Saturday, July 19, 2008

One Final Bat-Blog: The Dark Knight Review


This will be the last time I talk about Batman for a while, I swear.

I’m not a “glass is half full” kind of person. So, with that in mind, here are my problems with the Dark Knight: there’s maybe half an hour (maybe 40 minutes) that could have been cut and still keep the beating heart of the movie alive, the editing for the fight scenes are a little too choppy for my taste, and the ending was a tad weak. (The latter two were issues I also had with Nolan’s previous outing, Batman Begins.)

That out of the way, it is now time to unleash the fanboy.

This is probably the greatest Batman movie ever. Better than Burton, better than Begins. And there are two principal reasons why.

The first is the script. The script is incredibly strong thematically, which is no surprise given Batman Begin’s strong thematic focus, but instead of focusing on the mechanics of fear, this is really a movie about justice, about the law: is Batman doing the right thing in taking the law into his own hands? Is he serving a higher ideal or he is just another problem? The dialogue is crisp if spartan, and the set pieces are excellently executed.


The second was one man, and it wasn’t Chris Nolan. Heath Ledger gives the kind of performance people are going to remember, and not just now, but in many years. He took the character and made it all his own. The sneering falsetto, the lip-licking, the nasally shrill laugh, his shuffling jumbled gait equal parts Charlie Chaplin and loping rabid wolf. Heath put a lot of thought and a lot of effort into knowing who the character was and what he wanted him to be, and it really shows. Two scenes that really touched on this the best were his interrogation scene and the scene in the hospital.

Despite Ledger’s performance, every character gets about equal face time, which is good. Weaker writers or directors (myself included) would have been transfixed by the raw charisma of his character, like a man on fire running through the street. But everyone gets their moments, their payoffs, their character arcs, and nobody is the worse because of it.

So, do I agree with Kevin Smith’s assessment of “Godfather II of superhero movies?” Not entirely. But do I agree with the current general critical assessment (94% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes?!)

This movie is worth your time, even if you don’t read comic books, even if you don’t like superhero movies or action movies. It will win you over. A.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Honorary FFF: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker

‘Tis the season, the one where Robin laid an egg and the Batmobile lost its wheels. With The Dark Knight preparing to make gangbuster boffo box office (industry insiders are predicting anywhere from 100-150+ million dollar debuts for the film) the blogosphere is buzzing with anticipation. And not just if Heath Ledger deserves an Oscar nod (it’s hard for me to say from what I’ve seen, but I’m preemptively agreeing since he’s electrifying on screen.) Before I do my “Top 5 Jokers“ (to decide where Mr. Ledger places,) I want to talk about one of my favorite Batman movies of all time.




Nice, but no.


Sheesh, no way.


Not to be confused with the NES game of the similar name:


I expressed my adoration of the Dini-Timm Batman Animated Series before, but it bears repeating: in my opinion, it’s one of the best cartoons pretty much ever. Batman Beyond, also called “Batman of the Future,” like the unfortunate “The Batman” which followed, was designed primarily to sell toys. It chronicles Bruce Wayne’s replacement, Terry McGinnis, who’s groomed in the place of the new Dark Knight in a futuristic Gotham.

The show was kind of blah, most of the villains were too, but this is movie almost redeemed the show (as did a subsequent episode of the much better Justice League Unlimited around this timeline, called “Epilogue,” which tied it in to the rest of what fans have dubbed the DCAU.)

Mark Hamill is one of my favorite actors to portray the Joker because, like I get the sense Ledger does, he really understands the character. Jack Nicholson made the Joker a little too friendly, with his grin and just a hint of psychopathy, more charm and less terror, than is really necessary to capture the evil of the character. He is still governed by some semblance of sanity, and doesn’t seem to be in it just for the fun.

Return of the Joker was eventually cut into a PG version, but it was originally made and later released in an “unrated” (but more PG-13 version, which is where the clips I’m going to show are from,) and, for his return to the role here, we get a Joker who delves into darker territory than Broadcast Standards and Practices would rarely permit.

But I’ll avoid going too far into “The Joker’s a stone cold badass,” although it is my primary praise for the film. So, to get it all out of my system:

The Joker doesn’t get to kill anyone on TV, whereas in the comics he’s the villain other villains tell horror stories about, infamous for killing a Robin, crippling a Batgirl, and gassing a class full of kindergartners. Although other actors have captured the humor of the character, or the laugh, few but Hamill (and I’m reserving judgment for Ledger until I see the film in full) really capture the menace throbbing underneath the surface.

The film starts with Batman foiling a robbery of Jokerz (a gang of criminals modeled after the Clown Prince of Crime, who he routinely struggles with on the show,) until we learn just who they’re working for.

As the Joker menaces Bruce Wayne and Terry, we learn why Bruce refuses to believe the Joker has returned.

I don’t want to spoil the twist, although it’s fairly obvious who the Joker is (even with the red herrings thrown about.) But, a large part of the plot features Terry figuring this out for himself.

Other than this primary feature (Mark Hamill,) there are some other things I can say in praise of the film: the production design is pretty cool, creating a bleak neon-colored Gotham that feels like it could be in the future, and all the other voice actors hold their weight (some other recognizable talent would be Melissa John Hart and Henry “The Man” Rollins.) The script isn’t the best, but it’s good, and the pacing is great. It’s a fun movie and the crew clearly holds the source material in proper regard (which is important in my opinion with doing any adaptation.) All in all pretty solid in terms of technical craftsmanship, nothing.

The final set piece of the film worth mentioning is the fight between Terry and the Joker, who holds his new opponent in disdain to the “genuine article.” Which is a great fight scene (barring the second, the second best in the movie.)

”Don’t play psychoanalyst with me, boy!”

I like this movie, and if you’re looking for a fun Batman romp on video and all are Burtoned and Shumachered out, since The Dark Knight might be packed, give this a rent. B+.

Oh, by the way, if you aren’t planning on seeing The Dark Knight, I thoroughly recommend it.

Part of the Batman Blogothon at:

Big Mike’s Movie Blog

Sunday, July 13, 2008

“In Soviet Russia, Movies Watch You!”

“What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
- The Communist Manifesto


Yes, yes, I’m a photoshop wizard.

I’m not a Marxist, despite being involved in academia. Although I am familiar with dialectical materialism, and sympathize with the workers of the world, I have my own philosophical objections to Marxism, or rather, a lack of belief in its ability to genuinely work given the capacity of human nature to seek a better life for oneself, sometimes at the expense of others. But that is irrelevant.

Before I get too into this, this is ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek. Like I mentioned in a roundabout way my blog on narrativization, I’m of the opinion that anyone can provide any number of readings on a text, if they have the desire and the rhetorical skills. For somebody to make a serious Marxist reading of Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) is inevitable, I think the reading is kind of obvious (the machine-human metaphor, a classed robot system, the commercialism criticism, so on.) Which makes this only all-too easy.

I don’t want to exactly compose a review for Wall-E, since (as the Forgotten Filmography Fridays prove) I am of the Jay Sherman School of Film Criticism: “If you don’t have anything critical to say, don’t say anything at all.” I found it incredibly sweet and polished, like every other Pixar film I could name, and if you like any Pixar movies, you should like this one. Except Cars. I don’t care much for Cars, primarily because all the NASCAR jokes. And Larry the Cable Guy.


The one guy worse than Jeff Foxworthy.

Anyway, bad tangent. From here on in I’ll be talking about Wall-E in specific. I don’t think anyone who isn’t a diehard Pixar fan will be complaining about spoilers, and those who are will have already seen it likely. But I talk about specific plot elements (including the ending,) so I’m giving you fair warning.

One of the primary themes in Wall-E is about functionality, or as Wall-E and EVE refer to them, “directives.” Each machine has its directive, and a determined function that is based on their nature: Wall-E is supposed to crush garbage, Mo the scrubber robot is supposed to scrub, the makeup robot is supposed to apply makeup, and so on. The robots then are the Marxist proletariat, struggling to survive and put upon by the larger socioeconomic system.

The people in Wall-E are the bourgeoisie, they control the means of production, and they reap all the rewards of robot labor. They are complacent and overindulged, confined to their hoverchairs and drinking all their meals out of cups. This produces a culture that is obsessively consumeristic, running along the same paths, doing the same events, and getting the latest colored jumpsuit (Blue is the new Red) from Buy’N’Large.

It is the intention of the Autopilot to keep this system, for both sides of the equation, running indefinitely. When confronted with the possibility of an alternative, Auto is unable to see the potential of a life outside of the robot-human class system, even if there is the possibility of returning to Earth, it will not break from its previous orders to remain in a holding pattern. It sees nothing but the functionality and function of the system. Perhaps it is the “invisible hand of the market” (Adam Smith terms, not Marx’s, I know,) who keeps the system working even in the face of evidence like the viability of Marxist socialism (or perhaps despite of it.) Or the elite who wishes to keep its position in the system secured, since what use is a spaceship autopilot on Earth?

This, of course, leads to a total revolt, human (the Captain and a few “enlightened” humans) and machine (Wall-E and EVE, along with their ragtag bunch of misfit malfunctioning robots who try to exist outside of their preset functions) rise up together to change the system and work together to create a better tomorrow for both their kinds. They had nothing to lose but their chains.

This kind of functionality, in a machine metaphor no less, is also expressed in another film that was created by what would become the Pixar team, the perennial classic, The Brave Little Toaster (Jerry Rees, 1987,) where the old appliances find themselves facing the fate of every object that’s outlives its usefulness.

Also, I want to do this to most of the cars in Cars.

But, the Brave Little Toaster is clearly an allegory for the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ (to be saved for a future blog. Stay tuned.)

Is Wall-E intended to be Marxist? Unlikely. Critical of current consumer culture? (I love alliteration.) Most definitely, but I doubt they’re actually advocating all-out class warfare. Speaking of critical consumerism, make sure to buy all your Wall-E merchandise, if not now, then at your next visit to Disneyland. Your Wall-E t-shirt, your Wall-E cap, your Wall-E action figure, your Wall-E Poster, video game, flatware set, bedsheet set, and your Buy-N-Large T-shirt, &tc. But make sure it’s the real deal, and not some cheap imitator.

*(By the way, all of the items I thought I just made up are available at the Disney Store. In case you were wondering.)

Robots of the world unite!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Teaser Trailers and Narrativization

So, I feel compelled to apologize in advance for a general failure at writing lately. I haven’t seen any obscure movies lately, and I have about three half-finished articles in the works (a discussion of children’s television and gender role formation, artist Steve Ditko’s Objectivist influence on the recent Incredible Hulk, and a response to the feminist critiques of Sin City, all of which interest me but I’m just unfocused at this exact moment.) It’s all personal stuff, which isn’t what this is for, this is for the movie stuff (although odds are all my anxieties won’t end up there either.)

On that note, I want to talk about something that interests me in two different ways. I’ve become entranced with the pre-promotional material for Batman: The Dark Knight (Chris Nolan 2008).


I have to repeat my Ghostbuster’s spiel about the level of my childhood obsession, but take it to a new and higher (and perhaps pathetic) level. I’ve been watching Batman in some form or another since I was 2 (I am now pushing 23, so this has gone on a full two decades, only a fraction of Batman’s almost seventy years of existence.) I watched the campy 60’s Adam West Batman.

And my childhood included some form of syndicated (tape-recorded?) episodes of the classic cartoon:

I watched the Dini/Timm Animated series. If you didn’t watch these, watch them, and try to catch one where Mark “Hey Kid It’s Mark Hamill” Hamill provided the voice of The Joker.

I’ve read the comic books for about as long as I could read. (This is the cover to one of my favorite Batman issues ever by one of my favorite authors ever: Grant Morrison.)


I’ve seen Tim Burton’s Batmans, which are good, but could be better, and totally not the focus of this article. I’ve seen the increasingly craptastic Joel Schumaker Batmans (HINT: Batman and Robin (Schumaker 1998) is about three times more watchable if you pretend Uma Thurman is a drag queen.) And I was a big supporter of the previous Chris Nolan-penned/directed Batman Begins which was simultaneously a popcorn flick and a pensive meditation on the nature of fear.

In short, I’m obsessed.

So, as a big fan of the previous film, and of the Batman merchandising machine in general, I was of course awaiting on baited breath for the upcoming release of The Dark Knight (which in itself seems to be referencing some of the great events in the Batman comics [The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, and, of course, through the title Frank Miller’s classic revamp of the character.]) We got our teasers, starting with the viral “Why So Serious?” campaign. showed a series of clips from the film. Somebody illegally posted the first five minutes on the internet. I do not recommend you watch that. Especially since it’s so easy to accidentally hit “The Dark Knight First 5 Minutes” on your search engine of choice and find it hosted on some site or another.

Filmmakers for big budget releases more and more try their best to keep, but the media hyping the release leaks bits and pieces (and the commercials do the same) until you have a feeling you have watched a sizeable portion of the film. This is what’s interesting to me on a critical or theoretical level.

Not to seem like I’m breaking things down to way too simple a level, but: people consume media. The individual members of an audience are given pieces of information. They do what they will this information, typically they try to figure out what they are seeing and try to anticipate what will happen next. So given Fact A, we then expect Fact B to arise from it. Good storytellers will either anticipate this and surprise you (giving you Fact C, for example, instead of B,) or just give you what you expect with something else (you got your B, but D is there too, or Q, or whatever.) Narrative does not exist in those frames flashing by on its own, or even in the script, or in the performances. It is in the audience constructing a narrative out of the information provided.

This might seem to take a lot of power out of the writer, director, actors, and other talent making a movie (or any other sort of art.) In fact, the opposite is true. Even though the audience really creates the story, it is up to those people to make the information received to create the most likely narrative to be created.

My real point here is that audiences might not do what is expected with these facts. Joel Schumaker might not want me turning Batman and Robin to its logical homoerotic conclusion. Or he very well might. It’s immaterial really. I could also start imagining the kind of story I would do, given the same basic information. Any viewer actively participating with the text could come to whatever conclusions they desire. This is how we in film studies end up with Marxist or Queer readings (or whatever) of a film. Not all films were originally meant with such a reading in mind.

These sorts of clips, the trailers, promotional photos, even the first five minutes as a self-contained entity, they produce narrative in miniature. They construe a story, sometimes de or recontextualize voice-overs. We try to produce a whole story, mentally, out of this incomplete information. We are given an even more limited set of facts, and begin to try to piece together a larger narrative.

The odds of us taking this incomplete handful of puzzle pieces and producing the image itself is unlikely if not downright near impossible. There are holes, gaps, what have you. But the puzzle metaphor is weak for this even though it’s visual. The best metaphor I can come up with is how they clone the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. There were gaps in the DNA, which were filled with frog DNA. Whatever intended pattern is present in this narrative, we do not have the whole picture, and we fill in the wholes with whatever junk is around mentally. We might produce something with this information that is close to what the director had in mind, but sometimes it can. I might have the Joker leap out of the sewer like Pennywise, the clown from It. Or end the film with the climactic death scene in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, or add characters who are there in the comics but not in this movies’ story.

Chris Nolan has promised The Dark Knight to be a detective story, premiering Batman’s talents as one of the DC Universe’s premiere detectives. Every viewer is, in their own way, a detective. We take the information given and try to put this together into a cohesive pattern. We do this all the time, both in media, or in real life (just this week, grocery shopping, I saw somebody left a carton of cookies out of the cookie aisle on top of a pack of soda. In my own head I began producing a narrative [why the cookies were put there, the kind of person who would do this and just leave them there, &tc.]) The human mind’s ability to produce patterns is always at play, sometimes when parts of the pattern are missing. However, oftentimes it can be seen that those patterns might not be exactly what the author intended. We can arrange the raw material of the narrative, every element, into a pattern, sometimes something wildly out of what the director might have imagined (although my Batman and Robin example isn’t exactly a radical reading, all things said.)

Expect a full review after The Dark Knight comes out.