Thursday, July 31, 2008

"The Dark Knight"

I don't know if I can really be objective about "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan's sequel to "Batman Begins."

The original "Batman," released in the summer of 1989, back when I was an impressionable 12 years old, cemented my lifelong movie habit. Everything about that movie combined to create a cinematic punch to my overlarge adolescent head. I'd always considered becoming Batman a legitimate career choice, but after seeing Michael Keaton stand on the top of that building at the end of the movie with the bat signal blazing in the clouds behind him, I kind of just wanted to be the guy who made others feel the way I was feeling at that moment. So I've got a soft spot for Batman. Two hours of Batman reading "The Great Gatsby" would probably get a thumbs up from me.

That said, if the original "Batman" was a punch to the head, "The Dark Knight" was a hard, teeth-shattering kick to the teeth. This movie kicked my ass and hard. I loved every second of this thing.

And this one's been a long time coming. After 2 highly disappointing misfires and one godawful bomb so bad that it sunk an otherwise talented director's career, 2005's "Batman Begins" was kind of miraculous. It was the Batman movie we'd all imagined but hadn't thought possible: a summer action spectacle that doubled as a studio prestige picture. The budget, the director, the actors -- everything about the project bespoke its seriousness of purpose, (which included making a seriously entertaining movie). But after it was over, I was almost more excited about the possibility of the next film as I was about the movie I'd just seen. If all went well, then a true Batman movie was in the offing. The sequel would involve no obligatory rehashing of the tired Batman origin story. In this potential sequel, the filmmakers could devote all of their energies to create a straight-forward Batman film that could explore all the dark themes and moral complexity hinted at in the first film. It was a lot to hope for, and so I waited to see what Nolan would do with the next installment.

Nolan delivered. "The Dark Knight" is dark, epic, exciting, mesmerizing, and smart.

So I loved the movie, but I admit there were a few things working in my favor. 1.) I saw it in IMAX. 2.) I actually had fairly low expectations for Heath Ledger's performance.

As to 1.) sections of "The Dark Knight" were filmed in IMAX. To my knowledge, this is a first for a theatrical 35MM/IMAX co-release. The bank heist sequence that opens the film, for instance, is shot entirely using IMAX equipment.

[Commence IMAX monologue.] After seeing this film, I now firmly believe that each and every multiplex should begin construction of at least one IMAX theater, with the eventual goal of converting all theaters currently showing films in 35mm to the IMAX format. I know I'm parroting IMAX's CEO here, but IMAX truly is how films should be seen. When a movie that's already brilliant is playing on an 8-story screen, and when that 8-story screen is filled with, variously, sexy Chicago architecture, sweeping helicopter shots of almost completely vertical Hong Kong, or a head to toe view of a man we'll come to know as the Joker waiting on the street corner, a clown mask dangling from one hand, it's like a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline. So, in all honesty, I don't know if this movie would have kicked me in the head so hard if it hadn't been on IMAX (even though I suspect the answer is probably yes). [End of IMAX monologue.]

So that was one thing going in my favor. The other, as I said, was that I didn't think I was going to get blown away by Heath Ledger as the Joker. I thought his performance in "Brokeback Mountain" was overrated--the gravelly, constricted-throat voice he used was so strange that instead of selling me on the character's reality it just made me wonder again and again what Ledger was going for with it. I thought the rapturous response to Ledger's Joker was probably another overreaction, likely heightened by his tragic and untimely death.

Not so. Heath Ledger's performance is everything you've heard. Just like I didn't forget that Heath was playing a part in "Brokeback," I completely forgot Heath was playing a part while I watched him be the Joker. And it is Ledger's Joker, more than any other component of the film, that makes "The Dark Knight" as good as it is, and in my view, it is very very good.

I think "The Dark Knight" is easily the best Batman film made to date, and I also think that, if Nolan signs on for the third (and why wouldn't he with the cash Warner Bros. is going to throw his way?), he could potentially finish this thing off as the brains behind one of the greatest trilogies ever filmed. For the first time in some time, the filmmakers have used the 2nd film of a trilogy as the 2nd act of a larger overarching story, just as "Empire Strikes Back" did so well about 25 years ago. The film ends in a dark place, with Batman locked into this character he's created for longer than he'd hoped, and worse, vulnerable now to both cop and criminal as he works to clean up Gotham.

Here are a few of the specific moments from the movie that I loved:

1.) Batman doing his no-neck swagger to the edge of the parking deck in the Scarecrow sequence, and then later asking Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) to make him a costume that will let him turn his head. This has been a "thing" in all the Batman movies to date, and here Nolan addresses it right out in the open, and then incorporates it into the story.

2.) The very awesome William Fichtner shotgunning clowns as a mob-bank manager.

3.) The Joker's off-hand use of a machine pistol to kill the school-bus driver.

4.) The mayor's eyeliner.

5.) The thump of the dead Batman-imposter as he hits the window outside the Mayor's office. Scared the hell out of me.

6.) One of the coolest movie moments in recent memory: Joker's use of a pencil as a murder weapon. Not in recent memory has 5 seconds of film managed to accomplish so much. In one shocking moment, we learn that the Joker a.) likes a good magic trick, b.) really just wants to entertain, and c.) even when surrounded by cold-blooded killers, the Joker is always the most dangerous guy in the room.

7.) The Joker's glare as he backward-kicks his way out of the crime-boss meet.

8.) Christian Bale's one-hand-in-the-pocket GQ-stroll as he walks coolly away from Maggie Gyllenhaal in his penthouse apartment.

9.) Christian Bale's total douchebag entrance into Harvey Dent's fundraiser. This guy's a pro-- there's no limit to how callous and vapid he'll pretend to be just so no one ever thinks he could possibly be Batman. Major dedication.

10.) When the first henchman tries to take off the mask of the unconscious Batman and gets electrocuted, the Joker laughs, kicks his own downed man, does an impersonation of what the guy had looked like getting electrocuted, and then spits on the guy. Freaking brilliant.

11.) Bruce Wayne's quick, no-look disassembly of a bad guy's shotgun.

12.) The way the sound cuts out and the music gets low as the police convoy carrying Harvey Dent to county heads out of police headquarters.

13.) When the lights cut on in the interrogation room and Batman is standing behind the Joker. Also: that entire scene. Also: the fact that I got to see Batman beating the hell out of the Joker in an interrogation room in a movie. How awesome is that?

Obviously, I could go on and on (I know -- I already have), and I'm not even hitting a lot of the obvious stuff (like the entire Singapore sequence, or Joker in a red wig and a goddamn nurse's outfit.) But I know there are some "Dark Knight" doubters out there, and after having read some of their critiques of the film, I have to say that they do have, in a few instances, valid points.

Some of the stuff I wasn't too hot for:
1.) The rooftop ending with the Joker. Seemed to kind of end with a writerly bit of dialogue from the Joker on the nature of their relationship. It was kinda cool, what he said, but maybe a little professorial for a guy who'd just rather get on with it than talk about getting on with it.

2.) Since when are dogs Batman's nemesis? They seemed to be in this movie. On second thought, maybe that's cool because, if there really WAS a crime-fighting Batman-type guy out in the world, sans gun, wearing bulletproof armor and enough moves to put down a knife-wielder in seconds, maybe a hungry rottweiler is the thing most likely to worry you. But then again, attack dogs don't seem to play so great in movies. Too many edits.

3.) Harvey Dent's tortured Two-Face logic. By the end of his scene with Gordon and the wife and kids, I didn't know what the hell Two-Face was after; I doubt he did. Maybe I just didn't believe that a guy that looks like Aaron Eckhart would get that worked up over Maggie Gyllenhaal. Yeah, I guess that's it.

But even these little imperfections didn't much phase me while I was watching the movie. Even when certain moments weren't quite working perfectly, I think Nolan crafted the movie to build in such a way that the forward momentum carried him through those moments.

Bottom line, "The Dark Knight" was a blast, and I walked out of that giant IMAX theater with a Joker-brand smile on my face. I loved "Iron Man," and I liked "Wall-E," but "Dark Knight" has my vote hands down for movie of the summer, and will no doubt be most fun movie of the year. I think it may be too geeky to say this could be the movie of the year -- hopefully something that fits that bill will come out before year's end (I'm hoping "The Road" ends up in the running for that)-- but I doubt I'll have a better time at the movies this year or next, or for quite a while. Probably not until the next Nolan-directed Batman movie comes out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Times they Are A'Changin'

Just another sign that the era of incuriosity and thoughtlessness in the White House is nearly over.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama is wrapping up his international tour in London this weekend. After talking to P.M. Gordon Brown, he spoke with the conservative party leader and likely next P.M. of Great Britain David Cameron. Some of their private conversation was caught on tape. Mental midgets, these men are not:

"Do you have a break at all?" asked Cameron.

"I have not," said Obama. "I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who -- not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process -- said that, should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you're doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be -- "

"These guys just chalk your diary up," said Cameron, referring to a packed schedule.

"Right," Obama said. "In 15 minute increments …"

"We call it the dentist's waiting room," Cameron said. "You have to scrap that because you've got to have time."

"And, well, and you start making mistakes," Obama said, "or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel-- "

"Your feeling," interrupted Cameron. "And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions."

"That's exactly right," Obama said. "And the truth is that we've got a bunch of smart people, I think, who know ten times more than we do about the specifics of the topics. And so if what you're trying to do is micromanage and solve everything then you end up being a dilettante but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you."

A bit different from the private conversations caught on tape of our current President during the general election campaign of 2000. Like, "That's the reporter from the New York Times. A real ass-hole."

Monday, July 28, 2008

"W." Teaser Unveiled

Here's the new teaser trailer for Oliver Stone's "W."

Pretty basic. It introduces each of the major players in the Bush White House as they're played by all the various actors. The make-up is all convincing enough to take us along for the ride, I think, but hearing mostly from James Cromwell in this teaser, I get the impression that none of the actors are going to be doing an "impression" of the people they're portraying. My hunch is that if "W." plays like other excellent presidential biopics have played, the actor's portrayal of the actual historical figure will burn brighter than one's memories of, or imaginings of said people. Happened to me when I saw Hopkins play Nixon; also happened when I saw Paul Giamatti in "John Adams." If Brolin does as well as he's capable playing George W. Bush, the very same could be possible here.

Which is one tall order, because W. is one larger than life ass-hole. At the very least I'm expecting a fun movie.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Harwell Begins (a Blog). Also: A Feat of Filmed Entertainment

It's funny how fast a blog gets stale. When I leave the same post up for, let's say a week, returning to the blog to find the same old post still there elicits two different emotions simultaneously. One: embarrassment. "That's what everyone's been looking at for a week? That old post?! Terrible!" And Two: Surprise. "It's been a whole week since I put that up? I just wrote that!"

Anyway. I'll move on.

Exciting news. Friend of the Blog, Shawn Harwell has gone and got himself a blog. You can visit it here. It's called Holepuncher, which, as titles go, is just about perfect for a blog. At first hearing, it sounds kinda dirty, but when you think about it a bit, it's only a little dirty, but also not dirty. What, after all, could be more wholesome than a 3-hole punch? It's a tricksy title. The blog itself is all about music you'll probably like.

In other news, something momentous happened in the world of film last week. A bit of filmed entertainment about superheroes and super villains held those who saw it enthralled in theaters nationwide. And, as an example of the artistic medium in which it was produced, it's unlikely to be surpassed this year.

Of course I'm referring to the trailer for Zach Snyder's upcoming "Watchmen."

The last time a trailer this brilliant showed up, it was for another Zach Snyder movie, "300." The guy's cornering the market on one of my favorite art forms: the movie trailer. I still think the "Thin Red Line" teaser is probably the best trailer ever filmed (with the teaser for the original "Alien" a respectable second), but this new "Watchmen" trailer is instantly worthy of their company. Damn if Snyder (or the trailer-producing company he employs) doesn't pick the coolest out-of-left-field songs to accompany their pulse-quickening visuals. Last time it was the un-famous Trent Reznor joint, "Just as You Imagined" that served as the soundtrack for ripped Spartans baring their teeth and flexing their pecs. This time it's a latter-day Smashing Pumpkins track entitled "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" that pounds in the background while certain costumed superheroes are created and others are thrown out of windows. I've listened to the song a few times -- not enough to have memorized the lyrics, but enough times to see how certain lines reflect the story with an uncanny feeling for the tone of the book. Bleak kind of pulses off of the song, but there's an underlying sense of wonder informing some beats in the song that Snyder must have picked up on because he exploits it perfectly, particularly in the scenes featuring the all-powerful (and all-blue) Dr. Manhattan. One thing that's so impressive about the melding of the visuals and music is how Snyder doesn't chop up the song to get what he needs emotionally from the trailer. He uses the best parts of the entire song and doesn't rush through to the "good part" for the big build. He lets the lyrics play, and he cuts the trailer to the song's structure, and it works like gangbusters.

This teaser/trailer promises an extraordinary movie. It looks like Zach Snyder cut a big seam in the soul of the book, crawled inside and directed a film from inside of it for a few months. I've heard that the climax of the book may have suffered some alteration in the transition from page to screen, and if they veer too far from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's vision here, then I think they'll be undermining their otherwise heroic efforts to turn an "unfilmable" graphic novel into a movie, but as to some of the other dicier aspects of the book, cinematically-speaking, it seems clear that Snyder's shying away from nothing. There's even a shot of Dr. Manhattan floating above the floor of what looks to be a cafeteria with his own Dr. Manhattan plain for all to see (though slightly obscured by after-effects). Ballsy. (No pun intended.)

And for me, the last image in this trailer promises a Mars sequence in the finished film that should be as transporting and awe-inspiring as it's always been in the "Watchmen" movie that's been playing in my head ever since I finished the book. Everything seems to be turning up roses at the multiplex for fans of comics these days. Hope it keeps up through March of next year.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Visit the Set of "The Shining"

For anyone who loves Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" as much as I do, this is a must-see video.

Here's the lede from the Guardian story:
"Channel 4 has painstakingly recreated the set of Stanley Kubrick horror film The Shining, complete with look-a-likes of the crew and cast members including Shelley Duvall, for a TV ad to promote a More 4 season of the director's films."
The shot, a single tracking shot we used to call "fluid masters" back in film school, is meant to suggest a purposefully-striding Stanley Kubrick visiting all corners of his vast "Shining" set. The shot isn't visually stunning (fluid masters rarely are), but what is astonishing is how much attention to detail the creators of this short film paid to every aspect of the recreation. Even the crew members shown in the famed behind-the-scenes documentary of "The Shining" (filmed by Kubrick's daughter), are represented here with look-alikes. An appearance by a convincing double of Diane Johnson, Kubrick's co-screenwriter on the film, ends the film, right down to the big glasses and loud, wide-collared shirt she wore. After watching it and the good geek-vibes wore off, I wondered what had happened to the painstakingly-created set they'd built. Was it really intended solely for this 30-second shot? Would other stuff shot on that set turn up when Channel 4 aired the movie during the "Stanley Kubrick Season?"

I guess it's goofy to fret about the destruction of movie sets -- they tore down the set for the original "Shining," after all. But in the back of my mind I just marvel at the uses for such a set that are soooo much better than a dumpster.

Interested parties could ship parts of it to the hotel in Oregon where they shot the exteriors of the Overlook, making the hotel into a "Shining" museum, which would of course become a mecca for movie nerds all over the world. Or some enterprising Grogg-types could ship it to a fledgling film school. How much more hyped would we would be-matriculators have been if, in addition to a really loud screening of the T-Rec scene from "Jurassic Park," we'd also gotten to tour a recreated "Shining" set. And then they'd said, "Your first projects will all be filmed here." Old NCSA SoF would have had to bat film wannabes away with sticks.

Anyway, check it out. It's good stuff.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Hints of Impending Hilarity

The Smoking Gun has a report up from the "set" of the new Sasha Baron Cohen movie starring his "gay, Austrian journalist" character, Bruno.

It already sounds hilarious:
"Cohen and his confederates organized cage fighting programs on consecutive days in Texarkana and Fort Smith. Both cards ended with two male grapplers (one was identified as "Straight Dave" and wore camouflage) tearing each other's clothes off and, while in underwear, kissing down their opponent's chest. This man-on-man action triggered Fort Smith fans to throw chairs and beer at the ring, according to one cop present at the city's Convention Center."
I'm not a huge fan of Cohen's methods, and sometime I think they undercut his humor, but when it works, it works brilliantly. This sounds promising.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" Teaser

The teaser for the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is up. What do you think?

I like the almost over-the-top nerdiness of the guy administering the lie-detector test, I like seeing Kathy Bates acting in stuff that's not totally beneath her ("Waterboy" is a good example), and I like the guy telling Jennifer Connelly, "Don't be afraid," as though he's talking as much to himself as to her. But I'm not sold on Keanu Reeves playing an alien. Isn't he too much identified with his other iconic and not terribly-demanding film roles to believably play a scary alien? Particularly one as relatively well-known as Klaatu? (So well-known, so embedded in the zeitgeist that I lifted the name for my own book when I needed an other-worldly-sounding name! And I haven't even seen the original movie! Something else to change.) Something seems off about this thing. As it is a teaser, it's meant to give only enough information to raise questions in the viewer's head they'll want to learn the answers to on opening weekend. But does it do even that? I'm kind of thinking not so much.

Does the teaser do anything for those who've seen the original movie? Are the big, sweeping CG shots of what look like highly-corrosive dust-storms of particular interest because they're alluded to in the original, but never shown? I'll withhold judgment until I see the full trailer, but color me unenthused by this.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Back from Charleston and a Question Regarding "Hancock"

Hello all. Hope everyone had a great 4th of July weekend.

The wife and I are back from our weekend stay in Charleston, South Carolina. We watched fireworks (shot off the deck of the USS Yorktown), ate shrimp (at the touristy and so-so Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.), bought books (at Charleston's sole used bookstore, the very charming Blue Bicycle Books), and ate amazing seafood (courtesy of Hyman's Seafood). Yeah, mostly we ate. What of it? We walked, drove, read and ate, but it was fun and felt like just what I needed to face another month at work.

I read in the short time I've been back that the new Will Smith movie, "Hancock" did crazy business over the holiday weekend, earning $107 million over the 5 and 1/2 days since it opened. According to Nikke Finke's article, the reviews were only 33% positive and the "buzz" only "so-so" -- so why the massive total? I heard the studio was shooting some very last minute reshoots after some worrisome test screenings and there was some serious fretting amongst executives that this was just not a very good movie, but I guess none of that trickled down to audiences.

Is it just Will Smith that packs him in? Is Will Smith the last movie star? Meaning is he the only guy or gal left who can pack them in and make serious cash for a studio no matter what movie he's opening? It sure seems like it. So was it the premise that brought everyone out? Was it the generally good weather and nothing much else to do on a hot holiday weekend? Or was it just Will Smith? I have to ask these critical questions because I like to blog about movies, and I haven't actually seen one in the theater for a record 2 weeks. I still haven't checked out "Wall-E," "Wanted," or even "Iron Man" for a second time, which I'd kind of wanted to do. Damn you job that demands the not-explicitly-asked-for-but-just-kind-of-understood-that-everyone-works-overtime overtime! I'm hoping to get to the theater sometime this week -- if I do, I'll say something about it right here. Stay ... signed on?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Fourth of July

Happy Independence Day! If all goes according to plan, I'll be watching fireworks up in lovely Charleston, South Carolina tonight after having eaten a bunch of seafood and buying a ridiculous number of books I'll never have time to read. Should be fun. I hope everyone has a great weekend.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Frozen Moment Post-Clinching, Pre-Shifting

I meant to post up about this, but forgot about it till now.

This is a really cool shot from the Detroit Free Press of the Obama rally where Al Gore officially endorsed Barack Obama for president. I'm actually as impressed by the coolness of the 360 degree aspect as by the hugeness of the crowd. I was a little disappointed that Al Gore waited until his endorsement would have no actual impact to endorse Barack, but better late than never.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Brolin's Bush Looks Scary

Um, is this one of the scariest photos ever taken, or is it just me? Why exactly does Josh Brolin's head look so enormous in this shot? It's almost like the thing Mike Myers did in the trailers I saw for "The Love Guru" where Myers put his own massive head on a kid's body for a flashback. Just weird.

In the article Brolin and Stone talk about how fairly their film treats our duly selected president. Brolin says that had the screenplay been what he expected it to be, a "far-left hammering of the president," as he puts it, then he wouldn't have done it. I think it's good that the movie won't be that. If done well, a fair and generally honest treatment of W. won't spend 2 hours showing what a despicable person George W. Bush is, but rather how his life's experiences drove him to seek the highest office in the land, but also shaped him into a person almost entirely unsuited to it. This is another one I'm looking forward to.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Obama's the nominee. Hillary wrapped up her campaign, made nice, gave a totally adequate concession speech, and then threw her full weight behind Obama's candidacy at a rally.

In the last couple of weeks, though, Obama's started to make some moves to the center that have been somewhat worrisome to his more progressive supporters.

1.) While he's always seemed somewhat ambivalent about NAFTA, he always skewed his rhetoric towards opposing it. Now his rhetoric has shifted so that he doesn't really see what the big deal about NAFTA is.

2.) In years past he appeared to support the right of cities to ban handgun ownership, but after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of the citizen to bear arms last week, Obama's come out in support of the decision.

3.) In Illinois, he was part of the commission that halted Illinois's capital punishment regime. Last week when the Supreme Court decided that any crime that does not result in death does not warrant the death penalty (the crime at issue being child rape), Obama came out in opposition to the decision, saying the State should have the right to execute child rapists.

4.) Before, he said he'd filibuster any bill that contained a provision for immunity from prosecution for the telecommunications companies complicit in the government's illegal wiretapping program. Now, he has come out in support of a compromise bill that contains exactly that immunity.

5.) Before he didn't wear that goddamn flag lapel pin because he knew it was cheap, meaningless, and stupid. When someone's running for office, particularly for the highest office in the land, isn't that person's "patriotism" beyond reproach? Has anyone who's ever been accused of not being patriotic enough during an election season actually not loved their country? And who gets to define patriotism? Republicans? Obama showed all of that political silly season stupidity the door. Except ... As you can see in his photo from the cover of Rolling Stone, he's started to wear the flag pin regularly.

My question is this: how much of these shifts are necessary to win the general election, and how much do these shifts to the center dilute his powerful brand?

For myself, the places Obama has shifted to don't bother me much. NAFTA's never been much of an issue for me. I'd have to read about 5 dry economics books to understand half of what people are arguing about, and I'm not interested enough in the issue to do that. I also supported the Supreme Court's decision to decriminalize posession of firearms in one's own home, so Obama's new position is pretty much in line with my own. As for the capital punishment decision the Supreme Court handed down last week, I agreed with it, but I understand that as political theater, it's probably better for a candidate to come down on the side of killing child rapists than to oppose it, no matter their governmental philosophy. But the telecom immunity shift does bother me -- I think we need to know as much as we can about this illegal breach of citizen privacy and now Obama's said, in effect, that no, we don't. And the flag pin, well, that's just disappointing.

The cumulative effect of all this shifting is that I don't feel confident I know where Obama stands on any given issue anymore. On the flip side, I no longer doubt that he has the steely resolve required to win and to govern a divided nation. He's no Jimmy Carter, no McGovern. He's more like JFK. Thoughtful, liberal, but ruthless.

Though I still think Obama's a fantastic politician and one of the best candidates I've had the chance to vote for, I am a little worried that his recent shifts to the center and to the center-right aren't over, and that in his zeal to win over independents he's going to alienate his base and end up being the president we all knew Hillary would have been: just another poll-driven centrist. I hope I look back on this post in a few months and laugh at how alarmist and knee-jerk I was. All I can do is continue to watch and hope.