The Dark Knight

For my money, Batman is the super hero. I just don't need any others. Ever since Micheal Keaton donned the cape in '89, sexing up Kim Basinger and layin' the smack down on Nicholson's creepy-cool Joker, I've been totally hooked. I was seven. It was an awesome movie then, and it's an awesome movie now. It was dark, gothic, and straight as an arrow. I watched it endlessly. The film was the product of Tim Burton, who was then unproven as a helmer of big budget projects, and it turned out to be his first major breakthrough, and a major, major hit to boot.

From there, as with most movie franchises, Batman's panache slowly began to wane. Batman Returns took a strange (if fun) turn, and the others that followed only continued the trend, slowly sinking into schlocky awefulness. But, as nearly all failed franchises do, Batman was given a reprieve. Warner Brothers again put the fate of their beloved Batman in the hands of a competent, fairly green director, Christopher Nolan. The resulting film, Batman Begins, successfully reinvigorated the character's reputation. Christian Bale was Bruce Wayne, and Nolan put Batman back in the seedy, corrupt Gotham where he belongs. But it was 2005, not '89, and Batman Begins showed the effects of the fifteen years in between, cramming in as many characters (remember Rutger Hauer? Ra's Al Ghul??) and weird subplots as possible, extending it's runtime well past the 120 minute mark, and clearly laboring to supply it's viewers as much bang for their buck as plausably possible. In the end, though roundly excellent, the film strained credulity just a touch. Either way, Batman was back, and we were glad to have him.

Starting out with a weird whimper, with Batman encountering the now docile Scarecrow from the first film (?), The Dark Knight quickly picks up where Begins left off, and we plunge into the labyrinthine story. We are introduced to Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart,) Gotham's new District Attourney and "white light," ready to take on the unruly mobsters who hold control the city. Eckhart, unfortunately, is one of those actors (like Nicholas Cage) who can really only play one person: himself. Thus, Dent comes off like a soulless puppet, even though I think we are meant to take his talk of cleaning up the town to heart. The part needed a touch of boyish altruism, but instead Dent merely competes with Batman for the affections of his city, and of his fiancee (Bruce's former girlfriend, Rachel.) I can't buy Eckhart as Gotham's saviour, and the character falls totally flat. But the film presses on, quickly relieved by it's other excellent performances. Gary Oldman, reprising as Chief Gordon, is the heart and soul of the film. His cop 'stache and straight talk keep everything grounded, and keep Gotham feeling like a real place. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman again return, dependable as ever. Maggie Gyllenhall is given the seemingly simple task of replacing Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Dawes, but though I know Gyllenhall to be an infinitely better actress, and much more attractive than Holmes (I'm not sure why, exactly, but she is,) Rachel is sadly boring as ever. Then, of course, we have.. the Joker.

At one point, the Joker enters a scene and announces himself as "tonight's entertainment." This introduction may as well be directed at the viewer, as a more perfect description can't be penned. Heath Ledger's performance elevates the film from a perfunctory sequel into a riveting, thrilling entertainment. Though I still feel Ledger takes most of his cues from Nicholson, his Joker is absolutely spellbinding, and remarkably consistent. You can't take your eyes off him, and he imbues the film with it's rousingly troubled soul. Hollywood seems to be painting itself into a corner offering up super-dishy parts for villians (see: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) and leaving the straight (read: hero) parts to a lesser caliber of actor. To his credit, Bale's performance is efficient but unremarkable. Certainly he lacks the goofy, funny side that was Keaton's trademark. But, after all, perhaps Batman purists would prefer him this way.

The action, of which there is much, is equal parts hit and miss. The parade of fistfights, though competent, are easily the least interesting scenes of the movie. The stunt setpieces, however, are mostly fantastic, particularly the absolutely apeshit armored vs semi truck chase through the heart of Gotham (or, for attentive Chicagoans, lower Wacker Drive. Chicago hasn't looked this gritty and fantastic in a film since The Fugitive.) The script, even in it's talky moments, is actually pretty impressive and fun to listen to. Like the Joker, The Dark Knight has a bunch of nasty little tricks to play on you. For two and a half hours, it just keeps throwing shit at you.

In this way, the film is a product of the current movie climate, where every big movie with big expectations (ie; Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, James Bond ) is guaranteed to arrive in theaters equally big in size, it's producers injecting artificial "value" in the form of extended run times. This has made for an abundance of overlong (if sometimes excellent) films, of which The Dark Knight is certainly one. After the first fully satisfying climax, the movie just refuses to die, setting up another round of Joker play that, while plenty of fun, is just too much already. If you know anything about Batman (or have overheard any of the millions of people who have seen the film except you talking about it,) you know who Harvey Dent eventually is to become. So, he becomes him. Eckhart is especially awful in these scenes, and I was left hoping that Nolan and company had squeezed the character into this film in order not to have to depict him in the next one. After Ledger's magnificent turn as the Joker, any new villian is almost guaranteed to feel like a tremendous letdown.

Eventually, finally, the film ends, and you are free to relieve your overworked bladder and ponder Ledger's spectacular performance. I can understand people's complaints about this film. In my heart, I may share them. But The Dark Knight does a lot of things right, and it is surely a marked improvement from its predecessor, which was itself an excellent exercise. Not every scene plays, but it's a 152 minute movie, and there are plenty that play just fine, and more than a few that are wonderful. For my money, I'll gladly plunk down $11 every three years or so for another one of these (trust me, IMAX is worth the extra.) Basically, you either respond to it or you don't. And if you've ever liked a superhero movie in your life, you will respond to it. If you haven't.. why did you buy your ticket?


LOG: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

I am continually dumbfounded and encouraged by the amazing crossover appeal of this movie. I watched this last night (for the fifth or sixth time) with my 67-year old, Southern Baptist christian Grandmother. She loves it. She just grins at Clooney, silently mouths along the words to "I'll Fly Away" ("My mother's favorite hymn" she tells me, every time) and chuckles at all the constant mugging and corniness. Meanwhile, I marvel at the photography, and the unbelievable believability of the period that the Coen's seem to conjure with such minuscule effort, time after time.

It's a little tough to try and comprehensively rate the Coen's oevre, and I'm not that interested in trying. But for my money, as much as I know it is not exactly their "best" film (Miller's Crossing is,) this is probably my favorite.


Vicky Cristina Barcelona

"It's a new day for Woody Allen."

(Or is it the same day? Hang on, we'll figure it out..)

So proclaimed the headlines on high upon the release of his dour, very un-Woody Match Point just a scant two years ago. The then-seventy year old director found himself in a minor spotlight, after a five year lack of critical interest following the lauded Sweet and Lowdown. During this time, the director could be found fumbling around with his old familiar modes, turning out disappointingly uninspired films such as Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Ending. But Allen, having decades ago grown accustomed to the highs and lows of a life in the movie business, took the accolades in stride, seeming not particularly hell-bent on keeping up the trend. A pair of comparably disposable follow-ups (Scoop and Cassandra's Dream) left his so-called resurgence in possible jeopardy, with more than a few wondering if it had in fact been a premature diagnosis, Match Point being the last gasp of the once great director. But, as ever, Woody just kept working. Now, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has arrived, ready to be judged. And Woody, done with London but not with Europe, flies us to Spain.

At the start, a narrator's bracingly pedestrian voice guides us into the story of Vicky and Cristina, a pair of American friends traveling to Barcelona for equally insignificant reasons to stay with family friends (a nervous Patricia Clarkson and her husband, Kevin Dunn (the guy from Ghostbusters!) Maybe I'm just sentimental (surely, I am) but I couldn't help thinking that the choice of narrator was a concrete example of Woody's films suffering from him removing himself. I hope not every future Woody Allen film will by necessity be devoid of screen time for Woody Allen (you couldn't even give him a Spanish accent, Woody?) The drama calmly kicks in when a hunky native artist, Juan Antonio, in his plain and charmingly Spanish way, propositions them to join him for a weekend of kicks and sightseeing. And sex. He says, as open and honest as an angel.
The pair are torn. Vicky, engaged to a New York professional named Doug, scoffs and sneers, rebuking Juan Antonio with a venomous zeal. But Cristina, unattached and more breezy and open than Vicky, already partially seduced by the romance of the Spanish countryside, agrees. This moment both sets up the dramatic hinge of the film and reveals to us the essences of the two leads. Before we are through, Allen will have sent both of these women and their dearly held values on a long ride. Both women will seek out happiness, find it, reject it, and then go seeking again. And both will learn what so many often do from a trip to a foreign land: that there is so much to see, and to learn.

From the outset, Allen is in new territory, melding the successful dramatic tone of Match Point with an air of happiness (something which was lacking profoundly in that film.) Even at its most painful depths, Vicky Cristina Barcelona finds a bit of joy and hope in its longings. Much as his idol Bergman once did (compare The Seventh Seal and Fanny and Alexander,) Allen has progressed from dour drama to a joyful and comic heartache. Also as in Match Point, Woody's alter ego, present for years in most of his movies, is nowhere to be found. Instead, he seems to have doled out his personal quirks in bits and pieces, perhaps finally realizing that his own nebbish nature and habits are a lot to swallow coming all from one character.

His two leads, Vicky and Cristina, convey the essence of two very elemental female counterpoints. Both women are deeply flawed. One too open, one too closed. One thinks she has it all figured out, one knows she has no idea, but is hardly wise. And, as Allen quickly shows us, both can be had by the same man. Vicky and Cristina, though they exude personal confidence and self-assurance, are indeed very confused. Allen uses Juan Antonio as a means to show the different ways both of these women can be perceived. Vicky's initial appeal to Juan Antonio is her resistance. When this has evaporated, she is shown to be, in fact, quite insecure and even desperate. Whereas Cristina, more wild and adventurous, devolves from playfully sexual and exciting to unfulfilled and jealous. In both cases, perceptions change. "Yes," says Juan Antonio, taking it all in stride, "life is short, and painful." But you, like every man, want what you cannot have; both of these women in one.

When all is said and done (and, for once, more is done than said,) in a way it's the antithesis of a Woody Allen film. After years of talking and talking, he finally says, "the talky guy is a tool," (Vicky finding a new dissatisfaction with her now very boring husband to be.) Is he? In many ways, yes. But is the grass really greener, now or ever? The ability of the hunky guy to make women topsy-turvy might seem out Allen's league, but his story is convincing. And lest you think he is focusing solely on the intellectual inadequacies of women, Juan Antonio gets his due turn to be upended. This task is assigned to Penelope Cruz, who plays Juan Antonio's unstable ex-wife Maria Elena with bewitching electricity. Bardem and Cruz shine here, brilliantly enforcing the emotions of the now-obsolete Americans, who, after being so keenly observed, have now resumed the role of spectators in a foreign land. (Speaking of obsolete Americans, Bardem and Cruz are part of an increasingly large group of Spanish-born actors in ultra-high demand for American movies. Does it ever work the other way around?)

This all may sound very sophisticated and ponderous, but it isn't. In Woody's hands the story is clear, and very emotional and compelling. Give him major props for finding and retaining Scarlett Johannsen, who has brought a much-needed youthfulness to his latest films. Rebecca Hall, too, is a fantastic choice, practically stealing the movie in a part that might have gone to Barbara Hershey 20 years ago. Basically, everyone drinks wine and does exactly what you would want them to do in a movie about American women in Spain: make love and look at pretty buildings. But not without some hang-ups. Maria Elena calls it "chronic dissatisfaction," and nearly everyone in this film suffers from it.

The film finishes without any spectacular reveals or gut-punches (excepting perhaps one final moment of hysteria,) and we exit, ready again to bring down our gavel in judgment of Allen's latest effort. And we find that Woody has hit all the right notes. That he has crafted another film, as he did with Match Point, that can hold it's own with all the critical darlings of old (Crimes & Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, etc.) Surely, these new films are as good now as those were then. They are less stuffy, less dated. They are, in more ways than one, very young.

Yes, his "resurgence" is real. But, mostly, the "resurgence" is false. Allen, who by my count has made 37 films, cannot be evaluated in terms of resurgences and disappearances. Maybe Cassandra's Dream is better than Another Woman. Maybe Scoop is better than A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. And maybe, finally, it doesn't matter. Let's just all let Woody Allen be Woody Allen. And in twenty or thirty years, when he is gone and all we have is his memory and his films, we can get down to the real business of anointing him one of the great American filmmakers of his time. But for now, let's just let him work.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, like so much great art, wants us to question our lives. Ourselves. To embrace our yearnings. They are perhaps not so unspeakable, it says. But be prepared for what they bring with them. Memories, like everything worth having, come with a price. Maybe happiness can be found on either side of these great moments. But the baggage of life's greatest and most revealing moments is the destructive proposition of more to come.