Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Dark Knight


This movie came out before I had started the blog and this is the first time I am getting to write about the film. I said it last night when I posted an update on Facebook, this is the jewel  in the crown of Christopher Nolan's Batman Trilogy. Both "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight Rises" are excellent films, but the middle film is the finest second act in a superhero trilogy you are likely to encounter. We are past the origin story and Batman is a looming presence over Gotham. The crime lords are beginning to chaff under the attention they are getting from the District Attorney, and things seem to be turning around for the city, just as Bruce Wayne wanted. Enter the Joker, a figure of chaos, who at first seems like an enemy and then a potential ally to the underworld kingpins, but looks are deceiving, as we will be reminded on a regular basis. 

The opening set piece with the daytime heist of mob money from one of the banks secretly controlled by the criminal elements of the city, is a terrific starting point. The crime is filled with audacity in execution and violent subterfuge by the man who planned it. When the last clown standing takes off his clown mask and reveals the clown make-up he is sporting, we know that we are in the company of a deranged criminal who does not follow any rules or patterns. This will undermine both the criminals and the cops for the rest of the story. This is the performance from the late Heath Ledger that won him a posthumous Academy Award, and it was richly earned. Ledger gives the Joker mannerisms that suggest he is bat shit crazy in every scene, but he also has a voice that commands respect because of the level of intelligence behind it. In the scene at the fund raiser, when he takes notice of Rachel Dawes, he pushes his sweaty  hair back behind his ear, with a knife in his hand, like he is primping for a meet cute, while armed and dangerous. When he gets caught and is baiting the officer who is standing watch over him, he manages to smirk in an antagonistic way, in spite of the fact that he is still covered in his trademark make-up. Ledger underplays so many scenes despite being the most flamboyant character in the story. 

One of the things that makes this film work well is that Bruce Wayne gets to be part of the plot in addition to being Batman. His love triangle with Rachel, his planning of the extraction of the accountant from Hong Kong, and the series of moments when he seems set to reveal himself, are all more engaged in the story than the billionaire usually gets. When he manages to safe the life of the man who is going to reveal his identity, it is in his best detached and clueless rich guy persona, a part he plays regularly in the film. Christian Bale has to do most of his acting in these scenes since the costume does so much in the Batman moments. One of the jokes that people sometimes make about Nolan's Batman concerns the gravelly voice that the Batman uses to cover who he is. I think too many people believe it is just an attempt to intimidate criminals (which it is) but they ignore that he is also avoiding being identified. 

Director Christopher Nolan has put together a great series of action sequences which are mostly justified by the plot, even if logically they can't all come out the way they are supposed to. I have already mentioned the opening heist, but Batman has a heist of his own when extraditing Lau from Hong Kong. The spectacular removal from the building is a moment from a 60s era James Bond film, but played as serious rather than comic. The stunned security men are befuddled at the smashed window and the pane flying into the upcoming day looks just brilliant. Both the Joker and Batman have an action scene that plays out their own plans simultaneously, as Harvey Dent, claiming to be Batman, is transferred across town, there are gun battles, crashes, the end of the Batmobile and the birth of the Batpod, and it climaxes with a tractor trailer cartwheeling front to back on the streets of Gotham.

Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, is the White Knight of the city that Batman wants to step aside for, but of course the Joker has a different goal. Certainly Harvey has reason to feel embittered and resentful. The fact that he can be tipped over to the Dark Side has been hinted at a couple of times in the course of the film. I just think that the final Two Face challenge is such a reach that it is the only flaw in the carefully constructed plot. It works, but only barely, and I think you have to see the film several times to be convinced that it is not just a plot contrivance. 

The film is filled with actors who do a fine job in their parts. Most of the criminals get short shrift but the cops, many of whom are tainted, get a chance to show off a bit. Eric Roberts is slimy as hell,  Morgan Freeman is as cool as you would hope, but the heroic center of the film is Jim Gordon, played by Gary Oldman. Gordon is a cop who tries to play it by the book but knows that the Batman is the linchpin on pushing Gotham back from the brink. His part in the capture of the Joker is a fun twist and his distraught father in the last scenes are demonstrations of Oldman's talents. 

The electronic and orchestral score makes a dramatic impact on the film, although the lack of melodies probably keep it from being memorable. Humming along to the strum and dang of the score is not really possible, but the score is effective time after time in evoking emotions and mood. The action scenes have the parts that are most like traditional tunes, and Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard have divvied up the two antagonists to create wholly different personas for them musically.  It is a very distinct score from the Tim Burton Batman films and several elements from the first film are repeated here, in completely appropriate ways.

Even though the Joker succeeded at spoiling Harvey Dent as a hero, Batman and Jim Gordon snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by changing the narrative and turning Batman into the dark figure of the story. The combination of Batman's faith in the citizens of Gotham on the ferry, and the sacrifice he makes to become a fugitive, give the story the bump it needs at the end to reach an emotional crescendo. The final narration from Gary Oldman makes the conclusion pay off with goosebumps.  

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Spy Kids Armageddon


A few weeks ago, at the Paramount Summer Film Classic screening of "Clash of the Titans", Director Robert Rodriguez previewed for us the above trailer. The film is set to premier on Netflix later this week, but we were inviter to the World Premier last night at the Paramount here in Austin. The audience was packed with kids and people who had worked on the film and the house was raucous. The film was shot in Austin and the main contributors are members of the Rodriguez family. 

The film is the fifth in the franchise and it does not stray far from the formulas that came before it. Two young kids get involved in a spy plot because their parents are spies. They accidentally release a video game virus that combines with a program partially developed by Dad that will allow the designer to control all electronic mechanisms. The become spies themselves and fight back using the tech that has been given to their parents by the spy agency they work for. 

One of the reasons that the audience at the "Clash of the Titans" was specifically invited is because the film is filled with Ray Harryhausen images, including sword wielding skeletons and crab like robots. This is a lot of fun and reinforces the fantasy elements as much as the gadgets do. The story is thin, like a kids film is likely to be, but it does have some values about family that are certainly admirable. It is clear this is a movie for families to enjoy together. The fact that parents were at the show last night, who had grown up watching the original films, and they were now bringing their own children to the series is part of the reason Rodriguez has returned to the stories.


We had a great time and the movie is light and breezy, so go ahead and stream it when it drops this week.


Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A Haunting in Venice


This is the Movie we covered on the Lambcast this week, and usually, by the time of the podcast recording, I will have posted my comments. That did not happen this week. We had a full slate of activities that kept me busy and then I did the show, edited and posted the podcast, edited and posted a You Tube Video of the podcast, and finally remembered I'd not put up my own thoughts on my own site. That is about to be rectified.

"A Haunting in Venice" is the new Hercule Poirot film from director Kenneth Branagh. I have long been a fan of the theatrical films featuring the Belgium sleuth, although I have never read any of the Agatha Christie books that he sprang from. This is the third in the series from Branagh and it is quite a bit different from the previous two. "Murder on the Orient Express"  was a serviceable remake of the 1974 version, but lacked the romance of that earlier film. "Death on the Nile",  was delayed two years by the pandemic and only was released last year, which made this film feel like a very quick follow up. Nile was a lush film that compensated for the convoluted machinations of the plot by creating a setting that was exotic and looked inviting (even if at times it was just CGI magic). "Haunting" scales back on the landscapes but ups the directorial flourishes with Dutch angles and fisheye lenses around every corner. The plot contains a supernatural element that also allows for some horror tropes to creep in, jump scares and reflections especially are dominate. 

Michelle Yeoh and Tina Fey are the two biggest names in the cast, and after the star packed casts of the other films, this story could use the lower profile performers more convincingly. I did wonder whether Micelle Yeoh's casting was a stunt, because there is not any background on the character, but after the movie gets going, you will probably not feel that way about her presence.   Tina Fey on the other hand was an interesting take on the character and her more modern persona fits better with the Post War aesthetic that the story focuses on. 

As is usual for these plots, there are several false trails and a couple of red herrings that keep things interesting. The supernatural elements all will be explained by Poirot at the end of the film, in a satisfactory way, and although the resolution feels a bit abrupt, it was not the sudden switch in suspects that so often occurs in TV mysteries.  Once again the cinematography was exemplary, Haris Zambarloukos has been working with Branagh for a long time and seems to understand the mood he is looking for in the spooky old house on the canal. Jude Hill the young actor from Branagh's terrific "Belfast" joins the cast as well as a boy who is both creepy and sympathetic at the same time. 

My guess is that this film will close out the Poirot films for Branagh, three seems to be a magic number after all, but I enjoyed all the films enough to recommend them and I would be happy to see this one again. If you are looking for an adult Halloween film that does not involve maniacs dismembering the cast, this would be a solid pick for your evening. 

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Christine (40th Anniversary Fathom Event)


I would describe myself as a John Carpenter fan, but not necessarily an aficionado. Of the eighteen theatrical releases his films have had, I have seen fifteen. "Christine" from 1983, was one I had missed for years and only caught up with during the pandemic, catching it on one of the streaming services maybe a year or so ago. I enjoyed it, but it did not make a strong impression on me, at least until last night. Seeing "Christine" in a theater, in the dark, with an audience was a frank reminder of how differently a movie can play given the environment in which it is being experienced. There was no daylight streaming through the window. No dogs were demanding my attention, and sitting in a theater is much different from laying on the bed and watching TV.  The immersive atmosphere brings out the creepy and haunting elements of the film much more vividly.

The movie has a rock and roll attitude about it from the very beginning. The fact that the 1958 Plymouth Fury is being assembled in 1957, and that Rock music was just starting is not a coincidence. Carpenter's selections of source music emphasize the time period of the cars date of manufacture, not the time of the story. "Bad to the Bone" may have been an 80s record, but it is based in a 50s style and sound, emphasized by the roots rock of George Thorogood and his band. The songs that play on Christine's radio are by 50s artists like Buddy Holly and Little Richard. The transformation of Arnie, the kid who restores and loves Christine,  is largely an evolution to a greaser personality and style, even though the film is set in the late seventies. 

It is a slow burn after a suggestive opening scene during the manufacturing process. Arnie, a good natured kid who is a bit of a sad sack, is played by Keith Gordon. His buddy Dennis, played by future genre director John Stockwell, is a football player with a lot more popularity but a good heart and a loyal friend to Arnie. We get some good character points about the friends and we see the initial enthusiasm that Arnie has for the dilapidated Fury he catches a glimpse of on their way home from school. Arnie's parents are not monsters but they don't come off as nurturing, and it is a surprise when Arnie starts talking back the them. It is the change in Arnie's personality, rather than the satanic car, which drives the opening half of the film. The killings don't start until well past the mid way point of the story.

We know that the bullies are going to get theirs at some point. After we see what a douche the lead bad guy is, we will all be rooting for Christine to come to life and take him out. Christine however is a jealous lover and Dennis and new girl girlfriend to Arnie, Leigh, also run afoul of her. The early incidents are hints of what is to come but the real violence involves a car taking out the trash. The most visually frightening sequence has Christine aflame, chasing after Buddy, the alpha bully of the group. In a night time scene on a lonely road, she really does look like a car from hell on a mission.  All of the deaths will get more vivid renderings with a new version that has been announced. 

Practical effects are used for the car to restore itself after being heavily damaged in an act of vandalism but also after the murders of the bullies. It is visually as accomplished as any CGI work, but because it is done in camera it looks far more convincing and disturbing. The great Harry Dean Stanton shows up for a few scenes as a detective investigating the killings, but his part is under developed and we seem to be missing the section where he figures out that the car is possessing Arnie and is really responsible for what has happened. 

When I asked Amanda what she had thought of the film, she gushed enthusiastically, that it would be craking her top five list of John Carpenter films.  I don't know that I will go that far, but I will say it played really well in the theater and I was sorry I missed it 40 years ago, but completely happy to be seeing it on the big screen. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

What's Up Doc?-Paramount Classic Film Series Finale


The Summer Movie Series at the Paramount Theater finished off on Saturday with one of the most enjoyable movie experiences of the summer. Director and local hero Robert Rodriguez again hosted an event that he programmed. The idea that a Barbara  Streisand comedy from 1972 was his selection is intriguing, but it was easy to understand when he revealed why. This was a family favorite of his parents when he was young and they were big fans of the singer/avtress. After the film Rodrieguez shared some stories that I will share at the end of this post.

Director Peter Bogdanovich had an amazing trifecta of films to launch the decade of the 1970s. "The Last Picture Show", "What's Up Doc?" and "Paper Moon" were all critical smashes and financial successes. "What's Up Doc?" may be the most unusal of the three films because it mines the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s for it's material and sensibility. "Bringing Up Baby" and "Ball of Fire" are a couple of the films that this movie cribs from, and it does so quite effectively. Slapstick is an art that does not alwasys get much credit because some see it as easy humor, but ask anyone who has participated in a play or movie that is a slapstick and you will find that timing is the essential ingredient to make things work. The actors and plot points have to synchronize or else the result will be painful rather than joyous.

Fortunately, Bogdanovich found three essential actors to carry off this elaborate farce and make us laugh in delight. Ryan O'Neil has been criticized for years as a dull actor who got by on his looks and the huge success of "Love Story". Well anyone seeing this film will know he was capable of being an hysterical straight man and counterpart to the crazed characters he was playing against. Barbara Streisand was a Broadway sensation in comedic roles and transitioned to movies smoothly, and with her fast paced delivery, you will be reminded of Rosalind Russel in "His Girl Friday". She has to do most of the heavy lifting on the comedy, but carries it off with grace and perfect timing. Finally, in her first film role, Madaline Kahn, practically steals the move in the gender reversed Ralph Bellamy part. Kahn shines so much in this film that you just knew she was going to be a comedy star.

When Robert Rodriguez talked about the film after it was done playing, he outlined the fact that the comedy bits all centered around five particular scenes. The sequence in the drug store is all about the two leads and they completly own the scene with their by play and word games. The scene in Howard Bannister's hotel room, that ends with it being completely destroyed is a master class in building mayhem. The scene though, that most people will remember is the elaborate chase sequence through San Francisco on a bicycle with taxis and town cars in pursuit. There is a wonderfully choregraphed piece with a large pane of glass that comes close to destruction by the vehicles and of course the payoff is that it gets done in by something else. 

The theater must have had six or seven hundred people filling the seats on Saturaday, but surveying the audience would tell you less about the capacity than listening would. The sound of laughter was loud and it was consistent. The audience was laughing at the jokes and stunts in the moments that were planned by the film makers, and the combination reminds me so much of why seeing a movie with an audience is the reason I love films so much. The shared experience and communal response is not something that gets replicated, even if you are having a watch party at home with your friends. Six hundred people, laughing together is a wonderful sound.

Our host came out after the movie and talked about how the film was a family favorite. He also told stories of becoming friends with Bogdanovich and a particularly delightful encounter he had, along with his parents, at the wedding of his friend Josh Brolin who is Barbara Streisand's step son. The fact that his Mom got to meet Steisand and that the star convered with her like they were old friends is just heartwarming. I was most amused by the bit of information about a stunt early in the film. As Barabara's character is being tracked by the camera as she approaches the hotel, she is nearly run over by a car in the street. That is followed up by a crash between two other vehicles. The budget was generous but they had to be careful about spending. Bogdanovich had the production crew rent two cars from an agencey and purchase the damage insurance that they always up sell customers with. They did the stunt and returned the cars the next day, and simply said there was an accident. That story got a big laugh out of all of us. 

We were fortunate to seel this movie back in 2017 at the TCM Film Festival, the late Peter Bogdonavich was there to be intervied about the film, so I have seen it twice with some expert commentary and incites, and both experiences have been worth savoring. This screening brought the Summer Classic Film Seroes to a close. This was the 49th year the Paramount Theater has done this film series, but it was my first. I made it to twenty-five screenings it the theater this summer, and I was able to attend four of the five films that Robert Rodriguez presented. It was a spectacular experienec and I look forward to the Halloween and Christmas Series as well. You can bet I will be back for year 50 of the terrific tradition. 

Friday, September 1, 2023

The Equalizer 3


As long as Keanu Reeves, Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington keep showing up in movies to dispense some violent justice on bad guys, I will be going to watch. This is the third "Equalizer" film, and it carries over some of the background we got in the second film. We always knew Robert McCall was a former C.I.A. wet operative, but his spy connections became the framework for the story in the second movie and they return here with just a slight twist. 

I never watched the original series and I have not seen the reboot with Queen Latifa, so I can't say there is much overlap in the approach. The basic idea always seems to have been that McCall is assisting someone who has run out of options. In this film, it is a whole town that has run out of options. The evil doers are numerous and incredibly violent, but they discover that they barely know what violent means when they cross paths with McCall.

Denzel is low key in this film. His character has always been even keeled and a bit OCD, and that shows up in a number of ways in the movie. His polite demeanor when first talking with people he is going to kill, suggests a huge degree of confidence. Even when at one point he might be sacrificing himself for the good of others, he never raises his voice, looks at all concerned or hints that he is not ready to handle an unpleasant job. The closest we come to seeing him conflicted over the killings he has committed is a flashback to the events that open the movie. That moment does not feel like remorse however, it only feels like a memory. 

Director Antoine Fuqua has made a bunch of these action films, and he and Denzel know how to build up the anticipation of vengeance. You show how intolerable the bad guys are, and here they are truly insufferable. There are two brothers who head a mafia style family, and they act like untouchable apex predators to everyone, including the police. Their vile acts of violence and the threat they present to the local Southern Italian town that McCall has become invested in, but their actions have bigger ramifications and McCall's former employers take an interest. The operative they send is played by Dakota Fanning, which is a nice touch since she was the little girl who needed violent rescue by Denzel in "Man on Fire" back in 2004. 

Does the plot get convoluted, yes, but it makes sense in the end. Are there enough action scenes, yes, but no chase scenes like you might usually see in these films. The violence is usually close up and personal, and when Robert has a bottle in his hand or a nearby poker or lanyard, you can be sure he will use it in a gruesome manner. Even an empty revolver becomes a penetrating weapon. This film is R rated for a reason, and it is the reason that we go to these movies. Justice dispensed without mercy in a violent manner on people we know deserve it. Pass the popcorn. 

2001: A Space Odyssey-Paramount Summer Classic Film Series


The Paramount Summer Classic Film Series, at the Paramount Theater in Austin Texas, has been one of the great discoveries of my arrival in the area. When I saw the schedule for this summer, I joked with my daughter that I should just get an apartment downtown for the season, since I will be at the theater so often. I will do a more complete wrap up of the Series in a another post, but in commenting on this particular film, it seemed right to take note of a particular fact. Four of my ten favorite films played during the series, Jaws, Lawrence of Arabia, Amadeus, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some might find that a sign that my tastes are not particularly daring, I on the other hand, find it proof that these films have merit because they deserved to be included in the series. 

"2001: A Space Odyssey" is the first of the films that make up my list of the ten best, for me to see in a theater as a child. This movie came out when I was ten, and I saw it with my family at one of the movie palaces on Hollywood Blvd. It made a big impression on me and it has continued to stimulate my mind, overwhelm my senses and make me deeply grateful for fifty plus years. As I watched it last night on the Big Screen in another old movie palace, I was in awe immediately by the title sequence of the film. It was a combination of shots of the Earth, Moon, and the Sun lining up and the music cue is fantastic. When the title is listed, I was sooo ready to go on this ultimate trip once again. 

The Dawn of Man Sequence befuddled people early on but the symbolism is not subtle and when you pay attention, you will understand the jump of a million years of evolution immediately. The space sequences in the second act are all about showing our technical advancement, and repeat the flight, landing pattern three times back to back. I have seen this movie dozens of times but it was not until last night that a new piece of information dawned on me. The two sections of the flight to the moon where the crew and passengers are weightless are impressively created with practical effects, but I had not noted before how the costumes were also part of that effect. The Flight attendants wear uniforms that are a little odd. I'm not talking about their grip shoes, I am referring to their headgear. Suddenly it hit me like a thunderbolt why they wear those turban like get ups.

Ok, so it only took me fifty years to figure it out, but that's because everything Stanley Kubrick did in making this movie was meticulous. 

The screening included the Intermission break, which has almost disappeared from modern films, even the ones that probably need a break. "Gandhi" was the most recent film with an intermission scheduled for all it's screenings. "The Hateful Eight" had an intermission built into it's 70mm engagements. This year's "Asteroid City" has an optional intermission that I have not heard of anyone using. The break in 2001 is at a particularly portentous moment and it makes returning to the last part of the movie so much fun. 

I flew solo last night because my daughter had a social event planned, but to my major disappointment, she would have skipped the movie anyway. We went to a screening a few years ago in Hollywood, and I'm sad to say, she is not a fan. No matter, I am a fan and I got to enjoy this masterpiece one more time on the big screen. The psychedelic trip into the monolith near the end is not nearly as long as you think it is, and it still dazzles in spite of the fact that the optical technology seems quaint in comparison to some of the modern film techniques. 

This film will always have my full endorsement. See it in a theater and be awed.