The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s 2004 feature about a legendary oceanographer and his misadventurous quest for the giant “jaguar shark” that ate his partner.  Featuring a full array of Anderson’s trademark elements- and a cast which includes several members of his usual company of actors- it met with a mixed and bewildered response from critics, which probably played a large part in its failure at the box office, but received praise for the performance of its star, Bill Murray, and managed to earn a number of award nominations despite the lukewarm reception.  Though Anderson’s former writing partner, Owen Wilson, appears in a major role, this film marked the director’s first screenplay collaboration with fellow indie-filmmaker Noah Baumbach, a pairing which would later continue with the much more successful animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Drawing its obvious inspiration from the real-life career of famed marine adventurer and inventor Jacques Cousteau, the plot concerns itself with the personal and professional tribulations of the title character as he embarks upon a mission to exact revenge on the possibly non-existent fish that killed his long-time colleague.  His long career, once marked by the popularity and success of the documentary films he produced of his exploits, has fallen into decline, while his personal life is in similar disarray with the onset of a mid-life crisis and the collapse of his marriage.  When his expedition is joined by a young man who is possibly his son, rivalries are sparked among the crew and Zissou finds himself struggling with his own fear of emotional connection, as things become increasingly complicated by the presence of a pregnant reporter, an incursion of marauding pirates, and the interference of a rival oceanographer.  As Team Zissou journeys the seas in search of their elusive quarry, their leader must work out his personal issues as he scrambles to prevent the failure of the mission, which may be his last chance to save his faltering reputation.  True to Anderson’s form, the insular scenario provides a metaphoric framework for the emotional and psychological landscape of his characters, and as they negotiate the conflicts and obstacles of the plot, they are really working to resolve their own dysfunctional relationships with the world and themselves; and, as always, he draws on collective pop cultural memory to provide a distinctively quirky backdrop for his deadpan psychodrama.

In this case, that backdrop is designed to specifically evoke the juvenile imagination of the late-mid-century generation he represents, a world resembling a sort of mash-up between The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Jonny Quest; Zissou and his crew are not merely sea-going scientists and filmmakers, they serve as a sort of merry band of adventurers, facing intrigue and danger as they catalogue specimens, navigate unprotected waters, and weather the fickle opinions of the scientific community, film critics and their financial backers.  The sea life they encounter on their voyage is as fanciful and implausible as the names of the exotic places to which they travel, emphasizing even more the deliberate ridiculousness of the premise, and giving the whole film the air of a made-up adventure game played in the back yard after a Saturday morning cartoon marathon.  This pre-adolescent sensibility serves Anderson’s purpose in a two-fold way, suggesting thematic ideas that figure prominently in his tale.  It allows him to offer up a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the gap between the brave promise of the nuclear age and its failure to reach fruition in the reality of modern adult life.  Team Zissou’s adventurous voyage is a far cry from the optimistic visions portrayed in the treasured boyhood TV fantasies from which he has derived his inspiration; their highly-trained dolphin scouts are uncooperative and useless, they are saddled by their backers with a “bond company stooge,” and their space-age gadgetry has become broken-down equipment.  Though it’s a running source of humor throughout the movie, this pageant of ironic de-mystification carries a decided tone of sadness and disillusionment that undercuts the comical posturing and lends an unexpected poignancy to the proceedings; and appropriately so, for it informs the other major theme of the movie. The Life Aquatic is a film about boys who won’t- or can’t- grow up, a phenomenon which seems to center on issues of fatherhood; Zissou’s ambivalent feelings towards his own father figure are merely hinted at, but his failure to resolve them are evident in his self-indulgent life of adventure, in which he continually pursues the elusive, whether it be a mythic sea monster or an unattainable woman, while he proudly and flagrantly disregards authority- but simultaneously seeks approval from the establishment it represents.  His stunted emotional development is challenged by the arrival of another man-child, seeking his own validation from a father he never knew- a role Zissou is ill-prepared and unsuited for, but finds himself longing to fill.  Through their shared journey on and under the sea- with all its richly symbolic implications- they undergo a shared rite of passage to manhood, and in their belated transition to maturity they find the potential to transform their world of compromised hope and sold-out ideals back into the enlightened future promised by the bright dreams of the past.  Meanwhile, of course, the film’s few women wait, not always patiently, while the boys play at their adventure, hoping that the consequences of the game are not too dire, serving as mothers or lovers, or more accurately, both.

In presenting his male-centric delayed-coming-of-age tale, director Anderson utilizes all his now-familiar tricks of the trade: his meticulously tidy shot composition, his primary color palette (with an emphasis, this time, on yellow and blue), his visual influences drawn from a retro-hip nostalgic sensibility, his unapologetic use of obvious symbolism drawn from his own personal mythology, and, of course, his heavy use of vintage pop and folk music- here given a new twist by the inclusion of several Brazilian acoustic renditions of classic David Bowie tunes, most of them performed live onscreen by cast member Seu Jorge, adding to the film’s oddball blend of the exotic and the familiar.  Another Anderson trademark, his affinity for montage and whimsical graphic illustration for setting up key points, is here given a particularly spectacular expression through the use of a life-sized cross-section set to represent Zissou’s boat (named the Belafonte in yet another nod to Cousteau, whose own ship was famously called Calypso); this enormous visual aid allows the director to indulge his obsession for the methodical establishment of his characters’ world and the arrangement of their thematic place in the story.  For those scenes which take place off the boat, he chooses a variety of Mediterranean locations (beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman) that evoke the flavor of the classic French and Italian cinema that has helped to shape his personal filmic style, but which also create a visual impression of old-time glamour and sophistication that- in many cases- has grown weathered and gone to seed.

Anderson’s ensemble, for the most part, is made up of the actors he had in mind when he and Baumbach wrote the screenplay, a fortunate- and uncommon- occurrence which bears testimony to the director’s popularity with his cast and crew.  Most important, of course, is the central presence of the aforementioned Murray, whose dry demeanor embodies and defines the movie’s overall tone; always a surprisingly rich and subtle player, he uses his familiar screen persona to portray Zissou as a man who is good-natured, well-intentioned, and generous of spirit- but also infuriatingly self-absorbed and remote.  These qualities are not static, however, and much of the joy that can be derived from The Life Aquatic comes from watching this perennially underappreciated actor navigate the complex changes undergone by the title character, embracing the demands of the moment with the refreshing gung-ho gusto that has always made him so likable, no matter how smarmy or pompous his role may require him to be.  It’s a good thing for the movie that he has the ability to remain endearing, for Steve Zissou could easily have come across as a fatuous, manipulative phony; thanks to Murray’s self-deprecatingly buffoonish personality, we can see the charisma that underlies the character’s less pleasant qualities and believe that he is a man who inspires the loyalty and admiration of his misfit crew.

As for the unlikely assortment of oddballs that comprise that crew- as well as the sundry other characters that populate The Life Aquatic– they are brought to varying degrees of life by a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces.  The most prominent is Wilson, who portrays the young newcomer who may or may not be Zissou’s son; with his earnest, gee-whiz manner and his genteel southern drawl, he provides both a contrast and a foil for the more flamboyant Murray, and suggests a child-like naïveté that reinforces the movie’s boyish-fantasy theme- though at times he comes off as too good to be true, or worse, seems simple-minded rather than simple.  Anjelica Huston and Cate Blanchett, as Zissou’s estranged wife and the ambivalent journalist, respectively, are effective in their roles but are ultimately a bit wasted in the long run; Jeff Goldblum brings his usual oily eccentricity to the role of Zissou’s shamelessly self-congratulatory rival, Michael Gambon offers well-mannered class as a mask for the hidden shadiness of Zissou’s producer, and Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude, a film that clearly ranks high in the Wes Anderson pantheon of influences) gives a disarmingly human turn as the “bond company stooge.”  As for Zissou’s crew members and interns, most of them are established as distinct “types” to flesh out the background, but unfortunately most of them remain there throughout the film without making much of an individual impression; the exceptions are the previously-mentioned Jorge, whose musical interludes are a frequent (and welcome) distraction, and Willem Dafoe, who plays Klaus, the German first mate whose petulant jealousy is aroused by the favoritism his beloved captain bestows on interloper Wilson.  His emotionalism stands out from the rest of the crew, who seem nonplused and disaffected by even the most dramatic developments, but occasionally the performance feels a bit gimmicky, as if the actor were essaying a role in a comedy sketch instead of a major character in a serious feature film.  This, in fact, sums up the most problematic element of The Life Aquatic; like all of Anderson’s work, many of the film’s situational conceits are pointedly absurd, and much of the dialogue is self-consciously glib, underplayed with a heightened detachment that gives the whole piece a somewhat artificial feel.  Most of the time, it’s a technique that works, but there are times in the film when it gives the impression we are being put-on, creating a disingenuous air that threatens to undermine the sincerity of Anderson’s ultimate message.  However, it is not the fault of Dafoe, or any of the other talented players, all of whom deliver on-the-money performances that are true to the style, that it sometimes feels like we are watching an elaborate and extended skit; rather, it is a sense that Anderson, in this particular outing, may have laid it on just a little too thick.

That said, however, I should be quick to point out that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, though it may not be his best work, is a definitively Wes Anderson project, and as such, is full of more than enough delights to compensate for the occasional stylistic miscalculation.  Indeed, it has become apparent over his relatively short career that this young filmmaker is a true auteur, a visionary director with an distinct and powerful style which can, perhaps, be easily imitated or parodied but never quite duplicated; his growing body of work exhibits a rare wealth of imagination, coupled with a desire to explore his own foibles onscreen- foibles he happens to share with most of his generation, and that find a unique form of expression through his cinematic voice.  Coming at the mid-point of his career so far, and on the heels of his much-lauded The Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou perhaps represents a crystallization of his milieu, a vehicle with which he defined his personal style in the most assertive form to date.  If it sometimes seems a little too much, maybe that’s appropriate; after all, Anderson’s films are not meant to be realism- they portray a world of archetypal dream mythology, re-invented with a hipster-ish vocabulary, perhaps, but no less profound for the twist.  No matter that it sometimes feels like play-acting; indeed, in a film about boys who would rather go adventuring than grow up, that might even be the point.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0362270/

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Chinatown (1974)

Today’s cinema adventure: Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir-inspired mystery drama starring Jack Nicholson as thirties-era private detective Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as a mysterious widow whose secrets lead him into a complex web of deceit, corruption, and murder. Renowned, among other reasons, for its screenplay by Robert Towne, which has been hailed by many critics and film scholars as the greatest ever written, it became an instant classic on its release and is still widely regarded as one of the very best films of the seventies, and, indeed, of all time.

Towne’s acclaimed script takes inspiration from the circumstances surrounding early Los Angeles’ complicated acquisition of water rights, fictionalizing real-life figures- specifically William Mulholland, who engineered the importation of water from the north by way of the Los Angeles aqueduct- to create a background for the film’s mystery; though the events of Chinatown are entirely fictitious, this historical context provides a connection to reality that infuses the movie with a sense of authenticity and gives it a feeling on relevance beyond its dramatic narrative. Set in the L.A. of the early 1930s, the plot follows Gittes as he works what he thinks is a routine case. Hired by the wife of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the city’s Department of Water and Power, to catch her husband in an extra-marital affair, he soon finds evidence not only of Mulwray’s supposed infidelity, but of mysterious diversions of water taking place under cover of night. When Mulwray turns up suspiciously drowned and Gittes discovers he was hired by an imposter, he decides to pursue the case in order to save his reputation. The trail begins with the real Mrs. Mulwray, who has a secret connection to her late husband’s “other woman,” and ultimately leads him into a game of clandestine politics, real estate fraud, and dark family secrets; with the police and hired thugs on his trail, he must try to find the key to this complex mystery before his time- or his luck- runs out.

On the surface, it sounds like a typical scenario that could be found in any of a hundred hard-boiled detective stories from the thirties or forties, loaded with the clichés and conceits of such fiction; the wisecracking dick, the deceitful femme fatale, the oily politicians, the psychotic gunsels- all of them are present and accounted for in Chinatown. Towne’s script, however, uses the trappings of the genre as a springboard from which to explore a myriad of deeper mysteries, allowing the unfolding story to take us from the larger arena of politics, power, and greed into the more inscrutable realm of the human heart; in the convoluted skein that lies at the center of the mystery, we find that the most intimate longings are ultimately responsible for the most momentous events, and actions with far-reaching consequences are motivated by simple flaws of character or personal dysfunction. As Gittes digs deeper, he uncovers a vein of corruption that runs from the top of the social order to the very root of the family structure, soiling everything it touches in between; it’s not a pretty discovery- the dirty little secrets he uncovers are very dirty indeed, and the glimpse we are offered into the inner workings of politics (both public and personal) among the rich and powerful is one which offers a very bleak picture, indeed, of the way things really are beneath the pretty surface of prosperity.

Woven into the tale is also an exploration of fate, dictated by the hopes and fears which motivate our actions and ultimately cause us to bring about the very results we wish to prevent; it’s a theme encapsulated in the very structure of the film, in which Gittes, who carries the emotional scars of his history as a policeman in L.A.’s Chinatown, vows never to return there, and yet the trail on which he is led by his case brings him right back into its heart for the film’s climax. An ironic twist, and one of many throughout the film; true to its film noir roots, Chinatown is a movie about irony. Gittes is as worldly and cynical as they come, and yet he finds himself betrayed at every turn by his naive assumptions, and his skeptical view of human nature leads him to repeatedly misjudge whether to doubt or trust the people around him. Not that he can be blamed- in Chinatown, nothing is what it seems, and the more you see of what goes on below the surface, the less you can be sure of how to proceed.

The screenplay for Chinatown is so thematically rich that volumes could be written about it; indeed, they have been. Much of the joy of the film, of course, is discovering the countless threads of meaning on your own, a process which continues throughout multiple repeated viewings. This is due to the contribution of its director, Polanski, whose European roots give him an outsider’s perspective on the quintessentially American milieu of the story. Instead of taking for granted the familiar conditions of the noir scenario, he turns everything inside out with his observations on the culture it portrays; his sophisticated take on the characters and their foibles, the machinations of the plot and the hidden truths it reveals, and the illusions inherent in the American psyche. After all, our seemingly savvy protagonist makes his living by tearing away illusions, but in the course of the film he ends up stripping away his own. Polanski carefully transfers our identification to Gittes, who has both the intelligence and integrity to make him an appealing representative for us, revealing information only as it becomes available to him, and making our journey of discovery synonymous with his. As he proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is trying to expose a secret everyone else already seems to know, and our illusions are shattered right alongside those of our hapless hero. This lends the film a uniquely contemporary viewpoint on the old-fashioned world it presents, and effectively converts the film noir form into a vehicle for modern ideas about the underlying moral structure of our society. Much of this may seem to be the result of Towne’s screenplay, but Polanski wielded considerable influence over the project, making important changes to the material (such as removing a planned voice-over narration and significantly changing the film’s ending) that altered its structure from a more overtly hard-boiled exercise in nostalgia to a subtle, multi-layered deconstruction of the genre. On a more technical level, the director exhibits his mastery of the medium in every frame, resisting the temptation to use cinematic methods associated with noir, relying on the script and the performances to convey those sensibilities, and instead telling the story with his own, decidedly modern, visual techniques; his use of light and shadow, his framing of shots, his incorporation of symbolic elements- all are reminiscent of the classic mode of these films without directly recreating it. He invokes the spirit of the past while constantly, and subtly, reminding us that we are watching a modern film. It’s an approach few filmmakers have successfully managed, though many have attempted it.

With Polanski utilizing his more current filmmaking style, the distinctive period feel which helps Chinatown evoke its air of old-fashioned intrigue is largely provided by its impeccable recreation of vintage Los Angeles, accomplished by the meticulous costumes, sets, and decor, as well as the carefully chosen locations- all captured by the crystalline, golden-hued cinematography of John A. Alonzo, which conjures the sun-drenched aura of the setting as well as giving a sepia-tinted nod to nostalgia. To complete the package, the lush musical score by Jerry Goldsmith adds a definitive, faintly exotic blend of romance and mystery, with magnificently haunting trumpet solos expressing the mournful longing at the heart of the movie; it’s an even more impressive accomplishment because Goldsmith was called in at the last minute to write music for the film when an already-finished score was rejected by producer Robert Evans. The veteran composer had only ten days to complete his work, but the resultant score stands with the many other elements of Chinatown that are held up among the finest ever produced for the screen.

There is a tendency in films by an auteur like Polanski for the cast to be overlooked, regardless of how superb their work may be; not so with Chinatown. Inseparable from the director’s vision is his star; Jack Nicholson’s unmistakable demeanor fits Jake Gittes to perfection, as much a natural extension of his own personality as such characters were for Humphrey Bogart. He embodies the archetypal private eye character while re-inventing it, giving us the expected image of a tough guy with a strategically hidden idealistic core, but adding yet another layer underneath which reflects the more realistic, contemporary viewpoint of the film. His Gittes seems plagued by self-doubt, a fear that he is setting himself up to repeat his past failure as a cop in Chinatown, and perhaps a suspicion that he is more of a sap than he wants to admit; its an endearing and humanizing weakness which undercuts his brashly confident air, a quality that is perhaps the essence of Nicholson’s screen persona, and it makes him the ideal factor for the audience in Polanski’s de-mystification of detective fiction. The burden of carrying the plot may be on Nicholson, but the bulk of its focus is on Faye Dunaway, as that other essential figure of the noir landscape, the femme fatale, and she is more than up to the scrutiny. As Evelyn Mulwray, she, like her co-star, brings a modern sensibility to the role, a character which runs much deeper than the usual dangerous dames in these hard-boiled tales. Dunaway gives us a well-put-together woman, used to the good life, who is haughty but candid, alluring but also intelligent, tender, vulnerable, and deeply scarred- but still full of warmth and far from broken. Though the character, true to the mold, is deceitful and manipulative, Dunaway lets us see that, in a sense, she’s not very good at it; her face betrays her true feelings at every turn, though she is practiced enough to play it off; in this way, like Nicholson, she creates a portrait of a real person trying to live up to an image she’s not quite sure she’s capable of. She is also beautiful- her smooth, alabaster skin and her faintly exotic eyes give her the perfect look to capture this mysterious, seemingly untouchable woman. As for the chemistry she has with her co-star, they make a perfect pair; their inevitable but unlikely coupling seems to come from nowhere, in terms of the script- there has been no flirtation, nor any overt indication of attraction. Yet when it happens, it feels absolutely right, a chance for both of them to let go of their jaded, protective façades and be human beings again, at least for a short time. They make a great pair, and they brilliantly capture the film’s sense of longing as they play out the story of two lonely souls whose union must ultimately be thwarted by fate, becoming one of the screen’s iconic couples in the process. The third brilliant performance, and one which is sometimes forgotten in discussions of Chinatown, comes from legendary director John Huston (a fitting addition to the cast, since his 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon, arguably gave birth to the entire film noir genre), as Noah Cross, Mulwray’s obscenely wealthy business partner, whose genteel courtliness does little to hide the arrogance and sense of entitlement that defines his character; a truly great villain, he dominates every scene he is in, and though he his screen time is relatively brief, he makes such an impression that it feels like he is in much more of the movie than he actually is. The remainder of the cast- including Burt Young as a client who becomes an ally, Perry Lopez as Jake’s former police partner who is now a high-ranking detective and an antagonist in the investigation, Diane Ladd as the phony Mrs. Mulwray, and director Polanski in a cameo as a deadly knife-wielding hoodlum- all bring their own considerable contributions to the table, fleshing out their smaller roles and providing even more texture to the already intricate tapestry of the movie’s multi-layered landscape.

Chinatown is one of those rare movies that seems to be impervious to the changing tastes of time; it captures not only the era of its setting but the savvy, anti-establishment zeitgeist of the “New Hollywood” seventies, yet it seems as fresh and up-to-the-minute today as it did nearly 40 years ago. Part of the reason for this lies in the timeless nature of its themes and its subject matter- the corruptibility of man and the inexorable workings of fate will never cease to be relevant topics, after all- but a great deal of credit goes to the delicate, deceptively simple handling given the film by Roman Polanski, and the self-assured, passionate work of its stars. There are several points of interest surrounding the movie for cinema historians- it was the first film shot in America by Polanski since the tragic murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson “family,” and the last before he fled the country to avoid sentencing for his statutory rape conviction, a still-highly-controversial incident that sharply divides public opinion even today. None of these things matter, though, when watching Chinatown. It’s a movie that has something to offer for every audience, from the serious cinemaphile to the most casual viewer. The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around a lot, and I hesitate to use it, most of the time, at least in writing; but I suspect, in the final analysis of Polanski’s body of work when all is said and done, it is this movie that will stand as his crowning achievement- more accessible than his earlier, more directly artistic efforts, possibly his most universal film in scope and appeal, and less detached than his later, more meditative work. It’s the kind of movie that entices us with its entertaining surface and draws us into its complex, thought-provoking, revelatory world- a world where right and wrong are inextricably woven together and the only way to avoid trouble, in the words of more than one character, is to do “as little as possible.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315/

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Phantom of the Opera, the 1925 silent horror film featuring the legendary Lon Chaney in his most famous and recognizable role; it was a troubled production, but it ultimately proved so successful that it sparked a two-decade reign by its studio, Universal, as the premiere source of horror on the big screen. Critics at the time were lukewarm in their overall response to the film, though most were impressed by its production values and visual style, but they bestowed unanimous acclaim upon the element which was- and remains- its greatest appeal: the electrifying performance of Chaney as the title character, and the still-terrifying makeup he designed to transform himself into a ghoulish human monster.

Based on the 1909 novel by French author Gaston Leroux, the film’s plot differs somewhat in its details from the one familiar to fans of the now-better-known stage musical based on the same source, but the general premise remains the same. The prestigious Paris Opera is haunted by a mysterious shadowy figure known only as “The Phantom,” who is, in reality, a grotesquely disfigured musical genius that dwells in a secret lair deep within the catacombs beneath the opera house. Becoming enamored of Christine, the understudy to the Opera’s temperamental prima donna, he coaches her singing from behind the walls of her dressing room, and begins to send threatening letters to the Opera’s owners demanding they allow her to replace their star onstage; when they refuse to cooperate, he sabotages a performance, crashing the grand chandelier into the audience, and then kidnaps his protégé, prompting a desperate rescue attempt by her lover, Raoul, and sparking a manhunt to capture the fiend and put an end to his reign of terror, once and for all.

This highly melodramatic plot has since been fleshed out by a numerous variety of interpretations, from the gothic horror approach of Hammer Studios to the campy glam-fantasy of Brian DePalma’s seventies cult classic, The Phantom of the Paradise; but this original screen version remains, nearly 90 years later, the most iconic. Though many in today’s world have never seen the film, it would be hard to find someone unfamiliar with the horrific countenance of Lon Chaney’s Phantom; his pale, grinning, skull-like features are still among the most recognizable in horror cinema, turning up in various forms of media throughout our popular culture- even on a postage stamp- and continuing to inspire artists and actors today in their efforts to terrify. Without question, unless you are a serious film scholar- or a hardcore completionist- Chaney is the only real reason for a modern viewer to see The Phantom of the Opera; his makeup alone is worth the time investment, an impressive creation of face paint and wire which caused him excruciating pain during filming. His appearance- the most faithful depiction of the character to date, as described in the novel- is so gruesome that audiences of the day reportedly leaped from their seats in terror, and some weaker spirits even fainted from the shock- though doubtless some of these incidents were embellished by the studio for publicity purposes. However, Chaney’s magnificently deformed visage is only part of his draw here; the reason he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars was that he had an uncanny gift for making such monstrous characters profoundly human, finding their hearts and rendering them with a rare poignancy that ultimately made them far more sympathetic than the stiffly artificial performers that surrounded them. His work is a revelation for anyone whose conception of silent film acting is limited to the stilted, melodramatic style represented by most of his contemporaries; his gift shines through the antiquated techniques of the form, reminding us of the effectiveness of pantomime as practiced by a true master. He communicates volumes of complex emotion with his body language and tells whole stories with the subtlest of gestures. He presents such a clear portrait of the pain and sadness lurking beneath the phantom’s furious persona that we cannot help but be on his side, for all the mayhem he causes; he conveys the depth of this man’s tragic experience- the isolation, the ridicule, the self-loathing- that has led him to hide himself away from the eyes of the world, and he makes us hope alongside him that the beauty of his musical gift will be enough to make Christine see past his physical ugliness and fall in love with the tender soul it conceals. We know that it won’t work, of course, which only serves to heighten our pity for this miserable outcast, dangerously mad though he may be.

Thanks to the success of Chaney’s previous blockbuster for Universal, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the studio knew they had a major asset; consequently they spared no expense in the preparation of this follow-up, building lavish sets of enormous scale upon which to play out the drama. The production design (headed by the uncredited Ben Carré) centers on a complete vision of the Paris Opera House, giving us its opulent interiors, its magnificent façade and spectacular rooftop, and the elaborate sets and costumes for its onstage production of Faust (which, appropriately enough, figures prominently in the plot), including a backstage view full of looming and ominous props and set pieces. As for its dark underbelly, the Phantom’s sinister hideaway is a splendidly imaginative mix of gothic gloom and regal refinement, with dark labyrinthine passageways that include such improbable elements as a horse and an underground lake, leading to residential chambers resplendent with elegant décor and devilish mechanisms. Adding to the visual bedazzlement, the film utilizes a the technique of monochromatic tinting to create moods and to differentiate settings- a fairly common method of the era, and a far cry from the drab look most modern viewers associate with the silent cinema, due to the decades in which only faded black-and-white prints of these films were available. Thanks to modern restoration, we are treated not only to the recreation of this effect, which greatly enhances the visual experience of the film, but also to the full glory of the two-tone color process used for the film’s centerpiece, a grand masked ball sequence in which the Phantom appears amongst the revelers costumed as the Red Death.

Apart from the scenery, though, when Chaney is absent from the screen we are left, for the most part, with little to hold our interest. Though it’s important to remember that the overwrought posing practiced by most of the other actors was the accepted technique of the day, and that the performers here were well-known, popular, and respected stars at the time, modern audiences are still likely to feel alienated rather than endeared by the likes of such primitive thespians as Mary Philbin and Norman Kerry, who portray Christine and Raoul, particularly when contrasted with the raw, timeless power of the film’s star. It’s not that they give bad performances- by the standard of the day, they were more than competent- but that they seem vaguely silly to us now, holdovers from the pulpy melodrama theatre which dominated American entertainment before the movies took over our collective imagination. Still, if one can get past the stylistic gap created by the intervening decades of changing fashion, it’s possible to see the talent on display here. There are some nice moments from Philbin, who was a lovely young woman, to be sure, exuding a sweetness and sincerity that seems particularly noticeable when she shares the screen with Chaney; and some of the supporting players provide memorable contributions, such as early Broadway star Snitz Edwards as a decidedly fey and cowardly stagehand who provides comic relief, and the uncredited Bernard Siegel as the Opera company’s resident “expert” on the Phantom. Kerry’s Raoul gets the worst deal, despite his then-much-heralded matinee-idol looks; his character is a stock, one-dimensional bore, and though he does give every effort to make some real feeling come through, his performance comes off as wooden and unimaginative, and the character seems almost dull-witted at times, making us root all the more for the Phantom in his efforts to win Christine away from him. Far more interesting is Arthur Edmund Carewe, who portrays Ledoux, a police detective secretly investigating the case of the mysterious opera ghost, who emerges just in time to become an ally in the quest to save Christine; despite the fact that the character was completely rewritten during the process of creating the intertitles- having originally been a Persian former associate of the Phantom now on his trail- and his scenes were filmed with a completely different backstory in mind, he still comes off better than Raoul, decisive, determined and brave. Barring her acceptance of the Phantom’s love, it would be better for Christine to fall for this hero, instead of the boring, moon-eyed stiff with whom she ends up.

The subject of Ledoux and his rewritten backstory brings up a major point in the discussion of The Phantom of the Opera- its tumultuous production history. Universal originally hired Rupert Julian, a prestigious director of stylish romances, to helm the project, but the shooting process was marred by his difficult relations with the cast and crew. Nevertheless, he succeeded in providing a final cut, more faithful to the novel’s plotline, including the mysterious Persian and keeping the original ending, in which the Phantom allows Christine and Raoul to leave together and remains in his underground hideout to die of a broken heart; unfortunately, the unfavorable reaction of preview audiences prompted the studio to embark on major rewriting and reshooting, without Julian (though his name was- and still is- retained as the credited director), which involved the creation of several subplots, new characters, more comic relief, and a different ending in which the Phantom is chased down by an angry mob and savagely murdered. Unfortunately, this version also bombed in previews, so the desperate studio scrapped most of it (though they retained the new, more “exciting” finale) and attempted to salvage the project by re-editing and rewriting the original cut (this is when the Persian became a Parisian police inspector). This time, it clicked, and the film was a huge hit- though, as mentioned, the critics found it somewhat mediocre, save for Chaney- and became a cash cow for Universal; in fact, it was so popular that upon the advent of sound a few years later, the studio shot new sequences (including more extensive scenes of the opera) and added a dubbed soundtrack featuring members of the original cast, except for Chaney (who was by then under contract with MGM). This version was also a success, but it has proven problematic for the film’s subsequent history; over the years, thanks to the negligence of the studio in preserving its original negatives, the only remaining prints of The Phantom of the Opera are a widely varying mish-mash of combinations from its different incarnations, making it virtually impossible to reconstruct its original form. As a result, the version now widely available contains material from both the final release cut of 1925 and the 1930 pseudo-talkie edition; sadly, there are sections which only survived in badly deteriorated form, making the contemporary version frustratingly patchy in its overall visual coherence. There are other inconsistencies, too, such as the use of a different actress as Carlotta (the opera’s prima donna) in the later version, a problem explained by changing the character’s former incarnation into “Carlotta’s Mother” for her retained scenes in the Opera managers’ office and billing the second actress (who appears only in the Faust performance scenes) as the actual “Carlotta.”

Despite all this, however, the current restored edition of The Phantom of the Opera preserves a valuable piece of cinematic history, and provides the interested viewer with a chance to experience the original screen version of this oft-filmed tale in a condition as close as possible to its initial, pristine form. Some of it is eye-opening, such as the important role of color in telling its story, a factor that was lost for many years; some of it, of course, comes up short of the expectation created by the film’s reputation, revealing the shortcomings observed by critics of the day, such as a somewhat shallow focus on spectacle and sensationalism at the expense of the deeper subtext inherent in its ultimately tragic tale, and the inclusion of certain bizarre, melodramatic elements designed merely to elicit audience response without consideration for their logic within the larger scope of the narrative. That said, it would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to see this venerable classic, a film which has generated so much influence and so many imitators over the years that it has entered the realm of legend. Though the film itself may not live up to its legendary status, the performance at its center certainly does; in fact, seeing it today, Lon Chaney’s Phantom seems perhaps even greater than it did in 1925, as fresh and immediate as if it were filmed yesterday, despite the elevated style. This is a testament to his powerful gift, with which he was able to reach across the decades, even 80 years after his death, to touch our world with his understanding of the human soul.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0016220/

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which once again uses a realistic and politically charged approach in bringing the DC Comics hero to life, and puts him into a decisive battle which will determine the very fate of Gotham City.  Continuing in the dark and violent vein that characterized The Dark Knight, Nolan creates an apocalyptic finale for his exploration of the Batman universe, one designed to provoke and challenge even as it entertains; in the process he continues to develop the characters and relationships introduced in the previous chapters, as well as offering up new twists on other familiar figures making their appearances here for the first time.

In this new chapter (with the screenplay written again by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, based on a story developed by Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer), eight years have passed since the “murder” of D.A. Harvey Dent, whose supposed martyrdom in the fight against crime (a fabrication created to cover up the ignoble circumstances of his death) has resulted in legislation that has all but eliminated the criminal underworld of Gotham City.  During the intervening years, billionaire Bruce Wayne has become a mysterious recluse and his financial empire has fallen into disarray, while his alter-ego, Batman, has disappeared, having become a wanted fugitive after taking the blame for Dent’s death.  The city has grown soft and complacent, and economic imbalance has led to a new kind of cynicism in its population; but its greatest threat is building beneath its streets, as Bane, a powerful urban warlord with a mysterious past and a cataclysmic agenda, prepares to enact a master plan designed to plunge it into hellish torment as a prelude to its final annihilation.  Drawn from his seclusion, Wayne must resurrect his Batman persona in order to combat the new danger; but, like the city he protects, his long stagnation has weakened him and created new conflicts within, leaving him vulnerable to defeat by this titanic enemy.  In order to triumph, he must not only regain his former strength and his faith in himself, he must also place his trust in allies- some old and reliable, some new and untested- and be prepared to face the ultimate sacrifice.

Picking up the thematic threads left hanging at the end of The Dark Knight, the Nolans show us that the uneasy compromise of image over truth has provided a temporary victory in the battle against chaos- but the consequences of the choice have taken their toll on our champions of justice, and the complacency of peace has led to its own form of disorder.  A widening gap between wealth and poverty breeds anger among the citizens, while the prosperous civic authorities seem too interested in self-congratulation and self-promotion to pay attention to the signs of danger approaching from without and within; but nevertheless, despite this uncomfortably topical political situation, when disaster strikes it is the result of a long-forgotten threat which has been festering unnoticed all along.  Bane and his plot represent the shadows of the past, deferred but not defeated, a pattern of destruction that has risen repeatedly throughout history; Gotham’s blissfully false sense of security and its unheeded civil unrest have merely provided a smokescreen for the incursion.  The only chance for averting the impending doom lies in facing the truth, taking responsibility, and working together for a common good which outweighs all considerations of ideology or principle.  Contrary to the commentary of some who have seen The Dark Knight Rises as a conservative polemic against the “Occupy” movement (due to the fact that Bane disguises his takeover of Gotham and subsequent reign of terror as a “people’s revolution”), the film in fact hinges, like its predecessor, on the idea that blind pursuit of self-interest is the real root of the problem, and that it is only through a desire to help each other that we can reclaim the power to conquer the enemies that threaten all of us together; the arrogance of the wealthy and the anger of the poor are both used by Bane as the instruments of his rise to dominion, and his defeat can only be brought about by the protagonists’ willingness to sacrifice everything they hold dear for the sake of others.  It’s also worth taking note of another factor which contributes significantly to the threat to Gotham’s future- the seeking of revenge for old wrongs, and worse yet, revenge against an entire population for the actions of a single man.  This is a powerful reminder of a principle very much at work in the world today, and one which has perpetuated the cycle of bloodshed from the most ancient of times.  Further than that, the film suggests through the telling parallels it draws that by ignoring the lessons of the past we are doomed to re-enact a historical cycle that has brought down one civilization after another; in other words, if we don’t learn from history, we can only become history.  To paraphrase an echo from the film which began the trilogy, we fall in order to learn how to get back up; but once we are on our feet again, we must always remember how we fell in the first place- after all, as more than one important character realizes before the end of The Dark Knight Rises, a fresh start is no good at all if you’re not willing to change the way you do things.

Once more, in writing about Nolan’s Batman cycle, I find myself reveling in the complexities of its themes and making new realizations as I ponder how to express them here.  In the end, however, these films- each one of them, in their own distinctive way- speak for themselves.  With his final chapter, this gifted director has once again created a movie which stands firmly on its own merits, building an epic structure on its own individual themes, while maintaining and bringing to fruition the elements of the entire trilogy.  He does it in his characteristically detailed style, full of arresting visuals, fluid camera work, spectacular action sequences, and intimate moments of unexpected emotional power.  He gives full deference to the importance of character while simultaneously driving the complex plot at full speed, juggles themes within themes while devoting every moment of screen time to the progression of the story, and manages a sweeping social and political allegory in the midst of an explosive action fantasy.  There may be those who quibble about his motives, or who take exception to his re-interpretation of the iconic characters and conceits of the Batman premise, but such concerns are, quite frankly, moot in the scope of what he has accomplished here.  The Dark Knight Rises is the final proof, if more were needed, that Christopher Nolan has done what no other director has done before him: transcended the “comic book” genre to create an intelligent, mature and wholly sophisticated series of films that is worthy to stand with the great socially significant films of our time- more worthy, in fact, than most of the self-consciously highbrow self-styled “art” films that Hollywood tries to pass off around awards season.  For this (though he is not likely to win any of those awards himself- the stigma against this kind of fantasy content still seems too strong for that), he deserves all the accolades he has received so far, as well as the satisfaction of his phenomenal box office success.

Part of Nolan’s success with all of these films, of course, lies in the work of the people he has chosen to work with him, and the names in the credits that roll at the end of this one show more or less the same list of usual suspects.  Once again, the design team is headed by Nathan Crowley (this time co-credited with Kevin Kavanaugh as production designers), and once again they have provided us with new and exciting gadgets to go with the old favorites, as well as giving Gotham yet another new look- it’s still a spectacular city, but somehow not so new and shiny, a little worn down and lived-in, and with a dirtier, more East-Coast-urban feel to it.  The locations, as always, have something to do with this, with recognizable landmarks from New York, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles underlining the sense that this is truly meant to be a microcosmic world representing an entire culture; but the look of its skyline, clearly created with some impressive digital cutting-and-pasting, conveys the feeling of a place with a soul all its own.  Wally Pfister’s cinematography continues with the gritty-but-slick style of The Dark Knight while also echoing the sepia-infused tone of Batman Begins, a highly appropriate approach for a film that draws its life from both; he complements the worn-down look of the city with a style that evokes bleakness, particularly in the visually striking scenes of Gotham in winter which come late in the film.  Hans Zimmer, working solo this time, gives us another driving score, incorporating more vocal instrumentation than usual but still, for the most part, focusing on mood and subliminal effect than overtly recognizable melodic sounds.  In short, The Dark Knight Rises gives us more of the same outstanding, exemplary work that made the first two entries in this trilogy so effective.

The same holds true of its cast, comprised again of heavy-hitters; most of them are, of course, returnees to already-established roles, and without exception they live up to their previous work, bringing new flavors to their continued development of these familiar characters and closure to the arcs they began in the first film.  Christian Bale once again proves what a brilliant actor he is with his portrayal of Bruce Wayne; he gives us a new vision of this billionaire vigilante, grown physically and psychologically dissolute through his self-imposed isolation, but seemingly marked more by a sense of disorientation than by underlying bitterness over the events that have led to it.  He also gives his character, which has always fitted him like a tailor-made glove, a deeply personal feeling of emotional connection, building on the previous revelations of his psyche to create a complete picture of this man and the needs that drive him- showing us, ultimately, the good heart that lies beneath the darkness of his sometimes-morally-questionable actions.  We have never questioned it, of course, but he has- and his final evolution into a complete hero, with a clarity of purpose and a full understanding of his motivations, shines through in a way that makes him both admirable and infinitely likable.  It’s the first time I can honestly say I loved an onscreen “super” hero because of who he showed me he was and not because he was, well, a hero.  Michael Caine, as Alfred, has been quietly superb all along, lending his calm, assured dignity to the proceedings and serving as the key grounding influence for Bale’s Batman- but in this entry, he gets the chance to remind us all of why he has been one of the hardest-working actors in the business for fifty years.  His scenes are fewer, this time around, but they stick with you, and the dimension he has given this usually-perfunctory character pays off with some key moments that give the entire series its deepest emotional resonance, proving once more that it is the depth and honesty underlying these films that have elevated them to the level of higher art.  Gary Oldman shines once more as now-Commissioner Gordon, wearied by the chafing of his conscience over his part in the Dent cover-up, and bored by eight years of peacetime- but dedicated as always to his mission to protect Gotham and revived by the chance to jump into action once more.  Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is also wearier, but with characteristically subdued optimism he gives us a refreshing energy that reminds us it is possible to gracefully endure the changing of fortune without losing one’s belief in the future.  There are a few other returning faces, but many of them are likely to be surprises so I won’t go into them here; suffice it to say that they, along with the rest of the cast, provide uniformly superb contributions.

As for the new blood, obviously there are a few that deserve mention.  Topping that list is Anne Hathaway, portraying Selina Kyle, an audacious cat burgler whose gear and manner make it clear that she represents another iconic Batman personality- though the name “Catwoman” is never used.  She nails the character, with just the right blend of saucy seductiveness and dangerous unpredictability, matching Bale’s Bruce Wayne in a way that no previous female character has done- a significant point, and one which highlights the importance of her key role in the film, as well as the timing of her appearance in his life.  It would be improper to give anything away, but it’s safe to say that she- and Nolan- bring a number of surprises to the table in their re-interpretation of this feisty, feline female.  Tom Hardy, the English heartthrob who gained 30 lbs. to portray the hulking Bane, provides an awe-inspiring physical presence and clearly conveys the disarming intelligence of his character- the trilogy’s closest thing to a “super-villain.”  He manages to give the character depth and even a degree of sympathy with his performance- not just through his voice, but in his physicality and, most importantly, with his eyes, which are left visible by the cruelly sadomasochistic mask he wears in all but one key scene of the film.  Marion Cotillard brings an elegant nobility to the proceedings as Miranda Tate, a wealthy board member of Wayne Enterprises whose dedication to an environmentally-friendly project plays an important role in the developments of the plot, and leads to a relationship with Wayne that becomes closer than he expects.  Finally, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays John Blake, an earnest young policeman whose personal belief in Batman leads him to deduce Wayne’s true identity and helps provide the impetus for him to return to the fight against evil; it’s a character that could very easily be too-good-to-be-true, but thanks to Gordon-Levitt he is more than believable, a welcome addition to the collection of loosely-affiliated heroes that aid Batman in his quest for law and order.  A number of other actors make their first- and, presumably, last- appearance in Nolan’s vision of the Batman legend, including Matthew Modine as Gordon’s ambivalent second-in-command, and Willam Devane as the President of the United States; as with the old-timers, the new cast does a universally stellar job.

The Dark Knight Rises, though already one of the most successful movies of all time, has generated a great deal of controversy over its supposed political leanings, one way or the other, and for a violent tone which has sadly been thrown into stark relief by tragic real-life events.  There is no denying the important influence of movies over our real-world culture, and unquestionably, an artist has a responsibility to consider this in deciding the nature of the content they wish to present.  It must be remembered, however, that Nolan’s film is, first and foremost, an action/adventure-fantasy.  Though it may be laden with recognizably current political and social issues, and though it explores questions of morality and social responsibility, these things are ultimately merely the background for a story that depicts a realistic, contemporary world- a tale in which the ongoing conflicts of society are exploited by an outside evil who is an enemy to all sides.  Likewise, by its very nature, it’s a movie filled with the kind of disturbing images of mayhem and tragedy that have been blamed by many for the casual attitude towards violence in our collective contemporary psyche; but Batman is a modern myth, and like all myth it deals in symbolism drawn from everyday experience in order to convey its true purpose.  For all its scenes of brutal combat, exploding football stadiums, and collapsing bridges, The Dark Knight Rises carries a positive message that emphasizes the importance of compassion and the value of human life; it’s a principle repeated throughout the movie, and the intense battle action is a metaphor for the difficulty of the struggle required to preserve these things.  Those who see only the overt content of this film, or indeed of any film, are likely to get the opposite meaning of the one intended; and whichever side they represent in the ongoing debate, they, like the citizens of Gotham who ignore the real menace while they seek to place blame for their troubles and justify it with sweeping generalizations, would do well to look deeper than the surface- as would those who glorify the violence they see there without recognizing the consequences it is shown to breed.  After all, cinema, like all art, holds up a mirror to society, and what we see in it depends on how closely we are willing to look at ourselves.  In the world of The Dark Knight Rises, the ability to candidly face the reality of our problems is our only hope for saving our way of life from destruction; I strongly suspect that this is also a reflection of real life, and that unless we heed the warning that is implicit in Nolan’s film, we may find that out all too soon.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1345836/

The Dark Knight (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s massively successful 2008 sequel to his earlier Batman Begins, tracking the continuing progress of DC Comics’ iconic hero in his quest to free Gotham City from the grip of rampant crime and corruption and pitting him against a new breed of criminal- the costumed madman known only as the Joker.  Continuing his re-imagination of the comic-book premise as a crime drama grounded in realism, the director takes it even further this time around, creating a gritty, violent vision of urban warfare in which the line between right and wrong becomes blurred in a larger struggle between order and chaos.  The formula obviously struck a nerve; the film broke box office records and earned the kind of massive critical accolades usually reserved for more “serious” fare.

Working from a story developed by Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer, Nolan this time fashions a screenplay with his brother, Jonathan, in which billionaire Bruce Wayne, working in unofficial partnership with Police Lt. Gordon, has made headway in the campaign to weaken the control of organized crime over Gotham City.  With the rise of the city’s idealistic new D.A., Harvey Dent, he sees a chance to hand over his role as the city’s protector and at last embrace the comforts of a normal life; but a new threat arises in the form of the Joker, a disfigured psychopath in clownish makeup, who begins an escalating campaign of terror.  To combat this new adversary, Wayne and Gordon join forces with Dent, and the trio works in secret alliance to put a stop to his deadly game before Gotham deteriorates into a state of total anarchy.  The Nolans use their plot as a means to explore a wide variety of inter-connected themes, making the scope of The Dark Knight much wider and its moral landscape more ambiguous than its predecessor’s, and as a result they transform what is essentially a fantasy adventure into a complex parable about the ethical dilemmas of preserving order in the modern world.  Throughout the film, the intricately plotted storyline is threaded with dialogue and situations that clearly evoke the complicated morality of post-9/11 society; the age-old cops-and-robbers scenario has been co-opted by a battle between ideologies, in which those who would protect society come dangerously close to becoming an even greater threat to it themselves.  Indeed, the antagonist’s master plan is to subvert the established order by turning it against itself, exploiting the contradictions in its own rules and ethics to create an environment of fear and chaos in which he can, in the words of one character, “watch the world burn.”  In the course of the action, we are given a remarkably detailed portrait of Gotham City- which serves as a microcosm of American civilization- which includes a look at its politicians, its media figures, its businessmen, its criminals, its public servants, and its average citizens; the effect of the city’s peril on its population is presented as a mirror to our own society, and the drama enacted by the key figures of the story reflects our efforts to reconcile the moral conflicts inherent in dealing with our own terrorized world.  As the story moves relentlessly towards its climax, it raises questions about the implications of working outside the law for a greater good, the manipulation of public perception for political purposes, the ambiguous role of invasive technology in preserving communal security, the potential corruptibility of human nature, and the danger of becoming your enemy when you fight against him on his own terms.  Most significantly, it examines the role of choice in the struggle to define humanity; whether our actions are dictated by chance and motivated by self-interest, or whether we are ultimately responsible for the decisions we make, for good or for ill.

If it sounds like heavy, existential themes dominate The Dark Knight, that’s because they do; but that doesn’t mean it’s a film that favors philosophical debate over a good story.  Rather, the story is the debate.  Nolan uses his epic themes to propel the action, leading us through the conditional parameters until the core issue is revealed at the heart of his plot.  Batman and his allies, the self-sacrificing champions of order and justice, are pitted against the Joker, a self-serving personification of chaos and amorality.  At every step of the game, the Joker challenges his opponents’ dedication and their beliefs, forcing them into no-win situations in which they have no choice but to act against their own principles; convinced of their hypocrisy and their fallibility, and confident that he can- and will- break their spirit, he manipulates the scenario not only to prove his point, but to inflict torment for his own gratification.  It is this, perhaps, that Nolan suggests as the ultimate definition of evil- the pure selfishness that satisfies its own desires at the expense of others- and it is this basic quality that the Joker wishes to expose as the true nature of mankind.  Whether or not he is right is certainly not resolved by the end of the movie- after all, there is still another chapter to come- but Nolan’s skill at cinematic storytelling ensures that the arguments on both sides are illustrated with a sense of urgency and an emphasis on action.

In fact, the action is virtually non-stop.  Even when The Dark Knight concerns itself with quiet, more intimate matters, Nolan’s directorial choices give it a driving, restless feel- continuing the sense of momentum that he initiated in Batman Begins.  His camera is almost never still, with slow zooms and pans in almost every shot, and he pieces things together with quick edits, giving us just enough of an image to establish what we’re seeing and then sharply moving on.  He crams so much into the film this way that there are whole subplots which can go unnoticed without repeat viewings, and it allows him to provide an expansive view of the life of Gotham City into his 2 1/2 hour running time.  He confidently moves his tale through its escalating developments with a speed that keeps the viewer on edge, establishing key points without belaboring them, relying on the completeness of his screenplay- and the intelligence of his audience- to ensure clarity.  Likewise, he depends on the writing and the skill of his gifted actors to convey the important nuances of his characters that make the film so compelling, though he certainly takes the time to explore the dynamics of their relationships onscreen, rightly understanding the importance of this aspect in the overall scope of his vision.

Of course, however, as in any movie about a titanic struggle of heroes and villains, the primary focus is on thrilling action, and Nolan certainly delivers this in spades.  Continuing in the vein of Batman Begins, he chooses to construct his movie with a minimum of computer trickery, instead utilizing live action stunt work filmed in actual locations or on elaborate soundstage sets.  He fills his film with gripping set pieces, from the opening bank heist sequence- which rivals anything in the best of Hollywood’s caper films- to the climactic confused free-for-all in which Batman must fight a SWAT team to protect the Joker’s hapless hostages who have been disguised as his henchmen; in between are a breathtaking depiction of a nighttime kidnapping from Hong Kong’s tallest building and the movie’s action centerpiece- an extended urban roadway chase in which Batman rides his souped-up cycle to defend a police convoy from a semi-truck containing the heavily-armed Joker and his men.  Adding to the excitement is the fact that Nolan chose to shoot these sequences- as well as some of the smaller-scale scenes- in an IMAX format, although the effect of this is somewhat diminished by viewing on a small screen.

In service of his visual spectacle, Nolan’s production team provides an impressive display of their talents; most significantly, perhaps, cinematographer Wally Pfister, who gives the film a style that is simultaneously slick and grimy, and appropriately creates a significantly darker look than that of the earlier film.  The production designers, headed once more by Nathan Crowley, have revamped the technological aspects of Batman’s world- a redesigned, lightweight suit that makes the hero more agile, as well as the dazzlingly well-realized, aforementioned “batpod” that he rides into battle with his demented adversary, stand out as distinct advancements over the gadgetry in the previous chapter- and Gotham’s cityscape has been completely overhauled.  Gone is the deco-flavored mix of nostalgic and futuristic elements that marked the city of Batman Begins; here we find an utterly contemporary metropolis of steel, plastic and glass, a world-class capitol of industry and commerce with shining citadels and utilitarian infrastructure that is more directly representative of the typical modern urban environment of America.  Its familiarity adds another layer to the realism that is Nolan’s goal, and with this backdrop against which to play out his epic drama, the more implausible elements of the comic-book scenario are somehow more believable.  The score, once again the product of collaboration between Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, echoes the mood-oriented style of Batman Begins, but with even more of an emphasis on driving the pace with an undercurrent of rippling and restless rhythms, suggesting the chaos that threatens to envelop Gotham City.

Nolan’s modern re-invention of the Batman mythology, however, is most clearly and successfully exemplified by the one element of The Dark Knight that has- justifiably- received the most attention: the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  The young actor delivers a stunning portrait of this well-known character, accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of giving us something completely unexpected and unlike any interpretation we have seen before.  His psychotic clown is a million miles away from the fruity camp of Cesar Romero’s goofy TV persona, and totally unlike Jack Nicholson’s self-parodying turn in Tim Burton’s Batman film of two decades before.  Ledger makes the character a frightening, dangerous madman, clearly deranged but chillingly sharp and lucid; we are given no background for him, aside from the conflicting stories he tells himself within the film, but we can plainly see that whatever traumatic occurrence has led to the development of his deeply disturbed personality, it has left him utterly and completely devoid of humanity.  His makes it plain that his Joker lives for the thrill of the moment, taking great pleasure in pain- including his own, greeting each blow from his caped opponent with a rush of giddy adrenaline-laced delight.  His voice, his physicality, the coldness of his eyes, all combine to create an unforgettable portrait of menace, and for the first time in the history of comic-based films, he has given us an utterly believable super-villain.  The one completely human moment he exhibits comes late in the film, a reaction of genuine surprise over an unforeseen development which throws a wrench in the works of his master plan- it’s a subtle but dazzling moment which instantly casts into stark relief the sheer brilliance of everything we have seen from him before that.  Ledger’s tragic death before the film’s release may have contributed to the publicity surrounding his work here, but had he lived the performance would still have stood as a triumph, and was fully deserving of the multitude of awards and accolades it received posthumously for him.

This is not to take credit away from any of his co-stars.  Every member of Nolan’s cast gives a stellar effort, starting with Christian Bale, whose Batman is leaner and more haggard than in his previous appearance in the role, reflecting the maturity and the effects of the stress that have shaped him in the intervening years since Batman Begins.  He gives the character a wearier edge, exuding more confidence but also more contempt for his criminal prey; even his Bruce Wayne seems a little worn down from all the partying with supermodels and prima ballerinas his public image requires him to do.  Underneath it all, though, he clearly shows us the power of his dedication to the job he has appointed himself, and his refusal to yield to the Joker’s efforts to bring him down to a baser level is utterly convincing- particularly in light of the self-doubt he shows us in response to his costly failures- giving us the glimmer of hope we can cling to through the film’s dark finale.  Returning as his trusted servant and co-conspirator, Alfred, is the magnificent Michael Caine, who continues to provide a grounding center of wisdom and genuine class, and whose chemistry with Bale offers the film’s strongest example of deep, close human connection.  Maggie Gyllenhall replaces the absent Katie Holmes as Rachel, Bruce’s childhood friend and would-be sweetheart for whom he still carries a torch, and though it is somewhat jarring to see a different actress in the role, she provides a fine performance, making the character a strong, independent, and empowered woman, an equal partner in the battle against crime, rather than just another helpless female in need of rescue.  Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue to expand on their own brands of quiet heroism as Lt. Gordon and Lucius Fox, respectively; and, though his work was eclipsed by Ledger’s dazzling performance, Aaron Eckhart is equally superb, in his way, as Dent- who is both the film’s secondary hero and secondary villain, transforming from the dedicated “White Knight” whose unflinching integrity gives the city hope to the vengeful and deformed “Two-Face,” driven to madness by personal loss- and providing the perfect symbol for corrupt politics with his half-handsome, half-grotesque features.

The Dark Knight has been subject to much discussion and debate regarding its political messages; some have viewed it as an endorsement of hawkish, right-wing tactics in the war against terrorism, while some have declared it as an indictment of the dangers inherent in using such methods.  Like most art- certainly most good art- it is ultimately a blank slate, a mirror in which the viewer sees their own perspectives reflected back; it seems to me that Nolan presents his subject matter without political agenda, exploring the thematic issues that arise out of the situation, but making no judgments, preferring to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  What interests Nolan much more, perhaps, is the issue of basic human nature; and though his vision has the dark and cynical trappings of the noir style that has been a clear influence on his work, and though many have seen the film as a story of evil overwhelming good, at its heart is the message that, though some may waver or even fall, there is a desire inside us to do the right thing; as long as there are men who hold onto the standard of decency and set an example- even an illusory one- there is hope for us yet to conquer the forces of darkness that threaten our world, both from within and without.  That is an idea the filmmaker will explore further in the third (and supposedly final) installment of his Batman cycle; but, at least as this one rolls to an end, we can still believe in a champion that represents the best in us all, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty optimistic note for such a “dark” movie to end on.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Pit and the Pendulum, the 1961 thriller which was the follow-up to Roger Corman’s surprisingly successful House of Usher, and the second of what would ultimately be eight of Corman’s Poe-based independent features. Once again starring horror film stalwart Vincent Price, and shot on an elaborate set built from cannibalized pieces rented from other studios, it was an even bigger hit than its predecessor and achieved a substantial amount of critical acclaim, despite its low budget, becoming a classic staple of later TV “creature feature” programs and providing considerable influence over the future of horror films, particularly those produced in Italy through the late ’60s and ’70s.

The original short story by Edgar Allan Poe is a brief, moody affair, more or less the description of a prisoner’s experience as he is tortured by the Spanish Inquisition with the swinging, bladed contraption of its title. This being clearly insufficient as the basis for a feature-length film, Corman re-hired Usher screenwriter, Richard Matheson- a respected wordsmith responsible for, among other things, numerous well-known stories and several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone– to fashion a suitable narrative that could feature Poe’s horrific scenario as part of a longer tale. Matheson’s solution is the 16th-Century tale of a young Englishman who travels to the remote Spanish castle of Don Nicholas, son of an infamous Inquisitor, seeking an explanation for the unexpected death of his sister, who had been the Don’s bride. Though his host is cordial and consumed with sorrow over the loss of his love, the young man’s suspicions begin to deepen as dark secrets are revealed surrounding the castle and its lord- including the presence of a horrific torture chamber which lies beneath it. The common threads of Poe’s work- madness-inducing grief, untimely death, premature burial- are intricately woven into Matheson’s script, giving it a strong feeling of authenticity, though there is little resemblance to anything in the author’s actual story; even the original setting within the Spanish Inquisition has been distanced, if not quite removed, by an intervening generation- though the connection has been maintained enough to provide the means of replicating Poe’s vision for film’s climactic sequence. Matheson was (and is) a highly renowned writer, and it is probably not an exaggeration to say that it was ultimately his contribution, more than any other, that raised The Pit and the Pendulum, as well as many of the other Poe features, above the level of the usual cheap exploitative fodder for which Corman was known; his fabricated storyline includes compelling situations and characters, clever and intricate plotting with a heavy sense of irony, and rich thematic layering which touches on our most universal fears and subconscious concerns.

It’s not prestige-picture material, though, make no mistake. Many of the conceits Matheson puts into place to facilitate the developments of his melodramatic plot do not hold up to even the most cursory logic. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the dialogue has a jarringly modern, banal sound to it, especially against the gothic backdrop and in comparison with some of the more florid passages in his script; coupled with the contemporary bearing and mannerisms of most of the performers, who seem vaguely uncomfortable and out of place in their period costumes, it makes for a certain low-brow quality that reminds us just how far-fetched the whole thing is. But that, of course, is part of the fun; The Pit and the Pendulum is a no-brainer, designed to keep its audience on edge not because of some vague intellectual idea of horror, but in anticipation of the inevitable gruesome shocks promised by its premise. Corman’s filmmaking agenda as a producer was always about knowing what his audience wanted and giving it to them, and he knew that what they would want was no different with these Poe films than from any of his other shockers, despite their literary pedigree. His goal was to provide a good hour and twenty minutes of chills and thrills, and that is what he delivered, with little concern for stylistic considerations that would make for a more erudite filmgoing experience.

This is not to say, however, that Corman the director eschews all artistic concerns; on the contrary, his work here is remarkably polished and coherent, with a highly effective visual style that goes a long way towards creating the film’s luridly baroque air. He adheres to a conceptual notion in which the events of the film, like Poe’s fiction, represent the contents of the subconscious, welling up to manifest in his woeful tale; consequently, he takes pains to establish his setting as isolated from the real world, surrounding the seaside castle with endlessly crashing waves and stormy skies. Further underlining the psychological nature of the drama, he depicts various memories and perceptual experiences in heightened style, shooting some sequences in deep monochromatic hues, using extreme distortion and camera angles, and steeping everything in a garish, dramatic palette- starting with a psychedelically surreal opening sequence featuring swirling pools of liquid color. Beyond his deliberate visual touches, he also delivers a well-paced, savvy piece of cinematic narrative, keeping the aura of tension and impending menace quite tangible despite the fact that much of the film contains no overtly horrific content. To be sure, when it’s there, he lays it on as thick as the cobwebs which cover the walls of the castle’s secret dungeon, which of course, as has been noted, is precisely what we want; and when we reach the payoff, the final sequence in which our young hero is subjected by his now-demented brother-in-law to the titular torture device, Corman’s efforts come to their fruition. It’s a genuinely hair-raising scene, enhanced by weird and stylized filmmaking, which truly captures the core of what makes this concept horrific- the psychological terror of awaiting the inevitable, grisly doom that methodically descends like clockwork, an imagined outcome that is ultimately far more disturbing than any blood-soaked act of dismemberment that might actually be shown onscreen.

Corman’s success at cashing in on popular trends with his cheaply-made quickies (he famously shot one of his most lucrative earlier films, The Little Shop of Horrors, in two days and one night) had by this point in his career afforded him the opportunity of securing bigger-name talent to help hedge his bets at the box office. Vincent Price, well established as a popular horror star, had taken on the lead role in Usher, and here returns once more, as he would continue to do throughout Corman’s “Poe cycle.” This time around he plays Don Nicholas, a sensitive soul living in the shadow of his father’s cruel public image and even crueler private deeds, and driven to the point of madness by the tragic death of his beautiful wife. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will eventually lose his sanity, of course; and Price plays with that boundary like the pro that he is, giving us a doe-eyed, fragile gentility that contrasts- and yet nevertheless offers frequent glimpses of- the roaring monster he will become by the end, with lots of overwrought moments of soul-shaking despair and horror thrown in throughout. It’s a flamboyantly campy performance, really- almost, but not quite, over-the-top; but after all, this kind of vaguely hokey melodrama requires a bit of hamminess in order to keep the emotional pitch high, and Price certainly provides it. Upon the film’s release, his work was roasted by several critics as laughable; in retrospect, however, it’s precisely the right blend of the serious and the ridiculous to keep us engaged and entertained, and the sense of gentle self-parody it suggests has come to be seen as one of the familiar hallmarks of this particular style and era.

It’s a good thing, actually, that Price’s work here is so gleefully theatrical, for his co-stars are considerably blander. The ostensible leading man, John Kerr, was a Tony-winning actor who started his Hollywood career as one of the most promising young actors of the late ‘50s; by the time he made this film, his star was almost faded. He is handsome and capable, but there is a lack of passion here that makes him far less interesting or sympathetic than his supposed antagonist, and he has a certain frat boy quality that hampers his believability as an early Renaissance nobleman. I’m not saying his performance is weak- indeed, he is more than adequate and far more convincing than many of the actors who filled this type of role in other Corman films, and by the time he gets strapped down under that swinging blade in the finale we definitely care about his fate- but he is far less compelling or memorable than Price. More interesting is Barbara Steele, fierce and beautiful as the doomed, not-quite-innocent young bride- though Corman dubbed her lines with another actress, fearing that Steele’s coarse English accent would not jibe with the sound of the other players. Luana Anders exudes kindness and refreshing normalcy as Price’s younger sister and Kerr’s obligatory love interest; and Anthony Carbone is fine as the family friend and doctor, though he would be likely be more convincing as a Vegas mobster in a slick suit. On the whole, unquestionably, it’s Price’s show- but that, perhaps, is as it should be.

No doubt due to the fact that, by the time of The Pit and the Pendulum, Corman and his crew were well-schooled in the art of movie-making on the fly, the film overall has fine production values. Considering it was filmed in three weeks with a reported budget of $300,000- a third of which was Price’s salary- it has a surprisingly polished and professional look. The sets are truly impressive, executed by Daniel Haller and Harry Reif on a large soundstage and using, as mentioned above, rented set pieces from other studios to patch together the interiors of the Don’s foreboding castle. For the exterior shots, process shots featuring matte paintings create a decidedly artificial look (it should be remembered that these kind of effects looked considerably more convincing, somehow, on a big screen) which nevertheless contributes to the film’s dreamlike- or should I say nightmarish- effect. The cinematography by Floyd Crosby is rich and weighty, and the score by Les Baxter (who was a well-known singer and arranger of jazz and popular music) is serviceably eerie, if not exactly memorable.

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of those movies that has become a classic despite itself, a monument to a particular era of filmmaking that contains numerous influential elements; these elements were not intended, necessarily, to be groundbreaking, just to be scary- such as the shots of a desiccated corpse frozen in the agony of trying to claw free of a premature grave, an iconic moment which has been echoed countless times over the subsequent decades. The movie’s status is partly to do with its exposure on television, where a whole generation of impressionable young people was acquainted with its fruity frights. Just because it’s a classic, however, doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece; it’s still an example of hack-work elevated by the contributions of a few ringers, and boosted by the self-assured confidence that comes from being on a roll, as Corman and his team certainly were. Still, even if it’s not a great movie, it’s a damn good one, with a respectable commitment to quality and a strong dedication to good story-telling. If that story is ultimately more than a little cheesy, it is nevertheless engaging and- more to the point- undeniably spooky and disturbing, even as it generates laughs (which may not be as unintentional as one might think. This is no small feat, and it doesn’t happen accidentally; The Pit and the Pendulum succeeds thanks to the skill of the artists behind it, whose sole purpose was to stir up the uncomfortable corners of the psyche, and in the end, that’s about as close to the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe as any filmmaker could hope to get.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055304/

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Today’s cinema adventure: Carnival of Souls, a 1962 low-budget horror film that was more or less ignored on its release, but which has gone on to become a highly influential cult classic.  Directed by Herk Harvey, a prolific lifelong creator of educational and industrial films who never made another theatrical feature, it was shot on location in Lawrence, Kansas and Salt Lake City, Utah, using a 16mm camera and reportedly with a budget of around $30,000- a cost which today would probably not even cover the price of the car that goes off a bridge in the first reel.  Needless to say, it’s a film that relies solely on atmosphere and cinematic storytelling to provide its scares, and the fact that it does so very well is no doubt responsible for its importance in the history of the modern horror genre.

Despite its humble origins, the film’s screenplay, written by John Clifford from Harvey’s original story, is surprisingly sophisticated in its layering of thematic elements and even in the believability of its dialogue- considering the nature of its subject matter, that is.  The plot concerns Mary Henry, a young woman who works as church organist though she has no particular interest in religious sentiment.  A week before she is to begin employment in a new town, she becomes the only survivor of a car accident in which two of her friends are drowned.  Determined to go on with her life, she makes the trip to start her job as planned, but she soon finds herself being stalked by a mysterious specter- who cannot be seen by anyone else- and inexplicably drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion on the shores of a local lake.  Her strangely cold and detached behavior, coupled with her increasing hysteria and delusional episodes, begin to alienate her new friends and associates, and she finds she must confront the mysteries that haunt her in order to escape them.  The story contains little action, per se; it mainly follows Mary as she attempts to start her new life.  Nevertheless, the tension builds steadily throughout, shrouded in a dreamlike surreality and accompanied by a tangible sense of foreboding.

Much of the film’s unsettling mood has to do with the locations.  Director Harvey supposedly got the idea for his movie while driving past the abandoned Saltair Pavilion on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.  Though most of the rest of the movie was shot in Lawrence, where he was based, he paid the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce $50 for one week of filming at the ruined location; it was a good investment, because the scenes in this eerie, decrepit monument to cheap thrills long past can stand with some of the creepiest images ever put on film.  It’s a marvelous symbolic element- a giant, decaying fun palace in the middle of a desolate wasteland, a haunted shell evoking the futility of the good times it once housed in the face of the eternal emptiness that surrounds it.  To put it another way, it’s an apt reminder that, in the midst of life, we are in death, making it a perfect metaphor for the uneasy thematic core of the film.

The majority of Carnival of Souls, however, takes place in the kind of quiet, small town setting that can so easily serve to conjure thoughts of malicious forces lurking beneath the mundane familiarity of its surface- particularly when captured in the stark black-and-white palette of Maurice Prather’s cheap-but-effective cinematography.  Sunlit parks or dark nighttime highways, a crowded nightclub or an empty church, a bus depot or a department store- no place feels quite right or completely safe.  Even before the car accident in the opening scene, the lonely country roads seem threatening, and from the moment Mary emerges, dripping, from the watery scene of the crash, we spend the rest of the film waiting for the drop of another proverbial shoe.

It would not be fair, though, to place all the credit for this oppressive creepiness on the happenstance of starkly-photographed scenery.  The film’s humble director was clearly a man with a vision, evidenced by the fact that he worked, without salary and with money he raised himself, to make Carnival of Souls in three weeks with a crew of five- including himself.  Though there is definitely a clunkiness in his cinematic style, this has more to do with the limitations of his budget than with his understanding of the craft or his talent; the abrupt edits and the sloppy continuity are at least partly the consequence of a tight shooting schedule and insufficient funds.  There is ample proof, throughout the film, of Harvey’s ability as a director; he frames his shots with an eye for arresting composition, and his instinct for pacing belies his lack of experience with narrative fiction.  There are numerous moments when his use of clever camera trickery parallels that of directors like Hitchcock- whose work he no doubt studied- and the overall sense of inexorable menace, though enhanced by the settings and the visual style, is ultimately achieved by his cinematic rhythm- leisurely takes punctuated by short, sharp shocks at just the right moment- and his choices of what to show us and when to show it.  To top it all off is his choice of musical accompaniment- an otherworldly organ score composed by Gene Moore, a natural extension of the heroine’s occupational duties which provides the perfect aura of fruity gothic gloom to the proceedings.

As for the actors, most of the roles are handled by local Lawrence “talent,” unprofessional actors acquainted with Harvey through his industrial work; admittedly, there are some embarrassing performances on display throughout the film, though Sidney Berger deserves a mention for his unexpectedly complex work as a loutish boarding-house neighbor who tries to woo the oddly disaffected heroine.  A nod must also go to director Harvey himself, who makes a personal appearance onscreen as the ghoulish figure who plagues Mary, sporting pale makeup and leering malevolently- which may sound easy, but requires a certain finesse to pull off effectively, which he certainly does.  Obviously, though, his movie hinges on the leading actress, and he shrewdly spent his casting budget there, hiring an unknown but highly-trained and experienced performer named Candace Hilligoss; strikingly beautiful and fully committed to her role, she carries the weight of the picture on her capable shoulders, convincingly playing a variety of far-fetched conceits and walking a thin line between ethereal detachment and frightened vulnerability.  It would be overstating the case to say that she gives a great performance, but it’s a good one- certainly much better than the vast majority of would-be starlet turns in this sort of sub-B-grade horror movie.

That, of course, is exactly what Carnival of Souls is, despite the considerable praise it may have garnered over the 50 years since its inauspicious debut.  It’s unquestionably the kind of lowbrow drive-in fodder that was churned out ad infinitum during its era- it’s just that Harvey’s enthusiasm and dedication make it several cuts above most of the others.  To be sure, there is a level of artistry here that is hard to define; it’s not quite accurate to call the director a talented amateur, and the film’s stylistic strength is not accidental- he definitely knew what he was doing.  Even so, the power of this strange little film may lie beyond the full scope of his intentions or abilities, and is perhaps rooted in the notion that lies at its heart, the one which ultimately provides its twist ending- predictable as it may be, in this day and age.  Beneath its bogey-man thrills, it conjures a profound despair, perhaps the result of touching on some deep, unnamable dread, leaving a disturbing feeling that lingers long past its final frames.  It is this quality, more than the diamond-in-the-rough technical prowess of its director, which has placed Carnival of Souls so highly in the esteem of modern horror enthusiasts and provided dark inspiration for later, greater filmmakers like George Romero, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino.

It probably goes without saying that by today’s standards, the fright factor of this film is very low; and by any standards, its production quality is ridiculously shoddy.  The average modern viewer will probably find it laughable, the kind of movie that has gained its popularity from falling into the so-bad-it’s-good category.  Certainly, a screening with a bunch of quick-witted friends would probably yield some pretty snarky zingers, and that’s a good enough reason to recommend it; but while you’re laughing, make sure you take a close enough look to admire the weird beauty that emanates from Carnival of Souls.  However jaded you may be, there is something there that demands attention and commands respect.

 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055830/

Batman Begins (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Batman Begins, the 2005 action fantasy feature with which director Christopher Nolan initiated his vision of the classic comic-book hero, embodied by actor Christian Bale, re-envisioning the character and his world in a darker, more realistic vein that influenced a number of other subsequent franchise re-boots and brought a new level of depth and sophistication to the genre.  Focusing on Batman’s origins, Nolan traces the story of billionaire Bruce Wayne from childhood, when he witnesses the senseless murder of his parents by a mugger, through his recruitment and training by a mysterious organization called the League of Shadows, to his eventual return to Gotham City and his efforts to fight its rampant crime and corruption using both the skills he has learned and the high-tech gadgetry made available to him by the limitless financial resources he has inherited.  As he faces a host of opponents, he must also confront the enemies inside himself, learning to conquer his own guilt, anger, and fear in order to emerge as the symbolic hero he is driven to become.

It’s a familiar premise, by now, and one which has fueled a variety of interpretations since it was first invented by DC Comics artist Bob Kane in 1939; originally presented with a serious tone,  by the 1960s cultural “sophistication” had become such that the character had deteriorated to the level of a campy and outright comedic TV series- a classic in its own way, to be sure, but a far cry from the darker complexity suggested by the original comic books themselves and loyally embraced by generations of their fans.  Though the character was later reclaimed from this goofy image by such now-renowned graphic novelists as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, his incarnations on the big screen maintained a decidedly cartoon-like sensibility.  When Nolan was approached to resuscitate the franchise on film, he decided to take an approach more in step with the traditions of the comic books themselves.  With co-writer David S. Goyer, he fashioned an adult-oriented screenplay, centering more on the exploration of the character himself than on his far-fetched exploits- and making those exploits seem less far-fetched by infusing them with a hearty dose of realism.  The standard conceits of the story are built from the ground up, explained with a fresh perspective that makes them seem plausible; everything from the hero’s dual identity and theatrical tactics to the “Bat-cave” and “Bat-mobile” (which are never referred to as such) are presented as logical and necessary extensions of his self-creation, formed from the building blocks of his unique personal situation and the psychological forces which drive him, instead of being taken as rote.  It’s an imaginative approach that breathes life into the given clichés of the material, making the well-known mythology of the character feel fresh and contemporary.  In addition, by paying more than just perfunctory attention to the dominant themes of the Batman mythos- the importance of a father figure, the thin line between hero and villain, the relationship between fear and power, the purifying role of ethical behavior in a corrupt and chaotic world- Nolan and Goyer manage to give their film at least as much weight as most mainstream films aimed at a mature audience- and more than many.

All of which is not to say that Nolan’s vision of Batman is in any way light on action.  On the contrary, he fills his film with exciting set pieces made all the more satisfying by the care he has taken in laying a solid foundation; the various technological tools are more impressive for having been de-mystified, and the personal drama woven into the action raises the stakes and solidifies our investment in the outcome.  Furthermore, the action is structured into the story in such a way that the narrative is never put on hold; instead of digressing into extended displays of flashy spectacle, the plot advances through these sequences, making certain that there isn’t an extraneous or gratuitous moment in the film’s 140 minutes.

Much of the success of Batman Begins obviously hinges on its cast.  Nolan, drawing inspiration from classic seventies-era blockbusters like Superman, peppers his movie with an all-star list of gifted players, designed not just to lend credibility to the project but to provide the depth and complexity necessary for his conception.  It is not just the central figure that is subject to the director’s humanizing treatment; the entire array of familiar characters is infused with the kind of detail that raises them from the level of stock cardboard cutouts to three-dimensional beings with a life of their own.  Clearly, the writing plays a major part in this process, but the performances are a crucial factor, and the actors rise to the challenge admirably.  Heading the list is beloved veteran Michael Caine, whose portrayal of trusted manservant Alfred Pennyworth transforms the character from a mere source of comic relief to a powerful force to be reckoned with; thanks to Caine’s justly renowned skills, this aged gentleman’s gentleman is also a man’s man, wise and compassionate, brave and capable, serving both as a much-needed surrogate father and an indispensable ally to the troubled billionaire playboy in his charge- but grounded firmly in a reality that prevents him from ever seeming too good to be true.  As the future Police Commissioner, Jim Gordon, Gary Oldman matches Caine’s understated style in the creation of a sympathetic, powerful character, far from the pompously oblivious buffoon so often seen in previous versions; representing the traditional values of honesty, humility and family, he is an Everyman who becomes an unlikely hero, a worthy and equal partner in Batman’s fight against the forces of evil.  Liam Neeson is dangerously cool as Ducard, the mysterious figure who first becomes Bruce Wayne’s mentor and then his adversary in the fight for justice; Morgan Freeman provides his usual air of approachable dignity and intelligence as Lucius Fox, the techno-genius behind Batman’s bag of tricks; and Cillian Murphy brings an eerie, off-kilter edge to the proceedings as a corrupt psychiatrist with a dual identity of his own.  Rounding things out are Tom Wilkinson, memorable as an arrogant mob boss who finds himself a pawn in a game more powerful than his own, and Katie Holmes, earnest and likable as Wayne’s childhood friend and potential love interest.

It is Christian Bale, however, that must make or break the film with his interpretation of its iconic central character; and make it he does, going well beyond the usual troubled hero persona associated with the role and giving us a layered, remarkably specific and deeply personalized incarnation.  He fully inhabits Bruce Wayne, giving us a clear window into the young billionaire’s psyche and charting his psychological journey as he grows from an angry, vengeful youth to a passionate champion of justice; we believe in his commitment to the ideal because he allows us to see where it comes from, and because he invests so much of himself in Wayne’s emotional landscape he makes it possible for us  to identify with him- a rarity in screen portrayals of this character, which usually make him an aloof, distant figure, hard to fathom and harder to relate to.   In addition, Bale plays Batman as a clear extension of Wayne, a heightened version of his real self rather than a differentiated personality; indeed, in this version, it is the persona of the shallow playboy that seems artificial, a sham perpetrated half-heartedly by a young man for whom worldly extravagances hold no appeal and whose true nature chafes at being confined in so trivial a role- all of which, of course, serves to make us like him even more.  The only unsatisfying element of Bale’s work here is his lack of chemistry with Holmes; their relationship exhibits little of the spark that might give it meaning beyond its obligatory presence in the plot, so that when the would-be emotional payoff finally comes it feels like an afterthought.  Nevertheless, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise wholly engaging performance.

This impressive line-up of A-listers inhabits a superbly realized vision of Gotham City, created by Nolan in collaboration with production designer Nathan Crowley, which draws heavily on visual influences from Ridley Scott’s classic, Blade Runner, incorporating the use of informed imagination in its depiction of the cityscape; featuring layered architectural styles that reflect the changing tastes of its long history and the mix of elegance and squalor that marks any major real-life metropolis, it’s a place that goes a long way towards establishing the realistic base from which Nolan draws his story.  Contrasting this claustrophobic urban atmosphere are the stately expanse of Wayne Manor and the breathtaking Himalayan landscape of the early scenes, all beautifully photographed by cinematographer Wally Phister, giving Batman Begins a distinctive look and feel that lingers in the mind’s eye.  It’s worth mentioning that Nolan chose to create the environment of his film largely through old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, using extensive footage of actual locations, soundstage mockups, and miniatures, and relying only minimally on computer graphic effects (mostly for animation of the elevated train sequences and construction of scenery using a composite of different locations layered together).  The action sequences were likewise completed with live action stunt work instead of computer-generated trickery, making the slick perfection of the film’s effects somehow even more dazzling.

The force that brings everything together, of course, is Nolan’s powerful and decisive direction.  He landed this project fresh on the heels of his surprise indie hit, Memento, and instead of choosing to helm yet another predictably generic franchise-based blockbuster, he decided to make the film his own, bringing into the mix such now-familiar trademark elements as his inventive, intricate plotting, his exploration of thought-provoking psychological and metaphysical themes, and his noir-influenced use of dark, morally ambiguous characters and situations- all of which fit the Batman milieu like a glove.  Aided by a moody, atmospheric score (jointly composed by Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newton Howard, who resist using the theme-driven formats typically found in films of this genre), he keeps the story driving forward with his heavy use of fast-paced editing and his intercutting of parallel threads, seamlessly interweaving themes and character development as he goes.  Keeping the momentum is key to Nolan’s purpose here: the film, after all, is called Batman Begins for a reason; though it has a completeness and a distinctive energy of its own, it is in fact a prologue, the first chapter of a saga that is meant to continue through a full cycle of films.  The director shrewdly provides sufficient thrills and closure to allow his film to stand on its own, but one can’t help feeling that he is holding back the use of his full arsenal to leave us wanting more.  As Batman Begins rolls to its conclusion, the final scenes feel more like a pause than a full stop, and the sequel-minded hints dropped within the final minutes only serve to feed an anticipation that Nolan has already been building from the very first frames.

As to that sequel, it will hardly be a spoiler for me to say that it was to become the single most successful movie of all time (at least until it was recently deposed by another comic-book film, The Avengers) and that its financial triumph was equally matched by its critical reception; but I’ll touch more on that subject later this week, in anticipation of the imminent release of the final installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  My purpose here is to revisit the first of these remarkable, genre-defying films, which, though it falls somewhat short in comparison with at least one of its future companion pieces, gives more than a sufficient hint of the audacious brilliance that is to come.  Batman Begins is polished and powerful, a movie that treats its source material with the respect and maturity it deserves and, at long last, frees the “comic-book movie” from the assumed stigma of being second-rate schlock, opening it to the possibility of being considered as worthy and important as any “serious” genre.  It’s the first movie in which a so-called superhero (though technically, of course, this particular hero possesses no super powers) is presented in a manner realistic enough to be believable, and even if its fantasy elements are strong enough to ultimately keep it from breaking completely free of its genre, it sets the stage for its creators to accomplish that landmark feat with their next effort.  All these considerations aside, however, it’s more than enough to say that Batman Begins is a pulse-quickening piece of entertainment, fully deserving of its own considerable success and worthy to stand alongside the best this increasingly popular genre has to offer.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the 2012 feature based on the bestselling historical fantasy/horror novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, casting the already-heroic 16th American president in the even more heroic role of a secret slayer of the undead.  Directed by Timur Bekmambetov and adapted by the novelist himself, it’s a movie that hinges on a bold juxtaposition of historical fact and supernatural adventure, with a flashy visual style and an emphasis on bloodshed and action.  The plot follows Lincoln from his childhood, when his mother is ostensibly poisoned by his father’s former employer; upon reaching manhood, he seeks to avenge her murder, only to discover that her killer is in fact an undead monster.  Narrowly escaping death himself, he is rescued by a mysterious stranger, who reveals to him the secret existence of vampires living in the midst of human society and offers to teach him the skills he needs to become a warrior in the ongoing battle against them.  He becomes a master hunter, and his discovery of an insidious connection between vampires and slavery fuels his parallel political career, culminating in his presidency and providing underlying motivation for the Civil War.

With such a blatantly ridiculous premise, one might expect a substantial amount of tongue-in-cheek self-mockery, coupled with a sense of goofy fun for its own sake.  These elements are definitely present, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter takes a decidedly serious tone in its approach to this genre-mashing mixture of history and hokum; Lincoln’s secret calling is no parenthetical side job, but is integrally woven into the events that shape both his private and public lives, as well as into the fabric of some of our nation’s still-most-painful memories.  It would be unforgivably glib of the film’s creators to make these connections without investing an appropriate amount of weight in the proceedings; accordingly, Lincoln’s dedication to vampire-killing stems from deeply personal motivation, rooted in the monsters’ victimization of his family, and their thirst for blood is linked directly to the most contentious and shameful issue ever to face the United States.  Of course, tying these various personal and national tragedies to a narrative about inhuman, bloodsucking parasites may have rich metaphoric possibilities- which, unfortunately, remain largely unexplored beyond the obvious implications of the situation- but it doesn’t do much for fueling the kind of escapist melodrama promised by the audaciously wacky concept.

Most of the critical unkindness towards this film has revolved around its insistence on anchoring its bloodlust-fulfillment fantasy in a sense of earnest importance, as if its purpose were to present a legitimate portrait of Honest Abe and his far-sighted principles.  Indeed, the world of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a place where lofty ethical considerations seem moot, a given condition of the larger political order, perhaps, but out of place with the more immediate conflicts of our hero’s secret occupation.  The situation cries out for the kind of unapologetic amorality found in a down-and-dirty exploitation film, contrasting Lincoln’s public face as a wise and compassionate leader with his role as a one-man boundary between the forces of darkness and the unknowing society he is sworn to protect.  The very title of this movie suggests a no-nonsense, merciless killing machine, and that is not only what we expect to see, it’s what we want.  Instead, we are given an idealized version of the real man, and a slice of his personal drama thrown in to boot- for which, presumably, we could easily wait until next year’s highly anticipated Spielberg biopic.

All of these problematic reservations can be attributed to the screenplay, written by Grahame-Smith with an eye towards keeping the emotional stakes high enough to keep viewers connected to the characters in the midst of all the slaughter.  By giving the plot a sense of purposeful noblilty and including a substantial dose of Lincoln’s private life as a lover, friend, husband, and father, the author hoped, presumably, to avoid turning the whole affair into a garish cartoon.  The effort is commendable, as is the attempt to maintain at least a tenuous connection to historical accuracy (with a few notable exceptions), in the use of names and relationships, actual events and chronology, etc., even if the details are rearranged considerably.  However well-intentioned he may have been, and however well these factors may have worked in his novel, the writer may have miscalculated; though normally I am adamantly in favor of the thoughtful, character-driven approach to storytelling for the screen, in this case I believe the film as a whole would have benefited from a lighter, less self-consciously sincere touch- and more scenes of Mr. President wielding his silver-edged axe.  The very notion which drives the plot demands a film which doesn’t take itself too seriously, and thanks to its script, this one often does.

I have always, however, been an advocate of taking a movie on its own terms, and with that in mind, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means a failure.  Though the weighty trappings of pseudo-biographical drama make for some slow going from time to time, when the movie does release the giddy adolescent joyride at its core, it takes off like a silver cannonball.  Director Bekmambetov delivers the same kind of flashy, multi-speed, computer-assisted action that helped to make his previous film, Wanted, a hit, transporting us decisively into the realm of superhuman feats, where we can at last get a taste of the thrills inherent in the idea of our chief executive moonlighting as a bad-ass monster-killer.  There are a number of these electrifying set pieces scattered throughout the film- a chase across the backs of a stampeding herd of horses, a gruesome monsters’ ball in a decrepit plantation, a climactic fight on the rooftop of a moving train- all saturated with grisly, blood-spattered, and deliciously satisfying violence.  It is in these segments that the movie really comes to life, and, like a true showman, Bekmambetov always leaves us wanting more; though everything in between often feels like filler, the payoff we receive from this kind of exciting screen action is almost worth the patience it takes to get there.

Bekmambetov ‘s slick modern style brings a contemporary edge to the movie that contrasts sharply with its period setting- which is firmly established with authenticity in the clothes and the physical surroundings, and further complemented by the effect of using muted, faux-sepia tones in the cinematography (possibly the film’s finest asset, accomplished by the legendary Caleb Deschanel).  This color palette has the odd benefit of seeming both old-fashioned and yet somehow very high-tech, a double-edged description that could be used to sum up the overall production design (by François Auduoy); the look and feel of the film, heavily reliant on computer graphics, creates a heightened reality, reminiscent of the dramatic visual style of a comic book.  Though this stylized environment adds a layer of artificiality to the proceedings, it also reinforces the supernatural atmosphere necessary to sustain the film’s absurd conceit.

The actors are more than adequate for the task at hand, with Dominic Cooper and Rufus Sewell standing out in the showiest of the supporting roles- Lincoln’s mentor and the vampires’ supreme leader, respectively.  Obviously, though, it’s the title character who must shoulder the heaviest burden here, and young Benjamin Walker’s shoulders are broad enough to do it.  He does a fine job of walking the thin line between Lincoln the man, Lincoln the statesman and Lincoln the terminator, and, on top of that, is convincing playing the great man from youth to weathered middle age.  He even bears a resemblance to Lincoln, though he is considerably more handsome- a requisite Hollywood touch.

There is something about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that draws me in.  Maybe I’m just a sucker for this kind of preposterous “what if?” speculation, or maybe I’m just a big kid at heart, but from the very moment I heard about this movie, I was excited to see it.  Though in the end it was not quite the kind of adrenaline-pumping silliness I was hoping for, I can’t say I was disappointed, either.  Sure, I would have liked a little more of the gory action that worked and a little less of the pedestrian costume drama that didn’t; but there is plenty in this movie to tickle my juvenile fancy and keep me interested throughout its running time.  Even if that weren’t the case, the final scene contains an amusing twist that left me fairly delighted as the end credits rolled- and if I can walk out of the theater with a smile on my face, I think that’s a good enough reason to recommend a film.  So consider it recommended, but with the following qualification: it’s a stupid movie, but perhaps not stupid enough.  If you can get past that, you’ll have a great time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1611224/

The Many Faces of Peter O’Toole

Today we take a rest stop on our cinema adventure to pay tribute to the magnificent Peter O’Toole, who announced his retirement this week after over fifty years as an actor.  One of the true greats, and one of the last of a generation of working-class English actors who changed everything about the British stage and screen, he became an international star with Lawrence of Arabia and has been an icon ever since, elevating even the most pedestrian of his movies with his presence.  Just shy of his 80th birthday, he has declared it’s time to “chuck in the sponge.”  You have to respect a man who knows when it’s time to quit, even when he will be sorely missed.  His legacy is enviable, and even though everyone likes to talk about the fact that he has the worst Oscar record of any actor so far (8 nominations, no wins), he has made more classic and unforgettable films than almost any winner I can think of.  Enjoy your rest, Pete.  You’ve earned it.

Click on the tribute collage above and see how many of his movies you can name.  Just for fun!