferries - one with Gotham citizens, the other with prisoners- to blow up. Each boat has the detonator to the other, and Joker will blow them both up if neither makes a choice. This is a great setup and so like the Joker (although the choice aspect is traditionally Two-Face's M.O.), but the resolution and how it plays out struck me as very unlikely. Thematically, you could call this the big turning point in the series for the city itself when this sampling of people on boats (appropriately named Spirit and Liberty) make the choice they do, but narrative-wise, it strains plausibility.

Another great Joker scheme ruined by a poor payoff is when he takes hostages and dresses them as clowns with guns duct-taped to their hands while the real henchmen are dressed as doctors and nurses. How does Batman respond to this development? By alerting Gordon, warning the approaching SWAT teams, or some other way of passing on this information? No, he beats up the SWAT guys and leaves several dangling off the side of the building while there are still armed threats around. I guess Batman just likes beating people up.

So, that's The Dark Knight, and yes, Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn as the Joker remains brilliant. It's worth watching just for his performance, although the movie does have other attributes going for it as well as some frustrations. Nolan must be applauded for considering the larger, thematic picture of the series and tying everything together, but some details and changes ring false.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rock 'N' Roll High School

 It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979) is to the Ramones what A Hard Day's Night is to the Beatles. Yes, both movies are musicals prominently featuring the songs and performers of their respective bands and build to a concert, but A Hard Day's Night was conceived from the get-go as a vehicle for the Fab Four. The personalities of John, Paul, George, and Ringo are featured center stage, and it's the Beatles' natural wit and charisma that carry the picture. They're clearly the stars, and the picture has been credited  with influencing a new cinematic style.

Rock 'N' Roll High School, on the other hand, began life under the title of Disco High because producer Roger Corman, the master exploitation filmmaker, wanted to cash in on that trend, but it was director Allan Arkush who convinced Corman to go with rock. IMDB lists several other acts that were considered before the Ramones were brought on board: Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Devo, Tom Petty, and Van Halen. How close any of these performers were to being in the picture I don't know, but the point is the Ramones could have been substituted by just about any other rock band (and I say that as a fan of their music).

Unlike A Hard Day's Night, which was essentially a day in the life of the Beatles as they get ready for a show, Rock 'N' Roll High School has a plot and conflict, resurrecting the time-honored clash between rock-n-roll-loving teenagers and the square, oppressive adults. On one side is Riff Randle (P.J. Soles), the hard-rock chick who plays the Ramones over the P.A. at Vince Lombardi High School, and she has two goals: get to the Ramones concert when they come to town and get them the song she wrote for them (appropriately, "Rock N Roll High School). In Riff's way is Miss Togar (Mary Woronov), the new principal who insists she is going to crack down on the wild student body and its disruptive music.

There are other plot threads running through Rock 'N' Roll High School. Riff's best friend, the bookish Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), likes the football team quarterback Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten), but he's too dense to notice, and he's got the hots for Riff. There's Mr. McGree (Paul Bartel), the Beethoven-loving music teacher who discovers these Ramones might be on to something. And then there's Eaglebauer (Clint Howard), the go-to guy for any of student need. It all leads to a student takeover of the high school  with the Ramones and a final confrontation with the adults that ends explosively.

I wouldn't call Rock 'N' Roll High School a fantasy picture (although it is about wish fulfillment), but the movie is filled with a lot of bizarre little details that push it into the realm of surreal. Miss Togar's will is enforced by a pair of hall monitors, Fritz Hansel and Fritz Gretal, who are always in uniform and apparently answer her call at all hours, even driving to the concert at night from the school in a motorcycle. When Togar tells one of them to take a note to Mr. McGree, he folds it into a paper airplane, and we follow its flight path through the campus until he catches it in a classroom and hands it to McGree. Togar's scientific experiments to prove the danger of rock n roll involves playing Ramones music until the white lab mice spontaneously combust. She might be on to something because at the concert, a giant white mouse is denied entrance because of that danger until he produces a pair of earphones.

The movie works by striking a balance between anarchic rock fantasy and high school nostalgia, particularly with Eaglebauer. Characters looking for his help (like setting up a date or learning how to unhook a bra) go into the men's bathroom where there is a line of people waiting and a secretary taking appointments and directing clients to a stall which opens up to reveal the kind of office you'd expect as Hollywood agent to have.

I said the Ramones could have been replaced by any rock band, and while that's true, they fit into the movie quite well. Granted, they aren't really required to do much more than stand around and look cool until called upon to perform a song, but with their black leather jackets; short, punchy songs; and punk, go-to-hell attitudes, they're a good match for the movie, and they add to its sense of chaos. Plus, their musical performances are inspired and fun.

Rock 'N' Roll High School is just fun and energetic, and for all it's talk of the dangers of rock music, it's relatively tame and in its own way innocent. Like any good rock show, it's simply a good time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

El Mariachi

The making of El Mariachi (1992) is a story cherished by aspiring filmmakers. For $7,000, Robert Rodriguez wrote, directed, produced, shot, and conducted the special effects (apparently refusing to act in it, according to IMDB trivia, because there would be no one left to operate the camera) for this movie about gangs, drug dealers, and mistaken identity involving a hitman and a guitar player. The most interesting tidbit is how Rodriguez raised a good portion of the money by signing up as a test subject for medical experiments.

El Mariachi looks like a movie shot for very little money. At times, it looks like a home movie (disclosure: I watched it on a high-definition TV, so I'm not sure if that had any effect on the picture quality), the editing is a bit choppy, the performances are clearly by non-professional actors, and the story itself is rather slight, and yet despite its roughness, El Mariachi proves a thoroughly entertaining and exciting motion picture that demonstrates Rodriguez's talent.

A traveling guitar player, or mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) arrives in a small Mexican town about the same time an escaped criminal known as Azul (Reinol Martinez) shows up to take on the local drug lord who betrayed him, Moco (Peter Marquardt). Moco sends his gang to kill Azul, but they only know he wears black and carries a guitar case filled with guns. The gang comes across the mariachi who also wears black and carries a guitar case, and in a case of mistaken identity, the mariachi finds himself on the run, eventually getting help from bartender Domino (Consuelo Gomez), who has a connection to Moco.

What Rodriquez lacks in budgetary resources, he more than makes up for with energy and style. Even in this low-budget setting, Rodriguez demonstrates his flair for action choreography, and we get a number of great action scenes and shootouts. My favorite is when the mariachi is first chased by Moco's gang from his hotel room, and eventually, he kills four of them. I like it because the mariachi is portrayed not as an action-movie superhero with perfect skills and moves but as a confused, desperate innocent, and this gives the action more tension than these types of scenes typically generate.There's also a nice sequence in which Azul is stopped by the gang and forced to open his guitar case because if they find guns, they'll kill him.

The film also has an underplayed sense of humor. I got a chuckle every time the film cut away to Domino's dog, which despite warnings of its viciousness, is always lying on the floor asleep or standing over the mariachi when he wakes up. There's also a running gag involving Moco and one of his lieutenants whose face Moco uses to strike a match that has a satisfying payoff at the end. In his later pictures, particularly the likes of Grindhouse and Machete, Rodriguez displays a tendency to play up the camp elements and gross-out gags, but here, he's more restrained and less obvious. His story is limited but effective, and he sees it through.

Today, with so many action movies built on mega-sized budgets and special effects, some good and some bad, El Mariachi is refreshing in its more straightforward manner. It's simply exciting and stylish.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971), directed by Sam Peckinpah, is regarded as one of the movies at the forefront of sub-genre known as "Savage Cinema" or "Backwoods Brutality." In films such as Deliverance, The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, middle-class city or suburban-dwellers find themselves at the mercy of dangerous locals in backwoods, rural America and in numerous cases would have to abandon their ideas of morality and conduct extreme acts of violence to survive or avenge wrongs done against them.

Without question, this type of movie was violent, often graphically so, and designed create discomfort among the viewers, forcing them to confront the effect on violence on people. So why the rise of Savage Cinema? Filmmakers were enjoying newer freedoms and less restrictions as they applied their craft. New Hollywood was in full swing at this time with daring and gifted writers and directors challenging the conventions of traditional movie-making. This period, the late 60s and early 70s, was also one of great turmoil. The Vietnam War was still waging, and unlike previous conflicts, television was able to broadcast horrifying images into the homes of the American public. Race riots were occurring in several cities, the counter-cultural movement was alive, and Americans had new reason to question their leadership after the Watergate Scandal. This was a time of great political ans social instability and unease, and the films of the time reflected that.

Unlike the aforementioned titles, Straw Dogs is set in the countryside of England, specifically Cornwall, although it does center on an American. As the film opens, David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mathematician who has left the United States to live with his wife Amy (Susan George) in her hometown of Wakley. David, who left the U.S. to get away from its political and social turmoil, finds himself an outsider in his new home, unable and unwillingly to stand up for himself when the locals start making trouble, much to the disappointment of Amy. Things grow tense, particularly with Charlie Venner (Del Henney), Amy's former lover who is among the men hired to fix the Sumners' garage, and the locals become increasingly intrusive.

Straw Dogs is a slow-burn thriller. At first, it appears to be more of drama about fitting in  and adapting to a different culture, but the signs this is going to get ugly creep in, become more obvious, and become too hard to ignore until it eventually erupts in an explosion of drunken vigilantism, mob justice, machismo, and home defense. The final twenty minutes, in which David holds off a group of men trying to get into house to get at the village idiot (David Warner) for accidentally killing a girl (which David is not aware of), are downright brutal and intense as David becomes increasingly desperate, setting traps and resorting to more violent measures.

It's tempting to label Straw Dogs as pro-violence, or at least a glorification of it. After all, we witness David go from a meek, almost cowardly wimp who gets pushed to far and decides to make a stand, and it must be said there is a certain catharsis or release once David finally takes action. However, a number of points must be considered.

David's big stand is forced by his refusal to give up someone who has killed (I'm reminded a bit of the gang of The Wild Bunch pulling off a deadly robbery only to discover their prize is a bag of washers). After all, the residents of this town have a right to see justice served and the guilty punished. But this point is more nuanced, however. David takes Henry Niles into his home because he hit him with his car and sees it as a point of honor and basic dignity to see to it he gets medical attention. On a more thematic level, it is the civilized David fights back on behalf of law, order, and due process against a bunch of drunks looking to take the law into their own hands. David's action, by contrast, are less calculated revenge and more desperate self-defense in which quick thinking proves to outmatch brute force.

When the climax is over and the attackers are all dead, we get a good look at David. He began the sequence dressed in a nice suit that is now ragged, disheveled, and covered with blood. One of the lens of his glasses is cracked. He drives Henry Niles back to town, and Niles tells him he doesn't know his way home, to which David replies he doesn't either. David's descent into violence has marked him.The movie ends with him unsure of who he is and where he belongs.

Ultimately, that final point is at the heart of many of these films in savage cinema. Traditional ideas of law and order break down, and the characters' understanding of right, wrong, themselves, and each other is shattered. Like other entries in this genre, Straw Dogs can be difficult and challenging to watch at time; it does not shy away from bloodshed, dismemberment, cruelty, or sexual violence, but at its center, it is about how pervasive violence is in society and how people respond to and commit. It is strongly acted, powerfully directed, and tightly written and remains engaging throughout its running length.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things

As a rule of thumb, if you're making a zombie movie, and there's a point in the script when a couple of the characters dress up as zombies, the makeup on the actual zombies should probably be substantially better than the makeup on the fake zombies. Otherwise, your movie comes off as cheap.

Reports have emerged online that Fangoria Magazine and Tom Savini, the legendary special effects makeup artist during the splatter craze of the 70s and 80s, are teaming for a remake of this Bob Clark directed effort, Children Shouldn't Play Things (1973). I wasn't keen on Savini's 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, thinking he didn't bring much new to the material and that the original still held up. However, the original Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things is actually ripe for a remake, I think. Despite some cult appeal and a few good parts near the end, it's mostly a tedious and repetitive waste of a neat title.

Ever watch Steve Irwin or some other nature show host on TV repeatedly poke a snake, spider, or any creature with sharp teeth to the point you can actually see the precise instant the animal can't take it any more and attacks? This is essentially the plot of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, but instead of a snake, we get zombies summoned by a Satanic ritual, and instead of a nature show host, we get a troupe of theater actors (Oh God, the horror!).

A group of actors led by their director Alan (Alan Ormsby) arrive on a mostly-deserted island. Alan is a  rather big prick to everyone, referring to his actors as his "children" and threatening to fire anyone who doesn't go along, and he's planning a night of fun and games on the island, particularly in the cemetery. For some reason, Alan has a book he intends to use to call up the dead. When the ritual seems to fail, Alan has the others drag one of the bodies back to cabin where he berates them and the corpse.

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things is less than 90 minutes, and yet it's well over an hour into the movie before the dead actually rise and attack. Before that, it is an extremely long haul listening to all these characters complain about Alan and talk about whatever. The characters aren't very interesting,  not even Alan in a love-to-hate-him kind of way; he's just a jerk you want to see be eaten. The dialogue consists of a lot of lame jokes and bad puns the characters laugh at (you know what they say about people who laugh at their own jokes).

So much of the movie just doesn't make sense. I honestly don't know what Alan was trying to accomplish. Everything he does appears as part of one big lark to mess with his actors, but I don't see what his payoff was going to be. Why go to all the trouble to set up a big joke on some island to prank people? The prank itself really wasn't that impressive. After his prank, Alan really tries to wake the dead but gets angry when the spell seems to fail.  I also couldn't tell why the others put up with him so much. Yes, he's the boss, but there's a difference between working for a jerk and working for a guy who makes you dig up graves and commit similar crimes.

When the dead do show up, it's a much welcome relief. The makeup on the ghouls isn't too impressive, but the scenes of zombie attacks are decently staged and even a little tense. The living "children" have been disrespecting the dead the entire movie: goofing around a cemetery, digging up graves, mocking the dead, etc. Now karma has come back to bite them. It's not very gory or scary, but at least something interesting is finally happening.

The movie's fundamental problem is how it tries to balance comedy and horror and fails pretty badly. The comedic aspects are played on the level of a farce, and without any underlying conviction or stakes, the horror just sort of withers and dies. A better example of this type of movie is The Return of the Living Dead; that was a horror movie in which the humor organically grew from the situations because the characters weren't acting like they were trying to be funny, so the joke was on them. The situation just grew worse and worse for them as they tried to make things better, making the proceedings darkly funny. Here, just about every character is obviously trying to be funny, and few things are as unfunny as watching someone try to be funny and failing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Indulge me as I play armchair director (and spoil The Dark Knight). I think Two-Face should have been the villain in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Here's how The Dark Knight should have gone: keep everything the same up through the explosion that kills Rachel Dawes and scars Harvey Dent, spend the rest of the movie resolving the Joker, and in the final scene have Commissioner Gordon visit Dent in the hospital where we see he's become Two-Face, ending with a close-up on his burned face.

But that's not how the story played out, and although Two-Face is gone, the influence of Harvey Dent remains in the story. I've seen The Dark Knight Rises twice now in theaters, and while it's not the story I think would have been best, I shall do my best to discard my preconceptions and evaluate it on its own terms. As a conclusion to director Christopher Nolan's trilogy, which began with Batman Begins (2005) and continued with The Dark Knight (2008), it is satisfactory.

Eight years following the defeat of the Joker, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a reclusive, his body debilitated to the point he walks with a cane. Batman has not been needed since he and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) agreed to pin Two-Face's crimes on the Dark Knight to preserve the reputation of Dent, even though the guilt of protecting the legacy of the man who threatened his family is getting to Gordon. Crime in Gotham City is at an all-time low as a result of the Harvey Dent Act, which was passed to crush organized crime. But a new threat rises. The masked terrorist leader Bane (Tom Hardy), an ousted member of the League of Shadows, emerges in Gotham to wreak havoc on the city. Also figuring into things is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a cat burglar hired to steal Bruce Wayne's fingerprints. These events propel Wayne to bring back the Bat, over the objections of his longtime butler Alfred (Michael Caine).

Nolan's Batman series has been more grounded in realism than other incarnations of the character, and that continues here. Case in point: Bane. In the comics, he's a hulking giant figure given super strength by a drug known as Venom that is pumped directly into his brain by a series of tubes, and his outfit brings to mind images of luchador wrestlers. In the film, his outfit is nowhere near as outrageous nor is there any mention of Venom; instead, he wears a mask that feeds him a supply of gas that keeps in check otherwise debilitating pain, and while he is an imposing presence, he's not freakishly massive. Selina Kyle is never referred to as Catwoman, and the only cat image she's associated with are when the goggles she wears are positioned on top of her head like cat ears.

The film also plays on something that's been getting news time in real life: the growing income gap between rich and poor. At one point, Selina, who lives in a rundown lower-class apartment, tells Bruce Wayne about a coming "storm" that's coming for Gotham's wealthy elite; she thinks of herself as a modern-day Robin Hood, taking only from people who can afford it. Bane presents himself as a revolutionary liberating Gotham (although he plans to destroy it) from the manacles of oppression, exposing the lie of Harvey Dent's life, breaking open Blackgate Prison, and leaving Gotham's upper class to be devastated by its vengeful denizens. Using the threat of a nuclear explosion, Bane and his army seize control of Gotham, impose martial law, and and establish kangaroo courts (led by the Scarecrow) to execute its fallen leaders, corporate types, and police.

Some have been comparing The Dark Knight Rises to a A Tale of Two Cities, and there certainly are parallels. The breakout at Blackgate is reminiscent of the storming of the Bastille, both symbols of a corrupt ruling body's oppression, and the punishment for enemies of the state is death (walking across the frozen river until they fall through the ice Gotham and the guillotine in France).Bruce Wayne begins the movie a shell of a man hidden away from the light of the world, similar to Dr. Manette. Even the surprise villain in the end has a motivation that reminds one of Madame Defarge, the vengeful daughter of a slaughtered family, and Batman's final actions can be seen as a play on what Syndey Carton does for Charles Darnay: a sacrifice and a deception involving identity.

The Dark Knight Rises returns to theme introduced in Batman Begins: Batman as a symbol. Bruce Wayne takes up the mantle of a bat to inspire fear in Gotham's criminal element. In a time of peace, he's not really needed, but when trouble returns, the residents of Gotham look to the sky for their dark protector and lament when he is not there. Throughout the film, there is another character John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police officer who deduces who Batman is. An orphan himself, Blake is inspired by Batman, and in the movie's final scene, it is suggested just how he'll carry on the Caped Crusader's legacy. When Batman returns for a final confrontation with Bane, he  galvanizes the city's police to take back Gotham. The whole point of the trilogy has been building to where Batman has inspired the good people of Gotham to take, where one man can make a difference. With him having achieved that goal, it makes this movie a logical point for Nolan and Bale to conclude their series.

There were things that bothered about the film. While the previous movies certainly had questionable plot developments, The Dark Knight Rises has probably the largest share of contrivances, coincidences, and unlikely scenarios. Part of Bane's plan involves bankrupting Bruce Wayne; he accomplishes this by storming the Gotham stock exchange and using Wayne's fingerprints to mess with things. Are we to believe no questions Bruce Wayne losing his fortune the same day terrorists shoot the place up and access the computers? Comic books fans will be pleased to know the movie recreates the famous moment in which Bane breaks the Bat, and while that scene is effective and intense, Bruce Wayne's recovery stretches plausibility (if one of your back's discs was jutting out, would punching it back in place really be all that it takes to not be paralyzed). Bane, smartly portrayed to be vastly different from the Joker - intelligent and crafty but not insane and just an awesome physical element simply outmatching Batman - is severely undercut in the climax, both because his rematch with Batman is over too quickly and once the surprise villain is revealed, he's almost immediately dropped unceremoniously. Considering he succeeds against Batman on a number of levels where most villains failed, I think he deserved better.

Unlike the previous movies of the 80s and 90s, Nolan's Batman trilogy has to be taken to together and in the proper order, and The Dark Knight Rises is the finale. It builds on the themes and developments from the previous entries and reaches it logical climax, narratively and thematically. The characters we've been with all three movies - Wayne, his butler Alfred, Commissioner Gordon - and the characters we've just met - Selina Kyle, John Blake - all have their arcs and moment of catharsis. Maybe it's not the movie I would have made, but I have to admire what Nolan accomplished.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Fly (1986)

Don't let it be said I'm against remakes. In my review of Rob Zombie's Halloween, I explained my disappointment with the trend of remaking classic horror movies and how the poor ones typically fail because they are either scene-by-scene re-do's, rendering them pointless, or so divergent from the original idea there really was no point in using the same name. Thankfully, director David Cronenberg's 1986 take on The Fly (produced by Mel Brooks) is an example of how to do a remake right. While utilizing the same  basic concept as the 1958 original, this version introduces some potent subtext, presents engaging and fully realized characters, and pushes the special effects in a manner that enhances the material instead of detracting or distracting from it.

Scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has invented a device capable of instantaneously teleporting objects across time and space, but he hasn't quite figured out how to transport living things. He meets journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) and recruits her to document his progress, and soon the two are romantically involved. One night, Seth perfects the machine and wants to celebrate with Veronica, but she leaves to confront her editor and ex-lover Stathis Borans (John Getz). Drunk and jealous, Seth sends himself through the telepod and emerges seemingly better than ever. But he didn't notice a housefly in the machine with him, and soon Seth begins changing in horrifying ways.

The Fly could be described as a monster movie. After all, its plot features a brilliant scientist transformed into a hideous creature after an experiment gone wrong, but unlike other monster movies, The Fly works not by having the monster stalk and kill a group of people until a final showdown with the hero. The horror of Cronenberg's movie stems from the increasingly horrifying (and disgusting) changes Seth Brundle undergoes as his mind and body mutate; the horror is watching what this character becomes, not how many victims the rampaging creature can claim.

The pace is deliberate, the narrative unfolding slowly like a tragedy as the protagonist's flaws lead to his downfall. Brundle, a brilliant scientist, is a socially awkward reclusive who in a rash and careless moment  conducts the experiment that eventually turns him into a monster. Even after he's gone through the telepod, he indulges in what appears to be the benefits of the process instead of being concerned by them: sudden strength and agility, aggressive sexual potency (to the point of cheating on Veronica), and a somewhat arrogant, overconfident attitude. Even after he realizes the danger he's in, the scientist in him remains fascinated by his changes and doesn't seek help, driving away Veronica in the process. He tries to treat himself, but his mind increasingly becomes dominated by his insect half and madness.

It's tempting to label the movie's theme as science run amok, but the science takes a backseat to Cronenberg's usual preoccupation: the fragility of flesh.Who needs a ghost or a slasher when your own body turns against you and your mind slips away, and you become something you and your loved ones don't recognize? Brundle's changing condition can stand in for any number of debilitating diseases, syndromes, or disorders: AIDS, cancer, consumption, even old age. Science, in the film, can lead to technology to teleports objects and people, but it cannot, to quote Brundle, "understand flesh," much less cure its failings.

The makeup effects by Chris Walas (who would go on to direct The Fly 2) are outstanding and repulsive. Even twenty-six years later and all sorts of advancements in CGI that have occurred in that time, the practical effects on display here never fail to achieve their desired effect and are never short of convincing. The effects would threaten to overwhelm the story if not for the performance of Jeff Goldblum who deserved an Oscar nomination (that was the same year Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Aliens, so I guess the Academy didn't want to show the genre too much respect). Even with poundage of grotesque makeup and prosthetics, he never fails to show the ever-dwindling human element of Brundle. Geena Davis is also good as the tortured Veronica, who can only stand by as the man she loves becomes something other than human and later must make a grueling choice about her own body. John Getz is also good as the slimy shyster but who is not without his reasons and who tries to do the right thing in the end.

The Fly also marks something of a transformation for its director. It is the last horror movie of David Cronenberg. No doubt he has made some fine films since then, but on the evidence of this effort, he would be welcome back to the genre at anytime with open arms. Still, what a way to go out.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Batman Begins

I remember an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly from 2001 postulating a mash-up between two dark knights: Sparta, a demonic avenger from the video game Devil May Cry, and Batman. I remember the writer compared the assets of both fighters. Sparta had powers of the underworld beyond human comprehension while Batman had a utility belt and a "rubber suit with nipples." Eleven years and three movies directed by Christopher Nolan later, it's hard to remember just how low Batman had stooped in the public eye following Batman and Robin. Batman Begins (2005), the first of the trilogy directed by Nolan and starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader, is where the character's rehabilitation to respectability began.

The origins of Batman are well known to any comic book fan. As a child, Bruce Wayne watched his parents get gunned down in an alley, and as an adult, he pledged their fortune and his life to fighting the crime that has seemingly infected the very soul of Gotham City. Inspired by a childhood incident, he adopts the moniker of Batman, remaining in the shadows to strike fear in the hearts of those who prey on his city.

Most film versions of Batman use this material as background, a few lines of exposition and maybe a flashback or two to explain Bruce Wayne's motivation. Batman Begins spends the better part of an hour before showing Batman in his iconic costume; most of that time is devoted to exploring the psychological factors that drive Wayne to donning the cape and cowl: his parents' murders, the assassination of their killer before Wayne can exact revenge, traveling the far corners of the world to learn about fear and crime, his training and induction into the League of Shadows under Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), and his transforming his childhood fear of bats into a symbol to terrorize the corrupt. Just as we see him arm and equip himself with the technology of Wayne Enterprises with the help of Lucius  Fox (Morgan Freeman), we're seeing the psychological building blocks of who Batman is being assembled. Always at his side is his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), to serve as his conscience and remind him of the family legacy.

Unlike Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, Nolan strips away the gothic and fantastical elements of the Batman universe and replaces them with a grim, gritty, and somewhat believable (or at least credible) atmosphere. This Batman is grounded in urban realism, more in common with a gangster movie than a comic book. The Batmobile is more of a clunky tank than a sleek vehicle, Bruce Wayne is shown carving his Bat-arangs with a saw, and Gotham City looks more like a real city, complete with filthy alleys, homelessness, and squalor  (previous incarnations of the city were clearly inspired by the likes of Blade Runner and Metropolis, borderline futuristic crossed with film noir).

This is also probably one of the most fully three-dimensional presentations of Batman seen in a movie. Whereas Michael Keaton was presented as a twitchy neurotic, Val Kilmer a standard action movie hero, and George Clooney an overlooked bore, Bale gets the chance to show multiple sides of the Dark Knight: morose young adult, determined student, the public appearance of an irresponsible playboy, the gruff fighter, and committed behind-the-scenes. He's not quite the dark, brooding one yet, but he's clearly on his way; it's still early in his crime-fighting career, and he's yet to be mentally or emotionally scarred.

The villains are a mixed bag. On one hand, the actors playing them (Neeson, Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow, and Tom Wilkinson as crime boss Falcone) take the roles seriously, restraining from going overboard into campy histrionics, and they all serve a thematic purpose: Falcone as the last of the traditional criminals before the arrival of the supervillains, Scarecrow as the embodiment of fear and the corruption of authority (an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist on the take who uses a gas to bring people's fear to life), and Ra's Al Ghul as the Batman's mentor-turned-enemy, a man who believes what he does is just, and is a warning of the path Bruce Wayne does not want to go down.

But, the villains aren't really used to their fully advantage. Ra's Al Ghul in the comics in an immortal (and Arabic) who has lived centuries, but in the film, after spending the first act in disguise as Wayne's teacher, he vanishes from the narrative, only to return in the third act for his final scheme. He's definitely a character I would have liked to have spent more time with. Less fortunate is the Scarecrow; when the movie first came out, I remember finding him creepy, but compared to his presentation in the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum (in which he's downright chilling as emaciated Freddy Kruger-like being), he doesn't make as much of an impact as he should. The film really doesn't take advantage of the hallucinations his fear gas causes.

Another thing that bothered me: Batman's expulsion from the League of the Shadows occurs when he refuses to execute a prisoner. I'm happy this Batman does not believe in killing, but we saw how close he was killing his parents' murderer. His transition from eye-for-an-eye avenger to protector seems curiously glossed over; I don't recall him mentioning his code until Ra's puts him on the spot.

The action scenes are serviceable but not stellar, relying too much on disorienting shaky-cam effects and quick cuttings. This is one aspect Nolan would improve upon this movie's sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knights Rises. But here, the strength is more on the exploration of Bruce Wayne, who he is, and why he does what he does.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

High Tension

Few movies have angrily disappointed me as much as the 2003 French import by director Alexandre Aja, High Tension. There are plenty of movies that for whatever reason I didn't enjoy or felt were lacking, but at least they had the decency to be consistently underwhelming throughout their running length, but with High Tension, my frustration is worse because what sinks the film literally occurs in the last 10 minutes. The final twist is such a letdown, so completely miscalculated, it ruins what was otherwise a very effective, unpredictable, gruesome thriller that I might have called my favorite horror movie of the last decade, but as is, I get ticked off just thinking about it.

Marie (Cecile De France) and Alex (Maiwenn) are college roommates driving out to the farmhouse of Alex's family to study for finals. Marie clearly has some kind lesbian attraction for Alex, but her friend never picks up on it. That night, a redneck trucker (Phillipe Nahon) arrives at the house and gruesomely begins terrorizing and murdering the family and kidnapping Alex, leaving it to Marie to mount a rescue.

For the first hour or so, High Tension is grueling, intense, and straightforward. The kills are some of the goriest and shocking I've even seen in a horror movie: a man's head is crammed between the railings of a staircase and crushed with a cabinet, a woman's throat is cut and she takes several minutes to bleed to death, and in a bloodless yet disquieting scene, a young child is shot and killed off-screen as he tries to run away. Taboos are smashed left and right. The movie would have fit nicely in the early 1970s Savage Cinema cycle alongside such titles as Deliverance, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Straw Dogs. The violence is not glamorized or cleaned up to be exciting in anyway. People die horribly and painfully. A family out in the middle of nowhere gets brutalized by a killer with no history, no reason, and no motive other than a deranged obsession with Alex. It's a frightening and simple conceit to realize just how vulnerable innocent people can be to someone so monstrous.

The trucker embodies just about every fear of men a woman might have: a fat, dirty, grotesque, perverted, and murderous male who treats women as objects. His first scene shows him using a decapitated head to pleasure himself in his truck. Yet, he is efficient in his killings, and Aja draws out the suspense effectively, particularly in one scene when Marie tries to hide evidence of her stay just before he searches the guest room, and Nahon gives a wonderfully realized and creepy performance.

Sadly, everything is negated near the end with a lame twist. SPOILERS: It is revealed that Marie is really the killer, and the trucker is her split personality. This just creates so many plot holes and inconsistencies: how can Marie be in two places at once, where did the truck come from, who's driving the car?. The movie does not play fair, deliberately showing events that did not happen as presented and then pulling the rug out from the viewer. How can I be invested in anything shown to me if it's only going to be revealed as false? It would have been no worse to reveal it had all been a dream.

I'm not sure how to recommend this. Horror fans will admire the first hour's intensity and shocks while mainstream audiences will be repulsed, but the ending is infuriating. As a viewer, to witness such atrocities and then find out they didn't happen the way they were shown is insulting, and the film's tautness collapses under pretentiousness and incoherence. All I can do is sigh.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger works best when considered as part of the tapestry of the Avengers universe. Knowing The Avengers movie follows and that plans are in the works for sequels to both movies, it's easier to accept Captain America as an extended introduction to the character setting up what his role will be in the series. If this were a stand-alone feature, it would be easy to criticize as coming off as rushed or not feeling as epic it could, but knowing there's more to come, I'm optimistic the intriguing elements presented here initially will be more fully explored down the road.

I think as long as I've known about superheroes I've known about Captain America and his status as icon, but my only prior exposure to the character was in the disastrous 1990 eponymous film and a few episodes of the Spider-Man cartoon I grew up watching when he made a few appearances. I never read the comics, but I knew he was a weakling named Steve Rogers given a super soldier serum in World War II, his arch nemesis was the Red Skull, and at one point he's frozen in the Arctic and thawed decades later, but other than that, I never really had much interest in him. He wasn't as cool as Batman, identifiable as Spider-Man, or unique as the X-Men; he just seemed like an outdated cornball Boy Scout of a superhero.

That all said, I enjoyed Captain America. I found the action scenes and special effects well done,  the performances solid, and I'm intrigued by the different story possibilities going forward. Like Thor, this is less of a narrative than more of an introduction to the superhero so we know who he is when starts rubbing shoulders with Iron Man, the Hulk, and Nick Fury. It's not very ambitious in that regard, and there are few surprises, but as a superhero flicks, it's done with a simple, straightforward conviction.

World War II is underway, and scrawny, undersized Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants nothing more than to serve his country. Despite being rejected by the army, his tenacity and spirit impress Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who recruits Rogers for a special program, injecting him with a secret formula that transform the puny Rogers into the buff, super-powered Captain America. In Europe, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) the power-mad leader of the Nazis' weapon research division Hydra, was similarly injected with the super soldier serum, transforming him into the dread Red Skull, and he plans world domination.

My favorite moment in the movie occurs when Captain America and the Red Skull have their first confrontation at one of Hydra's bases. The two face off on a catwalk above a warehouse of weaponry burning down all around them, and Schmidt tears off the human mask to reveal the hideous deformed visage beneath. It just feels like such a big, important moment; I can just picture these two being sworn, mortal enemies for all time clashing in epic confrontations. Granted, nothing else in the movie approached this level of greatness, but like I said, I'm expecting this to be the first of many encounters between the two.

The movie also does well establishing the driving motivations for Rogers: first as the little guy with heart who never backs down and later, after the experiment is sabotaged, the guilt-ridden propaganda puppet who would rather be in the field than performing in USO shows. Like Iron Man, Captain America's alter ego is well publicized in his universe, but unlike Tony Stark, Steve Rogers is uncomfortable in the spotlight; he'd rather just do his duty. It foreshadows the inevitable clash of egos I enjoyed very much in The Avengers, and in nice touch, we learn it was Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony's father, who built Captain America's shield and assisted him on missions (by the way, the shield makes for some effective action scenes).

Performances are good all around. Evans effectively shakes off the stigma of his obnoxious Human Torch and makes for a credible weakling (augmented by some really effective CGI) and dynamic hero. Weaving was a good choice for the Red Skull, fascist, insane, and driven, and I also liked Tommy Lee Jones as Captain America's commanding officer Colonel Phillips: rugged enough to be tough, stern enough to be authoritative, and deadpan enough to funny. Hayley Atwell is all right as British Agent Peggy Carter but doesn't really get to do much more than be the love interest.

Captain America is not in the upper echelon of superhero movies, but it does its job. It introduces the captain and sets up future plot potential. On it's own, I probably would not rate it that high, but as a piece of the puzzle, it fits.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Army of Shadows

There's a certain degree of romanticism associated with an underground resistance. A secret network of brave fighters banding together to topple and drive out the hated occupiers, operating behind enemy lines in constant danger, and refusing to surrender is the type of tale told to swell patriotic fervor and inspire nations.

Army of Shadows (1969) is directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, himself a member of the French resistance during World War II. I don't know how much of his own experience is reflected in the film, but it is not a glamorized portrayal. Set in late 1942 in Nazi-occupied France, the movie shows us no explosions, midnight raids, firefights, or even a real sense of eventual triumph.We see the men and women of the Maquis, the name of the French resistance, engage in acts of subterfuge, relying on false identities, disguises, and forged paperwork and knowing they are probably going to be compromised, tortured, and killed. It is a bleak, lonely, and desolate life.

The tone is film opens with a long, unbroken shot of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris filling the screen. A line of German soldiers march from the background toward the front of the frame, steadily growing until the soldiers in front appear larger than the monument, symbolizing Nazi dominance of France. From there, we cut to a shot of a truck driving through the rain-swept French countryside, grinding through the mud under the cold, grey sky. I don't recall seeing any sunlight in this movie. Resistance members meet indoors with the curtains shut, conduct many of their activities at night, and if killed under assumed identities, die without anyone knowing who they were or what they did.

Looking back on the war 70 years later, it's easy to remember it as the last "good war," that Allied victory was inevitable, and the Nazis would be defeated. But to live in France in 1942 meant to live in a country that had surrendered and still years away from liberation; there was no end in sight, and for all anyone knew, this was it. France was no more, and anyone who held on that idea and resisted occupation faced certain death. At any moment, they could be betrayed, recognized, or brought down by dumb luck. They aren't commandos or trained secret agents, just everyday citizens doing what they believe is right.

The main character we follow is Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), the leader of a network of the Maquis operating out of Lyon who answers to an anonymous chief. He's not what you might envision a resistance leader to be like. He's not a young, dynamic military man; he's a civil engineer, kind of out of shape, and rather ordinary looking.  Phillipe displays little emotion, only quiet and detached rationality. Also of note is Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a middle-aged mother and very likely the best member of the group, a master organizer and of disguise, whose one weakness is to carry around a picture of her daughter. There are also two brothers, Jean Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Luc (Paul Meurisse), who work separately, unaware the other is involved. 

Melville draws out tension not through action or chases but by drawing out the potential for discovery. Any slip up can give them away, and the characters never which of the citizens they encounter will prove to be sympathetic or an informant. Early on, an escaping Phillipe ducks into a barber shop and requests a shave when found by the barber, and we witness the shave, knowing at any moment soldiers could show up or the barber might turn him in. Later, Mathilde and other cohorts disguise themselves to sneak into German stronghold to rescue a comrade; anything out of the ordinary will give them away. In one of the hardest scenes to watch, Phillipe and others take a traitor to a rented apartment to kill only to find neighbors have moved in unexpectedly next door. Shooting the traitor will give them away, and they have no knife, so they strangle him with a towel. Melville cuts between closeups of the men to convey how grueling the act is.

The movie also successfully conveys just how at the mercy of a captor a prisoner is, especially in Nazi-occupied France. We're so used to seeing action heroes make daring escapes by fighting through armies, but captured resistance members are completely under the power of the German military. Two captured resistance members are beaten, and we don't see the brutality, just the aftermath. "Always carry cyanide," Phillipe warns another member, not because the others are afraid they'll be betrayed but to spare the captive weeks of drawn-out torture.

Army of Shadows is one of the bleakest movies I've ever seen. It depicts unflinchingly the life of a resistance member, stripping away the sense of glory and adventure often associated with it. These people, in the face of an overwhelming enemy, for a country that had already given up still fight in any way they can, knowing they will likely die and their sacrifices will never be known. In a key moment, the group's anonymous chief decides to make himself known to a comprised member just before they kill her to prevent their exposure; it was the least he could for all she had done for them.