Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises Part 2

Just got back from seeing DKR a second time – which for me is a rare occasion. Still thoroughly enjoyed it. Here are some more thoughts about the film continued from a previous post.

******Spoiler Alert******

4. Catwoman Was Great
            I really love Anne Hathaway and think she is a great actress. I got to see her speak at Wondercon when she and Steve Carell were discussing Get Smart and unlike other actors who seem somehow diminished when you meet them in person she was absolutely radiant. The only problem is that, until now, I haven't really been a fan of any of her movies.
            Regardless of whether they loved or hated the film, Hathaway’s performance in the Dark Knight Rises has definitely been something that most critics seem to agree was a strong point in the film. The storyline captured the moral ambivalence of the character and the romantic tension between her and Batman. Moreover, the film captures the way she is both a victim of forces beyond her control and simultaneously a master manipulator of those very forces. She is able to move between multiple worlds and manipulate the expectations of those around her. Consequently, her subsequent worldview makes her hesitant to join Batman’s side early in the film, but also causes her to distrust the “New Gotham” Bane is purportedly trying to create when he “liberates” the city.
            Finally, I loved the character pop early in the film when Kyle realizes she has been caught by Bruce Wayne and changes before your eyes from a timid little mouse of a maid to the confidant cat burglar.

5. Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon
            Gary Oldman has long been one of my favorite actors. He is versatile and brings incredible depth to any character he plays. His casting as Gordon – one of my favorite Batman characters – was a brilliant decision by Nolan and the producers of the franchise. Gordon is incredibly important to the mythology of the Dark Knight but he can easily be overshadowed by the more exciting figures that make up Batman’s world. Choosing an actor who can do so much with so little was a tribute to the character’s importance and a sign that the filmmaker's understood the mythos they were stewarding. I have long contended that while Heath Ledger was amazing in the Dark Knight, Oldman’s performance in the second film stole the show for me. The Dark Knight Rises continues the evolution of the Gordon character and brings his relationship with Batman full circle in their last meeting of the film.

6. The Score
            Hans Zimmer created a magnificent score for the franchise as a whole, but I think the third film more then the others really showcases his strengths. Even though we all knew that Batman would escape from the pit when he ascended it the final time without a rope, the score kept the energy going and created such a sense of triumphalism that everyone in the audience was cheering wildly the first time I saw it. Considering the layers of jaded cynicism that permeate our culture, anything that can pierce those defenses and command the audience to suspend-their-disbelief is a special thing.  

Final Thoughts
             Overall I thought The Dark Knight Rises was a solid conclusion to the franchise and a fun movie. I still believe that the second installment, The Dark Knight, is still probably the best single comic book movie ever made but DKR carries the water effectively.
I think there are two strains of criticism for people who did not enjoy the film. The first, perhaps most succinctly explained by Stephen Metcalf in the Slate Culture Gabfest’s podcast, argues that if the Batman mythos and iconography does not already have some cultural currency for you, it is hard to enter the world Nolan is trying to create. The second argument is that there were too many weird little moments that strained credulity and made you question the plot. Some of the comments on my previous post illustrate these arguments effectively. I personally agree that there were several rough parts and the some of the macro themes were a little convoluted. 
Ultimately however as a Batman fan I was able to enter the world, and I think that the careful use of symbolism trumped the failures in plot and execution that ruined the films for others. Your thoughts?        

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Exorcist Comes to the Stage

A friend and I recently went to the stage adaptation of The Exorcist at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Here is part of the review I wrote for Popmatters. The rest can be read here.

The Exorcist: 3 July - 12 August 2012 - Los Angeles

Live theater has always been a bit of a mystery to me. While I’m not necessarily a complete novice when it comes to the performing arts, I’ve been to several live wrestling shows, and that’s kind of like theater. Whenever I see a play, I’m reminded of that endlessly reliable quote from L.P. Hartley about the past being a foreign country. Simply replace “past” with “theater” and you sum up my feelings nicely. For someone more comfortable with movies and TV, they definitely do things differently onstage.

Besides wrestling and some local productions of Shakespeare, I have been to a couple interesting shows over the years. During my angsty teen years, I saw the Phantom of the Opera a couple of times (has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for an “alienated” and self-involved youth to latch on to?).  I saw the highly entertaining Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Broadway a few years ago (see my review here), and last year I was lucky enough to see Kristoffer Diaz’s amazing play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.

During all of these performances I have tried to learn and understand the nuance and appeal of this unfamiliar medium. What made live theater so unique and compelling? I wasn’t quite as flippant as the just-wait-until-they-make-a-movie-out-of-it crowd, but I also wasn’t too far from it either. So when I was flipping through the theater schedule at the Geffen Playhouse last year after seeing Chad Deity and saw that they were doing a stage production of The Exorcist, adapted by John Pielmeier from the William Peter Blatty novel, I resolved that this was something I could not miss. Not only did it just seem like an interesting concept for a show—Teller from the magic duo Penn and Teller was a consultant—but I figured it would also help me in my continuing education in the world of the theater.

Unlike the other performances I had been to, this show contained content I had engaged with before. I knew The Exorcist, I have seen the movie countless times, I was aquatinted with the book, and I even knew a priest who was friends with the priest that Father Merrin was based on. With this background knowledge I figured I could do comparisons between the play and the film, see what was kept and what was changed, and in that, see the fingerprints of the director in order to better understand the creative choices that were made. I figured that I would not be going into the darkened theater unarmed this time. Instead, I would be an active participant instead of a passive observer. 

Continued at Popmatters here

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises: Part 1

While I'm working on a more in-depth piece on Nolan's DKR I wanted to post some initial reactions that stuck with me following last night's midnight showing.
Spoiler Alert
1. Bane is Awesome.
       While I enjoyed Knightfall and many of his subsequent appearances in the comic books over the years, I was never a huge fan of Bane. I'll admit that I have a streak of conservative - and completely illogical - dislike of villains that are not part of Batman's more traditional rogue's gallery. Whether it was Bane or Hush, I found myself resisting the allure of many new characters over the years. Irrational perhaps, but there it is. 
       Fortunately, this predisposition does not appear to have insisted itself into my viewing of the films and I went into Dark Knight Rises looking forward to Nolan's interpretation of the character. Not only have the previous two films in the Batman trilogy given me complete faith in the director’s vision, but I also am a fan of Tom Hardy.
            In order to understand the character’s portrayal in the film he must first be divided into his two main components, his physical presence and his voice. Based just on Bane’s physical appearance he could be rejected as simply an unoriginal stand-in for a thousand different brawny bad guys that have appeared in countless action films over the years. While the mask is visually interesting overall he’s just a big dude.
            Yet, when you hear Bane speak, suddenly a whole new world of depth is created. Rather then just a gruff and angry voice muttering garbled threats through a mask, his voice is engaging and bespeaks a deep intelligence. It is strangely melodic and only enhances the quality of the dialogue. Moreover, it demands you immediately disregard the notion that he is just another ripped tough guy cliché.
            Nolan clearly saw the voice of Bane as a way to reorient the viewer to his vision of the character. I found it so intriguing that I it caused me to reappraise the physical component and really see the villain for the threat that he is. In the comics I accepted that Batman was broken by Bane because the continuity and the story made me accept it; but I didn’t believe it. Nolan and Hardy’s careful construction and execution of the character made me believe that this person would break the Batman. He is not an empty cliché, but the real deal.
            Furthermore, just the fact that The Dark Knight Rises was able to construct an engaging antagonist after Heath Ledger’s Joker set the bar so ridiculously high is a testament to both the actor and the director’s skills.

2. The Film Understands the Power of Symbols
            I started writing this portion of the post and before I knew it I had about 1,500 words on the importance of symbols in the superhero genre. To spare a large degree of exposition I will simply state that symbols are important and uniquely embedded in the comic form in ways that are not present in other mediums. Consequently there is always a danger when a comic book property is brought to film that something might be lost. Nolan and the film’s producers clearly understand the significance of iconography and the way it creates meaning for superhero stories and use it effectively.
            The entire franchise can be seen as a meditation on the role of heroes and villains and how society needs these symbols in order to inspire and challenge us. When Harvey Dent becomes Two Face and the people of Gotham need a hero, Batman willingly become the villain so that Dent can be restored. It doesn’t matter if its true, but that people have something to inspire them.
            This is most explicitly demonstrated in DKR when Batman’s symbol burns on the top of the bridge, letting the people of the isolated city know that there defender had returned to them. While there were numerous moments in the film where the audience started applauding, that image received the most sustained and enthusiastic reception in the theater.
            Additionally this understanding of the import of symbols also serves an additional function that helps maintain the necessary suspension-of-disbelief. In the comics the fundamental ludicrousness of a man dressed like a bat to fight crime is downplayed by the nature of the art and way the story is read. In film that potential for silliness is harder to disguise as the character must move and talk. Christian Bale’s performance has sometimes been mocked – even by fans of the films – for his gravely voice. The problem is not in him specifically, but that all of the actors who have donned the cowl have invariably look a little comedic.
The difficulty is compounded in Nolan’s franchise because unlike the other directors, he has attempted present the Dark Knight in a hyper realistic world. In a world that could very well be our own, a man in a bat suit is even more ridiculous then in Tim Burton’s gothic imagining, or in Joel Schumacher’s campy black-lit Gotham. The film’s reinforcement of the importance of symbols subsequently downplays this threat to the viewer’s giving themselves over to the film, by reminding us that it’s not important what or who Batman is, but what he represents. An actor in a suit can be mocked, but a symbol of something bigger and more inspiring is not so easily dismissed.

3. Robin
            Legacy and heritage are probably two of the most central themes in the DC universe. The idea of mantels being passed from generation to generation is not only deeply embedded in the company’s mythos, but also mirrors the nature of the comic book fandom throughout the decades. Therefore, Nolan’s decision to pass role of protector of Gotham City from Bruce Wayne to Blake (Joseph Gordan-Levitt) was a necessary step in the conclusion of the story and no doubt resonated with longtime fans of DC comics.
            However, the introduction of an actual sidekick was dangerous to the overall quality of the movie and ran the risk of being unbelievably cheesy if not handled correctly. So I think it was an excellent decision by Nolan to have Robin in the film and assume Batman’s roll, but not actually have him don a costume and fight side by side with the Dark Knight. There was just too much potential for cliché and might have been enough to shatter the credulity of many viewers.

More to come in the future. Thoughts? 


As a necessary postscript to this piece, I must send my deepest condolences to the families and victims of the terrible shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Back Into The Closet: Review of Stuff of Legend, Volume 1.

Since comparisons between Mike Raicht and Brian Smith’s Stuff of Legend, and Pixar’s Toy Story, franchise seem almost inevitable, it feels prudent to get the discussion out of the way sooner as opposed to later. This is not to say that the stories are intrinsically or overtly communicating with each other, but the overlaps between the two are more than superficial. Both deal with toys that come to life when their owners are not looking, both deal with the themes of loss, growing up, and the fear of being forgotten, and both stories involve the toys fulfilling their role as not just playthings, but protectors of the child they belong to.
            And while these similarities are interesting, it is where the two tales of toys on a quest diverge that things start to get interesting. Where Toy Story ponders the implicit tragedy of growing up and leaving your childish things behind – to such a degree that many have convincingly argued that the series is in fact films more for kids than adults – but always pull back before the sadness become too overwhelming and it deprives the kids of the happy, if bittersweet, ending they need, Stuff of Legend zags in an overtly more adult direction. In Raight and Smith’s world – beautifully illustrated by Charles Paul Wilson III – the finite nature of youth is painfully ever present. Like the death it prefaces, the fact that these toys time with their child is undeniably short, forces the reader to confront the darkness in our own closets in an unflinching manner. The life of the toy, like some of the more cynical views of the life of the human, is not joy bookended by despair, but instead despair punctuated all-too-briefly by brief glimpses of happiness before, as the The Rubaiyat notes, we are laid “one by one back in the closet…”                  
            Fortunately however Stuff of Legend doesn’t fully leap into the emo navel-gazing of the abyss, instead the toys struggle on despite these painful truths. The story begins very swiftly with a young boy being abducted from his room by that recurring manifestation of the childhood fear of the unknown: the boogeyman. His toys, led by the brave Colonel, immediately form a search party, and despite the doubts of some of the playthings who wonder what special loyalty they owe to him, enter into the boogeyman’s lair, the closet. This act of bravery is made braver by the fact that all the toys know that the closet is not just the hiding place of their foe, but also the place where all the doomed toys go when they are forgotten. This is not the March of the Wooden Toy Soldiers, so much as Orpheus’ descent into Hades.
            The reader’s expectations are expertly and immediately frustrated as the creator’s thrust you swiftly into story. With no preamble or context the narrative jumps to the middle of a violent battle, as armies of the dark – forgotten toys who have thrown in their lot in with the boogeyman – make war on what the Colonel refers to as “the boy’s Loyalist forces,” made up of a toy soldier, a teddy bear, a duck, an Indian princess, a piggybank, a jester, and the child’s dog – uniting the party under the two most recognizable metaphors of childhood companionship. The sense of disorientation is further compounded when a leading figure in the party is brutally killed as a result of betrayal from the piggybank (While this sickening treachery threatens the entire group, it is hard not to feel sympathy for a toy that is designed to be smashed by the child it loves).      
            Following the bloody defeat of the boogeyman’s forces on the beach – eerily and intentionally reminiscent of the D-day invasion as the story takes place in September of 1944 – the survivors make their way to the city of Hopscotch. This small Hamlet made up of various pieces of childhood detritus is the perfect Borgesian labyrinth; a totalitarian vision wedded to the aesthetics of youth that puts to shame Toy Story 3’s daycare. It is a city where in a desire to give toys back their purpose, the evil mayor has them playing a never-ending board game, a game without rules, objectives, and most importantly winners. It is the illusion of purpose, work for works sake, and all the toys live their lives moving around a meaningless board. It is an incredibly powerful vision of the affectations of youth without the animating magic of the young. There the rescuers are forced to confront what they would be without someone to love them and play with them.
            All of these events are powerfully illustrated by Wilson, who evokes a type of Tim Burton-esque world without the irony or color. Instead of capitalizing on the countless opportunities for bright, powerful images, the artist instead selects a yellowish monochromatic hue that pervades every panel. Eschewing the potentially beautiful imagery, this decision seems to reflect the desire of the creators to not let the façade be mistaken for substance. The dirty yellow wash invokes a dying light bulb in a dark room and never allows the reader to forget that this is not a children’s story.
            The one theme that makes this The Stuff of Legend go beyond just being good and enter the realm of great is its recurring meditation on perfect loyalty. Despite the treachery of the pig, who himself begins to regret his decision, the others remain steadfast in their tireless devotion to the boy. Unlike Toy Story, whose sense of purpose in the characters begins to shift to each other as and away from their owner Andy, the heroes in this book remain steadfastly loyal – at least so far – to their child master. This is perfect loyalty. Even though they are constantly being reminded of their future as disregarded playthings, left in the closet and forgotten by the child they loved, they nonetheless persevere. Because in the end, isn’t that toys are for? To protect children in the darkness from the monsters under their bed and the evil lurking in the closet? It may be a lie, but for the heroes of this story, it is a lie worth risking everything for.