Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

There will be some spoilers in this post about The Dark Knight. So, stop reading if you want to be totally spoiler-free.

I thought Batman Begins was a terrific movie, and when I heard that Warner Bros. had given Christopher Nolan even more latitude in making the sequel, I got nothing but warm fuzzies. I figured he, more than anyone else, would push this franchise right back into the noir it was always begging to be. The title alone of this current chapter pinpoints the allure of Batman/Bruce Wayne. He is, fundamentally, a do-gooder. But he's also one deeply fucked-up dude.

In Batman Begins, Christian Bale (and Nolan) took Bruce Wayne and Batman beyond the usual broody incarnation and tapped into his lurking rage. Luckily for the citizens of Gotham, he ultimately chose to channel that thirst for revenge into cracking criminal skull. Now, in The Dark Knight, the Nolan brothers' script and Bale up the stakes by constantly throwing the hero into emotionally and morally charged situations designed to test his boundaries. And, luckily for us moviegoers, Batman's boundaries are pretty damn far and Nolan/Bale have perfectly captured his propensity for stunningly stylish brutality.

In fact, portions of the film reminded me of a couple of the masters of this paradox, such as Coppola's Godfather and, more specifically, some of De Palma's work. And that's something I really like, because as a director, De Palma is often maligned (fucking cockaroach!) for his sleaze factor. Nolan doesn't use the De Palma split screen, but he does do a pictorial homage to Dressed to Kill in which Ledger gets to shine. (More on him in a bit.)

Now let me say this -- this is a near perfect summer movie. We were lucky to have two really classy comic action thrillers this year. (Iron Man being the other one.) Nolan captures some shots that have lasting, nearly iconic visual resonance along with just sheer, dark beauty. And his climax is a masterful piece of literal symbolism with a dual fall from grace. The movie has a two and a half hour run time, but it's paced and pieced so well that it really will keep you fully engaged. All that said, when I say "near perfect," I guess what I'm saying is this: I loved it. And yet I do have a few gripes. Now, before you sigh and roll your eyes and ask "Why so serious" about some dumb entertainment, I'll beat you to the punch. I admit that I have a vapid life. Therefore, I do take my entertainment seriously. Also, I'm a bitch.

My main grievance is that I'm utterly sick to death of fight and chase scenes where you can't tell what's happening because of the editing choices or murky quickness of the shots. We've seen a famous chase scene through Chicago's Lower Wacker Drive before. It was in The Blues Brothers. And I don't expect anyone to ever be able to film a car chase like the one in Death Proof. But at least watch The Bourne Identity to get a feel for a top-notch chase scene that's not at all confusing. That said, the climax of the chase scene in Dark Knight atones for the shortcomings in some of the other shots.

Complaint number two: Bale/Batman was definitely given short shrift, particularly after a truly traumatic event which ended up being played as a plot device instead of for dramatic heft. Said plot device was a bit cheapened by an earlier, transparent twist of the same nature. I won't go into too-spoilerish of detail here, but if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. The main focus and repercussions of the event shifted all the attention to how someone else processed the event as Bruce/Batman's reactions were glazed over. It could've truly turned him to an even more frightening, darker knight with a potential to turn, but instead, those nuances were left to someone else.

It's a great script the Nolans churned out. For the genre that the Nolans so obviously love, they're masters at using all the tried and true tricks at their disposal. They repeatedly hung Chekhov's gun and used foreshadowing as heavy as the visual shadows that Batman lurks in. However, there were plot holes you could drive the Batmobile through and everything pivots upon character reactions and motivations that sometimes contort a bit nonsensically. But I can let things like that go as long it all flows together as a movie, because I'm watching it as a popcorn flick, not as a psychological thriller.

But I also think that's where its reach slightly exceeded its grasp. The Nolans had collaborated before on the wonderful little Memento. But this is a much bigger budget and with bigger expectations. But scriptwise, bigger isn't always better, and there was some clutter (the twist that fell flat and proved useless, and a wasted Eric Roberts) that could've been trimmed to keep the runtime more manageable. In essence, just like his protagonist, Nolan didn't know his limit and he just may have hit it here. But also like Batman, he somehow manages to bring the potential chaos back under control and make the movie, as a whole, rise above it.

This is most definitely a film that has post 9/11 etched all over it, as how to deal with terrorism is a big theme. And then, when we do see Batman's "doing evil for ultimate good" shimmer to the surface, it was politically charged. Here's the spoiler: Batman used "warrantless wiretapping" in the name of stopping terrorism. And no, I don't think I'm reading too much into it. Not seeing that parallel is kind of like not seeing the supergay subtext in Superbad.

Heath's Joker? You've read other reviews, so you know he's great. In Nolan's noir-scape, the Joker loses all semblance of levity and becomes a truly frightening, suicidal, amoral agent of anarchy. You know this guy is truly fucking evil because he commits the cardinal sin of actually having non-bleached teeth. He's designed to be a scene-stealer, but in terms of dialogue and sheer screen time, I think he also managed to steal the movie from Batman. Luckily for the movie, it works because his every move is riveting. Ledger manages to outplay even his rictus makeup with a vast array of twitches and slurps and licks.

But here again, some judicious editing wouldn't have been a bad thing. There's one particular monologue of Joker's where he waxes eloquent about why he uses knives instead of guns to make the killing process last longer. It's all very chilling and diabolical. And yet it's also complete idiocy because at that juncture he's used a knife only once but has managed to use several handguns, an automatic rifle, hand grenades, a fucking bazooka, and even a pencil to rather swiftly dispose of people. It's one of those things that, upon first viewing, might slide by most viewers, but that freakish geeks (like me) might notice and may even become a point of ridicule when the opening-weekend fever cools and people really watch the movie with a more critical eye on repeated viewings. Then again, I can also assume that everything that comes out of the Joker's famously carved mouth is pretty much an inflammatory lie or a contradiction, so I guess it makes sense in that anarchy kind of way.

But it is still Bale, even with less screentime, that carries the weight of this movie. His ability to shift from the seemingly carefree and clueless playboy to the tormented, reluctant dragon is the hinge that pulls everything else together, and he's done it in complete contrast to Ledger's performance. While Ledger is doing Lovitz-style "Acting!" Bale is much less affected and more naturalistic. (Well, as unaffected and naturalistic as a guy in a rubber batsuit using a fake voice to growl can be. Parameters, still keep the parameters in mind.) But it is exactly his paradoxical easy tension which is what grounds the movie and pulls it back into perspective and makes the pieces of Nolan's realistic landscape fall into place.

I keep using the term "paradox" because that's exactly what's at the heart of this movie. It is Bruce's personal desires pitted against Batman's public sense of duty that cause the deepest rifts here. The overarching "moral" questions hit him hardest because it truly divides this man and his alter ego. (Again, another stroke of genius in the Nolans' script.) And Bale manages to merge the two with a simmering, controlled intensity.

Most notably, though, I trust that the Nolan brothers DO actually know where they're going with the third installment, since they worked so hard and carefully mapped this one to end as it did. Without question, this was the movie that this franchise needed right now. But even more importantly, this is a movie that Batman deserves.

Friday, July 11, 2008

New Issue of TQR and TQR best-of Book!

A new issue of TQR is live online. But, if you're looking for some short story, summer poolside reading, you can also get some TQR, paperback-style. They've released a best-of anthology titled Touching the Monkey.

My particular favorites from this collection are "Slayground" by Paul Finch and "Between the Night People and the Day People" by John Colvin, but all the stories are most excellent.


I've got a new smutty story up this week at Ruthie's Club. It's called "Sinning in Vain" and it's got a great illustration done by Ted Hammond. Yay!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Dark Lady Turns Back Time

Probably no one reading this will find this shocking, but I have a few strange fixations. Some of them, I flaunt constantly (trashy TV.) Some, I eventually talk about to some degree on the blog here (Azzurri.) Some, I sort of gloss over without admitting how deep the fixation goes, though the references pop up occassionally (Batman.) And some, I keep rather well hidden until something newsworthy provokes me to speak. Today, I'd like to talk about Cher.

So, there, it's out there now. I love Cher. (First, go ahead, have a giggle. Second, for any regular readers out there, can you really believe at this point that I am actually a straight female instead of a gay man? I have trouble understanding it sometimes, too.) Anyway...

I seriously love Cher. Have for, well, ever. I think it's basically an imprinting thing, as I watched her on TV before I could even talk, and this continued well after I was a toddler and into early childhood. At that time, I certainly couldn't understand why she was making such an impression, but I think it's a fairly easy and rational guess now to say that I was responding and attaching to her because she was different from the vast majority of perky blondes who were dominating the airwaves in the early '70s. And the reason I probably connected to her isn't just because she was different from them. Finally, I found someone who was a little bit like me.

To this day, I sometimes have people comment that I have "Cher hair." We're talking the classic Cher, long dark version of hair, not the blonde-Believe era or current phase of wavy red. I didn't intentionally grow it to look like hers, but I do take it as a compliment when people say it. (Unfortunately, it's the only physical attribute the adult me has in common with her.)

Now, snicker all you like, but as role models go, especially in the impressionable years, you could do a lot worse than Cher. On The Sonny and Cher Show, Sonny was relegated to the role of straight man to Cher's witty, wisecracking dame. She wasn't just flaunting her bod in Bob Mackie; on that stage, she was the alpha dog. And in life, when people weren't laughing at her jokes, they were often laughing -- derisively, or dismissively -- at her. Oh, her gaudy/glam costumes! Yeah, yeah, the beat goes on and her body and those gowns become iconic. But now she wants be a serious actress? Tee hee! That's so funny, but film-by-film and one by one she turned the critics into fans and she pranced off with an Oscar -- while wearing one of her gaudy/glam costumes. Smirk at how old she is -- only cockroaches will outlive Cher. Keep smirking and Believe it as she dances off with a Grammy, becomes the oldest woman to ever score a number 1, and sells millions.

But the best part of Cher? When people laugh? She really just doesn't seem to give a shit. She kinda gives off the vibe of "Laugh, bitches, I don't care" and then she never backs down and does whatever she wants to do. She's as outspoken and outrageous as she wants, and she doesn't mind being the butt of jokes. How do you get cooler than that?

Also noteworthy? In her music choices? She's got a few sappy love songs. But most of them are a different kind of love song. She mostly sings about shooting cheating lovers, stomping over would-be heartbreakers, or surviving happily after a break-up. I love it.

Now, at 62, with her hit gig at Caesars Palace, Cher pulls off the coup-de-grace of Vegas weddings and May-December romances as she plans to marry a 36 year-old.

Aging singletons no longer need a song for the lonely from you, Cher. If our hope flags as we get older, we can save up all our tears, because if we need inspiration, we've got you, babe. We can still get the prime young tail. (Well, if we can still fill out a Mackie, sell out Caesars and remain a sassy siren, maybe we can.) You've just made us believe.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Finch & Stifler's Mom

While I impatiently wait for The Dark Knight to be released, I continue seeing other movies, so here are a couple more semi-crabby updates for you in case you're thinking of heading to a multiplex.

The Incredible Hulk -- I love Edward Norton, and I respect him as an actor. Hey, if Robert Downey Jr. could manage to light up the screen as a superhero this summer, I figured maybe Norton could pull it off, too. Like anyone else who's sane, I hated Ang Lee's Hulk, because, you know, it sucked. Norton's vision isn't quite as bad, but that's not saying a lot, huh?

Honestly, I'm really not completely against CGI in movies, particularly in comic book ones. I really dug the way Zack Snyder's 300 ended up looking. But sometimes, lately, movies are just a mess of CGI and lacking any connective tissue to make them human. That's exactly what RDJ brought to Iron Man. But here, there's just too much of the fake Hulk and not enough Norton to balance it out. Also? Frankly, I am a little bit sick of CGI and how it's ruining action movies. I remember when action movies seemed thrilling because there was at least the appearance of risk and realism. Now? I know it's fucking cartoon and even though it looks like realistic cartoon, it's still got no gravity to the situation. When shit blows up, I want shit blowing up. Which leads me to...

Get Smart -- Good summer flick. It made me laugh. I don't for one second buy Steve Carell as an action guy, though. Here, the action sequences were gratuitous and just sort of...dumb.

And if anyone is begging to be the next big action star it's Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as "The Rock". He's hot, he's ripped, he's got oodles of easy going charm that translates on camera. He plays well with Carell here, and I can understand having him in some action scenes, but can't we come up with something overall better for this guy than shit like "The Gameplan" or this second-banana role? Ever see The Rundown? You should. It's good.

Anyhow, back to Get Smart. When taken as a comedy and overlooking the clunky action scenes, it works. It's lighthearted and Carell has now perfected his oafish good-guy routine. Much as I'd have prefered to see him stay edgy, I realize it's the comedian's curse to want to be loved, and this is clearly what he wants to be, and he's good at it.

However, I'm also old and fucking cranky, so what does peeve me about this movie is the pairing of Carell with Anne Hathaway. I like Hathaway, and she's good as Agent 99. But she's also too young for Carell. I'm fucking sick of these over-forty dudes getting paired up with the twenty-somethings in the movies. Unless it's the gender-reversed May-December humdinger of all-time, Finch and Stifler's Mom, I ain't getting behind this shit anymore. And you know the filmmakers know it's bullshit, too, when they concoct this whole lame backstory to make Agent 99 older than she appears. It's still squicky. Leave the romance out, and this pairing would've been golden, though.