Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Men on the Move

Like Jeff Goldblum in The Right Stuff ("It's called Sputnik!" "We know."), I'm flop-sweaty with excitement to belatedly report that the second season of Mad Men has made it's debut. I was a fan right from the start, and this year's debut did nothing to curtail my interest -- adding a dimension of ennui to Don (Jon Hamm) and some desperately needed steel to former blank-slate wife Betty (January Jones). The office politics continue to be riveting and comical, with Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery bringing energy and unpredictability to every scene. I promise I'll try to blog with more than surface cliches to subsequent episodes, but I find the show complex and mesmerizing in ways that are hard to wrap my mind around. For now, I encourage you to read Alan Sepinwall's take, as well as a refreshingly plainspoken review over at The House. I'm a little uneasy that Mad Men is now a bandwagon show, but for now it's still immeasurably more interesting than the arguments its naysayers are making against it.

Runs in the Family

By the end of Sidney Lumet's acclaimed 2007 heist-gone-wrong thriller Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, one brother, a drug addict (Philip Seymour Hoffman), will have talked another brother, a deadbeat (Ethan Hawke), into robbing a jewelry store owned by their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), one of whom will be shot while the other becomes consumed with justice to the point of killing one of his sons. For those who loathe family reunions, this is the film for you. It's also a movie for fans of theatrical acting and gritty 70s cinema, both still specialties of the 83-year-old Lumet, who like Altman in his remaining years shows no interest in retiring quietly. His style is as it's always been -- economical and no-frills, yet also showing more confidence and focus than he has in years.

Compelling on its own sleazy terms, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a good showcase for its actors, who give hardly revelatory but efficient performances. Hawke has always been a strange case for me: an actor I dislike, yet who has been in some very good movies. It's fun seeing him play a dopey screwup here, and I laughed out loud at his introduction, where he flees the scene of the robbery while wearing a cheesy fake mustache. While Hawke sweats and spins, Hoffman provides a still center; and the latter has been made to physically resemble Finney. Some critics accused Finney of overemoting for a big Oscar moment, but he's good in smaller scenes too, as when he casually flirts with the ladies at the BMV while renewing his driver's license. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is nothing new; but it's just old enough that it feels almost new. I guess that's enough.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Once More, with Freezing

Warning: Indirect hints of possible spoilers (that's vague, but trust me on this).

In the first -- and best -- musical number of the slight yet significant online webseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (cue Ryan Seacrest: "Available on iTunes!"), Neil Patrick Harris's title character, a wannabe evildoer so low on the food chain that he takes his clothes to the local laundromat, reveals his diabolical plan in a melancholy soprano that undermines his aspiring villainy. Nearby is Penny (Felicia Day), an unconventionally attractive redhead whom Billy (the young doc's real name) has a secret crush on. "With my freeze ray/I will stop the world," he sings, and as he points his finger at Penny while she dumps her "underthings" into a washing machine, he imagines time standing still, her basket of clothes suspended in the air. This image, a tossed-off fillip, is a prime example of what the director, Joss Whedon, has always done best: conveying depth of emotion through striking visual clarity.

In our era of comic-book blockbusters budgeted in the $150-$200 million range, Dr. Horrible looks like it cost about fifty bucks, and that's a large part of its appeal. By now most everyone knows that Whedon conceived the idea for this story during last year's writers' strike and decided to release the finished product online (incidentally, to phenomenal success). While its making may have been unconventional, Dr. Horrible will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has followed Whedon's television and movie work. Seth Green once said during a DVD commentary track of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode that what he loved about the show was that you always were given to understand where every character was coming from -- even the bad guys' motives had underpinnings rooted in human nature. Whedon takes that sense of empathy even further here, turning our sympathies toward Billy and away from his archnemesis, the crime-fighting crusader Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), who swoops in to save the day adorned in nothing more than a brown t-shirt and jeans, a tool whose name is all too fitting. Hammer has a history of foiling Horrible's convoluted plans, and unlike most superheroes he doesn't even try to maintain a secret identity. He wants all the glory; and after saving her life, he wants Penny too.

After the evident creative burnout in the final season of Buffy and the strain of the Firefly-spawned movie Serenity, it's heartening to see Whedon's jaunty confidence return. He and Harris are clearly on the same wavelength here, fashioning Billy/Dr. Horrible into an Internet nerd with delusions of grandeur -- comical, touching and dangerous by turns. Day, one of the supporting slayers-in-training on Buffy season 7, whose open face was eye-catching despite minimal dialogue, uses her sweetly sad countenance and lovely singing voice to heartbreaking effect as Penny, an advocate for the homeless who, unlike Billy, refuses to let the weight of the world get her down. Fillion plays Hammer as a fatuous gasbag who wants to do the right thing in order to get laid, who flirts with depth only to reject it. This is the best work of his career.

At less than forty minutes, Dr. Horrible is an entertaining doodle that should pave the way for more ambitious undertakings of its type. While brisk and enjoyable, it's tempting to imagine how the series could have developed its themes to their full potential over the arc of a complete season. As it stands, emotions are occasionally murky (such as Penny's mixed feelings for Captain Hammer), events happen abruptly, and key plot devices -- like Billy's videoblog, which should be the crux of the story -- are never completely developed. Moreover, the songs, while sufficient for advancing the plot as they were on the Buffy musical episode "Once More, with Feeling," are not nearly as resonant.

The climax does stick with you, if not for all the right reasons. It is there that Joss Whedon goes for the gut, as he is wont to do, and in so doing rather shamelessly exploits one of his leads. Come to think of it, I'm relieved that Dr. Horrible didn't last more than three swift acts; I don't think I could have handled a deeper emotional investment. This may be strictly my problem, or a matter of personal taste. Many continue to marvel at Whedon's ability to pull the rug out from under our expectations, but for others familiar with his work it may feel more like living along a faultline: you come to expect the tremors.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Panic Attack

I stopped reading comic books when I was eleven -- a sound decision, based on the arrested development of some of the commenters that greet the slightest criticism toward any film adaptation. (Unless the consensus is the movie stinks, in which case lock 'n' load.) Perhaps that is because, with few exceptions (Superman 2, Spiderman 2), comic book movies have never done it for me. This summer, even the ones that received good reviews (Iron Man, Hellboy II), have left me underwhelmed. Not cold exactly, but simultaneously hyped-up and deadened, like a kid after devouring a bag of Smartees.

The Dark Knight has received similar descriptions in a few quarters, and I have to admit that my head was pounding after seeing it. Today, brooding on the movie, I think that's because it has an abundance of ideas rather than an absence. By far the most compelling and disturbing Hollywood blockbuster of the summer (the competition is not fierce), The Dark Knight is Christopher Nolan's sequel to his own Batman Begins (2005), a film I enjoyed tremendously despite its flaws. Nolan couldn't stage a decent action scene, the editing was choppy, there were too many characters, and the movie not infrequently stopped dead in its tracks to hamfistedly address its theme. (In a nutshell: "Fear.") But it forged the link between Bruce Wayne and Batman -- and developed the character's arc from one to the other -- in a way that was convincing and stirring. The Dark Knight has many of the same problems yet is superior in almost every way. The previous film merely spoke of fear; this one makes you feel it in your bones.

This is largely due, of course, to the Joker -- both in the conception of the character and Heath Ledger's performance in the part. In Tim Burton's still overrated original Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson's version charted the character's trajectory from petty thug to supervillain, but the Joker was still all Jack, an extension of the actor's persona. Part of the impact of this Joker may be the fact that he's already complete at the start of the film, fully formed yet frighteningly elusive -- he has no arc. (A more pretentious review might suggest that he's the product of our collective id, but I'll just paraphrase Bruce Wayne's own observation that he springs into Gotham like a demonic Jack-in-the-box.) Yet I suspect most of the character's effect comes from Ledger himself. For all the publicity surrounding his tragic death (at the grocery store last week, I overheard one teenage employee repeat to another the apocrypha that "Playing the Joker killed him") and his popularity in other movies, I'm willing to bet that most of the audience will find him virtually unrecognizable here: fluid; grotesque; over-the-top yet exactly right. From Brokeback Mountain to I'm Not There to now The Dark Knight, Ledger was an unpredictable young actor with astonishing range, and his Joker puts to shame the Tolkien-reject bad guys in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. He's a rarity: a villain who feels like a genuine threat.

Batman, in contrast, looks considerably less a hero this time around. In Chris Nolan's script (co-written by his brother Jonathan Nolan), the character's own trajectory is more internal, a serious questioning of how far he's willing to go -- how far he needs to go -- to stop a madman. My mother has often said that you can't rationalize an irrational person, and Batman/Bruce Wayne spends too much time in the early stages of the movie doing exactly that. Distinguishing this threat from Gotham's patented mobsters, Bruce's butler Alfred explains that "Some men just want to see the world burn." (For all the criticism of Michael Caine's dialogue, this line has been quoted with great frequency.) Indeed, the Joker appears to have no interest in money or vengeance or anything tangible. His primary objective is to cause panic in the streets, and in the strong middle section of the movie he does exactly that. Another reason that the Joker is such a terrific villain is because Batman, the police force (led by soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon), and the newly galvanized D.A.'s office (led by "Two-Face" Harvey Dent) have become highly formidable. In a refreshing change of pace in movies, they do their jobs well, and this ups the ante for the Gotham underworld to raise their game.

Unlike the bizarrely underpopulated Iron Man, The Dark Knight has a sprawling ensemble that features bit players having big moments even if a few of the major actors get short-shrifted. As the dashingly blond Harvey Dent, whose transformation is the film's most tragic element, Aaron Eckhart turns in what may be his strongest performance yet. (I've never been a fan.) Maggie Gyllenhaal adds maturity and mischief in replacing Katie Holmes's high-school talent-show shtick as Assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes. Monique Curnen conveys much emotion with little dialogue in the small but key role of Detective Ramirez, and Philip Bulcock has a startling scene as a square-jawed cop who gets his buttons pushed by the Joker in a police station interrogation room.

As the titular character, Christian Bale is less effective than he was in Batman Begins, perhaps because, as at least one commenter elsewhere has noted, we don't see the full impact of the events on Bruce Wayne. Nevertheless, Bale, always a resourceful performer, doesn't get nudged completely offscreen the way Michael Keaton was in Burton's Batman and especially Batman Returns (where he was nearly a non-entity compared to Danny DeVito's Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman). The Joker may be in-your-face but Batman remains under-the-skin, even as the film unravels in the final act and gets a little relentless. I'm not sure how I feel about the final choices made by a few of the principal characters in The Dark Knight, a pair of lies -- one political, the other personal -- designed to give both the citizens of Gotham and Bruce a reason to keep living and keep fighting. Regardless, the climax keeps the movie real, yet fixed squarely in the realm of myth. The odd thing about Christopher Nolan is his uncanny knack to botch the execution of his message yet render it meaningful anyway, a talent perhaps similar to that of Batman himself.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Pre-Holiday Quickies

In theaters: WALL-E follows what is becoming a traditional pattern for Pixar releases: rapturous hosannas from critics, followed by gripes from moviegoers. The complaints leveled at this film have been more than the norm: it's too quiet; too dark; too anti-American, etc. I'm somewhere in the middle of the crossfire. It's more sweet, less manically exhausting than most of their movies. I'm with the conventional wisdom that the first half is the best, putting us deep in the lonely world of its robot protagonist and his budding romance with the trigger-happy EVE. The second half, when the two characters board the star cruiser populated with overweight humans, is more satirical but also flat. Both halves are incredibly derivative, ripping off paying homage to E.T., 2001, even The Triplets of Belleville. Despite the objections that it's not for kids, the tykes in my audience were surprisingly quiet and attentive, save for the Russell Brown-type in the row behind me who kept a Socratic dialogue going with his parents about everything that was happening. I enjoyed WALL-E more than most Pixar fare; it's an ambitious change of pace that goes disappointingly conventional only near the end. Any film that derivatively puts "Also Sprach Zarathustra" on its soundtrack has no claims of being a masterpiece. Hasn't postmodernism ended yet?

Catching up on DVD: Blades of Glory, the Will Ferrell/Jon Herder figure skating spoof, is intermittently funny and gleefully silly, less enjoyable than Walk Hard but Ferrell's hilarious machismo-on-ice shtick elevates it above just about every other comedy out there. Cloverfield, the hyped-up before it bottomed-out monster-on-the-rampage movie, is very clever and viscerally effective, darker than expected, but ultimately not very fun. The creature is a disappointing blank (as are its giant arachnid-like spawn). Better actors would have better conveyed the 9/11 emotionalism that the filmmakers were going for; as it stands, their anonymity would make them representatives for ourselves were they not all pretty pin-ups.

Maybe Cloverfield could have used the casting director of National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, who deserves a bonus for persuading Ed Harris, Helen Mirren and Bruce Greenwood (best of all, as a President one can only dream of) to join the likes of Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, and of course Nicolas Cage for another ridiculous sub-Indiana Jones/Mission Impossible romp through historically-themed puzzles and clues a notch or two more complicated than the Daily Jumble. Nevertheless, the director, Jon Turteltaub, livens the pace more than the original National Treasure, which I couldn't get through. This sequel held my attention all the way to the big finish, in an ancient subterranean dwelling beneath Mount Rushmore, where Turteltaub somehow persuaded his ensemble of esteemed actors to play in neck-deep water. Also now on DVD, National Treasure 2 is no big deal, but unlike The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it bothers to create characters and set up plot points with actual payoffs. You know, kooky stuff. Perhaps I have things backwards: maybe Spielberg and Lucas are now sub-Turteltaub.