Wednesday, January 1, 2014


I dream of a muse
     Hair raven or red
          Eyes vivid, alight
               With flame blue or brown

I fear something else
     Enveloping darkness
          Dreams never alive


                     Fallen where I fall
                          Faded where I fade
                                My muse never more
                                        Than flashes of mind

                                   Drive me you spirits
                              Whether dark or light
                         To finish my dream
                    To wake with my muse.

               And never again
          Inspire in me
     The flames to compose
Such awful poetry.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Death of Strawberry Milkshakes

The other night, my second job - the job I actually like - ruined one of my favorite desserts.

Farewell, old friend.

During the day, I do low-level accounting work for the State of Texas.  It's pretty mind-numbing.  But by night, I fight crime as a mysterious masked hero known as the Dark Raven moonlight as an MLT (Medical Lab Technician), testing people's blood.  I love it.  Unlike my day job, it's all sciencey and engaging.

The only time it's not an awesome job is when I get a panic result.  Not that I panic.  Yes, I suddenly realize that now, a person's life is actually in my hands, and I have to rerun the test to make sure it really is panic-worthy and not a machine going crazy, and then I have to call the doctor, and all the time I feel just slightly guilty because there's a very, very small chance the patient is already dead, and they might have still been alive if I had come into work at 7:30 instead of 9:30, although that's never happened, but it could, and then I worry about what happens if the doctor doesn't answer and I have to leave a message, what if I should have looked up another number and gotten in touch that way to save someone's life, and then I call the doctor and he angrily asks me why I'm reporting a life-threatening result at this time of night.

But I don't panic.  I naturally have the calm facade of an action hero.

Me in a crisis.

The other night, I got a panic result from an unforgettable specimen.  It was a sight that would haunt me for the remainder of my days.

Serum is blood with the fibronigens - the white and red cells and the clotting factors - separated.  The serum, on top, is generally a translucent yellowish liquid without the red cells.

On occasion, it's reddish, meaning it's hemolized - the red blood cells ruptured.  And if the patient didn't fast before having the blood drawn, it's lipemic - foggy, opaque, occasionally milky.  But the vast majority looks like that: clean and healthy.

The other night, one of my specimens looked like this:

Blood isn't supposed to look like that.  That isn't supposed to course through human veins.

That blood haunted me all night.  All I could think, the entire evening, was Somewhere, somebody out there has a strawberry milkshake for blood.
Their regular blood?  Yeah, it looked like that, too.

I love strawberry milkshakes.  Make it from actual strawberries, and I'll take it over cake and most pies.  It is simply the best.  But now, I can never have it again.

Because I know somewhere out in the darkness, a man walks with strawberry milkshake flowing through his arteries, coursing his veins, refreshed by his heart.  These images, these feelings have the visceral impact on my normally composed psyche (see photo above) of that spider-head from The Thing.  Except this actually exists.  This man actually walks amongst us.  This monstrous, grotesque parody of humanity walks among us.  I could pass him on the street every day.  I could work with him at the state.  He might live in my very apartment complex, in my very building.  He might be at my door, right now...

I didn't look at the name on the serum.  I daren't.  After all, I already know who it is.  It's the Dark Raven's arch-nemesis, the Fanged Coyote, who spreads chaos and fear through the streets of Austin, trying to destroy me psychically, piece by piece It can be none other than the ghost of Daniel Plainview.

If he can't drink your milkshake, he'll make damn sure you don't enjoy it yourself.

And that is the story of how my night job unrepentantly murdered the Strawberry Milkshake.

But I swear, my old friend, you shall be avenged...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Batman Soundtrack Reviews Part 3

Part three in a series of pieces examining the various soundtracks that have accompanied the Batman films from 1989-2008.

Batman Forever
Batman and Robin

by Elliot Goldenthal

After the mixed feelings and parental outrages for Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted a lighter, sillier sequel. Tim Burton, tiring of the concept anyway, stepped into the role of producer, and Joel Schumacher was hired as director of the third Batman film, bringing with him screenwriters Lee and Janet Batchler and Akiva Goldsman and a whole new cast and crew. Val Kilmer replaced Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight; Tommy Lee Jones replaced Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, now Two-Face; Stephen Goldblatt was cinematographer; and avant-garde composer Elliot Goldenthal would score the film. Joining were Jim Carrey as The Riddler, Nicole Kidman as Batman's love interest, and Chris O'Donnell as Robin.

While Schumacher's over-the-top approach bordering on campy offended some comic book fans, general audiences were vastly entertained. Batman Forever was still a dark film, but it was much lighter and pushed the series much further into fantasy. The writing was much less subtle in its characterizations, with characters pretty much announcing out loud their thoughts, flaws, relationships and complexities (in true comic-book fashion), but these were all well-drawn in their own way. Kilmer was an excellent Batman, Jones and Carrey wildly over-the-top, Kidman ravishing, and O'Donnell a likable Robin. Schumacher also had a strong approach to action scenes; the fights were solid, and the action in general was ambitious, clever, and well shot. None of the action was generic or clumsy. While it wasn't as deep or atmospheric as its predecessors, Batman Forever was more exciting and more fun in its own silly way, and much less uneven.

Batman and Robin, however, was a catastrophe. After the huge box office success of Forever, Warner Bros. wanted to push the commercialism much further -- more villains, more gadgets, more gimmicks, while Schumacher went much, much deeper into his own rabbit hole. The results was an overlong, overstuffed, barely coherent mess that shovelled its camp and effects down the audience's throats. George Clooney's performance as Batman was hollow and bored; you can see his contempt for the silliness throughout, and his approach makes an already problematic film much, much worse. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurmond's Poison Ivy were colorful villains, but didn't fit in each other's stories well, and diluted each other; the third villain, Bane, was not only downright offensive to comic book fans (the original character was a brilliant, near-unstoppable assassin; the film reduced him to a brainless muscle-man), but was outright unnecessary. Some imaginative effects and action scenes and good performances from Chris O'Donnell and Michael Gough were wasted in a loud, disjointed, empty film that single-handed killed a powerhouse franchise. The behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD is remarkably revealing, culminating in Schumacher outright apologizing for disappointing everyone.

Both films were scored by Elliot Goldenthal, a composer known for his strange and original approaches to film scores. While his music wasn't as compelling as Elfman's, it strongly supported both films, and, in the case of Batman and Robin, it is ironically one of the better musical representations of the character.

With Forever, Goldenthal decided for whatever reason to abandon Elfman's brilliant main theme. His own replacement isn't nearly as compelling, but it holds up very well on its own. Like Elfman's, it starts quietely, building up to a powerful climax. The sheer massive force of the trumpets, strings, choir, and electronic tones is awesome, and it's a rousing opening, even if it lacks the complexity and emotion of Elfman's version. As the theme winds down for the opening scene, his music takes an odd interlude into metal clangs and scrapes as Batman suits up. While Goldenthal's weirdness gets overbearing later in the score, in this brief moment, it works nicely. After a few moments, the music builds up to an even more bombastic crescendo, giving the soundtrack (and the film) an epic opening.

The rest of the score is consistently effective in the film, but wildly uneven on album. His romantic theme for Kidman's eccentric psychologist Chase Meridian is an appropriately wandering jazz piece; nicely atmospheric, very noirish. It's a highly original approach to the romantic that works beautifully, and gives a much-needed quiet contrast to the rather loud majority of the tracks.

Robin doesn't really get his own theme, but is usually represented by the heroic main themes. The sequence at the carnival, however, explaining his tragic origin, gets its own track. It's a big, noisy track, sometimes exciting but just as often incoherent.

Goldenthal approaches the villains' henchmen similarly to Elfman, with wacky, high-energy percussion. It's not quite as effective, but it works. The main villain themes, however, are less effective. Two-Face's brassy, ballsy theme tends more toward bombast than anything particularly melodic, but it's nothing compared to the Riddler. "Nygma Variations" is a truly warped work of insanity. There's just no describing the craziness of this chaotic mix of synthetic and orchestral noise. It's like being water boarded with sound rather than water. It's like Goldenthal was trying to somehow match Jim Carrey's onscreen energy and nuttiness, and while he sort of succeeds, it results in a piece so unlistenable it's almost a challenge to sit through the whole thing. Original? Yes. Enjoyable? No. Music? Probably not.

Still, when Goldenthal goes for action, he generally succeeds when he doesn't let it descend into total chaos, and Two-Face's theme ties in nicely with these moments. "Fledermausmerschmusik", "Victory", "Holy Rusted Metal", and "Batterdammerung" are exhilarating pieces. "Batterdammerung" is especially noteworthy, a spectacularly crescendo of falling strings to accompany Batman's climactic jump off a cliff to desperately save both Chase and Robin from the Riddler's final death-trap.

Oddly, the soundtrack is missing the final cues, including that accompanying Batman's defeat of the villains. The last track in the film, a rousing restatement of the Batman theme, would be a much more satisfying endcap than Batterdammerung, thrilling as that may be.

Overall, the soundtrack on CD is a mix of lovely noirish jazz, rousing and heroic action, and loud noise for the sake of noise. The balance, unfortunately, is too much to the latter, and while the music supports the film just fine, it's a frustrating CD.


Batman and Robin is widely regarded as one of the worst comic-book adaptations in history, and while it's certainly not the worst (or even the worst big-budget one -- that's easily Superman III), it's not a particularly proud addition. But surprisingly enough, it actually has one of the strongest scores of any Batman film, second only to Elfman's Batman.

Right from "Main Titles", the improvement over Forever is apparent. Forever's titles were among its highlights, but even here, Goldenthal reworks it to be more melodic. Further, he adds a choir, giving it an even greater power. Even the metal clangs at the conclusion sound more organized and meaningful. They may be essentially the same notes, but this version is superior. It's an impressive start.

Where the real improvements show are in the villain's themes. Poison Ivy is represented by jazzy saxaphone, backed by "jungle" underscore. It's not the greatest of villain scores, but it's very easy to listen to, and it mixes into other themes very well. The scenes of Ivy and Mr. Freeze plotting are given a sort of waltz, and Ivy's theme works very nicely in this context.

But the highlight of the score is Mr. Freeze's theme. Thanks to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Mr. Freeze was transformed from a silly silver-age villain in the comics to a complex and genuinely tragic character in Batman: The Animated Series. Batman and Robin dilutes his story and ramps up the goofiness TAS went so far out of its way to underplay, but it keeps the same moving background, and it results in a truly lovely theme from Goldenthal. It's a haunting, heartbreaking cue, beautifully choral, devastatingly tragic without being overbearing.

In the more action-oriented tracks, Freeze and his henchmen get plenty of percussion, but Goldenthal blends it superbly into his more heroic themes. "Final Confrontation" is a spectacular piece. It re-uses his "Battadammerung" from Forever, but again, it does it even more dramatically.

In the end, unlike the film, Goldenthal's Batman and Robin is a real success. It still has the eclectic originality Goldenthal is known for, but in one of his most coherent and compelling presentations. The irritating bombast is kept to a minimum, the unlistenable craziness thrown away. Goldenthal's fans may find it slightly too mainstream, but it's a strong, solid score, and well worth buying.

Unfortunately, it's not a commercially available soundtrack. Warner Bros. never released any of Goldenthal's score on CD, only releasing a suite from Forever onto the "Official Soundtrack" of various hard rock songs. Not surprisingly, though, 2-CD bootlegs are out there. This probably does the score a disservice, since the too-complete 2-CD sets include a lot of more repetitious background music. At about 50 minutes, this would be an awesome soundtrack. Savvy music fans can create their own strong version from the overlong bootlegs. It remains disappointing, however, that Warner Bros. never gave an official release to this excellent score, which deserves it far more than certain later scores...

Speaking of which -- next up, Hanz Zimmer and James Newton Howard! Underachieving Zimmer and Howard, unfortunately, but still, Zimmer and Howard!



In film: * * *
On CD: * *

In film: * * * 1/2
On CD: * * *

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Batman Soundtrack Reviews Part 2 - Batman Returns

Part two in a series of pieces examining the various soundtracks that have accompanied the live-action Batman films from 1989-2008.

by Danny Elfman

After the phenomenal success of Batman, Tim Burton spun one of his most personal and creative yarns in Edward Scissorhands before returning to the superhero. His follow-up, Batman Returns, was far darker than its predecessor, a grim tragedy enlivened by its offbeat humor with only occasional flashes of heroism. Its heart rests in the romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, beautifully capturing two lonely souls finding each other before tearing them apart through their secret lives as Batman and Catwoman. It's a rich yarn, enhanced by wonderful performances by Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfieffer. Its plot rests largely with the film’s other primary villain, the Penguin, a hideously deformed man abandoned by his parents and raised by Penguins in the sewers of Gotham. It’s an ugly (and funny) portrait of loneliness itself. These powerful personal stories are set amidst a backdrop of fantastic atmosphere and stunning visual design that make it a unique and fascinating production.
But for all the film’s success in characterization and thematic depth, it fails in many ways when it comes to the superheroic elements. In Batman, the sheer energy of the film overcame the somewhat clumsy staging of fights and chases, but the more restrained Returns can’t pull that off, and the action sequences are rather lame. It’s also an awfully grisly, gloomy, sensuous, and very adult tale for a PG-13 flick about a guy dressing up like a bat to beat up criminals. Audiences at the time had understandably mixed reactions, with parents decrying its MPAA rating as a joke. Comic-book fans praise its dark complexity to the high heavens (deservedly), while others are left cold by its poor action, not to mention the sheer weirdness of the film (understandably). It’s a strange and uneven film with moments of cinematic brilliance.

Danny Elfman’s score is equally uneven. In its best moments, it’s a remarkable companion piece to Batman; in others, it’s almost unbearably whacked-out.

The opening track starts with the lonely trumpet beginning the Batman theme before turning to Elfman's gloomy Penguin theme. Like before, the instrumentation is very creative, with a brief but spectacular pipe organ solo and haunting vocals reminiscent of the (much brighter) chorals in Edward Scissorhands. In fact, the entire opening feels in many ways like the dark side of that score. It's a terrific piece, alternately brooding and fantastic before finally starting up the still-rousing Batman theme a few minutes in.

There's something missing in the performance, though. For the original, Shirley Walker directed the London Symphony Orchestra; here, Elfman conducted an LA-based orchestra. The original performances of the theme were deep and powerful, full of fire and passion. The London Symph poured their hearts and souls into their performances, and Walker directed them magnificently, and the passion comes through. In Returns, though, it sounds professional but somehow empty; there's none of the sonic depth or fiery performance of the old recording. Still, it's good to hear the old themes.

After the opening, the score descends into mostly murky gloom, punctuated by occasional comic beats. It's weird and unsettling, and while it's appropriate for the penguin, the lack of drive and energy is tiring. It's also not terribly emotional outside of the first and last passages of the score; just sort of interesting. The dismal atmosphere and comic outbursts don't mesh -- which, to be fair, is often true of the film, too, which uneasily brews black comedy, tragic romance, and clumsy fight scenes; the setting is almost always steeped in shadow and German expressionisms, but then throws in a giant motorized rubber ducky for the Penguin to ride around in. It's really strange, and the score reflects this accurately to its own detriment. When the score finally gets around to Catwoman's theme, it's refreshing just to hear something different.

Catwoman's theme uses high-pitched violin screeches to suggest the sounds that cats make, underlaied with gloomy undertones. It nails the concept, and really does sound like a musical recreation of a woman expressing pure feline instincts. It also sounds extraordinarily like a cat's meow.

Now let me be clear about something: a cat's meow is not a pleasant sound. It's a high-pitched squeal with only a single meaning. When dogs bark, it can be scary, but it can just as often be a joyful exclamation. Barks can show a full range of emotion, and it's elating hearing a happy bark. A meow, on the other hand, always means precisely one thing: "You're not paying enough attention to My Lordship." It's as grating as nails on a chalkboard and even more malevolent. The cat wants nothing more than to make everything, including you, smell like him, and you can hear it in his voice. So when I say that Elfman captures this concept perfectly, I mean to say that it's a brilliant achievement that works its purpose nicely in both the film and on the CD, but more than about two minutes of it is almost unbearable.

There's something like twenty minutes of it on the soundtrack. The portions of the score devoted to her get downright painful despite the remarkable creativity. Where it works beautifully is in the climax of the film, where it's mixed with other tones and used sparingly to heartbreaking effect. If only it hadn't been so difficult to get to that wonderful finale.

Every now and then, there's an action cue, but somehow these are never as exciting as they should be. The brass has none of the power it should, and often sounds rather muted. In the otherwise dismal mid-sections of the score, these should be a highlight, but they fall oddly flat.

Inexplicably, the score is missing a theme (or really even an acknowledgement) of the romance. Elfman is capable of heartrending compositions, but didn't even attempt to give the love story its own life.

Whatever the scores many problems, though, the final tracks are well worthwhile. "The Children's Hour" starts with a gorgeous music-box rendition of the Penguin score before finally revving up some real action cues. They're not on the level of Batman's "Charge of the Batmobile" or similar pieces, but they have the excitement the previous such bits lacked. The following two-part "Final Confrontation" is a wild ride of very Elfmanish wackiness -- thrillingly eerie, exciting, and fascinating. "The Finale Part I" at last delivers the full force of tragedy that the Penguin's music has been hinting at throughout, and "The Finale Part II" is a devastating conclusion to Catwoman's tale. Near the end, it transitions to a quiet, haunting statement of Batman's theme before returning to the tragedy.

And then, as the film's final, surprising image comes up, it at last crescendoes into the exhilerating Batman theme in "End Credits." The rest of the track is a suite of the other two primary themes, beautiful and fascinating.

Afterwards, there is the pop song "Face to Face", and interesting oddity Elfman co-wrote for the ballroom scene. It's interesting (and works wonderfully in the context of the film), but doesn't really match the rest of the score. Perhaps if Elfman had used part of the song for a love theme, it would have felt less awkward on the album. Still, it's here for completion's sake.

So, for all its faults, the score does deliver a strong if inferior sequel score in its first 5 and last 20 minutes and has a very interesting albeit off-putting theme for Catwoman in the mid-section. It's a slog getting from the opening to closing, and unlike the previous album, which is a must-buy, this one is really only for Elfman fans and genre completists. Definitely an interesting score, whatever the case.
RATING: * * 1/2

Batman Soundtracks Reviews -- Part One

Part one of a series of pieces examining the various soundtracks that have accompanied the live-action Batman films from 1989-2008.

by Danny Elfman

The release of Tim Burton’s flawed but thrilling Batman in 1989 lit a firestorm of comic-book adaptations that Richard Donner’s spectacular Superman somehow failed to do in 1978. Burton’s dark, stylish approach and the rich contributions of a remarkable cast and crew made for a terrific show, despite some weaknesses in characterization and Burton’s sometimes-clunky action scenes. It became the highest-grossing film of its year, beating such strong contenders as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2. Its success fueled a slew of comic-book adaptations such as Dick Tracy, The Crow and The Mask.
Among the most important contributions to the film was Danny Elfman’s sensational score, a complex and magnificent volley of triumphant brass, wild percussion, a crazed approach for the villain, and a remarkably thoughtful quieter side.

Elman’s theme for the titular hero heard in “Main Title” starts with a lonely, rising trumpet, slowly joined by the orchestra before a stunning outburst of orchestra and choir ignites an exhilarating theme. Much like John Williams’ Superman theme, the melody defines the character so perfectly that it’s hard to think of one without the other. Batman/Bruce Wayne is a complex character, a quiet, brooding, and violent man tortured by tragedy and his own darkness, but always driven to great deeds and heroism. His theme in the score is a rousing trumpet melody that rises in minor and falls in major to capture his duality; he is both heroic and frightening, and this element is perfectly represented. It’s a magnificent overture, and the theme blazes through the various action tracks – most powerfully in “Charge of the Batmobile” – but also moves more elegantly with strings when necessary. It’s a knockout theme.

Elman’s other themes aren’t as unforgettable, but they’re consistently solid. The Joker’s theme is appropriately bizarre, an over-the-top carnival sound that nails the character’s energy, psychotic bursts of violence, and whacked-out sense of humor in an appropriately offbeat way. His own theme climaxes in “Waltz to the Death,” adding a perfectly crazed contrast to the driving action cues surrounding it (and the montage it accompanies in the film of the Joker forcing Vicki Vale to dance with him while Batman fights his henchmen). The henchmen are represented by odd, fast-paced percussions that are lots of fun to listen to.

The quieter side of the score is surprisingly thoughtful. The Joker gets a lyrical bit of weirdness for his more contemplative moments, while a fleeting love theme works to emphasize the short nature of the romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale.
The instrumentation throughout is remarkably creative, layering trumpets in contrast to each other, adding power to the action with a pipe organ, and using a piano for emotions both tender and intense.

The score is perfectly structured; except for the blast of the main theme in the first track, the various themes are built slowly but surely. The first two-thirds is more brooding with only occasional bursts of action before the stunning last third, culminating in the rousing “Finale,” one of the finest pieces of cinematic musical heroism ever created.

Elfman’s Batman score is a truly remarkable work, one of the true classics of film soundtracks, a must for any soundtrack collector or lover of rousing orchestral themes, and a worthwhile effort for anyone interested in this sort of music.

Rating: * * * *

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: Forgotten Silver (1995)

One of the great forgotton pioneers of early film was New Zealander Colin McKenzie. He was also one of the most unfortunate.

  • In 1908, he created not only the first feature-length film, but the first movie with sound. Unfortunately, this startling innovation was quickly forgotten because he made the film in Chinese and didn't think to invent subtitles. Audiences were only impressed with the gimmick momentarily, then became bored when they couldn't understand anything the actors said.
  • In 1911, he travelled to a remote Tahitian island to experiment with certain chemicals found in berries unique to that area. He used this to create the first color film footage. Unfortunately, a topless native wandered into his nature shot, and when he showed his astonishing invention, he was arrested on smut charges.
  • In the 1920s, he mounted a massive Biblical epic called Salome about the woman who demanded the head of John the Baptist. He built a collasal set of Jerusalem deep in the jungles of New Zealand and hired thousands of extras. His ambition was too great, and he spent a decade in a desperate cycle of raising funds, filming until funds ran out, and searching for someone else to invest in the endless project. When it was finally finished, it held not only a tragic personal cost for him, but due to various problems with his investers, it was never released, and all the footage was buried and presumed lost.

For all that, he was still an extraordinary artist and technician who, thanks to the work of this documentary, can finally take his place in the pantheon of the great film pioneers like Milies, Sumner, and Griffith.

Oh, yeah, there one final twist the story I haven't mentioned:

None of it is true. McKenzie never existed.

If you didn't know that before watching, you might well be fooled by the film. Many of its initial viewers certainly were. It's actually a satiric bit of whimsy from Peter Jackson in his pre-Lord of the Rings days, but Jackson and co-director Costa Botes weave genuine history and convincing interviews into the yarn so well and so perfectly capture the feel of TV documentaries that you might miss the sheer goofiness of the whole thing. There are a couple of outrageously silly moments, but most of the silliness is done with subtlety and a straight face, and actually works. If you buy into it, it's probably pretty interesting. If you know what's going on -- or figure it out -- it's a blast.

The fictitious McKenzie is a fascinating character. He's a genius who creates astonishing things, but due to external circumstances and internal flaws, is somehow never as successful as the hacks who understand the system -- sort of a cinematic Nikola Tesla. Jackson and Botes are full of clever ideas about this guy. The twists of fate that accompany the filming of Salome are terrific.

There are interviews with real figures in the film inudstry to lend credibility. Leonard Maltin is every bit as good at his faux-interview as he is in real documentaries -- articulate, energetic, and beaming with his passion for film. Harvey Weinstein and Sam Neill also pop up for engaging comments; Weinstein probably has the funniest joke in the film.

One thing that impressed me was how immersive the yarn is. More than once, I reacted with astonishment at what McKenzie accomplished before I reminded myself that it was fiction. While it's a very funny film, it also has moments that are genuinely moving. McKenzie's ultimate fate is deeply tragic and yet oddly inspiring, like his entire (non-existent) life. A lot of the film follows Jackson adventuring into the New Zealand wilderness to find the lost sets from Salome, yet another of the film's engagingly goofy yet convincing ideas; it's a fascinating uncovering of a great mystery.

Jackson and Botes recreate lots of silent-movie footage for the film, and they absolutely nail the look and feel of silents. The framing, the stagy acting, the dirt and scratches all make McKenzie's films look like the real thing. Salome looks especially cool with its massive central set-piece, where tensions between the Jews and Romans erupt into a nicely done battle sequence.

Forgotten Silver is the sort of odd, clever little yarn that probably appeals more to film lovers than anyone else, but I think almost anyone would enjoy it. It's has the sort of good-natured fun and inventiveness you don't see much anymore. Definitely worth checking out.

* * *


RATING: Not rated -- it was originally produced for New Zealand TV. It does contain brief, incidental National Geographic-style nudity of Tahitian natives.

BUDGET: $650,000. They accomplished a lot on that. Of course, it looks like a low-budget TV documentary, but that silent film footage looks like it ate up ten times that amount, easily. Very impressive.


CRITICAL CONSENSUS: 100% positive on rottentomatoes.

AWARDS: It won the New Zealand TV & Film award for Best Director in the Televesion Drama/Comedy category.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: The Dark Knight (2010)

I was going to begin my film reviews with the last film I saw in a theater -- Chris Nolan's terrific Inception -- but my review was getting awfully pretentious, so I decided instead to review his previous film.

Six months after donning the black cape of Batman, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) finds the city of Gotham still on the brink of disaster. Criminals are afraid to do their work at night, but it hasn't stopped them from trying. Various Batman copycats are trying to emulate him, but without his training or particular moral code, and quite often they end up dead or injured themselves. And worst of all, a deadly psychopath with a sick sense of human calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) has appeared and gleefully and violently driving the city into chaos. Yet out of this darkness shines hope for the future in a trio of men dedicated to saving Gotham: the incorruptable officer Jim Gordon; impassioned attorney Harvey Dent; and the Dark Knight himself.

After Joel Schumacher's infamous flop Batman and Robin single-handedly torpedoed a promising film series, the future of a cinematic Batman was in doubt. Of course he would return -- a character this popular was bound to come back -- but it was a project full of dropped projects and dead ends. However, when the series finally did return, it returned in the hands of the incredibly talented up-and-coming Christopher Nolan, hot off a pair of excellent Memento and Insomnia. His approach to Batman Begins was a (mostly) terrific surprise -- an intelligent, compelling tale that emphasized complex characterizations over action and special effects while still delivering plenty of imagination and excitement. (Which was good, because the action scenes were hit-and-miss; some, like the dock sequence and the car chase, were vivid, clever scenes, but too many of the fight scenes were rendered incomprehensible by the shaky-cam/fast-cut style so unfortunately popular) Strong word of mouth not only propelled it to a strong box office performance, but created a surprisingly widespread fanbase after it DVD release.

Despite some misgivings from the fans, the hype for The Dark Knight was incredible. Sure, Heath Ledger seemed like a strange choice for the Joker, but insiders claimed to be astonished at the result and the trailers were dazzling, more thrilling and powerful in three minutes than most Hollywood films are in three hours. And Ledger's shocking, untimely death raised a whole new level of interest as one of the last performances of a talented actor.

Remarkably, it lived up to the hype. The Dark Knight is a tremendous film in every way. As a crime drama, it's as powerful a tale as has ever been brought to the screen. As a personal tragedy, it's devastating. As an action film, it's exhilarating. Most importantly, though, it manages to do all that and still be fun. More than anything, I worried that with all its darkness, all its violence, all its sadness, it would drain away the enjoyment. It didn't. It has lots of sadness, but it's also thrilling, funny, and genuinely inspiring.

There's really not enough good to be said about the cast. Christian Bale's gravelly voice for Batman was criticized by some, but it's an effective and believable choice for the character at this point in his career. More importantly, his Bruce Wayne is superbly handled. Wayne is not only playing Batman, but even as himself, he's playing a part for others. He can't be the kind of upstanding citizen Batman should be; instead, he acts as a spoiled rich kid. Bale adds an interesting element here: there's a sense that the act is starting to spill into his own personality because he never gets to be himself except around Alfred (as whom Michael Caine is exactly the tower of strength you expect). Meanwhile, under the mask of the Bat is a tortured, fascinating individual trying desperately not to kill or become too violent -- not becoming the very people he is hunting.

Opposing him is Heath Ledger's Joker. Ledger's variation on the character makes the humor a lot more subtle and emphasizes the violent, chaotic intensity. It makes for a terrifying individual, but the pitch-black humor that defines the Joker is still there. His "pencil trick" is the most obvious of these, but multiple viewings reveal a great many jokes hidden because he often tells the punchline to the joke long before the set-up (which, of course, is already planned out in his devious head). Ledger's strange delivery, sometimes-graceful, sometimes-abrupt movements, and terrifying laugh makes the villain as edgy as any cinematic psychopath. He isn't my favorite Joker -- that would be Mark Hamill's whacked-out interpretation from the 90's Batman: The Animated Series -- but he's perfect for this film.

Supporting them, Aaron Eckhart makes Harvey Dent the most sympathetic and tragic character in the film. He's not only an incredibly likable guy, but every bit the upstanding man Batman is, and without the violence or darkness. But hidden underneath is a man who really is on the edge. He flips a two-headed coin to make impossible decisions; it seems like a good plan -- heads, you do the right thing, and it's always heads. But he keeps throwing himself into those decisions. He's playing with fire, and the Joker knows he only needs the right push to cross the line.

Unlike a lot of viewers, I actually rather liked Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne's love interest in Batman Begins. She brought a likable innocence and some hidden strength to the role. But Maggie Gyllanhall is a superb replacement; she makes Rachel Dawes her own. Morgan Freeman returns to play Lucius Fox, Batman's quivalent to Q, and again brings his always wonderful presense to a dark tale in need of his warmth. Cillian Murphy has a nice return cameo as the Scarecrow. The supporting cast is peppered with great character actors who never seem to get into good movies any more -- Eric Roberts, Michael Jai White, Anthony Michael Hall.

Best of all, though, is Gary Oldman as Gordon. Oldman is best known for his wildly over-the-top scenery-chewing in stuff like True Romance, Leon the Professional, and Immortal Beloved. Jim Gordon is an entirely different character -- a quiet, introverted man who is nearly as full of fear as he is of courage. Even more so than Batman, he's the moral center of the film. Oldman underplays the role brilliantly and grounds the story. Like with Batman Begins, it's hard to believe that he's even more effective at this sort of subtle role than his usual delightful wackiness.

It helps all the actors, of course, that the script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan is so strong. The film reminded me strongly of Heat in the way each character was really given a complete story, and these stories all blended into one superb tale. It's probably even better than Heat because none of the stories are tangents (like Natalie Portman's subplot in that film): they're all absolutely integral to the tale. Particularly moving is Harvey Dent's plot because the film makes you care so very deeply about this guy and cheer so much for him, but anyone who knows Batman knows where his future lies, and his fate hangs over him in every scene. You dread every moment he's in danger... or even when he's just being a good person, because he's going to fall from such great heights.

Of course, a Batman movie can't just be characterization; it's an escapist fantasy, full of atmosphere and action. And The Dark Knight contains some of the finest action sequences I've ever seen. The car chase may be the best ever filmed, and is certainly up there with The Road Warrior, The French Connection, and Bullitt. In fact, it may be better than Bullitt because you care so very deeply about the characters and fear so much for their safety. The fight scenes are always completely clear, never rendered confusing by editing or style -- and were superbly choreographed. They weren't choreographed with in the beautiful, dance-like way of the East and of the Wichowskis; they were rough and real. (not that I dislike balletic fight scenes; on the contrary I love them. The toughness of the fights was the right choice for this film, however.)

The climactic scene and the finale are truly what drive this film into the stratosphere; they are thrilling, but it's their meaning and depth that give the film such power. The film, in the end, is not about villains and their plots, but about heroes and asking what heroes must do to fight such villains. Unlike Burton's Batman, this is not a film about the Joker. The Joker is done as brilliantly as he could be done, but this film is about Batman, about Dent, about Gordon, about Good. And that is what makes it one of the finest films to come to theaters in many, many years. That is what raises this film from descriptions like "comic-book movie" or even "crime drama" and into the realm of great literature, of great art.

And it's really, really cool, too. All the gadgets, the gimicks, the fights, the cape, the explosions, the Batmobile (and Batcycle!), a few good one-liners, everything you want from a Batman flick. But it's a lot more than that; it's a cinematic masterpiece that proves Nolan to be one of the great film makers of our time.

I suppose you could call this the Godfather of comic-book films. It would be tempting to compare it to Godfather II because it's such a terrific sequel, but it resembles the first more because Godfather II is a gripping, immensely powerful tragedy; Godfather is a gripping, immensely powerful tragedy and a lot of fun. And that's what this is: a sweeping, powerful crime drama that's also great entertainment.

* * * *


RATING: PG-13 for violence and language. To be honest, it probably should have gotten a light R. The violence isn't bloody, per se, but it's extremely intense and packs a heck of a punch. That's not a criticism of the film itself, but just yet another case of the MPAA giving out improper ratings (and likely due to more than a dose of studio influence).

BUDGET: $185 million.

BOX OFFICE: A genuine blockbuster that not only had a record-breaking opening weekend of $158 million, but had enough legs to carry it to $530 million in the US, and nearly as much internationally.

IMDB.COM RATING: 8.9, currently the #12 film of all time on their site.

CRITICAL CONSENSUS: They loved it every bit as much as audiences. 93% positive on, and a rating of 82 on Many critics named it the best or one of the best of 2008.

AWARDS: Nominated for eight Academy Awards, winner of two -- Supporting Actor (Ledger) and Sound Editing. However, despite the universal praise and massive popularity of the film, it failed to get nominations for Best Picture or Director, which more than anything prompted the revamping of the awards the next year, where the Best Picture category was expanded to 10 nominees so these sorts of snubs were less likely. Outside of the Oscars, Heath Ledger posthumously won virtually every supporting actor award on the planet and probably several that didn't even exist beforehand and were specifically created for his unforgettable performance. The film itself was nominated for approximately 117 million awards and won about 83 million of those.