Movies postsTuesday July 22, 2008
Dave Kehr: A history lesson every Tuesday
Tuesdays I know there will be at least one smart movie-related article to read: Dave Kehr’s DVD column in the New York Times, which tends to focus on recent releases of historical films rather than recent films rushed to DVD before they lose whatever slight cache they have. Here’s Kehr a few weeks ago comparing two screen goddesses:
Where Ms. Loren is a pagan goddess, all bosom and hips, with almond eyes and pillowy lips, Ms. Deneuve is a perfectly proportioned Renaissance angel, thin-lipped, wide-eyed and enveloped in a nimbus of golden hair. Ms. Loren has the imposing physical presence of a monumental statue; Ms. Deneuve the exquisite, pocket-size beauty of a cameo brooch. Ms. Loren invites us to live more intensely in our world; Ms. Deneuve exists in another space entirely, one surrounded by velvet ropes, and she’s not sure she wants to share it at all.
Kehr’s column today is about two horror films from 1933: Universal’s original Mummy and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s avant-garde follow-up to The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Vampyr.
Most of the Internet feels noisy to me — a zillion opinions shouting at each other without reason— but Kehr’s column feels quiet and dignified. I don’t feel anxious there. It’s as much as reflection on culture as it is on film. It is, as my friend Steve says, a history lesson every Tuesday.
The Dark Knight: The smartest superhero movie ever made
In case you haven’t heard, The Dark Knight had a better weekend than we did. It brought in $158 million (original estimate: $155 million), shattering the Spider-Man 3 mark of, what, $151 million, set last May.
What does this mean? It means that The Dark Knight will probably be the biggest box office hit of the year. Only twice this decade — and never since 2003 — has a film scored the year's biggest opening weekend without being the year's biggest box office hit. For once, that film is a critical hit, too, unlike last year’s Spider-Man 3 (mixed), 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (mixed) and 2005’s Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (mixed). Last I checked, Dark Knight had a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 84 on metacritic.com, which, for them, means “Universal acclaim.”
My review? Not quite that. I call it the smartest superhero movie ever made in an article on MSN. Check it out. Unless you came here from there, in which case you can check out my Huffington Post piece on Batman Forever.
And if you came here because you like David Carr or Robert Graves, see below.
Manohla Dargis gets it on with Batman, gives Superman the cold shoulder
Yep, The Dark Knight opens today. I've got some things to say about it (I saw it last Monday with my friend Tim at the Pacific Science Center's IMAX Theater) but it'll have to wait until MSN posts my piece on why the film is the smartest superhero movie ever made. Hint: It has something to do with this. Piece won't be up until Tuesday.
In the meantime I sit on the sidelines and read other comments. Manohla Dargis manages to write quite a bit without saying much about where the film goes, just how it goes, but she gets off some nice lines. She calls Christian Bale , “a reluctant smiler whose sharply planed face looks as if it had been carved with a chisel,” and who “slid into Bruce Wayne’s insouciance as easily as he did Batman’s suit.” She's also right on Heath Ledger, whose “death might have cast a paralyzing pall over the film if the performance were not so alive. But his Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once.”
She also calls the film “a postheroic superhero movie,” which isn't bad, but which I don't quite buy. A friend commented that the film has echoes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but for me a better comparision might be Angels with Dirty Faces. I.e., I show myself more heroic (to the movie audience) by being less heroic (to the movie characters). Does this mean postheroic? Could lead to a good discussion.
The Dargis lines that I truly disagree with are these: “Apparently, truth, justice and the American way don’t cut it anymore. That may not fully explain why the last Superman took a nose dive (Superman Returns, if not for long), but I think it helps get at why, like other recent ambiguous American heroes, both supermen and super-spies, the new Batman soared.”
Took a nose dive? At the box office? In 2006, Superman Returns made $200 million in the U.S., $391 million worldwide. A year earlier, Batman Begins, which she touts, made $205 million in the U.S., $371 worldwide. Not sure where the nose dive is. Sure, it didn't do as well as Warner Bros. hoped (i.e., it didn't do as well as Spider-Man), but it was hardly a disaster. Besides, for some people, including maybe me, the problem wasn't that this Superman wasn't dark enough but too dark. With Superman, I'd go for a PG rating to get the kids in. They went PG-13 and kept the 3-7 year-olds outside looking in. That's Supes' demographic.
Bob le flambeur
Last May I did a piece for MSNBC, to coincide with the opening of Paris je t’aime, on the Top 5 films set in Paris. It was an excuse to see more French films before a bike trip along the Canal du Midi in June and July. Unfortunately I screwed up the deadline, had to rush it, and even without the screw-up I didn’t have the depth of knowledge you’d need for a good piece on the subject. I still don’t (the more you know, the less you know, etc.), but a new list, or at least an addition to the list, would probably include Bob le flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 take on an aging gambler and a perfect crime caper. Those shots around Paris from a speeding car window in 400 Blows? Melville does it four years earlier around Montmartre: Gorgeous shots of a life that doesn’t exist anymore. For a genre film, made a few years before Truffaut, et al., broke, the movie feels very New Wave.
Many films are suggested in this one. A shot of Anne (Isabelle Corey) dancing alone to a jazz band reminded me of something Roger Vadim did with Brigette Bardot in Et Dieu...crea la femme — which featured Isabelle Corey as well. Obviously The Good Thief, with Nick Nolte, is a direct remake, but there are also strong elements of Bob le flambeur (the debonair, moralistic gambler with the young protégé) inPaul Thomas Anderson's Sydney or Hard Eight. The film is beloved.
For all the great metaphoric use of Montemartre as both heaven and hell (from Sacre Coeur to Pigalle), and for all of Henri Dacae's gorgeous early-morning cinematography, what’s interesting about the story, and please accept all the usual spoiler alerts here, is how it upends the perfect-crime caper. A gambler (Roger Duchesne), on a losing streak and near broke, decides to rob a casino with the usual team of handy and not-so-handy men. He drills them like a military unit. Parts of the scheme begin to unravel (an informant hears about it, tells the police) but are solidified again (the informant is killed for other reasons), and it’s set in motion even as the police are closing in.
Then the reason why it was necessary in the first place unravels. Bob, the point man in the casino, begins to gamble and his luck begins to change. He keeps winning, and winning, and he forgets all about the caper. After several hours he remembers, but his men and the cops arrive at the same time, there’s a shoot out, and Bob’s protégé, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), is killed. That’s a good take on the heist film: the heist never happens but the hero gets rich anyway. The denouement includes a good conversation between the cops and Bob on how much time Bob will do and what a good lawyer can buy you.
This is my fourth Melville film (Le Samouri, L’Armee des ombres, Le Cercle Rouge), and while I like him intellectually, his cool may be too cold for me. His leading men don’t intrigue. For all of Bogie’s cool, remember, he was a helluva talker.
The history of Batman: from les Vampires to George Clooney
As a way of introducing a new round of reviews in the Batman cycle, let me point, first, to M. Rhodes' European Film Report and his post from a week ago on the early silent-film influences on the creation of Batman, including Les Vampires from 1915, The Bat from 1926 and The Man Who Laughs (i.e., the Joker) from 1928. Some of the clips go on a bit long, and to seemingly silent purpose, but when, say, the vampire-girl swoops onto the stage with her bat cape, or when “The Bat” beams a “bat signal” onto the wall, it looks stunningly familiar. If the lead in Man Who Laughs looks familiar, it's because it's Conrad Veidt, the German actor who played everything from Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Major Strasser in Casablanca, and who was the first choice to play Dracula.
Rhodes' report is my kind of thing. How did we get where we are? How did such iconic characters as Superman and Batman come to be? Rhodes deals mostly with European cinema, which is why Douglas Fairbanks' Zorro isn't mentioned, but let me add, as a possible influence, from the newspapers, the murder of Fred Oesterrich in his home in 1922. His wife, Walburga, was charged with the murder but she was let go due to insufficient evidence. In 1930, a man named Otto Sanhuber claimed to have killed Oesterrich after living in Oesterrich's attic for more than 11 years. He was dubbed the “Batman” by the press. Who knows what influence this might have had when Bob Kane and Bill Finger were scratching their heads for superhero ideas in the wake of Superman in 1939. At the least, it's the first mention of a “Batman” in the New York Times in the 20th century.
Also, if you head over to the Movie Reviews section of this Web site, to the letter “B,” you'll find new reviews of the seven Batman serials and movies that prefigure the current Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale cycle: Batman (1943), Batman and Robin (1949), Batman: The Movie (1966), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). For most, it's probably too much information, but it's still a kind of exploration into how we got where we are.