Friday, August 1, 2008 

Shades of grey: The Dark Knight

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The following review assumes knowledge of particular plot details. Spoiler warning in effect.

Reality check: the job of a movie critic is to watch movies and give their thoughts; outside of those necessities, it is a medium as open to varying formats and interpretations as any other literary form. No one person is the same and anything less than full honesty is a futile effort (yes, it’s a depressing world outside), and no matter how highly favored something is by a group, there will always be someone who feels less than enthusiastic, or vice versa. With that in mind, you’ll understand my near depression at the fact that a group of fans of Christopher Nolan’s new film The Dark Knight – most likely a small overall percentage, so help us God – have taken to an almost methodical verbal beating of anyone who writes something less than enamored about the picture. Forget the man hours being wasted on this silly task and focus on the content of the messages, some of which dispute pleasantly or maybe even agree, but the overwhelming majority of which range from angry and bitter to outrightly hostile, their own array of insults, condescending queries and threats of violence as brutal and intentionally hurtful as what one might expect to hear shouted outside an abortion clinic by angry protesters. I failed to notice the point at which Keith Uhlich, in his review of the film, either (a) threatened his readers and their loved ones with unwanted sexual behavior or (b) spoke of punting babies, because without the presence of one of those, there's hardly anything to be so angry about.

This sort of thing had bothered me long before I became personally acquainted with some of those with their own particular experiences (long before I met Keith, I pitied him the moment I saw his ½ star United 93 rating on the Slant main page), and it’s only more aggravating now having had some slung my own way as well. Were more of it constructive (it happens, on occasion, and I thank those who do, I as much of a self-critic as any, constantly attempting to improve and learn), my tone would be different and this post possibly non-existent. As it is, it’s pathetic and a waste and I pity the depraved, lonely lifestyles most likely led by those who partake in it. (As for the armies at IMDb voting 10’s and 1’s back and forth between The Godfather, The Dark Knight, and The Shawshank Redemption…don’t get me started, seriously.)

If the paragraphs above bored you, know that they were very much necessary on my end, a mental cleanse after the insipidness of this cinematic clusterfuck. Nevertheless, for all the bile and hate on display, I’ve found it a surprisingly rewarding experience on my end: one that broke open new ideas and feelings inside me as regards consumption of art, which is the perpetual goal of anyone truly enamored with the medium. Seeing The Dark Knight opening day (and two more times since), I’ve been roused and moved if let down in bits and places, mostly enthusiastic but still able to share some of the central concerns held by the film’s detractors (even though it singled my loss of IMAX virginity, even the added technical immensity of my first viewing failed to totally cover up its patchy dramatic work in the third act). Already a hound for theatrical experiences, I revisited the film to find my own feelings on it and to better articulate them once I did, each time enjoying it immensely even while coming closer to sharing some of such controversial negative views (the Joker’s killing of Gambol sucks, plain and simple), even if only by virtue of understanding them a little better. My feelings were examined, came out deeper and fuller, and I feel more complete for it.

All that notwithstanding, it must be said that nothing brought me back for repeat business more than the opening and closing scenes (though a handful of moments in between smack equally of brilliance, like flashes of astounding light shooting out from the canvas). Were films judged solely by the emotive impact of their first and final images – here, the former a wall of blue flame from which the Batman symbol emerges, silent and menacing (complimented by the clashing, tension-mounting strings of Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard’s borderline psychosis-inducing soundtrack: see right), the latter a variation on the “into the sunset” finale that, in this critic’s mind, does nothing less than instantly elevate its work into the annals of modern mythology – The Dark Knight would be a masterpiece of awesome magnitude, their concentrated, bookend impact alone surpassing that of most others from its loosely-defined genre in their entirety. (One hundred and three.) No closing has chilled me to the bone this much since Miami Vice (as far as openings go, Aqua Teen remains the recent champion), and the potency of these images – down to their exact, brief presentations, all the more powerful for not being lingered on – speaks to Nolan’s growing skill as a visual thinker. It’s an astounding leap forward from the bottled-up stagnancy of Batman Begins, which skates by on pulpy, overt philosophies and dramatic thrust with a minimum of images to truly call its own. The visions of a hallucinogen and a poetic leap through a waterfall come to mind, though even these diamonds don’t compare to the freaky insanity glimpsed in spurts and stretches throughout The Dark Knight.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAt the height of a battle with Batman, the criminal mastermind known only as The Joker describes their ongoing power struggle as being like an unstoppable force against an immovable object. Against the nighttime sky and set to the steadily excellent soundtrack, Nolan rotates the camera (detached, imperfectly) as he says this, his form momentarily aligned with the widescreen canvas like an unexpected coffin of doom, the frame glimpsing the bottomless horror of his insanity/brilliance before completing its 180. Altogether, some half dozen moments like this exist in the film, representative of entertainment, of cinema, at it’s most effective, calculated and fine-tuned to perfection (I think that even the film’s biggest detractors will agree that most of it looks very carefully thought-out, if perhaps misguidedly so).

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketMy impression is that Nolan the director has come into his own in a new way, though Nolan the writer may have been put on the back burner as a result of these new focal areas. Indeed, the creative process, as glimpsed by the final product, feels divided unto itself (perhaps a shift or maturation of vision post Heath Ledger’s tragic passing?), though kudos to Nolan for smoothing over as many seams as he managed to. Structurally, the film is sound to these eyes, but script-wise, it runs at the mouth almost as much as anything by George Lucas. Much as the word “fear” lost all meaning in Begins (often recited in what sounded like parenthetic thoughts, amusingly suggesting a script never properly edited after having notes scrawled all over it), so too does The Dark Knight feature the following repeat offenders: “chance”, “fair”, “rules”, and some stupid story about a jewel thief meant to symbolize insanity in the world. The aforementioned Joker scene expresses more about the clashing justice systems and moral codes being waged in Gotham than the rest of these overwritten declarations combined (think of those embarrassing essays one must write in Philosophy 101), though it’s not for a lack of effort on the part of the cast. Bale is staunch and wounded as always but has too little to do, Maggie G. effortlessly sexy and emotionally layered, and so on and so forth, and though I found Aaron Eckhart too held-together as the emotionally and physically ravaged Harvey Dent, I blame that exclusively on his character’s altogether rushed moral crisis. The scene after The Joker sways him to the dark side may feature among my favorite explosions in film, but Jesus Harold Christ on rubber crutches we get it that you like your chaos! (Bless you, Heath, for somehow making it watchable in your delicious wig and nurse’s outfit.) Similarly is the pseudo love triangle between Bruce, Rachel and Harvey more ineffictively told than shown, rendering critical advances in story emotionally neutered in their effects.

Though a deft utilization of such imagery as has been discussed and the persistent dramatic swell of the collaborative score, The Dark Knight establishes Nolan in my mind as a master of mood, the ultimate problem here being that mood isn’t enough, though it has the power to sustain above and beyond the immediate action. Here, it becomes something of a crutch during stretches of exposition – still surging forward like a freight train but prone to exposing the weakened infrastructure beneath it (that’s film for you – a brilliant canvas of mingling of layers and input, at once the work of one and many). Nearly great, its efforts at insight into post-9/11 society is less interesting than its operatic gestures of emotion, seemingly manifest directly of its creators aesthetic adolescence (not at all a criticism), full of ambition and determination, sometimes out of place, sometimes striking chords of hidden beauty you’ll never forget.

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Monday, July 14, 2008 

Updates and Excuses

So here's the deal. Despite my original plans of complete abandonment, the original Projection Booth site will remain operational as a host of reviews, the new Projection Booth as a more free-form blog. Crazy as it may seem, this does make a difference to me. I think reviews tend to read better when compartmentalized, and having them side by side with more blatantly personal thoughts and unformatted writing is downright unbearable to these eyes (don't worry, I'm well aware of my neurosis). As far as the look and feel of the site(s) go, you can consider them to be in a semi-permanent state of construction for the now, seeing as my time for them is extremely limited and what little I have, I'd rather use to focus on content than form.

That being said, I hope to have some new reviews up relatively soon, including one at Slant for Eddie Murphy's (surprisingly okay?!?) Meet Dave. In the meantime, a late happy birthday to two of my best comrades, Keith of the House, and my long-time BFF Tara. Love you both.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008 

I've Got It!!!

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What exactly I have, though, you'll have to wait to see. Coming soon. I promise.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008 

2007 ½: My Mid-Year Top Five

You know the drill: these are the movies that worked their way into my brain the most over the past 12 6 months - emotionally, aesthetically, theoretically, and entertainingly, all rolled into one. We'll see how they stack up come December, when dozens more (hopefully) illustrious titles have been dumped on us in the name of Oscar splendor. I often find these early months somewhat more enticing because there's a greater sense of risk in the air, of films and creators worried less about pleasing highbrows and voters than about committing their own visions to the screen without superficial checklists in hand. These five cover a wide range of genres, styles, moods and levels of popularity, and I can only hope that the rest of this year is as brilliantly eclectic as it has so far established itself.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket1. Wall•E - I hesitate slightly in choosing this film for the top spot, coming off of but a single viewing and already manipulated (an unavoidable problem in my position) by the altogether tremendous response the film has garnered (as we speak, it rises from #9 to #6 on the IMDb Top 250, proving that even Daniel Plainview's draaaaiiiiiiinage can't compete with the peepers of an anthropomorphic robot). That hesitation, though, is but my brutally perfectionist mind at work, the ramblings of which I will ignore and simply go with the fact that no film so far this year has invoked as pure or immediate a response. Despite a few narrative hiccups that I hope to get into after a second viewing (and third, and fourth, and fifth), the non-human portions of the film are nothing short of masterful, a divine union between the likes of Kubrick's 2001 and Chaplin's City Lights, at once wistful and profound, humble and existential. Great films are rarely perfect films, and I sense that we're standing in the presence of an as-of-yet unrecognized giant. It's popular, for sure, but that's largely hype speaking. What when it truly settles in? Only time will tell, and I'll be there to help nudge it into the limelight of earned greatness that I'm sure it will accrue in time.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket2. Speed Racer - Woe are the Wachowskis, whose bold pop experiment and raw cinematic invention has suffered the ire of many a Rex Reed curmudgeon (and then some) for little more than - to these eyes - going so far out on a limb in rendering a film this unique, rich, and personal. My suspicion is that retrospectively-formulated expectations are the only thing preventing works such as this and Michael Mann's Miami Vice from getting the credit they truly deserve, obscuring their use of narrative and re-calibrated designations of space and time with a hollow, shallow set of expectations that shuns cinematic craft in the name of familiarity and nostalgia. With Speed Racer, Larry and Andy have given us a world even more complete and thought-out as anything in their Matrix trilogy, and perhaps the most visually and artistically commanding "kids" film since George Miller broke the mold with Babe: Pig in the City. Hijacking digital in the name of childhood euphoria, it's an ode to imagination, and one hell of a mental high. Starbucks, you got served.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket3. Married Life - I'd hoped to write something about Ira Sachs' delightful follow-up to his exquisite Forty Shades of Blue sooner, but the inability to immediately revisit such a complex and singular film restrained me from doing so. Until the DVD is available for a second go at this morbid, funny, provocative and strangely optimistic tale of spousal priorities and moral codes between the genders, at least know that it as nearly as reflexive and metamorphic as a David Lynch film, utilizing John Bingham novel "Five Roundabouts to Heaven" with an innate knowledge of cinema's empathetic qualities, taking us along with his characters' conflicted feelings of love, longing and greed with a profound humanism. For more complete and distinct thoughts, Keith Uhlich has written was it probably the penultimate review of the film here; it's so good that even Roger Ebert couldn't help but mention it.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket4. Iron Man - If a director's skill can be assessed by his ability to place the emphasis of their film on the qualities they know work best, then Jon Favreau can be praised for more or less stepping out of the way of his actors, who elevate this otherwise formulaic and obviously scripted character study/morality tale into something infinitely more emotive and engaging than it had any chance of being. Downey, Jr. - whose last stroke of brilliance, in Zodiac, went largely unnoticed (probably because everyone thought he was but playing himself) - practically drives the film, while Jeff Bridges holds his own as an evil character with a face and a heart, twisted and black though it may be (honestly, he'd have been my first choice to star in the title role of Oliver Stone's W., but I also sense we have yet to see his career-defining performance). Props to Gwyneth Paltrow, too, who takes the kind of role typically reserved for washed-up Oscar winners and transforms it into something of blazing feminine empowerment, perhaps no more so than in an altogether icky scene that suggests Cronenberg by way of "America's Funniest Home Videos".

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket5. The Unforeseen - Already, 2008 has hosted a slew of very good to almost great documentaries, and none has stuck with me more than this rapturous look at public empowerment in the face of environmental destruction a la corporate greed, an important lesson to remember given our own environmentally conscious yet politically disenfranchised times. Though it doesn't hurt to have Terrence Malick and Robert Redford on board among your executive producers, director Laura Dunn is a talent I'll be keeping a close eye on.

And some honorable mentions, many of which I will need to see again before putting together anything in the way of a respectable year-end list: Diary of the Dead, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, My Blueberry Nights, Nana, Be Kind Rewind

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Monday, June 30, 2008 

Breaking the Ice

Though I've never asked outright, I suspect that anyone who meets me will know, after about 10 minutes, that I'm a very indecisive person. Hell, thy name is perfectionism, and such is a hobgoblin I hope to free myself of - or at least control to an extent - with the re-establishment of my online blogging here. Same name, same basic format, now with a more flexible URL and a clean slate to begin anew. The Projection Booth 1.0 and the reviews on it will remain untouched, but the direction I'd like to go in almost demands my being able to start fresh. It already feels like a breath of fresh air.

Among the many damned drawbacks to wanting everything done just right is the fact that, more often than not, nothing ends up being accomplished at all. Hence, you will probably notice that the site has a very rough look to it at this point, and many changes will indeed be taking place over the coming days and weeks. Much as I may grapple with it, the white text on black background is truer to my heart, though I hope to tweak things for both readability and a bit of flair. On the right, you'll notice some defunct links, long out-of-date features and even a months-old "Now in Theaters" roster. I hope you'll forgive me as I get this beast up and running amidst doing the same thing for my life proper, as I'm not going through times both nerve-wracking, exciting, and exhausting, as I look at cementing the next step in a long-term relationship as well as securing a job that may very well see me debt-free within the half-decade (you know you've "grown up" when you find yourself thinking in such terms).

I'll make no hard promises or declarations here, lest I go against the wisdom of Al Swearengen and provoke God's laughter. What I can assure you all of, though, is frequency of discussion, though my hope is that I won't be holding up both sides of the conversation. Whether it's the latest stinkbomb to hit DVD (see below) or the latest life lesson on my mind, I see this outlet less as one for conclusive "reviews" (which, in a way, I've come to disdain) than as one for communal thoughts. I'm indebted to my dedicated (too strong a word?) readers for their contributions to my posts in the past, and hope to take things in such a direction so that such will be the norm rather than the exception.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketNot half an hour ago, I read Keith Uhlich's latest Confessions piece at The House Next Door. His work there - along with, specifically, Jim Emerson's output at Scanners - is an inspiration to me in how it seamlessly fuses life experiences, cinema, and online activities into a singular whole that stands as more than the sum of its parts. Such is part of my own aspirations towards self-actualization, but even aside from these matters, this latest article struck a particularly deep blow (it may be my single favorite work of his to date). I'd love to discuss similar inflictions from my own youth (the relics of which I would cling to forever if able), but I'll let his altogether naked 6½ paragraphs speak for themselves. Already, they're rattling down near the bottom of my soul.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIn closing (sleep awaits these eyes), let me say that if the second half of Vantage Point is anything even remotely comparable to the first, then I may have already come upon the years worst film -- I may just give up on it now and award it the title in advance. Forty-five minutes of head slapping, eye rolling, impromptu laughter and intense cravings for Percocet... movies like this only serve to remind me that life is too short for them in the first place. Good films, like Wall-E (a movie I very much want to describe with the M word, though for now I'll catch myself and simply call it great; check out the IMDb Top 250, where the movie is already ranked at number 9), fulfill the soul and enrich life, waxing our experiences and perspectives, sharpening our tools for understanding ourselves and our fellow men (and machines). I feel more complete after having seen them, wiser and truer and happier. Wall-E may not be the best film so far this year, but I suspect its relatively universal appeal will make it a likely contender for end-of-year recognition (already, some are tossing around Best Picture hopes/predictions). More on this adorable little fella soon, and count me in as a loyal supporter until the end.

Vantage Point, waaaaaay on the other end of the scale, is pure, music-deprived noise -- condescending faux-serious, faux-complex apolitical bullshit made for morons who need everything spelled out for them with lots of fancy distractions to keep them interested (yeah, I said it). The first half could have easily been covered in 10-15 minutes sans wonky stylistic filler, so I'll assume, for now, that the whole film could have been but a 20 minute short, or a half hour special tops. Damn the makers, then, for wasting countless hours of human life. Damn them for their shrill slow-motion techniques and fucking cantankerous sound design. Damn them for giving non-linear storytelling a bad name. Damn them for making movies a hollow and emotion-deprived sensory bombast. Damn - no, scratch that, fuck 'em. Because they just fucked my head like an escaped convict might a lost teenager, and life's too short for this shit.

On that note, welcome to my new abode. Enjoy your freedom of speech and, above all, let the freak flags fly. Normality will not be tolerated.

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