The Summer Rewind: Dark Knights of the Soul

There’s no getting around it. My summer viewing was piss-poor, almost indefensibly so. Along with that, I’ve let the blog falter longer than ever, and it’s left me unsure why I even still do it, or why I ever did. I’m not that anal about anything else, that’s for certain.

At any rate, I also lost the first version of this piece, so in order to post anything at all, I’m going to have to write extremely brief reviews of the films I watched this summer. Hey, that’s the trend on the web anyway, right? (Buzzfeed!) No one wants to read anything lengthy.

As befits the season of light-thinking, the summer was filled with iconic characters: superheroes, secret agents and cops—with some most serious fare to keep me, even somewhat loosely, in some facsimile of the real world.

Without further delay, here we go:

The Avengers (2012) dir. by Joss Whedon

Thor (2011) dir. by Kenneth Branagh (that’s right)

Why not start here? If you would have told me years ago that the BIGGEST FILM OF ALL TIME would have been based on a bunch of comics I read as a kid, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I was glad I saw The Avengers, if only in part to be in touch with the zeitgeist–and also so I never have to see it again. This is not an indication of my snobbery; I’ll slum in genre with the worst of them. It’s more a function of my advancing age. While the relentless pace of the film is leavened somewhat by Mark Ruffalo’s sly work as Bruce Banner and, naturally, laugh machine Robert Downey, the second half is one big KA-CLANG, as if you were sitting right next to the cowbell during a Blue Oyster Cult show. It is a movie, I’m afraid, more to be endured than loved, although I realize millions disagree.

It is why I was slightly surprised by Thor—after a slam-bang (in a bad way) first act, it mellows out, largely thanks to Chris Hemsworth’s surfer-dudeism and Branagh’s theatrical skill. I have no idea what Natalie Portman was doing there, but I was happy to see her.

“Trains will be single-tracking south of Fort Totten station.”

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman Begins (2005)

dir. by Christopher Nolan

Tonally different, of course, than the rockem-sockem Avengers, because Chris Nolan believes in THEMES. (Duality. Get it? GET IT?) But in spite of my snark, I’m a defender of the trilogy and its bloated third installment. Nolan deserves credit for building a plausible world in which a man such as Batman could exist—and chronicling all of the good and bad that comes with it.

DKR, which I am forcibly bound to label it via internet convention, doesn’t hang together nearly as well as The Dark Knight, starting with Bane (He’d make a great Metro train operator; you can’t understand a word he says) and ending with, well, the ending. Also, how did Bruce’s knee get better? Really, I was wondering that the entire movie. It was distracting. And I thought the decision to put Bats on the shelf for eight years after the events of Dark Knight undercut the effectiveness of the ending of that film. Also:  I was so mad at myself for not seeing the Big Reveal before it came that I realized that spectacles like this are ideally crafted for moviegoers like me, who tend not to think much at all during them. Looking forward to the next series reboot, in which Batman is now 22.


Dirty Harry (1971) dir. by Don Siegel

Tightrope (1984) dir. by Richard Tuggle
Seems fitting to transition to a film that, when it was released in 1971, evoked the same criticism that was leveled at The Dark Knight Rises, in that it celebrated a quasi-fascist state where citizens have little freedom and law enforcement is deified.  What Eastwood’s Harry Callahan truly represented, however, was the so-called Silent Majority, Richard Nixon’s America, one that was ostensibly tired of hippies, liberals, defense lawyers and the Fourth Amendment.  But where Nolan’s Batman sees Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s patrolman as allies, Callahan has nothing but contempt for colleagues and criminals alike. The surrender of his badge at the close of the film suggests a man out of time whose barbarism meshes poorly with the progressive environment. Also, if you leave your politics at the door, you’ll notice that Dirty Harry is a hell of a thriller, expertly framed and shot against the backdrop of San Francisco by Eastwood’s mentor, Don Siegel.

Thirteen years later, in Tightrope, Eastwood continued to subvert his Dirty Harry persona as he had begun to do in a series of movies in the late ‘70s and early 80s (The orangutan films?  Anyone?). Eastwood’s Wes Block has little of Callahan’s bravado, favors fetishism, and visits call girls. Enter a serial killer who does much the same. Thankfully (or incompetently?) the story settles the question of whether Eastwood is, in fact, the killer early on, allowing viewers to simply coast along with the Grade B plotline. The prurient side of Clint, sadly, is more creepy than titillating. And the ending is shamelessly manipulative.

Drive (2011) dir. by Nicolas Winding Refn

Thief (1981) dir. by Michael Mann

The loner has a code. The city is a violent place, its wet surfaces aglow with neon. The girl offers a chance of escape, of a different life. The dialogue is terse. The action backed by a synthesized beat.

Why Nicolas Winding Refn wanted to recreate the 80s crime thriller vibe epitomized by Mann’s film work (as well as, of course, his Miami Vice and William Friedkin’s underrated To Live and Die in LA) is beyond me. The influences are so heavy, so unmistakable in the film, that I never could decide if he was playing it straight. (The pop vocals on the soundtrack, Ryan Gosling’s mask, and the presence of Albert Brooks as a heavy only deepen the confusion, suggesting none of this is meant to be taken literally. ) Regardless, Drive is a nifty standalone film, with action that shocks the mind rather than dulls the senses. And it even made me like Gosling, which I had considered impossible.

Thief, however, is the superior film. What Refn and Gosling imply, Mann and James Caan make stark. Like the best noir, there is a desperation in Caan’s actions, a sense of pushing back against onrushing doom. While Gosling’s character is a loner because, well, the film calls for him to be one (He might as well be called “Loner” instead of “Driver”), Caan becomes one at the close of the film because it’s the only choice left to him. It makes the film that much more poignant. Gosling is yet another version of the Man With No Name. Caan’s character has lost something worse: The man he dreamed of becoming.

Une femme est une femme….

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) dir. by Steve Kloves

I feel like this terrific, modest film gets overlooked when lists are made of the best works of the 80s. Michelle Pfeiffer, as noted previously, plays the tough chick as well as anyone. She was really on a roll then. The movie is immensely shaggy  and episodic, with small victories and temporary setbacks. The stakes are never large, but the feeling is genuine. Beau Bridges is the hero of the picture, simply for being willing, as he has his whole career, to let his brother be the charismatic one.

Welcome to Palookaville

The Fighter (2011) dir. by Darren Aronofsky

Jesus, this thing is a full-course meal of pure Massachusetts Malarkey. The film feels like a competition to see which actor can pull off the most obnoxious accent and assume the trashiest character. Winner: Christian Bale, freed from the cape and cowl, who summons every one of his tics and tricks. (Check out his teeth, for God’s sake.) It’s as if Rocky Balboa had a meth-addled brother and a dozen sisters and he lived a blue-collar life in Lowell, Mass. Wait, it’s exactly that. But hell, it works, I guess. It’s so over-the-top that you have to surrender at some point to its conventions. Also, Amy Adams can do no wrong.

Fletch (1985) dir. by Michael Ritchie

Sigh. I’m afraid this hasn’t aged well, at all. Still, no escaping its place in my youth as a source of endlessly quotable material.  “It’s all ball bearings these days!” (The number one movie in this regard remains Ghostbusters.) But much of the shtick is now downright painful.

Don’t bother me. I’m, like, brooding.

The Girlfriend Experience (2008) dir. by Steven Soderbergh

A much better film that I expected. Soderbergh made two key decisions, one that worked, and one that probably didn’t. The first, and strongest, is that he turned a story about a high-class call girl into a study of needy male egos very specifically set on the verge of the Wall Street collapse and the 2008 election. The second, naturally, was the casting of porn star (I think I’m supposed to call her a former porn star) Sasha Grey as that selfsame call girl. Grey’s affectless, stilted manner, we are led to believe, is intentional. (She’s a cold-hearted businesswoman who uses her body as an instrument, a professional. Get it?) But the problem is that she is unable to give her character much emotional weight, even as she in the course of the film suffers a profound romantic disappointment.  Sometimes a bad actress is just a bad actress.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) dir. by John Ford

John Ford’s story of the slow disintegration of a Welsh mining town family, it’s best remembered for being the film that took the Oscar from Citizen Kane. And while this is unabashedly sentimental, it’s grounded in enough hardcore reality than it remains powerfully evocative of dawn and death of the Industrial Age. It’s a beautifully photographed work. And it has characters with names such as Mr. Gruffydd.

Irreversible (2002) dir. by Gaspar Noe

Wonder what John Ford would have thought of Gaspar Noe? Noe’s revenge flick is notorious for the extended rape sequence featuring Monica Bellucci, a truly brutalizing piece of film that shames and horrifies all involved, including the audience. Told in a backwards narrative, it’s really a lurid potboiler that invites all sort of unsettling questions. Is Noe exploiting sexual assault? Is he reveling in it? Why does Bellucci’s character dress so provocatively? Why is the story really about the men in her life and has so little to do with her as a person? Noe tries to draw a parallel between sexual objectification in an intimate context and true, angry rape. But such a connection flies in the face of conventional feminist wisdom. And maybe that is the point.

Films such as Irreversible try to have it both ways. Recently, I saw the new release Seven Psychopaths, by the Irish director Martin McDonagh, which, in the midst of winking at viewers about how badly women characters in crime thrillers are treated, proceeds to, in fact, treat its women characters badly. Is such a construction a valid exercise of meta-filmmaking or is it simply a Get Out of Jail Free card that allows male directors to be misogynistic?

The Iron Giant (1999) dir. by Brad Bird

See also Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Bird is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today. This is an exceptionally touching, exquisitely crafted film.  I’ve become aware (Boy, have I) that it is exceptionally difficult to make a movie that works for kids but engages adults at the same time. Bird is a master of it.

Jaws (1975) dir. by Steven Spielberg

Finally on blu ray and more fabulous than ever, Jaws has long been denigrated by cinephiles as the first summer blockbuster, the crowd-pleaser that brought about The Death of 70s Film and led, directly, to, well, The Avengers, I guess. (We all know who really killed 70s film. 70s filmmakers.) But the correct way to view Jaws is as perhaps the last true Hollywood studio film, even though Spielberg shot it on location and used verisimilitude in a way the old pictures never did. Jaws is a Howard Hawks movie, through and through.

It’s a thriller, monster movie, adventure film, hangout film, and a black comedy all in one. It’s Rio Bravo on a boat.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) dir. by Otto Preminger

Frank Sinatra as a dope addict and jazz musician named Frankie Machine. Kim Novak as the woman who loves him. It’s a Preminger film, which means it deals with adult subjects, like you know, dope addiction. This was Sinatra’s attempt at out-Brandoing Brando. It didn’t work, but it’s a nice try.

Not to be confused with The Man With the Golden Gun, which featured Christopher Lee as an assassin with three nipples.

Return to Palookaville

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) dir. by Brad Bird

I’ll be honest. I probably had more fun watching this movie than anything I viewed all summer. It has an absolutely goofy sense of fun—and never once becomes ponderous or tries to take itself too seriously. Bird, the director behind The Incredibles and Ratatouille, helmed this and basically made a live-action cartoon, with terrific stunts and rollicking twists and turns. No self-reflection here, action fans. Just popcorn and more popcorn.  Bonus points for having Tom Cruise complete the ridiculous stunt of jumping from one part of a Dubai skyscraper to another, only to hit his head on the window on the way down. Warner Brothers couldn’t  have done that better.

Planet of the Apes (1968) dir. by Franklin J. Schaffner

Watched this with my 7-year-old daughter and she was riveted. At her age, I was drawn as well to this tale of a human astronaut scenery-chewing his way through Ape City. But now the Vietnam and civil rights allegories announce themselves with full force. Like all great science fiction, this was social commentary closeted in pulp action.

Roman Holiday (1953) dir. by William Wyler

Every time I see this, I like Eddie Albert’s character more and more. One of the great wingmen in movie history and ahead of his time. My daughter is still trying to separate Audrey Hepburn from Katharine. (She is named for the latter.) But that’s okay. Young girls like Audrey. Grown women like Kate.

The Rum Diary (2011) dir. by Bruce Robinson

Uh. I guess it’s good to see Johnny Depp not playing a pirate. But other than the production design, this is hard film to remember and one that was exceptionally difficult to follow. Depp is in Hunter S. Thompson mode, which means antics to the nth degree, but the whole effort feels forced, like one more bender when your body can’t take it anymore.

Superman (1978) dir. by Richard Donner

Loved it, of course, as a kid. This time around though, I saw it what it was, a true epic, with a deep heart. From the opening Krypton scenes, to the John Fordian section of Clark growing up in Kansas, to the truly thrilling sequence where Superman reveals himself, to the action-filled climax. Donner does it all with a good dose of humor and a correct sense of proportion. Thor wishes it could it be this good. At almost 30 years old, still a candidate for the greatest superhero film in history.

A new telling of the “The Idiot” by Dostoyevsky.

Terminal Velocity (1994) dir. by Deran Sefarian

What can I say?The blu ray was four dollars. And I overpaid. But I can defend this movie. (Well, sort of.) This, like Big Trouble in Little China, to which it is never compared, features a hero in Charlie Sheen notably more dim-witted than everyone else in the movie. In fact, just about every character, especially slinky Nastassja Kinski, can’t help commenting it throughout the thriller plot, as if they are impatient that Sheen is a step behind them and the audience, as well. Say what you want, no one plays a callow dim bulb with an inflated sense of his own greatness like Charlie Sheen. Mix in Russian agents (James Gandolfini!), skydiving, rocket sleds, nuclear weapons and a three-legged dog and you have, something. I’m not sure what it is.

By the way, in one of those synchronicities that only seem to happen in Hollywood, there were actually two, two skydiving oriented action thrillers released in the same year. (The other one was Drop Zone with Sheen’s former Indians teammate, Wes Snipes. Terminal Velocity is better. That’s all you need to know.)

True Grit (1969) dir by Henry Hathaway

The original, featuring the Duke. The Coen brothers’ recent update is superior in every way except for one. But it’s a big ‘un.  I ended up preferring John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn to Jeff Bridges’ Lebowskied, marble-mouthed one. I know. I know. It’s about subverting tropes, bending genres, blah, blah. But Wayne, truly, is more fun. I would have loved to see him matched up against Hailee Stanfield’s Mattie Ross.

25th Hour (2002) dir. by Spike Lee

Bravo. Hands down the best film I saw all summer and probably all year. An absolute revelation that had me reconsidering Spike Lee’s considerable gifts. A small-scale story about an overwhelming subject, 9/11, Lee crafted film that is both impressionistic and firmly grounded in the now, one filled with a great, penetrating sadness but an intimate, lasting warmth.  Like with the best Scorsese, a fever touches everything, lending a aura of subjective perspective. Parts feel like a dream. It’s strongly reminiscent of a time when people really did believe America could become a better place after the fall of the Towers. That makes this film not just a monumental achievement, but a wistful time capsule. If there is justice, it should only grow more appreciated with time.

Une femme est un femme…

A Woman Is a Woman (1961) dir. by Jean-Luc Godard

My education in the films of Godard and the French New Wave continues, this time with 100% more Anna Karina. As meta in its concept as anything released today. I’m probably still trying to understand it.

Woman in the Window (1944) dir. by Fritz Lang

Mild-mannered professor Edward G. Robinson is dragged into a lurid tale of sexual intrigue and murder by, you guessed it, the woman in the window, Joan Bennett.  It all becomes a nightmare for our poor professor, who likes to think he’s smart enough to cover up a crime. The film suggests a punishment exists for indiscretion, but, then, there’s that twist ending.


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