Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Second Thoughts

Earlier this week I watched Christopher Nolan's smash hit The Dark Knight for the second time. Last year on the theater's big screen, I was blown away, but this time less so. For one thing, the movie is bloated to well over two and a half hours. It could be cut by at least 30 minutes and be a much sleeker, more effective thriller. The film also emphasizes violence over character and often exploits violent torture. When the Joker is thrown in jail, Batman smashes his head against the bars repeatedly. Various bad guys are dispatched in excruciating ways, usually having no relation to advancing the plot.

The cast itself seems dumbfounded by all the plot twists, and no one seems more out of it than Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne or (spoiler) Batman. Bale began his career as a serious child actor in Steven Spielberg's masterful Empire of the Sun. As an adult, his performances have been stone cold, especially in the new Batman series. In scenes with legends Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, Bale speaks in a dull, raspy monotone. Even legends can't spark any fire in this guy. There are several strong performances that led me and others to over praise the film. Chief among them is the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. He has created a vivid psychopath that is difficult to forget. Watching him ambling away from the hospital he is blowing up is truly scary.
But one great performance does not a classic make. Other great actors are wasted, especially Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, who mumbles unintelligibly to no effect.

Aside from these weaknesses, there is Nolan's complete lack of humor. Nothing causes laughter or even a chuckle. No wonder he's called the Dark Knight. In contrast, think back to the first two films of the first big Batman series, both directed by Tim Burton, a master of macabre humor. Though these two films are uneven as well, they are full of bravura film making and performances. Jack Nicholson's Joker is as much Jack as Joker, but his leering, cackling villain is less frightening than comic. Michael Keaton makes a surprisingly human and likable Bruce Wayne, though it's hard to imagine him pulling off Batman's prowess. In the second film Danny DeVito is a somewhat sickening but fully developed Penquin, and Michelle Pffeifer steals the movie as Catwoman. Her showdown with Batman is full of cunning, sharp dialogue, and sexual chemistry.

As for the look of the two Burton films, they are dark and brooding, but they are also pure Hollywood in that they make no pretense towards realism. Gotham City is a hugh, decaying set. The Gotham Cathedral is obviously a reference to Gaudi's Barcelona Cathedral with its melting decadence and to The Hunchback of Notre Dame with the Joker playing Quasimodo. Hitchcock's Vertigo is resurrected in the tower scenes as the Joker and Batman ascend to the belfry. Anton Furst set designs are some of the most evocative in modern film history and deservedly won an Oscar while Danny Elfman's score combines humor with darkness and fright. Two perfect examples can be seen and heard in the following: the dynamic credit sequence and the delightful art museum scene in which the Joker destroys priceless works of art and attempts to seduce Kim Bassinger with references to the witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Yes, times and moods have changed, but we still need humor and artistry. Nolan's Batman films have the technical panache he is famous for, but he has chosen to place comic book characters in a ultra realistic setting without any relief for his viewers. Instead of comic relief, we get more explosions and more noise. Perhaps The Dark Knight needs to lighten up.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Define Stupid

According to the latest Pew Poll, 34 per cent of those polled believed Barack Obama is a Christian; 18% believed he is a muslim; and 43 % don't know. So what does this say about the mental abilities of the American public? Here are some possibilities:

1. 18% of Americans are stupid.

2. 18% of Americans are either tea party members or far right extremists or racists who would say anything to bring Obama down.

3. Some of the 34% are either rational, fair-minded, or Christian or a combination of the three.

4. Most of the 43% don't care, don't know, don't want to know, or should be in groups 1 and 2.

Conclusion: If you add group 1 and 4, then the majority of Americans either don't care or are stupid or both.

We used to read our kids books about the Stupid Family. They were hilarious. For example,
they would look in a store mirror, see their reflections and say how stupid those people look.
My favorite was The Stupid Family Wakes Up Dead, in which the family wakes in the middle of the night and assume they are dead since all the lights are out.

Sadly, many Americans are members of the Stupid family since all their lights are out.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Luv Paris..in real and reel life

According to NPR, France is the most visited tourist attraction in the world, and one of the reasons is its capital city Paris. The City of Light has been celebrated in fiction and film as much as any capital for many reasons. Loaded with historical sites, artistic treasures, incredible food and wine opportunities, architectural masterpieces (and a few disasters), Paris is a never-ending wonder. In 1985, my wife and I took our three daughters, 17, 15, and 7 to Paris for a month's stay in a rented apartment in the sixth arrondisement. Each day we ventured into the city to explore some of its many treasures. It remains the most memorable and happiest trip I have ever taken.

Of course, Paris is a part of our consciousness through films that usually feature the city as a major character. No other film resonates Paris as much as Michael Curtiz's
Casablanca, a film that was shot entirely at or near Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood. For the Paris scenes, he used stock footage from before the war; we see Bogart and Bergman tooling down the Champs Elysees in a convertible with the Arc du Triomphe in the background, cruising down the Seine, and sitting in a typical French cafe with wine and checkered table cloths. All of this is imagined, but we buy it just as our parents and grandparents did, because we cannot believe that such happiness and beauty could be despoiled by something as morally repugnant as Nazism. But that is what happened several years before the film was made, and that was a major reason for its success in America.

Casablanca is in beautiful black and white, giving the cinematographer opportunities for film noir shadows and suspenseful tracking shots. But in the 1950's Paris bloomed in color with three classic musicals. First there was Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli's frothy concoction An American in Paris, which won the Oscar as Best Film of 1951. Why? It wasn't because of the plot or the acting or the writing, all of which were serviceable. No, it was the film's stunning conclusion, a dream ballet in which our hero Kelly pursues Leslie Caron through colorful sets based on paintings by Renoir, Rousseau, and Lautrec, among others, all set to George Gershwin's famed piece An American in Paris. The choreography, the zest, the color, the set design all coalesed into a perfect mini-movie.

In 1957 Paris received the fashion treatment in Stanley Donen's Funny Face, which took some George and Ira treasures and inventively refreshed them. He also added several delightful non-Gershwin numbers, especially the parody of fashion magazines called "Think Pink," led by the evervescent Kay Thompson. But the film as a whole belongs to the Gershwins, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Paris. The thin plot throws Hepburn and Astaire into various fashion shoots in picturesque spots throughout the city. Sheathed in Parisian haute coutre, Hepburn transforms from a drab philosophy student into a fashionista butterfly, thanks to Gershwin music, Astaire's charm and dancing, and Paris. Although not a natural singer or dancer, Hepburn gives an enchanting performance, especially about the wonderment of falling in love in "How Long Has This Been Going On." But the real show-stopper is the pair's rendition of "S' Wonderful," set in a church yard outside Paris with a stream, doves, swans, and Hepburn in a white wedding dress. Astaire, 30 years Hepburn's senior (a pattern in her male co-stars) removes the age distinction when he sings and dances. It's magic.

At the end of the decade, Vincent Minnelli directed another Best Film winner, M-G-M's production of Lerner and Lowe's Gigi, an original musical coming fast on the heels of their smash hit My Fair Lady. This time, the movie takes place in the Paris of the late 19th century, where the belle monde was expressed with fashion, manners, and mistresses. Gigi, played by Leslie Caron, is being raised by made her mother and aunts to be a courtesan. Louis Jordan is a wealthy young man of leisure who knows her family well and is stunned to find himself falling in love with the blossoming young lady. This is beautifully shown in the montage of the song ''Gigi," in which Jordan romps through the gardens and fountains of Paris declaring his adoration. Maurice Chevalier brings his timeless charm to "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and "The Night They Invented Champagne." Although Funny Face and An American in Paris are delightful films, Gigi is a classic film, made with care, grace, artistry, and the best talents of Broadway and Hollywood.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Let's Go to Level 4...In your dreams!

Now that I have returned from the simple pleasures of Vermont, I have seen Inception, Christopher Nolan's cryptic puzzle of dreams within dreams. I was warned I would not understand a word of it, so I decided to go with the flow, as we used to say. The flow in this film consists of some of the finest special effects, editing, and pulsating action that Hollywood can offer. And it also boasts strong characters, clever writing, and a poignant love story. But is Inception anything more than a maze of tricks and mirrors?

Certainly the film is constantly entertaining, sometimes humorous, full of cultural allusions, and critiques of corruption in big business. But some critics have carped about too much style over substance, but perhaps Nolan is making style the substance of his film. With a cast that parades Leonardo DiCaprio in his most guilt-ridden role yet, Ellen Page as the architect who designs dreams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as dream navigator who dances on ceilings and walls as nimbly as Astaire did in Royal Wedding, and the ravishing Marion Cotillard as wife, muse, and enemy to DeCaprio, Nolan does not disappoint. I won't attempt to unravel the plot...because I can't! But let's say that you work for a corporate espionage group that is able to plant alien ideas into a competitor's mind, but your team leader (Leo) has so many inner demons (remember we left him on Shutter Island) that they keep spoiling the team's mission. Of course, this only makes the film more interesting, and every time Marion Cotillard appears the film sparks alive more effortlessly than any modern city collapsing on itself.

Did I mention that Inception is full of film allusions, some to famous films of the past, some as inside jokes. Two quick and clever examples. To be pulled out of the dream state, the team hears a certain French chanteuse. Didn't Marion win an Oscar playing her a few years ago? And our dream architect who builds imaginary worlds for other subconscious states to explore is named Ariadne, not a common name but the name of the mythological woman who lost a spinning match to Athena and was turned into a spider..ah, what a tangled she weaves.

Inception is a movie for movie lovers to treasure. Many have already seen it several times either to understand it or just to enjoy the sheer pleasure of great film-making. Nolan has already given us the two latest Batman films, the second of which was a dark, but often humorous romp that boasted a bravura performance by the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. But his masterpiece is still 2000's eerie cult favorite Memento, a mind-bending mystery that turns chronological time on its head. As a footnote, let me recommend Roman Polanski's latest mystery drama The Ghost Writer, a tense, intelligent film about modern world politics told on a personal scale. It is full of surprises, all logical, and great writing and acting. Rent it now!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Notes from Ticonderoga on our current wars

Earlier this week my oldest daughter, her two sons (10 and 8), my granddaughter (almost 3), and I toured Fort Ticonderoga in New York. It was a bright, sun-filled day with a view of Lake Champlain from the fort ramparts that stirred one's love of beauty. But I was reminded that the soldiers who manned that fort in various sieges probably weren't thinking that way. They were hoping their muskets wouldn't misfire or that one of their shots might hit an unknown enemy, whether French, British, or American, since the fort was held by all three powers. We watched a group of smartly trained high schoolers, boys and girls, personify the American drum and fife corps. Their precision and dedication as well as their musicality was impressive, and they were obviously proud of their part in preserving the traditions of the fort.

But I couldn't help thinking of the original drum and fife corps who not only bravely announced the coming regiment but also ran messages behind lines and risked their lives on a daily basis. Most of these boys...and they were often small boys..... did not live to see the freedom they and their older compatriots fought for. And then my thoughts then moved to older boys, girls, men, and women who have been fighting, hurting, and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Somehow the comparison won't wash for many reasons. Let me be clear: I support
our troops, but I do not support these needless and wasteful wars. Not only have we lost lives but also family relationships. We are still spending billions of dollars on the most threadbare excuse for invasion..and that is what it is. We will not democratize Afghans. They don't want it, and they won't have it.

Yes, the boys who proudly marched and played their bugles, fifes, and drums stir the hearts of Americans today, some of whom still have the outmoded notion that war is necessary. Let us pray that they will stir us to a vision of peace like the one we see from Fort Ticonderoga, a calm, untrouble Lake Champlain