Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dark Knight: Box Office "Potato Chips"

I know the week of The Dark Knight is over, but I enjoyed tearing into Monica Corcoran so much that, seeing a chance to do something similar, I've found one more post. I read an article today in Yahoo Movies news - from E! Online - about whether or not The Dark Knight could take Titanic's record as highest grossing domestic box office film, ever. I don't think it will. But one of the people E! Online chooses to interview rates very, very highly on the unintentional comedy scale:
(The article itself is here http://movies.yahoo.com/mv/news/eo/20080730/121746906000.html
but this time, I see no reason to read it)

"To Vicki Kunkel, author of upcoming Instant Appeal: The 8 Primal Factors That Create Blockbuster Success, movies that play on and on and on, like Titanic, are the cinematic equivalent of potato chips—one viewing is not enough.

"Titanic pretty much had all the elements that light up the endorphins on the brain," says Kunkel. "Anything that makes us feel good is addictive." "

Wow. Wow. Wow.

So first, Kunkel says that Titanic was successful because it had "all the elements that light up the endorphins in the brain." In other words, people liked the movie because...people liked the movie. Then she says "anything that makes us feel good is addictive." Really Vicki? Really? I am so glad that you are being paid to write a book about this. So we can boil what we've got so far to: "People liked Titantic because people liked Titanic. And when people like something, they want more of it." Oh god, someone call MGM and tell them we've got their formula: people like movies that people like, and will want to see more of them.

Now, Ms. Kunkel, what are these elements that people like about Titanic?

"
If all blockbuster movies contain like elements, Kunkel points out, then Titanic had all the right elements, including a love story (see: Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack and Kate Winslet's Rose), a self-sacrificing heroine (see: Rose spurn her rich fiancé, Billy Zane's Cal, for poor Jack) and a clear-cut battle between good and bad (see: Jack take on Cal)."

Huh, well, maybe you could go all Joseph Campbell on us and tell us that all blockbuster movies contain like elements. You could try. It wouldn't work. But your like elements are:
1. Love Story
2. A self-sacrificing heroine
3. Good vs. Bad

It is true that more blockbusters than not have love stories, but it's also been proven many times that blockbusters don't need love stories to succeed. Last time I checked, #s 2, 4, and 5 on the all time domestic list were Star Wars, ET, and The Phantom Menace. None of those (assuming you don't count the love between a boy/starship captain/George Lucas and his alien) have love stories. And these are 3 of the top 5. Ever.

Do I need to mention a self-sacrificing heroine as a key element for a blockbuster? No? Ok, moving on: good vs. bad. Thanks Vicki. Your first two "elements" are bogus and your third is "good vs. bad." I am so writing a book too. I will tell studio executives that people like good vs. evil stories. I will make so much money.

Finally, Vicki doesn't think that The Dark Knight can pass Titanic because:
"We relate more to real people than we do to superheroes," Kunkel says. "And that's when the real addictiveness happens, when we have a deep primal connection."

Ok, I'm gonna bypass the "primal" stuff. She gets a pass she doesn't deserve there. But first, "real people." She does know that Jack and Rose aren't real people, right? That their names in real life are Leo and Kate? Does she know that? Maybe. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume she means relatively mundane people who don't, I dunno, have fantastical larger than life adventures or befriend ogres or are ogres. I ordinarily would be kind and say that Batman is a "real" person in a way that, say, Gandalf isn't, but she has argued for a distinction between Batman and "real" people, so she has to live with it.

Now let's look at the main characters of the Top 25 Domestic blockbusters of all time:

"Real People": Rose and Jack; Forrest Gump; Jesus (It is my personal belief that those latter two have fantastical larger than life adventures, but I'm cutting Vicki some slack);

"Not Real People": Luke, Leia, and a Wookie; Two Ogres and a Donkey; ET; Jar Jar and some Jedi; Captain Jack Sparrow; Spider-Man; More Jedi; Aragon and some Hobbits; Spider-Man again; Dinosaurs; Batman; The Hobbits again; Talking Fish; Spider-Man again; Talking Lions; The Ogres again; Robots who transform into cars; a Boy Wizard; Iron Man; Gandalf and some Hobbits; a Globe-trotting Archeologist; More Jedi.

So there, Vicki, your primal connection to "real people" has 3 votes for, 22 against. And I let you count Jesus, for Christ's sake. You are seriously wrong about everything.

Now, finally, someone might say that my top 25 aren't valid, because they're all pretty recent, because of ticket inflation. You could argue that...but if you account for ticket inflation, then Titanic isn't #1 anymore. And since our lovely author's entire premise is that Titanic is the #1 movie of all time because it has the right "primal" elements...that's not a good way to go.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Film Ignorance Guest Blogger #4: Dr. Strangelove

If a space alien landed out of the sky and asked me to take him to my leader, one of my options would be to send him to Blog Cabins, where Fletch, the fearless leader of the Large Association of Movie Blogs, makes his online home. Well, today Fletch is stopping by Movies et al as our Film Ignorance Guest Blogger. Hope you enjoy his review.


Film: Dr. Strangelove
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Peter Sellers
Year: 1964
Ignorance Rating: Pending


Bring on the hate mail.

Were my expectations too high? It's hard to say. Probably yes, as Dr. Strangelove is considered one of the best comedies (and films) of all time - nominated for four Oscars, firmly entrenched in the IMDb Top 25, #3 in the LAMB's rankings of the Top 10 Comedies.

And I should have loved it - Kubrick, Sellers, a great topic, black comedy - all up my alley. But...it just didn't connect for me.

Now, as you can see in the rating given above, I definitely think it's a good movie. There's brilliance aplenty, from the Presidential phone calls to the Russian Premier to Slim Pickens' wild ride to Sellers' multiple (varied) roles. The opening credits were a marvel of simplicity, and it was eye-opening to see George C. Scott in such a wild-eyed, loose role (just as it was almost as jarring to see the young James Earl Jones at all).

I just didn't laugh much - instead, I spent much of the time trying to put myself in the shoes of someone watching the film in 1964, with the Cold War a very real threat, wondering if the film was seen as taboo or "too soon" at the time of its release. It's easy to watch the film today and laugh at the things children were taught ("Hide under your desk!") in fear of a nuclear attack, but I'm left somewhat in awe that the film was received well in 1964 at all, thinking perhaps that the audacity of the film's mocking of the situation was a key ingredient to its success.

I'm sitting here trying to think of ways to delicately put this, but it's really of no use, so I'll just come out and say it: I prefer Strangelove's spiritual child to the original. That's right - if I were given the choice of watching only one of two films about mutual assured destruction between the United States and the former Soviet Republic...I'm choosing Spies Like Us every time.

BOOM!

Fletch's Film Rating:

"Darn tootin!"

Casting Cowboy Bebop

I hold Shinichiro Watanabe's anime series, Cowboy Bebop, in very high regard. Not only did I name it the best Western of the past ten years, it's also possibly my favorite TV show ever. So there's some bad news: It's being made into a Hollywood live-action movie by Erwin Stoff.

Now, Mr. Stoff has produced some excellent movies, like The Matrix and A Scanner Darkly. But he's presided over a number of bad to terrible movies, including Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Chain Reaction, The Devil's Advocate, Hardball, Sweet November, Constantine, The Lake House, and Street Kings.

If you haven't figured it out yet, this means that the new movie will probably be bad. Much worse, it will probably star Keanu Reeves (I didn't cherry pick those movies. That's roughly 2/3 of Stoff's credits...ALL WITH KEANU REEVES).

To head off Keanu Horror, my wife and I decided we'd cast the movie before Stoff could. We went with people who could play the role, not so much have the right physical appearance. Hope you like it:

The Character: Spike Spiegel: Our hero is a fun-loving bounty hunter, spaceship pilot, and one man army. He likes eating, kung fu, property destruction, and shooting gangsters in the forehead. He's generally a big joke, unless his archnemesis Vicious is around, in which case people die. Lots and lots of people.
The Challenge: Finding an actor who can be comic relief and a stone-cold head-shooter
The Candidates:
1.Robert Downey, Jr. If Bale can be Bruce and John, I see no reason why Downey can't be Tony and Spike. He's got the gift for physical comedy, verbal comedy, and blowing shit up. Like all of our choices, he'd need some kung fu training, but I can't imagine anyone who could blend the off the cuff comedy and the deadly seriousness of the Spike role better.
2. Owen Wilson. At heart, Spike is just a clown in a silly suit who wants to get paid, get something to eat, and not be bothered by tomboys, kids, and dogs. Wilson would be even better than Downey at this aspect of the role, and if he had more action cred, he'd be my #1 choice.
3.Brad Pitt. Although I have a newly awakened desire to loathe the Bradster, he's a monster talent who, again, has both the physicality and the way with a one-liner to be Spike.

The Character: Faye Valentine. Faye is a smoking hottie with giant boobs, hotpants, and the unerring ability to piss Spike off. My wife just named a bunch of no-talent hot chicks of the Lopez, Berry, Jolie variety, which I vetoed in favor of some women who can/might be able to actually act. She vetoed Tilda Swinton for not being pretty enough. Still, our version opts to downplay Faye's sexuality in favor of acting skill. I can dream, can't I?
The Challenge: A highly attractive A-List female actor that can actually act? Do they even make those?
The Candidates:
1. Zoe Bell: If you've seen Kill Bill, you know Zoe Bell kicks ass, even if she had to pretend to be Uma. If you've seen Grindhouse, you know she can kick ass and deliver bad dialogue in a pretty sweet accent. And if you've read this, you know she will be kicking ass on a regular basis on the interwubs. She's got my vote.
2.Carla Gugino. Carla Gugino would probably look better in the Faye-suit than Zoe, and she'll either be a total laughingstock or have lots of hipster cred after The Watchmen movie. But she ain't no Zoe.
3. Zooey Deschanel. Here we were just reaching for someone who was the right age, gender, and could act. The main reason I'm including her is because, after my wife said her name, I knew the real Zoe was the way to go.

The Character: Jet Black is a cop turned bounty hunter who is Spike's mentor, father figure, cook, and nursemaid. He also has a badass robotic arm and some sweet, sweet boots.
The Challenge: No challenge. Unlike the ladies, who disappear when they cross 30, Hollywood men hang around after 45 and play Jet type characters for decades. He was by far the easiest to cast
The Candidates:
1.Bruce Campbell. My wife's stroke of pure genius. He's a big tough guy who's actually a softy, who throws a great punch, who might be able to cook, whose chin is a registered weapon, and who would fill the theaters with fans (if the theaters were small and near known geek headquarters).
2. Ron Perlman. It's time to show the big red guy some love. Most of his best roles have been been as weirdos, usually obscured by prosthetics and makeup, but Ron Perlman has the gruff attitude and hideous mug to make the perfect Jet.
3. Jeff Bridges. My wife said "Jeff Daniels," but she meant the Dude. Playing Jet would be pretty much exactly like playing Obadiah Stane, but not being evil. Somehow, I think Bridges could handle it.

The Character: Vicious. Spike's archenemy is a creepy as hell, samurai sword wielding psychopath.
The Challenge: Although we didn't go for physical appearance with the others, we weren't able to get Vicious' angular, evil face out of our heads.
The Candidates:
1.Tilda Swinton. No one does creepily androgynous like Tilda Swinton. My wife's unconvinced, but she could play Vicious just like she played Gabriel in Constantine, and I'd be cowering. Plus, she has to go somewhere, and apparently it's not Faye.
2.Cillian Murphy. Again, creepily androgynous. I would fear the Murph, but I would also spend all his fight sequences biting my knuckles with fear, so worried would I be that Spike would break those glorious cheekbones
3.Adrien Brody. I don't know if Adrien has the malevolence to play Vicious, which our first two candidates have in spades. But he sure would look right and could use another interesting acting challenge, after delivering such stellar performances in movies like The Jacket and The Village.

The Character: Edward is a pre-adolescent girl who speaks some sort of unintelligible pidgin and is considerably more trouble than she's worth.
The Challenge: None
The Candidate: Oh yeah, Keanu's got this one






The Character: Ein is a genetically enhanced Welsh corgi who turns out to be the best hacker in the universe
The Challenge: None
The Candidate: My friend Chad's Penny would be perfect. I love corgis!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Film Ignorance #8: The Conversation

I wrote this post for Film Ignorance several weeks ago (you can tell by how long it is; I've made a conscious choice to write shorter posts). After I'd written it, a happy surprise: The Conversation is the Large Associations of Movie Blog's Movie of the Month! Head on over to The LAMB to see what other film bloggers think of this movie (if they don't like it, be sure to leave them irrational hate comments)


Film: The Conversation
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford
Year: 1974
Reason for Ignorance: Shame Spiral

Ignorance Rating: Pending

For a considerable amount of time, I believed that Francis Ford Coppola was the greatest American director of all time. Although he made only four films that were considered great, their greatness was so unquestioned that I didn't think it was an indefensible statement: The Godfather, The Godfather pt. II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now.

The only problem was my hidden film ignorance: I hadn't seen the third masterpiece. I don't know why I never got around to it. It wasn't even in my queue. And one reason why I started arguing for John Ford or Orson Welles instead of Coppola was the shame of not having seen The Conversation.

Now that I've seen it, my shame is multiplied many times. The Conversation is a masterpiece. Although it's a small picture, nothing like Coppola's three epics, it stands worthily along side of them as a picture that is not only excellent, but pushed the entire world of filmmaking forward.

The film opens with a man and a woman having a furtive, awkward, fearful conversation in a busy public square, while Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) runs a little surveillance group recording their conversation. Later, in his loft office/safe-house, Caul takes the three different low-quality tapes his team obtained and melds them into a single high-quality recording. And, in an obvious reference to Antonioni's Blow-Up, he hears something: the man says "He'd kill us if he had the chance."

From there, it's downhill for Harry Caul. His life is all about compartmentalization, locked doors, sealed-off spaces. He becomes upset when he learns his landlady has a key to his apartment - she used the key to leave him a birthday gift. He refuses to give his girlfriend his number, but only drops in on her unexpectedly late at night. He won't tell his sidekick (John Cazale) anything about their projects or technology. And above all, he wants to seal himself off from the potentially dangerous consequences of his surveillance subjects could suffer. So when confronted with the direct knowledge that this tape could get his subjects killed, Caul goes into a downward spiral, unable to break through his compartments and take action but equally unable to resume his normal, compartmentalized life. He's caught between his professional ethics and his personal morals, and the film becomes a creepy, suspenseful thriller as the events continue to play out and Caul haunts them like a ghost.

The film, as is to be expected, is a technical marvel. The minimalist score, containing both diagetic and nondiagetic elements, is haunting. The sound editing is perfect. The film editing is inspired, serving the storytelling by working with and against the sound editing to leave the viewer, like Caul, uncertain of what's coming next. And there's a bathroom scene that's even tenser and scarier than the classic one in Psycho.

The acting, of course, is superb. Caul is one of Hackman's best and most subtle performances, and 70s super-supporting actor Cazale is, as always, the perfect second-fiddle. Harrison Ford plays a rare heavy as Caul's employer's emissary, and Allen Garfield practically made my skin crawl as Caul's chief competitor, an overly friendly man obsessed with one-upping and disorienting Harry.

If you can believe it, The Conversation came out the same year as The Godfather Part II. Coppola was nominated for both best picture and best screenwriter for both pictures, winning both awards for The Godfather. This is the strongest praise I can give The Conversation: I can't tell you whether or not the Academy made the right choice.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The MPAA: FAIL

I've never seen This Film is Not Yet Rated, but watching The Dark Knight made me think about how incompetent the MPAA is. That movie was PG-13? Really? I know, Nolan artfully cuts away right when something hideously gruesome is about to happen, but that makes it worse! So I'm just gonna run down a few movies that got the wrong ratings, and then I need your help to finish it out:


1.The Matrix (1999)
Rating: R
Should've Been: PG-13
I guess there is a lot of shooting of (virtual) people, but this movie is exactly the kind of fun fantasy that should be PG-13. Iron Man, for example, is much more troubling and violent.

2.Once (2007)
Rating: R
Should've Been: G
I guess the F-bomb is dropped a few times in this perfect musical that, otherwise, anyone could watch. Way to rate a movie that a 4-year old could enjoy R, MPAA.

3.The Dark Knight (2008)
Rating: PG-13
Should've Been: NC-17
Seriously, I'm not really a horror movie connoisseur, but I think this might be the most terrifying movie I've ever seen. And remember, when I say this movie should be NC-17, that's because lots and lots of movies should be NC-17, if the MPAA weren't a bunch of hypocritical do-gooders.

These are the big three I can think of. Ordinarily I wouldn't post until I had more, but this time I'd rather just hear from you guys. What else has the MPAA blown big time?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Film Ignorance Guest Blogger #3: Midnight Cowboy

Welcome back to Film Ignorance, our first non-Batman related entry of the week. This week, Mike of Big Mike's Movie Blog weighs in on Midnight Cowboy, a movie that's on my Film Ignorance list, but I haven't gotten to yet. Thanks for the post, Mike! I'll try to get to the film this week, so we can go head to head.Film: Midnight Cowboy
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic.
Director: John Schlesinger
S
tars: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman
Year: 1969
Ignorance Rating: Pending

Watching Midnight Cowboy for the first time and taking in the historical context of the film, while people might inevitably compare it to Brokeback Mountain, I was reminded of Raging Bull. Raging Bull was made at the end of the Seventies and became regarded as one of the greatest movies of the Eighties. Likewise, Midnight Cowboy, released during the summer of love in 1969 became an indication of the direction films would take in the Seventies.

The ‘gay cowboy movie’ of my parent’s generation, Midnight Cowboy was important in many different ways, the least of which was its subject matter. Jon Voight stars as Joe Buck, a naïve young Texan who goes to New York City with dreams of becoming a male hustler. It’s not long before he realizes that it won’t be beautiful women paying him for his body, but the Jackies on Forty Second Street. Then he meets Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman who after scamming Joe out of money, tries to take him under his wing and manage him in the ways of the New York hustler. That’s the movie in a nutshell, with the pair becoming closer as they get more impoverished and desperate for cash.

Both Voight and Hoffman were nominated for Best Actor for their performances. Voight plays the part of the dumb hick to perfection and you can get a sense of the hungry, young actor inside, yearning to please and be accepted. This movie would catapult him from a struggling New York theatre actor to a star, like The Graduate had done for his co-star the year before. Hoffman’s role has become almost the stereotype of a New Yorker by now, but it was miles removed from Benjamin Braddock and cemented his status as a serious actor in only two years in Hollywood.

Directed by John Schlesinger, whose claim to fame had been the Julie Christie movie Darling, he made the film more personal than people knew. He was in the closet at the time and was constantly under the stress of keeping his private life private. I was struck by how he shows us clips, montages and flashes of Joe’s life in Texas and a violent event that has changed him, but we’re never told explicitly what happens. Schlesinger shows us without telling us. In a way, I could understand his motivation and he desire to share secrets with us, but holding back from giving away too much. It was this style of filmmaking that really made it remarkable to me.

The movie was released with an X rating for the sexual content and brief nudity. Eventually, it was changed to R in 1971 without having to change a frame. However, it would win the Oscar for Best Picture carrying the X rating, the only film with that distinction. It helped the fight for freedom of expression that continues to this day and also won Oscars for Best Director and Screenplay (Adapted).

I couldn’t help but notice how cyclical the movie was. In the end, Joe is basically back where he started from, geographic location notwithstanding. He is alone in a new city, but his experiences have changed him and his outlook on life. Joe didn’t change to adapt to the city, but tried to remain true to himself and while some may think he failed, I believe he succeeded by surviving and moving onto the next chapter. It almost seemed to me like the film predicted how the Seventies would go for Hollywood. After the big budget, star driven films died off to be replaced by the films of people like Schlesinger, Voight and Hoffman; the studios would eventually regain control to put out large budget, star driven movies of the Eighties. Sadly, thirty years later, Schlesinger would be reduced to directing romantic comedies for Madonna and as for Voight and Hoffman… I only have two things for you. Karate Dog and Mr. Magorium. Like a friend of mine wrote earlier this week, both of them should be ashamed of themselves. Between the two of them, they were in Midnight Cowboy, Catch-22, Straw Dogs, Deliverance, Marathon Man, Coming Home and Papillion. In the past FOUR years, they have made TWO National Treasures, Lemony Snicket, Bratz and Meet the Fockers.

For shame

The Dark Knight: A.O. Scott Weighs In

Ladies and gentleman, what we have all been waiting for: A.O. Scott weighs in on The Dark Knight and the current state of the superhero genre: How Many Superheroes Does it Take to Tire a Genre?

If you've been around these parts before, you know the level of esteem I hold Tony Scott in. But I think he's substantially missed the boat on this one ( I said the same thing about Heath Ledger, then had to admit (provisional) error).

Tony writes: "Still, I have a hunch, and perhaps a hope, that “Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Dark Knight” together represent a peak, by which I mean not only a previously unattained level of quality and interest, but also the beginning of a decline. In their very different ways, these films discover the limits built into the superhero genre as it currently exists."

He goes on: "But to paraphrase something the Joker says to Batman, “The Dark Knight” has rules, and they are the conventions that no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a fight with the villain, during which the symbiosis of good guy and bad guy, implicit throughout, must be articulated. The end must point forward to a sequel, and an aura of moral consequence must be sustained even as the killings, explosions and chases multiply." He continues in this vein, but for now, we have what we need.

First, a minor spoiler for The Dark Knight: "The climax must be a fight with the villain." Perhaps Mr. Scott and I watched a different movie, or are unsure who the villain is, or don't agree on what "fight" means. My favorite line in the entire movie is (paraphrasing): "Do you think I'd risk the battle for the soul of Gotham in a fist fight with you?" Tony, I don't know if you noticed, but there wasn't really a climax to this movie, and there wasn't really a fight between the hero and villain, or even between the hero or either of the villains. It just didn't happen. The movie wasn't interested in it. So when your point is that even the best superhero movies adhere to a formula, and then you lay out that formula, and the movie in question DOES NOT adhere to that formula, I think you've got trouble.

But beyond that singular but significant misstep, what I really want to discuss is A.O.'s analogy. After arguing that The Dark Knight only states serious questions, without ever exploring them. he writes: "And yet stating such themes is as far as the current wave of superhero movies seems able or willing to go. The westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, obsessed with similar themes, were somehow able, at their best, as in John Ford’s “Searchers” and Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo,” to find ambiguities and tensions buried in their own rigid paradigms."

Luckily for me, the Western is my primary area of expertise. So let me begin by saying that Red River would have been a better Hawks choice than Rio Bravo, in terms of dealing with those themes, and that Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may have been the most morally and intellectually sophisticated of all of them. And yet, the NY Times film critics of the day (Bosley Crowther and sidekick A.H. Weiler) said:

Red River: "And even despite a big let-down, which fortunately comes near the end, it stands sixteen hands above the level of routine horse opera these days." The "let-down" of which Crowther speaks is what Scott would call the "ambiguities and tensions" of the paradigm. As Crowther puts it, Red River is an excellent movie, but "runs smack into 'Hollywood'" conventions at its end.

The Searchers: "Mr. Ford, once started, doesn't seem to know when to stop. Episode is piled upon episode, climax upon climax and corpse upon corpse until the whole thing appears to be taking a couple of turns around the course. The justification for it is that it certainly conveys the lengthiness of the hunt, but it leaves one a mite exhausted, especially with the speed at which it goes."

The Searchers is considered by many to be the greatest film of all time, but if you've read any reviews of The Dark Knight, you know that many reviewers could have used this paragraph intact, except that they'd have to insert Nolan in place of Ford.

Rio Bravo (Weiler steps in, as Crowther was apparently tired of superheroes, er, I mean, Westerns): "Despite its slickness, virility, occasional humor and, if it may be repeated, authentic professional approach, it is well-made but awfully familiar fare." Just another Western.

And the coup is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which appeared after the Western's "peak" but today stands as one of the very best. Weiler sounds a a great deal like Scott on superheroes when he writes: "The Old West, ravaged by repetition and television, has begun to show signs of age...time has made their vehicle creaky. Their basically honest, rugged, and mature saga has been sapped of a great deal of effect by an obvious, overlong, and garrulous anticlimax." Too many Westerns, says Weiler! The formula is ravaged! Except the film he was watching wasn't formulaic and was a masterpiece. But he missed that.

The point of all this is not that to reprimand those critics who claim that The Dark Knight is a classic, or those critics who claim that The Dark Knight is not a classic, for making the decision too early. When you see a new movie, you have to call it like you see it, and you won't know how the film will be regarded in a few decades. But Tony didn't just write a review of The Dark Knight, he wrote an entire feature claiming that The Dark Knight didn't have the ability to render its genre problematic like the classic Westerns did.

And that is seriously going out on a limb. As we have seen, Scott's 50s counterparts did not realize those Westerns were masterpieces. They got it wrong, in each and every case - they praised those Westerns, but found them overlong, exhausting, anticlimatic, too Hollywood, etc. In other words, they made all the exact same arguments that Scott did about contemporary superheroes, particularly noting that they went on too long, had too clear a formula, and never managed to overcome that formula. But at least they did so in otherwise positive reviews. Scott wrote an entire piece making it clear that The Dark Knight didn't have that same ability to transcend its genre. He may not have to regret it. But I don't consider it very wise.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight: and the Ladies (update)

In taking apart Monica Corcoran's disastrous attempt at gender-based humor about The Dark Knight, Why Women Can't Handle The Dark Knight, I was missing the most important piece of information: the percentage of The Dark Knight's audience that was actually female. I knew Warner Brothers knew or would know, but they hadn't released it yet. Here you are: 48%

If you account for the fact that guys will most likely devote their attention to the new Batmovie, no matter how atrocious, I think this means that The Dark Knight actually has greater appeal for women. Were it a placeholder Batman movie, I would have expected the gender breakdown to be 60-40 or worse. In order to overcome such a skewed result, this movie must have really, really appealed to women. Women, that is, who don't like Diet Coke.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight: and The Ladies (Room)

You'll probably find this a bit hard to believe, but Monica Corcoran of the Los Angeles Times has proposed that women don't like The Dark Knight because...it's too long for them to watch without having to get up and pee. Here's a sample quote from "Why Women Can't Handle The Dark Knight":

"Clearly, the director of "The Dark Knight" and the auteurs behind other interminable fan boy action movies such as "Iron Man" (126 minutes) don't know that a woman's bladder is about the size of a salted cocktail peanut. Men have bladders that are walnut-sized. And those very gals, after silently praying that the Joker will die or Batman will retire or everyone will just perish en masse and the movie will end, tend to be seated in the centers of theater rows."

I have a had time even taking this argument to pieces. It's so stupid, and has already been so savaged, that it seems pointless. I'll do it anyway, but my heart's not in it.

1. Women can't handle The Dark Knight? I'm sorry, I didn't realize that. I must have been mistaken.

2. Monica asks: "Ever drink a gallon of Diet Coke and sit for two hours with your legs crossed? Oh and then -- just when it seems like Gotham is safe and credits will roll -- suffer through another 32 minutes of clenching your nether region muscles?" A comment on her site asks: "Why don't you just NOT drink a gallon of diet coke?" Well Monica, I'm gonna go with Kelly on this one: that sounds like a personal problem to me.

3. Monica describes Iron Man as an interminable fan boy action movie (126 minutes). Look Monica, first of all, the fanboys don't like Iron Man - he was a big jerk and mean to Cap. Didn't you read Civil War? Secondly, if you found Iron Man interminable, it wasn't because it was 126 minutes. That's about 10 minutes longer than the average move. If that ten minutes is gonna kill you, you'll have to avoid roughly 40% of all movies.

4. Monica seems to think the length of a movie is directly proportional to how guy-centric it is. Oops. Oops. 238 minute-long Quadruple Oops.

Look, I'm a guy, and I like many stereotypically guy movies. I also like many stereotypically girl movies, and I've tried to use this blog as a place to talk about the now century long handicapping of female stars, female audiences, and above all female creators.

When something like this is published, it embarrasses not only its author, but all of us who would like sexist and regressive thinking to go out the window. In a perfect universe, Monica Corcoran would get fired. But all I've got is this blog, so I make it clear that she's just an idiot. It's the best I can do.

The Dark Knight: In Praise of the Middle Way

Andrew O'Heir, Salon's secondary movie critic who focuses on indie movies, is one of my favorite critics. David Ansen, Newsweek's critic who recently took a buyout to leave the magazine, is another one of the best. But O'Heir didn't like The Dark Knight very much, and Ansen's praise was less than effusive. Let's see what they had to say"

O'Heir: "And no matter how many people proclaim its awesomeness, it's also an incoherent, bloated bore from a director capable of doing much more interesting work."

Ansen: "You may emerge more exhausted than elated. Nolan wants to prove that a superhero movie needn't be disposable, effects-ridden junk food, and you have to admire his ambition. But this is Batman, not "Hamlet." Call me shallow, but I wish it were a little more fun."

In other words, O'Heir doesn't know what Nolan is doing making The Dark Knight when he could be doing something "more interesting", while Ansen wants to know why Nolan is mucking about with a superhero movie that's also dark and problematic (aka, Hamlet). Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the middle way.

The middle way is the somewhat bland term I've finally settled on for describing how much of my favorite art work represents what many would call an artistic compromise and others would call not much fun.

On the one hand, you've got indie-meisters like Gus van Sant and Jim Jarmusch, brilliant, gifted, "genius" people who are off sitting somewhere in some tiny room devising no-budget movies with non-professional actors that will soon be viewed by approximately 17 people and hailed as masterpieces by those 17 people - aka Andrew O'Heir and his 16 friends. On the other hand, there are giant dumbasses like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich planning on spending $300 million of the studio's money in order to make $250 million back by convincing people that they really, really like giant explosions divided up by terrible acting and weak dialogue. These are the two options, and in the world of O'Heir and Ansen, our only hopes for quality are:
1. To just ignore the multiplexes and take our tiny depressing indie masterpieces as as good as its gonna get, with the knowledge that suicide looms in our future.
2.Hope the studio hack in question has more in common with Ridley than Tony and, if not, endure the fart jokes.

Obviously, there's another way. And with The Dark Knight, I think we're experiencing the fullest expression of the middle way I've ever seen. On the one hand, Christopher Nolan and his cast (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, etc) are indie stalwarts. Batman Begins is either the #1 or #2 money maker for all of those creators; they all specialize in deep, dark, and challenging works of art with limited box office potential. On the other hand, this is fucking Batman: it's a giant movie with enough explosions and gadgetry to make Bay himself proud.

I certainly wish Hollywood would wake up and realize that its only hope of survival is the middle way. Because the Gus Van Sant's of the world are gonna be fine; they'll keep making movies that cost $5 million and make $7 million and, voila, $2 million profit. But the Michael Bays of the world are extinct. People have more choices now. They don't automatically go to the movies. They can see explosions on their plasma TVs. There are TV shows now that offer genre fun with good dialogue, good acting, and good production values, so why go to the movies if all you're getting is the spectacle?

So the only hope is to call a master filmmaker, a non-hack, up and say: look, you can do whatever you want, as dark as you want, as weird as you want, and you can have Perlman or Downey Jr or Bale as your lead instead of Cruise or Hanks, and you'll have creative control and can write the script. But, you know, could you throw a few explosions in there too, for the kiddies, and maybe keep the whole thing at under 3 hours?

Now sure, you might say, but then we'd never have had all the Fellini and Bergman masterpieces. A true artist can only create a true masterpiece when totally free of commercial considerations, etc, blah blah blah, pretentious horse crap. And you might be right. But I don't buy it.

The Dark Knight is sure to be 2008's #1 money maker, and there will probably be a Batman Begins 3. But in between, Nolan'll probably grab Caine and Bale again and make another movie like The Prestige - something somewhere on the indier side of the spectrum. In other words, making a masterpiece in the superhero genre is not to sell out. It's not to ignore the possiblity of artistic creation. It's not to say that every movie Nolan makes must cost $200 million dollars and have as many stunts as The Dark Knight. It's just to say: there's an alternative to shilling straight dreck or pursuing completely unencumbered artistic freedom. And furthermore, if you were Fellini and you had just finished making the weirdest superhero movie the world had ever seen, nothing would prevent you from making La Dolce Vita and Amarcord before making The Weirdest Superhero Movie the World Has Ever Seen 2. And although I consider actually existing Fellini to be one of the handful of greatest directors who ever lived, middle way Fellini would be something to behold.

Hollywood, after years of having its crap swallowed whole by the audience, is finally realizing there are ways to make summer spectacle that's not garbage. Directors are finally realizing they can make movies that are both masterpieces and commercially driven, and still find time to make movies about Gay Cowboys Eating Pudding. Everybody in this scenario can be happy, except for people who suck at making movies and those who like to watch bad movies. They don't have much of a future. But that's ok with me.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Night: Heath Ledger Re-Evaluation

When Heath Ledger died, I attempted to temper the hyperbolic eulogizing with a post of my own. To summarize: Heath Ledger was a bad to terrible teen actor who (despite every obit mentioning his insistence on only making good movies) seemed to seek out bad projects like they were his life's goal, and then, once acting in them, did everything to ensure that they remained bad. Finally, a single movie brought out the very best in him, and in Gay Cowboys Eating Pudding (er, I mean, Brokeback Mountain) he delivered the performance of a lifetime: a subtly intense, soulful portrait of a man who lived a life of conflict, deceit, and passion underneath a stoic, all-American exterior.

Bottom Line: Just because Heath Ledger died didn't mean that the obituarists should whitewash a single good performance into a tragic tale of brilliant actor cut down before his potential could be realized.

Luckily for myself, I included this line in that original post, which I called The Dark Knight Proviso: If indeed he is excellent [as the Joker], I will consider amending my evaluation of him from "even a broken clock is right twice a day" to "many truly excellent actors start off crappy and hone their craft."

So, I'll be the last to say it, but I'm saying it now: with the death of Heath Ledger, we lost a truly gifted performer. But it's more than that. We lost a man whose range may have been greater than any other actor who ever lived.

I don't say this lightly. And it's really not fair to trot out the many, many roles of range-meisters like Paul Newman, Gary Oldman, John Turturro, and Tony Shalhoub to show that they can perform across multiple dimensions. But with Brokeback Mountain's Ennis and The Dark Knight's Joker, Ledger has given us two performances that are both among the best I have ever seen and as different from one another as possible.

As I said before, Ledger's Ennis is a repressed modern day cowboy. Every one of his desires is tamped down, restricted, shunted out of the way. His accent and mannerisms fit perfectly with his workman's clothes; Ennis is, by all appearances, just another sheep herder. But in Ledger's eyes, and in a few other, rare gestures, we can see beyond the surface into wells of passion and pain. Unlike the flashier Gyllenhaal character, Ennis is just an ordinary guy trying to keep a forbidden passion inside. And Ledger accomplishes the near impossible feat of letting us see that passion, in every single scene, without ever looking or sounding like anything other than the heterosexual man's man he seems to be.

Ledger's Joker, by contrast, gives us an equally inexplicable performance: a man who hasn't ever repressed a desire in his life. If Batman is like Ennis, a good man trying to hold down some dark desires, the Joker is his Id-tacular opposite, pure hatred and lust and passion let loose on an entire city. He minces, he slurs, he taunts, and he slices people open. He lets every desire take him wherever it wishes; he lives to follow every psychotic whim. Indeed, without spoiling anything, the Joker's ultimate goal seems to be unleashing Gotham's Id upon itself; everyone, from Batman to the ordinary people to the mob itself, is too tamped down for him, too covered in the veneer of civility which indicates repression. As the Joker, Ledger is King ID, smearing the dark side of human nature over all of Gotham City, reveling in it, and asking us to take part in it ourselves.

Ultimately, the Joker and Ennis do have a few things in common - only two, by my count. First, they both have deep, dark desires. And second, they both represent extreme ways to deal with those desires.

So, here's my final gloss on Heath Ledger: He wasn't an actor who could do anything. And with a character bound by mediocrity, or even normalcy, he seems to have unfailingly responded with a mediocre performance. But with Ennis and Joker, he's taken two of the furthest extremes of human nature and worn them so well that the actor disappeared and the character will probably live for all time. The tragedy is not that we lost an actor with a spotty resume and a few great performances. The tragedy is that we lost all the potential characters he could have brought to life, characters who would have represented, in one extreme or another, a new branch of the human experience. We'll never get to see the places he could have taken us; we'll just have to be content with exploring the ground he opened up in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. That will never be enough. But it's all we have.

Heath Ledger
1979-2008

The Dark Knight: Film Ignorance Guest Blogger #2: Batman Begins

I've decided to devote this entire week to The Dark Knight - that's why there was no Western Star of the Week yesterday. It's a countdown between my review and this Friday, when I'm going to see the film again, in IMAX, again.

You can imagine my joy when Dreamrot of 7 Dollar Popcorn asked if I could use a Film Ignorance entry on Batman Begins. Boy, could I ever. Here it is, kicking off A Week of the Dark Knight: Guest Film Ignorance #2, Batman Begins:

Film: Batman Begins
Rating: A Good Movie
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars:
The Best Cast Ever Assembled
Year: 2005

Ignorance Rating: 90/100 (22 Votes)

I'm not sure if you've noticed or not, but it seems like the interweb is abuzz with excitement over a recently released movie. Bloggers, movie fans, comic book aficionados and, according to at least one 7dp commenter, even grandmothers are in a tizzy over the release of The Dark Knight, aka the new Batman movie.

Conversely, here at $7 Popcorn Industries, Inc, LLC...there's been nary a word. In fact, the only mention of it here prior to today was to comment upon how indifferent I was about it! And do you know why? I'm not a big Batman fan, that's why. The Tim Burton Batman and it's sequels did very little for me. I liked the first one enough, but found the sequels to be, simply put, shitty. As a result, I never watched Batman Begins, and it's hard to get excited about a sequel to a movie you never saw.

Well, never saw until now. That's right. After 3 years, I finally watched Christopher Nolan's franchise reboot, Batman Begins. Like I said, I'm not a huge caped crusader fan. I find the concept of a man in a mask, fighting crime kind of silly. I mean, who does that?

Bruce Wayne does that. So, the question is, who does Bruce Wayne think he is?

As a young boy, he watched his parents get shot on the street. He grew up feeling guilty and angry. And, when the chance came for him to get his revenge, the opportunity was denied him. His parents' murderer was gunned down by someone else. A woman hired by Gotham's crime lord, Carmine Falcone. Falcone, to Bruce, epitomizes the seedy underbelly of Gotham City. He knows everyone's price and has paid it. No one would willingly go up against him. As Sgt. Gordon says 'there's no one to rat to', Falcone has paid them all off.

Disgusted, Wayne leaves Gotham, ending up in an Asian prison, it's here that he is given the offer to train under Ra's Al Ghul, head of the League of Shadows. Wayne is too compassionate though. And in a show of compassion, he kills a number of the league's members and burns down their base. All of this because he couldn't kill a murderer. It's complicated, but I guess it's what makes Batman a good guy.

So, Bruce returns to Gotham City and becomes Batman. Fighting crime and trying to turn the city around. In his way though are a corrupt police force, a doctor who works to instill fear in people and his former teacher. And in all of this, he must work not to lose himself.

I really hoped that I wouldn't like Batman Begins. I didn't want to like it. I wanted to hate it the way a good friend of mine does, a friend who's taste in movies I typically trust, but now I need to ask him what it was that he didn't like. Sure, the whole premise is a little goofy, but no goofier than any other comic book movie. Batman was never bitten by a radioactive spider or born with the ability to read minds. Batman's power is from training and some high tech gadgets. Batman is more human than any other super hero, really. He's more like the Punisher than Superman.

The casting was fantastic. Rutger Hauer, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson...all perfectly cast. Cillian Murphy didn't really work for me, and I'm not a huge Katie Holmes fan, but for the most part the casting was terrific. And, truthfully, Christopher Nolan's decision to go in a darker, more 'realistic' direction really pays off. There isn't a lot of joking around. Batman's business is dead serious. Most of the lighter moments come from Bruce Wayne, Batman doesn't have time for many silly one liners.

Is Batman Begins a great movie, destined to become a classic? No, probably not. It is, however, a good movie and a fun movie. As Batman movies go, it's one of the best. I guess this means that I am now ready to see The Dark Knight. Maybe this time I won't wait three years.

Batman Begins gets 8 million dollars worth of damage to the city to save one person's life out of 10.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (IMAX)
5/5

Warning: This review sounds hyperbolic. It's not. It's simply accurate.

Following up a masterpiece like Batman Begins is a difficult proposition. To make matters worse, as fantastic as the latter half of Batman Begins is, the first half, which follows Bruce Wayne's evolution into Batman under the influence of three very different mentors, was the more effective of the two. So The Dark Knight was not only handicapped by fan expectations, but also the difficulty of creating an original story that worked without cribbing from the plot of the greatest Batman graphic novel ever written (Frank Miller's Batman: Year One).

Since this review is being published the day after the movie came out, you probably don't need me to tell you that The Dark Knight meets, exceeds, and simply renders irrelevant any previous standards of filmmaking. It - like Wall-E, but in a completely different way - is something entirely new in the realm of filmmaking. For almost two and a half hours, director/co-writer Christopher Nolan and writer Jonathan Nolan do nothing but build and maintain tension. Unintuitively, The Dark Knight builds this tension not through a single, tight plot, but more as a series of Joker-related vignettes, each of which enhances the film's suspense while refusing to adhere to a pattern. If Batman Begins is an Apollonian masterpiece with an Apollonian villain, The Dark Knight's Joker demands a Dionysian story of excess and chaos, and the film delivers.

The Dark Knight sidesteps the problem of topping Batman Begins' character development by mostly ignoring it. Instead, it treats four of the greatest comic book characters ever invented (Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox), played by four of the greatest actors the world has ever seen (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman) like found objects. After Batman Begins, we know who they are and what they stand for, so in this film, all of them - even Bale - are moved to the background. The film's protagonists are the two new characters: Heath Ledger's Joker and Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent.

Really, this is the Joker's movie. And Heath Ledger delivers a performance that may be the most charismatic ever caught on celluloid. Even as the Joker orchestrates a deadly serious and vicious series of terrorist attacks all over Gotham City - acts that left the audience stunned - he also had the audience I saw the movie with with laughing. They laughed at his jokes, at his mannerisms, at his murders. Somehow, Ledger created a monster who is not in the least bit sympathetic, whose crimes recall events such as the September 11 attacks, and yet his performance is so compelling that his sadism draws laughs. I can think of no other actor who could have accomplished it, and no other performance to rival it.

With the Joker at its center, The Dark Knight is a sickening story of human depravity that's nevertheless engrossing and, on many levels, quite enjoyable. It's a monumental achievement in all aspects of filmmaking and - particularly as I saw it on an IMAX screen - it boasts the most impressive spectacle of any movie yet created. It is as deep and as dark as the greatest of all Batman stories, and surpasses all of them - and perhaps all stories ever told - for sheer terror and suspense. We'll never know what plans Nolan and Nolan had for Joker had Ledger not been lost to us, but we're left with a document which will stand for as long as films are remembered. Which is to say, forever.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Film Ignorance Roundup: Month #1

Film Ignorance Entries: 9 (7 Regular, 1 Addendum, 1 Guest Blogger)
Ratings Break Down:
Best. Film. Ever.: 3
Yep, It's a Classic: 2
A Good Movie: 1
Meh: 1
But...This Movie Sucks: 1
Highest Ignorance Rating: It's a Wonderful Life (100%)
Lowest Ignorance Rating: Laura (18%)
Favorite Movie: It's a Wonderful Life
Least Favorite Movie: Way Out West
Milestones Reached: None

I've been doing this Film Ignorance thing for about a month now, so I thought I'd do a breakdown of what's happened so far, if any of you are tagging along. The goal was to watch one film a week, and I got 7 entries from my list in, in addition to one Addendum (Our Man in Havana) and a guest entry (Film for the Soul weighed in on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid).

I do have a slight confession: I've actually done considerably more than seven entries, but posting more than 2 a week would just be white noise on the site, and I know I won't keep up this pace, so I'm stockpiling entries for when the semester starts and I have to teach, study and take exams.

The selection was actually pretty good for this month - you can see that of my 8 entries, 5 of them received Yep, It's a Classic or Best. Film. Ever. If this keeps up, I will enjoy this project more than I had originally imagined.

My main goal with this post was to let you guys know what this all is moving towards. My original goal was simply to watch a great deal of movies and improve my cred, but now I've decided I'm moving towards the creation of three lists.

The first will be my Top 100 films of all time. By the time the project is over, I will have watched approximately 2000 movies, and so the creation of my list will involve choosing the top 5% of all the films I've seen. And I have a much harder job than the AFI: while they ignore both foreign language films and anything made since 1980, I'll have to consider and The Seventh SealChildren of Men right alongside Citizen Kane and The Godfather. Hard.

The second two lists are some lists I was already working on, but decided I wasn't qualified to make. I'm working on a Top 20 Hollywood/American Directors (which includes Americans who worked in America, but not in the Hollywood system) and a Top 20 International Directors. A director can only appear on a single list - Orson Welles is probably in the Top 20 for both Hollywood and International directors, but I'll only let him on one list. But I've got a very long way to go before I can make these lists. I'm almost entirely ignorant about major directors like Truffaut, Bertolucci, Antonioni, Griffith, Murnau, Demille, and others. When I'm done with the project, I'll know at least a few films by all of those directors.

Finally, I'd love some feedback. Are you enjoying these entries? Is there something I should change? Is there a film on the list you'd like me to watch? And, most importantly, would you like to do a guest entry? I'd love to hear from you. I hope you're enjoying Film Ignorance.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Film Ignorance #7: Way Out West


Film: Way out West
Rating: But...This Movie Sucks!
Director: James Horne
Stars: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
Year: 1937
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating: 25 (8 Votes)

Up until now, this Film Ignorance project has been completely gratifying. Sure, I didn't love Ben-Hur or Laura, but I was happy to have seen such important films, and felt better about myself as a critic for having done so. And while I guess I should feel better about myself as a film critic for having seen a Laurel and Hardy movie, I can't say it feels that great. It feels more like boredom...which I guess is not that different from Ben-Hur after all.

It's hard to describe for you what I didn't like about this movie. I would be tempted to say that they just went for every obvious and easy joke possible, but Buster Keaton never met an obvious joke he didn't like, and I love his movies. What it might boil down to is that I just felt the two main performers lacking in the charisma and natural charm to pull off a slapstick picture like this. Again, it doesn't help to say that the supporting cast is uniformly wooden; the Marx Brothers movies are populated with terrible actors, including Zeppo and Gummo Marx, but they just serve to highlight the Marx hilarity.

Way out West is ostensibly a spoof of Westerns, with Laurel and Hardy as inept greenhorns out in the Wild West. The two do their classic shtick: thin British bumbler Laurel gets them into big messes; pompous fat American Hardy is only marginally less bumbling than Laurel, but lords over him like a king. The plot revolves around the deed to a gold mine which they mistakenly give to a pair of swindlers instead of its rightful owner but, as you could have guessed, the plot doesn't much matter.

A typical gag goes like this: Laurel claims that, if they don't get the deed back, he'll eat Hardy's hat. They fail to get the deed back. Hardy makes him eat the hat. Laurel takes three bites, crying after each one. Hardy gets mad that Laurel is eating the hat, takes it back. etc. What makes it worse is the obvious reference to Chaplin eating his shoe in Gold Rush - it's as if the comedians are reminding us we could be watching a better movie.
Sir Not Appearing in This Film

I am not an inhuman soulless monster. I certainly found parts of this little slapstick film amusing. The bit where Laurel stops a stagecoach by lifting his pants and exposing his bare leg, ala Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, is inspired. Numerous other charming little gags like this are sprinkled through the film, but most of the gags fall woefully flat; the jokes rarely rise above the level of Looney Tunes, without the visual panache and pure sense of fun of those classic cartoons.

The worst part of this all is that this is only one of at least two Laurel and Hardy films on this list. I am not looking forward to Sons of the Desert. But some things can't be helped.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Western Star of the Week #4: Henry Fonda

Star: Henry Fonda
1905-1982
Type: Hero
Height: Tall
Era: Classical Hollywood
Politics: Liberal

Go-to Director: John Ford
AFI Male Star Ranking: #6

Historical Importance: High

When John Ford made a movie, the odds were pretty good that John Wayne was gonna play the lead. But Ford also had his famous "stock company" of character actors (Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey Jr, Woody Strode, etc) who could take the lead if necessary. But before Wayne joined the company, and even after, there was one other actor who consistently took leading roles in Ford's movies: Henry Fonda

Like all the other actors we've discussed so far, Henry Fonda had a distinct persona. His character was the most fundamentally decent of all of them. For Ford he played a stalwart revolutionary soldier in Drums Along the Mohawk, one of literature's most sympathetic characters, Tom Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, and the greatest political hero in American history in Young Mr. Lincoln. In each of these roles, his plain-spoken manner, his earnest delivery, and his sympathetic humanity shone through. If John Wayne represented the rugged, hulking Western hero, Fonda was a gentler model - the searcher you'd actually allow in your house after his journey was done.

But as with Wayne and Stewart, Fonda made his greatest Westerns when he defied audience expectations. As with Stewart, Westerns were a place where Fonda could be a bit more troubled; his Western characters were frequently, in the great Western tradition, not immediately willing to stand up for the good and the true. And like Wayne, his greatest role asked him to go to a well of savagery that had never before been apparent.

The Movies:

1. Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone revolutionized the Western with his Clint Eastwood Man with No Name Trilogy, but his final Western was his greatest. In this movie, Jason Robards gets to play the outlaw with a heart of gold, and Charles Bronson plays the nameless hero. But it's the 63 year old Fonda who steals the whole movie as Frank. We're introduced to Frank when he brutally murders a homesteader and his children. Leone gives us the haunting closeups of Fonda's face that we're used to - the closeups to emphasize his fundamental decency - but this time, Fonda's blue eyes radiate not earnestness but hate. Frank is without a doubt the greatest villain in the entire history of Western movies; he's a vicious, power-hungry outlaw who rapes, tortures, and murders with absolutely no signs of remorse. And worst of all: he's played in an utterly convincing manner by the man we know as Wyatt Earp, as Juror #8, as Abraham Lincoln.

2. Fort Apache
The consensus seems to be that the best Ford-Fonda Western is My Darling Clementine. Although I love that movie, I much prefer the first entry in the Ford-Wayne cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache. Wayne plays his standard persona: a wise executive officer who honors the cavalry's Indian enemies and seeks peace between cultures. Fonda, on the other hand, once again breaks from his traditional role: his Colonel Owen Thursday is a thinly veiled version of General Custer, which means he's vain, foolhardy, and driven by a thirst for glory. Just as Frank gives Fonda a chance to show us what a great man looks like if he's driven by hate, Thursday shows us a driven man whose only motive is personal accomplishment. The results are predictably tragic.

3.The Ox-Bow Incident
Finally, a movie where Fonda plays Fonda. The Ox-Bow Incident, directed by William Wellmann, is one of the many anti-lynching movies produced by Hollywood, like Fury, except it's actually good. Fonda plays Gil Carter, who is neither a lynchee or a lyncher. He's just a cowboy who happens upon the impending disaster and witnesses it. He's our representative; we see the lynching through his eyes, and the fact that he neither participates in it nor risks himself to stop it is an indictment of us. Again, Fonda's status as the best of us makes this role what it is: of course none of us condone the lynching, and Fonda's face reflects that. But his inability to stop it, or even to put his life on the line, condemns us as well. Like High Noon, The Ox-Bow Incident was made as a political critique; unlike High Noon, it was a box office bomb. Fonda and Wellmann didn't care: The Ox-Bow incident was a masterpiece, and they knew it. It's also an antidote to the conservatism of Hawks, Ford, Wayne, Stewart, Cooper, and most of the other Western masters.

Other Westerns:
My Darling Clementine - the best Wyatt Earp story ever told
Jesse James - a fun outlaw story, with Fonda as Jesse's brother Frank
The Tin Star - Fonda gets the Anthony Mann treatment