The Dark Knight(writer)

I came across Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns book in the late 80s and was captivated by the story and images, and how powerfully the re-imaged story overwrote my memories of the campy, 1960s television show. This was a deep story: grimmer, grittier, darker and an evocative social commentary on culture and the individual, and the individual’s struggle with himself. I was so pumped up when I heard a little later about the a new kind of Batman movie coming out. Then I heard that Michael Keaton was cast as the Batman. Oh well.

That movie series actually turned out to be okay, though it was understandable why no actor wanted to make it a recurring role as Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney all had a little fun with the part and moved on. It was only when Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale, came out that I saw the vision and felt the excitement that Miller first stirred in me. Given all that’s gone before, there’s a reason the new series has been rebranded as a whole new franchise under The Dark Knight mantle.

I went to see the new movie on Saturday with some anticipation, though I was a little concerned that the movie was being overshadowed by the untimely death of Heath Ledger, who I’m sure you have heard played The Joker. There had been rave reviews of the movie and of Ledger’s performance; even some talk of him being nominated for an Oscar. I chalked this up to bathos related to his passing. I was somewhat familiar with other roles Ledger had played and was underwhelmed. Now that I’ve seen this movie, however, I would cast my vote in his favor. Everything, from the angle of his shoulders, to his voice and laugh, to the twitching of his tongue, created the most compelling and sinister movie villain since Hannibel Lecter.

Best of all, and as strong as the performance was, it didn’t overshadow the rest of the movie. It’s a fabulous story, building onto Batman Begins and gaining momentum of its own. There’s action and special effects of course, but also a story of the nature of good and evil. Granted, the dilemmas are freshman-level ethical “heavies”, but still much deeper than your average (or even above-average) summer blockbuster. In my view it’s as Hayden Tompkins points out in her take on the movie, “Not every choice, however, is one made it the midst of crisis. It’s the choices we make on a day-to-day basis, in the flow of our life, which can just as clearly reveal who we really are.”

As the Joker says in the movie, “Madness is like gravity. It only takes a little push.” Character, however, is harder work. It takes a push, a prod and a continuing series of head slaps sometimes to establish it and keep it going. Consider this movie an invigorating head-slap and go see it.

While you’re at it, go here to listen to a song, My Twisted Humor, that a friend of the Mall Diva’s (alias Princess Flicker Feather) wrote and performed in the hopes that it might make its way into this movie. It obviously didn’t, but it can still work for the next movie!

Hot and fuzzy

Let’s see, I laughed out loud several times at the over-the-top antics; smiled frequently at the clever movie parodies; giggled when the lads turned a tired cliché inside out; and had a great “aha!” moment at an especially subtle inside joke, so I guess you can say I found Hot Fuzz amusing.

Hot Fuzz is the latest collaboration from the team that brought us the comic zombie homage/thriller Shaun of the Dead. This time, instead of re-animating the undead genre, director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (from a screenplay written by Wright and Pegg) buddy-up to the high-explosive Bad Boys-style cop action films, playing the mis-matched partners investigating a series of extreme murders in a quiet English village that is, of course, more than it seems.

Pegg is the no-nonsense super cop, Nicholas Angel, banished to the sticks from London because his high-performance record and capabilities were making the rest of the police force look bad. His persona is nearly the exact opposite of the character Pegg played in Shaun. Frost, meanwhile, is Danny Butterman, the bumbling, lightly-regarded local constable who yearns to be like his heroes from the hundreds of action DVDs he owns. As with Shaun, the send-up is as much a homage as a parody as you can tell the team knows its source material well and is having a blast playing fast and loose with the touchstones.

There’s a lot of violence and blood in the film, but it’s more in the style of Monty Python and the Holy Grail rather than Friday the 13th. The language is too strong at times for it to be family fare, but it’s a lively and fun film with enough mystery to keep you guessing and a never-ending series of jokes and references to keep you laughing without turning into a farce like Police Academy. Pegg and Frost are great together, and the success of their previous film allowed them to bring in some familiar names and faces to play supporting roles (such as Jim Broadbent and the wolfish Timothy Dalton) or perform cameos (Cate Blanchett). One of the best moves was casting veteran Brit actor Edward Woodward (from the old The Equalizer TV series). I remember seeing Woodward in the ’79 version of The Wicker Man where he plays a by-the-book investigator contending with a very creepy group of pagans (one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen). In Hot Fuzz, however, Woodward gets to turn the tables on his earlier role — and seems to be having an excellent time while doing so.

As will you, I think, if you rent this movie.

300 reasons

I was among the 90 percent male audience at a 9:00 p.m. showing of 300 over the weekend. Some of the guys there were younger men and a few looked a little geeky and there were one or two older ones I might have pegged for still being in residence at their mom’s house, but most appeared middle-aged and normal — a category I hope the others thought that I fell into. Having read Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire” and Frank Miller’s graphic novel that the movie was based on I’d been eagerly awaiting the release of the latest movie version of the Battle of Thermopylae (I even rented 1961’s The 300 Spartans, made when Hollywood thought “epic” also had to mean “plodding”). Here’s my brief review of the movie and some thoughts that have occurred to me since it ended.

Overall the movie was very good. The look of the film was definitely unique and strongly resembled Miller’s book, which was the intention. The “graphic novel” artistic treatment (and it is artistic) mitigated the gruesomeness of the ultra-violence to some extent, and while it was bloody (and came close to over-using the slow-motion) I felt it was a believable rendition of what hand-to-hand combat in close confines with sharp-edged weapons would be like. It’s definitely not a date movie unless your girlfriend also happens to like field-dressing roadkill, but there is a discernible plot and some inspiring and intense performances that makes this a good story. Additionally, it is a thought-provoking examination of duty, honor and patriotism that’s short on speeches and long on demonstration.

I was disappointed with the gratuitous scenes with naked women; the scenes fit within the story but appeared to be driven more by a marketing formula for the target audience than from story-telling license. The scenes between King Leonidas and his wife, and in the seductive blandishments offered by King Xerxes to the traitor Ephialtes, easily could have been shot with a bit more discretion. Not that this is a movie for younger teen males anyway, but the nudity definitely would be a distraction from the more laudable themes in the film. Otherwise “300” is an inspiring and entertaining movie for action film fans and those who will draw some conservative political allegories from the story.

While much is made of the battle being between a small group of free men and an invading slave army of a couple hundred thousand, I thought there was little effort to frame the historical significance of the effects on Western Civilization if the fledgling Greek city-state democracies had been absorbed the Persian empire. Ironically, Spartan society was probably less “free” than the Persians; while it is portrayed as an egalitarian meritocracy, it was also rigid in its laws and cruel — some might say eminently practical — in its single-minded warrior ethos. At the same time it made a religion out of exalting honor, duty and courage and “300” makes that point with all the subtlety of a Spartan xiphos.

King Leonidas is the standard-bearer and champion of this creed, even to the point where he breaks the rigid letter of the law in order to ultimately defend its spirit, standing firm against the alternating threats and flattering of his foreign enemy and standing in disgust at the treacherous collaboration of his own Council of Elders that sought accommodation and surrender to the apparently overwhelming enemy (based on the portrayal of Council, duty and honor weren’t universally revered in Spartan culture as the politicians manipulated events for their personal gain and grudges regardless of the cost to their country). For Leonidas, while freedom may be ripped from a Spartan’s dead fingers, it must never be willingly released due to fear, complacency or indolence.

The movie also helped me see another important point. The Spartan warriors are all very fit and well-muscled, conditioned to their “Spartan” existence of war and striving. While my own body bears little resemblance to theirs, I know that I was born with the same number of muscles in my body as they had; the difference is in how they developed what they were given. Similarly, I think we all start with the same capacity for faith, duty and honor within us and these, too, can be trained, exercised and built up to astonishing and awe-inspiring levels. When we do, even just a handful can change history.

Charmed, I’m sure

Last month I posted a brief review of the move Everything is Illuminated because I like the unexpected, unconventional and beguiling nature of the story, the well-crafted scenes and performances, and the human insights that lingered in my mind for days afterward. I hadn’t expected to like the movie all that much yet I was totally won over. Since then I’ve thought about some of my other all-time favorite movies and realized that many of these shared distinctive characteristics with this film. The stories aren’t really related to each other, but they are all off-beat (non-formulaic) delights that surprised and charmed me and — as we head into a snowy weekend — I thought they might charm you as well.

My top three favorite movies may shift from time to time, but Local Hero will always be near the top of my list. Released in 1983, it stars Peter Reigert (post-Animal House) and Burt Lancaster and is directed by the estimable Scottish director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Comfort and Joy). Like all of the movies here it has a light, whimsical streak running through it. The story is that a large Houston oil company sends one of its acquisition specialists, McIntyre, to a small Scots town to purchase the town and, especially, its deep water port that they want to turn into a refinery. Part of the joke is that Mac isn’t even Scottish — his ancestors adopted the name when they got off the boat from Hungary because it “sounded American”.

Devoted to his job and his lifestyle, Mac sets out to complete his mission as quickly as possible but finds himself becoming enchanted by the place and ambivalent about his task. One of the special twists of the story, however, is that rather than being outraged and protective of their community, the locals can’t wait to sell it and become rich! There are several subplots as well and a great cast of characters (referring both to the actors and to the “townspeople” in the movie). The movie is quirky but not in a heavy-handed, off-putting way and it reveals itself little-by-little. The story is partly meant to be a commentary on American capitalism abroad, but this is done warmly and with wit; the scenes between Mac and an entreprenuerial Russian sailor are some of the best, though these are surpassed by Burt Lancaster’s small but vital role. Beautiful scenery, a beautiful story, and did I mention that there’s a mermaid as well?

I always link The Coca-Cola Kid with Local Hero in my mind because it also tells a comedic tale of what happens when American interests go abroad, but in a more allegorical manner. The screenplay is by an Australian and directed by a Yugoslavian, but culture clashes at the center of the movie, and the characterization of Becker (played by Eric Roberts in one of his less-twitchy roles) is more bemused than pointed. Becker is a hot-shot marketing guru from Coca-Cola, sent from Atlanta to Australia to boost sales in that country. (The movie was made without the fore-knowledge or blessing of Coca-Cola). When he discovers a populated valley in which absolutely no Coke has ever been sold he sets out to conquer, in the process meeting the patriarch of the valley, a cantankerous lord who bottles his own brand of soft drinks.

Greta Scacchi plays the love interest, again, somewhat as an allegory, as are several other characters who come and go with their own perceptions and assumptions about Americans set up in contrast with Becker’s assumptions of this new land. It’s a funny and generally gentle story with great music, including a terrific Coke jingle that the company should have adopted in real life. It’s a good companion movie to watch with Local Hero, but there are a couple of scenes with nudity so it’s probably not for kids (though the story wouldn’t be as interesting to them anyway).

A movie that is ideal to watch with the whole family is The Secret of Roan Inish. There are no big stars in the film, but it is directed by John Sayles, who’s work I’ve liked since “The Return of the Secaucus Seven” (another off-beat charmer that was later ripped off by “The Big Chill“). The story focuses on Fiona, a young girl sent to live with her grandparents on the Irish coast after her mother dies and her father and brothers go to work in an industrialized city. Her grandparents still live near the island that was the home of Fiona’s family going back several generations and the seat of the family’s mystical history and the setting for the mysterious disappearance of Fiona’s younger brother, Jamie, spirited away when he was an infant.

While that sounds rather dark, the story is anything but as Fiona and her cousin find themselves gradually unwrapping the nearly forgotten ancient secrets of the family and the mystery of what happened to Jamie. Rest assured, there isn’t a speck of evil in the story. In fact, one of the things that makes the film so unique in my mind is that it generates such a compelling drama without a single villain. The young actress who plays Fiona (Jeni Courtney) is amazing and easily carries the movie. I’m surprised that she hasn’t gone on to do other movies (“Roan Inish” was released in 1995). It’s a tremendous story of faith, love and character and an ideal experience for the whole family. Bake some bread, cook up a pot of soup, and eat while you watch the movie!

This is another movie that took me by surprise when we first watched it. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a “what if” story about what might have happened if Napoleon had managed, through the use of a body double, to escape from Elba and make it back to France. Rest assured, however you think this might have turned out, you’ll definitely be surprised by the story that unfolds. Ian Holm is fantastic as the two Napoleons and the story is a very funny and touching one with a bit of romance and adventure thrown in.

I’m not sure why we even rented it in the first place, but I’m glad we did. While the premise sounds predictable, the story is delightfully original and veers away from the cliched scenes and character reactions that you might expect. It’s not a “major” film but it is very entertaining with likeable characters and a seductive plot. If you rent it just sit back and relax and go with the story and you won’t be disappointed.

For the benefit of Mr. Kite (and Alice Cooper and Steven Tyler)… look away

The thing about the latter 1970s is that so much of the weirdness then can be easily attributed to drugs. Well, drugs and Jimmy Carter. Now when I look back on those times I often get the feeling that I’m revisiting an alternative universe. Lately I’ve been inclined to write these perceptions off as a matter of me getting older, while discounting the ready access to certain botanicals and pharmaceuticals back then. After some unfortunate channel-surfing over the weekend, however, I’m back to my original hypothesis.

Friday night I watched the last half of the 1978 “film”, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yes, I had full control of the remote and could have changed the channel or looked away, but there was an oddly compelling desire to look, such as what one gets when passing a road accident or a pro-illegal immigration rally. When I first saw the movie in a theater (what are these “movie rental” and “cable television” things you speak of?) I remember lamenting the experience as nothing more than the waste of $3, which I alternatively could have used to purchase half a tank of gas.

Now, looking back from the omniscience of my years I can see where this movie was the place where the fabric of the universe first took on the look of the frayed or torn blue jeans so common back then. Could it be more than coincidence that torn jeans are once more in vogue and this movie is circulating via satellite waves? (And for the record, kids, back in my day we had to work to get those jeans looking like that.)

I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time to movie executives to do a rock opera homage to the Beatles. Beatles music was still big, processed rock and roll was starting to rule the land, no dialogue would make it easier to cover up that no one could act and Peter Frampton still had three or four seconds left of his 15 seconds of fame. Peter Frampton? Lord, yes, the movie starred Peter Frampton, looking like he weighed 110 pounds and in all his white blond curls as if he was trying to channel William Katt in The Greatest American Hero, but with half the machismo.

Predictably the result was more homogenization than homage with casting trying to pull in as many popular icons of the era regardless of field or musical genre. Hence the film also features The BeeGees, George Burns, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire. The BeeGees have the largest roles after Frampton, but I never could (or never bothered) to keep their names straight; to me they’ve always been Big Hair BeeGee, Missing Hair BeeGee and Blond Hair BeeGee. The trippiest performance, predictably, was Cooper singing “Because” while the best part of the movie was Aerosmith’s great cover of “Come Together” (and I’m not even that much of an Aerosmith fan).

To show just how much drugs (or money) were involved you only need to know that both Alice Cooper and Steven Tyler get their butts kicked by Peter Frampton. Yeah, right, like that could happen, especially since Frampton’s “moves” seemed to have been borrowed from the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where the men’s chorus fought with the cowboys, or perhaps Lauren Bacall trying to hit Edward G. Robinson in “Key Largo”. I don’t know how much they had to pay Cooper and Tyler (or with what) to go along with this indignity, but I hope for their sakes it was enough. I mean, it would have been more believable for George Burns to win the fight, or even Jimmy Carter’s Killer Rabbit who, apparently, wasn’t cast in the movie because he wasn’t famous until the following year.

As insipid as the movie was it somehow exerted a strong pull on me, not unlike what a kleenex must feel as it gets sucked down the toilet. Maybe it was the lateness of the hour and my fatigue, or the effects of some post-hypnotic suggestion I received in the 70s. The pay-off, however, meager as it may have been was the final scene when the producers pulled in every idle celebrity within a 10 mile radius of the studio for a group chorus of “We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” shot to look like the album cover.

I was just about to turn the tv off when the camera started panning the pre-“We Are the World” assembly, challenging my ability to recognize these people from nearly 30 years ago. OMG, is that Johnny Winter? What’s he doing in this abomination? Rick Derringer and Nils Lofgren — what, did the producers have photos of you with teen-age girls? Wasn’t that Jackson Browne, or only Keith Carradine? Hey, there’s that other guy with my name, and Hank Williams, Jr! Bowser from Sha-Na-Na? They must have been offering free food at the recording session and he walked in. Whoa, there’s Heart from back when they were still good-looking, and a low-miles Bonnie Raitt! Leif Garret, go back to your room NOW, young man. They even had Dr. John and Robert Palmer in there, no doubt to ensure that no matter how stupid the filming was, the cast party was smoking.

I know, I know, I need to chill. I don’t know why this set me off, but I’ll just do what Alice Cooper and Steven Tyler do whenever they think of this and that is to repeat over and over, “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.”

Flight and fight

I didn’t blog last night because I was watching an incredible movie that left me feeling simultaneously too wired and too wiped out to write when it was over. The movie was Flight 93 (A&E channel), a dramatization about the 9/11 passengers and crew who fought back against the terrorists to prevent the jet from being flown into the White House or Capitol Building. Based on research, interviews and facts from the public record, the movie has a disconcerting realism that wrapped me in feelings that were equal parts outrage and helplessness.

When I first heard that a made-for-tv movie about this was going to be on I didn’t have a very positive reaction. I thought it would either be overly sappy or, worse, try too hard to “understand” the terrorists. I didn’t watch when it debuted Monday night, but heard positive reviews so I decided to check it out when it was rebroadcast Tuesday night (remaining re-broadcast schedule at the end of this post).

Even knowing the ultimate outcome (or maybe because I knew) I found my heart pounding from the opening, quiet moments of the movie. There’s no back-story on any of the people involved although a few things are hinted at in snippets of conversation or in glimpses at carry-on items; you don’t “meet” anyone anymore than you do when boarding an airplane. The story essentially takes place within the timeframe from the beginning to the end of the flight. As a viewer you get a vivid sense of how surreal the situation was as passengers, families at home, the citizenry, the media and the authorities all tried to wrap their minds around what was happening. Sometimes I almost wanted to shout at the television because it was so frustrating to see elements of the big picture already in my head revealed bit by bit and wanting the people in the film to understand. That same sense, however, also helped me to marvel at how quickly the people on board ultimately were able to not only understand but process, accept, adapt and act on that understanding. Can you imagine what it would take for you, going about your daily business, to completely re-order your reality to the point where you are making life and death decisions within a span of a couple of hours?

Adding to the compelling eeriness of the film is that it is so brightly and cleanly lit. No “Bourne Supremacy” type of dark edges and stylized blurred action; we see the bright light and clean lines we’re accustomed to in modern jets and the sunny, “just another day” weather around the homes of families talking to their doomed loved ones on the telephone. It all certainly heightens the “how can this really be happening” sense of everyone involved. It’s heart-breaking to see the families trying to cope while hoping for the best, and to think what it must be like for these same families to see themselves and their loved ones portrayed in this film.

While certain parts of what actually happened have to be conjecture, there is a remarkable amount of information available because of the communications that were sent and received, and it’s hard not to be caught up in the story or to imagine how you yourself would be reacting in the same circumstances. 9/11 wasn’t the day the world changed; that happened long before. It was, however, the day we realized the world had changed. Flight 93 is a timely and gripping story without patriotic rants and Boris Badinov cartoon villains and it resonates in these days when so many seem determined to forget the hard lessons learned that day.

Rebroadcasts this week (all times EST) on A&E:

Wednesday, Feb. 1 — 9:00 pm
Thursday, Feb. 2 — 1:00 am
Saturday, Feb. 4 — 12:00 pm
Sunday, Feb. 5 — 12:00pm


Welcome to visitors following Amy Ridenour’s National Center link to this post. I’m honored by Amy’s link and appreciate your interest.

Encouraged by this development, I’ve submitted this post to this weekend’s Open Trackback Alliance collection via the OTA portal at The Crazy Rants of Samantha Burns.