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9x9x9: The Dark Knight–If you’re good at something, never do it for free.

The first two times I saw this movie, I had a high level of disdain for it (chronicled here and here).

But the last dozen times I’ve seen it in toto or in pieces, I’ve come to realize that I was kind of dead wrong on all accounts except for the first half of my first review.

Because what I failed to realize then is something that I touched on in my Billy Madison article: it’s a genre film and it only has to deliver along genre lines to be good. That is, it’s an super hero/action film so it really only has to deliver shit blowing up and our hero saving the day to be any good.

But this film enters the echelon of great–and I realize, now, that it is great–because it does everything necessary to make it good with perfection. And then it lays on that “shallow philosophizing,” to paraphrase myself from two years ago, and does that to perfection as well.

Before, I was holding it to the standards of being, like, an emotion heavy film that comments on life with shit blowing up. But that’s backwards.

This movie’s standards are blow shit up then comment on life. Shoot first, ask questions later, etcetera.

So I was wrong on that part.

The one part that has remained great, though, are the action sequences and the overall photographic mood of the film. Every scene is lit and captured perfectly. There is an emotional timbre throughout the film, and it’s rationed out at just the right pace for viewer-ennui to never set in.

This took me nine times and a bottle of Jack to realize.[1]

It’s been said many times over that this film is basically a remake of Heat with superheroes. It makes sense. Both have ambiguous heroes and villains that cause just as much destruction to society as to themselves and their closest companions.

That’s great for a giant-ass summer picture like this.

The other thing that really helped me like this movie was seeing X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was completely antithetical to this film.

Wolverine realized it was a genre movie and that it only had to deliver so much in order to be successful.[2] This might’ve been 20th Century Fox’s fault. I’ve heard that they like to deliver as little as possible to get as much money as possible. This is why I’m afraid of what’ll happen to the Aronofsky helmed sequel to Origins.

But, so, okay. Wolverine was made and released because people wanted more scenes of Wolverine fucking shit up. So they delivered that.

With Batman as a character though, his cinema ties are a lot deeper and we’ve been watching him fuck shit up for years. The difference, now, is that we’ve already explored an entire universe for the Batman superhero. We’ve experienced the camp and the kook. With Nolan at the helm, it seems like he wanted to turn all that on its ear beginning with Batman Begins, just to see what would happen.

As opposed to the 60’s Batman and the late-90’s Batman, our hero isn’t making jokes and he doesn’t have Robin there as comic relief (Chris O’Donnell should never be allowed on set of any future Batman movies. Just saying). The Dark Knight offers no relief—and it does this because the movie is a reflection of its setting. Right now, with the Joker making a mess of both above- and underground society, there is no relief to living in any part of the city. So the movie doesn’t back down from handling the material in such a way that everything clicks. It makes sense that it’s dark because everything in Gotham has gone dark. So, then, you begin to connect with residents of Gotham and what the authorities have to deal with.

The other major thing that I failed to realize was this: when was the last time a major motion picture killed off its main love interest that was a well established character? That whole sequence came as a total shock to me because movies with budgets this big are trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And the LCD usually doesn’t like it when people you’ve liked since the first movie die. So it was really brave of them to pull that card as well as making Bruce Wayne choose between the good of himself and the good of society by choosing Harvey Dent. It’s like that age old question of “Would you rather get killed or have 1,000 people killed instead.”

Christopher Nolan (right) working with Gary Oldman and Heath Ledger

Batman makes the tough choice, and ostensibly the right one.

Until that right choice loses his own faith in humanity and turns into the problem. Oh shit. Now what.

So this movie is on a totally different emotional plane than most other movies in its genre for that very reason. Most just build a character and kill it off to make you care about the lily-white protagonist. This movie builds and kills off just to ask more questions and make the viewer panic even more and have them ask, “when is this going to end?’

At the point you begin to ask that question is the exact moment where you’ve made the emotional connection with Batman—fucking Batman. Holy rusted metal Batman. You made an emotional connection with his psychoemotional struggles.

Let’s see Wolverine do that.

In conclusion: I was wrong two years ago and I finally have a stage to retract my comments. I was wrong. This movie’s awesome. It makes you feel something which is more than you could ever ask from a movie where a semi truck goes ass over tea kettle, which is awesome enough in its own right.


[1] More like watching it while drinking beer mixed with tequila and lime juice. I call it the Optimus Prime. It’s delicious.

[2] I’ll be the first to admit that using this film is a strange antithesis just because they tried the same strategy of bringing in an indie-film darling to direct a major motion picture (Gavin Hood, who did Tsotsi).

9x9x9: Billy Madison–you gotta get your ass out there and find that fucking dog.

I was in 3rd grade when this film came out and my mom took me to see it in theaters.

It was PG-13, it was Adam Sandler, it seemed acceptable. A few others in my classroom saw it, too, and we were the lucky ones. The upper echelon of cool to third graders.

Since then, this movie became another family classic like Blazing Saddles–one that I’ve seen an innumerable amount of times, that I can quote with regularity, that’s a mainstay for sick days.

But it’s not until now that I begin to consider it critically.

Let’s put it out there, it’s in no way a high-art all time greatest film. But it’s fucking hilarious. And that’s all it needed to be for it to be rendered a success.

Comedy is a genre that can get by with its laughs. Horror gets by with its thrill. Action with its explosions. They are films built for for a purpose and a set reaction. If you can illicit the promised reaction–irregardless of whether or not it comments on some facet of life–then it has accomplished what it promised. The Slasher films or grossout comedies that both deliver on their promise and make some comment on life are the high echelon–Punch Drunk Love, Heat, Cache, etc.

Billy Madison isn’t one those films. But it’s goddamn good at doing what it came to do. Like an excellent carpenter who says he’s gonna build you the best fucking cabinet you’ve ever seen, this movie says it’s gonna deliver gut busting laughs. It does.

This is Adam Sandler at the top of his game in the first film of his late-90’s dominance as the box office king of comedy. He would develop better characters later (Robbie in the Wedding Singer) but this is him just developing his arrested-development character that he’s used throughout his film career.

There is a very interesting element to it, structure-wise.  It’s built as a kid’s film. Like, there’s the requisite life lesson about believing in yourself, and clear cut lines vis a vis the characters. There’s the princess to rescue, the flawed hero, the single-dimensioned villain, the villain’s good-hearted assistant who got hired by the wrong team. There’s even a musical number.

The only real difference between this film and a marketed-as-a-kids movie is that the adult jokes that are subtle in something by Pixar or Dreamworks is overt in this film.

I'll turn this goddamn bus around. Then there'll be no goddamn field trip.

 

It’s interesting to consider, then, that as a child, you didn’t understand those jokes. And, seeing this film, kids don’t understand those jokes–and most everything else that Chris Farley says. They may be far more pronounced/cheeky, but they still remain lost on the child’s limited range of understanding.

When I was in third grade, the only thing that really stuck with me was the fact they said “fuck.” This was the first instance of ever hearing that in a PG-13 film, so it was exciting to experience an “R-Rated” element or whatever I would conceptualize it as as a third grader.

But, then again, any child will get it when Billy makes out with a picture of Veronica and tweaks her imaginary nipples. That didn’t go unnoticed by me, and as a result, I had to close my eyes.

This film, then, is simply a kids movie for adults. One that can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike without the stigma of “seeing a kids movie” even though that’s ostensibly what it is.

9x9x9: Star Trek 2009–wictor wictor 9,2 (access denied)

I had no previous affiliations with Star Trek before this movie. To be honest, my mental image of the show and the movies was that it was stodgy and overly thoughtful vis a vis trying to be a cultural voice of reason over a sci-fi show.

And that’s fine. M*A*S*H* worked great like that, too. It was a show of my parents’ age and, since my parents never watched it, I never watched it.

I only saw this reboot because shit blew up in space. At least, the first time.

I saw a second time because I was blown away by how well paced, well acted, well scored, well directed, and well put together the movie is.

I saw it a third time because I had the chance to see it in IMAX. Simple as that.

But I wouldn’t have seen it subsequent times if it weren’t a great movie, and one that made me actually start watching Trek in syndication on late night television.

Let’s start with the first ten minutes of the film–when George Kirk only hears his son’s first breathes as he flies into the ship to save 800 lives. This movie starts off with a powerful setpiece that packs a lot of emotion and kickass visuals into a small amount of space.

To the untrained eye, this is just something that’s really cool. But to the trekker, this is the first indication that this is a different Star Trek, on a different timeline. Spock Prime mentions this later in the film when he tells Kirk that he knew his father, and that that was the reason he went into Starfleet.

In this universe, his dad dies about 30 seconds after his birth.

And James T. Kirk as a small boy is a rebellious little Iowan. The first scene we see of him is after he’s stolen his dad’s incredibly vintage car, goes out for a joyride, and then drives it off a cliff.

Cut to Vulcan where young Spock is terrorized by full blooded Vulcans because he has a human mother. Then he beats the shit out of their ringleader. And bleeds green.

These first three portions of the film are fucking awesome. They’re paced quickly, and throw you headlong into this universe by giving you a glimpse of them as children.

The rest of the movie is just as badass, I promise.

 

JJ Abrams works with his cast on the bridge.

 

The biggest thing for me about this movie is one I didn’t find out about until I got the special edition DVD and watched some of the behind the scenes featurettes. It turns out that director JJ Abrams wanted to use as much practical effects and real locations as possible–this is why they filmed the scenes on the engineering deck of the Enterprise in a brewery instead of building a set (though when Kirk gets marooned on an ice planet, that part was shot in a parking lot. You do what you can).

The other thing they showed was that Abrams would slap the camera body during scenes to get the shaky effect of being on an starship in battle. This is something that’s really easy to do in post–Final Cut calls it the “Earthquake” (or Short Cuts [spoiler alert link]?)–but looks so much more authentic when the actual apparatus doing the filming is shaking.

It didn’t stop there, either. The VFX guys decided to enhance some of their footage by putting a motion capture device on a desk, slapping the desk, and adding the movement to the “camera” of the CGI. I thought that was pretty wicked that they continued this idea to its endth instead of trying to make it look completely perfect and thereby inorganic/completely different from the shakiness of the onboard shots.

As these last 300 words can attest to, this is a movie that allows nerds to completely go balls deep about. There’s so many little intricacies and fun things about the production to discover. To someone like me, the discovery heightened the viewing experience.

Even if you aren’t a nerd or a geek or a Trekker or whatever, there’s still a lot to appreciate about this movie.

The cinematography is fantastic for a modern day action film. I have no qualms about Baycam, it’s shakiness, or it’s lack of geographic continuity for the viewer, but this film is done in a completely different style that actually shows you a wide angle on what’s occurring as well as shaky closeups. Watch an action scene from Transformers then watch, say, those opening ten minutes. Completely different, right?

And I like that about this movie. It’s completely different  by its eschewing both modern action aesthetics and it’s actual, y’know, storyline.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films started this whole rash of thoughtful, compelling, tentpole films that focus on story as well as kickass visuals.

Sure, Spiderman and Spiderman 2 did this, but there was no darkside to it. And that’s the major difference–tentpoles are free to play, now, with the whole psyche of a character. It’s almost becoming expected.

When it doesn’t occur–cf, X-Men Origins: Wolverine–it’s even more disappointing than it used to be because of great big beautiful films like the Dark Night and Star Trek and Watchmen. At least it’s disappointing to me. I like story. I like shit blowing up. I like set pieces. I like shakycam. Make me care about what’s going on and you’ll guarantee my ass will be in the seat again.

This movie makes me care about what’s going on. It builds characters deep enough to care about and intriguing enough to keep your attention. I love that Spock flares up with rage from time to time. I love that Capt. Kirk is arrogant and confident.

I’m pretty sure I’ve gone on record and stated that Michael Giacchino is my favorite composer right now. His score in this film is probably some of his best work. The problem, though, is that I haven’t really figured out how to articulate how well a score works for me. So we’ll leave it at that.

This movie’s sequel is due in 2012. I hope the world doesn’t end before I get to see it in IMAX.

9x9x9: Lost Highway–Dick Laurent is Dead

 

Robert Blake plays the devil. Then his murder trial delayed the DVD release. Coincidence? Not fuckin' likely.

 

I don’t remember what sparked my desire to see this movie–it might’ve been that it was Richard Pryor’s final appear in a film though he’s only in it for about 30 seconds.

I do remember that it was really hard to find because of Robert Blake and his murder trial. At least that’s what I had heard was delaying the DVD release.

The first time I saw it, it was on a bootleg dvd from Europe (don’t worry, I bought the DVD once it came out, and destroyed that copy. Or sold it in Santee Alley. You’ll never know.)

This was also the first true mindfuck movie I’d ever seen. So it absolutely blew my mind as the movie turned in on itself at about the halfway point, then turned around at the end of it and started all over.

Essentially, this movie is an ouroboros[1]. Or a Mobius Strip[2]. It starts at one place and ends at the same place, but on the other side of the wall.

The main part of the film that fucks with everyone’s mind is when the perverse world of Bill Pullman the avant garde saxophonist who’s married to Patricia Arquette gets arrested then becomes Balthazar Getty in prison, gets released, and then becomes intertwined with another version of Patricia Arquette. Then turns back into Bill Pullman, naked in the desert. Then back to the Hollywood Hills.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a spoiler with this film because there’s no true beginning or ending to it. The snake eats its tail.

Let’s try an interpretation, though, for fun.

What I’m figuring is that all of this is taking place in the mind of Bill Pullman[3] while he sits in prison. The tapes are his memories he’s trying to erase. The murder he chooses not to remember. But, eventually, it all boils down to reminding himself that Dick Laurent is dead. Ah shit.

The Balthazar Getty half is basically Pullman going back in time to remember when he first met Patricia Arquette. The problem here is that everyone wants to know what happened to him in prison—assuming they’re talking about when he got released in this timeline. It could also be that Getty, dressed and acting like a badass, was already in prison and, let’s say, gets sodomized. That’s something else you wouldn’t want to talk about.

But it’s played as if they’re talking about this release from prison. So it makes everything real fucking weird. Especially when blonde Arquette is seen pictured next to redheaded Arquette. Maybe they were twin sisters or something. Who knows.

The biggest clue/key to this is that, when Pullman is asked by police whether or not he has a video camera, he states, “I like to remember things my own way.” The cop is confused, so he claries, “How I remembered. Not necessarily how they happened.”

So, then, the picture of the dual Arquettes could represent his mental interpretation of her going from being an innocent blonde with a batshit/powerful father to the being the adulterous, lecherous, redhead that fucks around while he’s playing gigs.

Look, this movie is real fuckin’ weird and there’s basically no one way to interpret it, or make sense of it. Unless you’re David Lynch, and he never gives anything away overtly. His movies are some that run the risk of being overanalyzed because every line of dialog, every shot, or every prop could be that clue. The ashtray; zooming towards the flowing red curtain and the ringing phone; quotes like this one from Robert Blake: “In the East, the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they’re sent to a place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them, and fire a bullet into the back of their head.” It all might mean something and be that final piece to the puzzle that makes you go “Aha!” and then show it to your friends just to watch their reactions when the President during an alien invasion turns into Balthazar Getty, otherwise known for being kind of familiar because he was on some show you watched once.

I accept the Mobius Strip concept—that this is a movie that turns and folds into itself and then restarts at the exact same spot, with all important parts of a life covered along the journey without touching the end.

 

Patricia Arquette in full on tart mode.

 

I think the biggest problem I have with Lynch films like this is that once you’ve settled on an explanation, or that you’ve figured it out like Mulholland Drive, the film itself becomes a lot less exciting.

This isn’t to say that I absolutely won’t ever watch it again. Quite the contrary. Not only is the movie really weird, it’s also an incredibly terrifying experience. A lot of this is thanks to Lynch’s signature low bass rumble as well as some beautifully done acting that makes even the sex scene not very sexy. Watch the pain in Pullman’s face while he’s copulating and tell me he’s a happy man. You can’t.

No one in this movie is happy. No one ever will be. Because they’re in an inescapable place, never knowing when that bullet is going to tear apart their cerebellum.


[1] The snake that ate itself:

[2] Here’s the link to the Wikipedia article. It’s hypermathetical, and way over my head.

[3] It’s interesting what an actor is able to pull off. In this film, he plays a murderer with some serious mental issues. The year prior, he played the fucking president in Independence Day.

Love to Give: The Films of PT Anderson

It started with There Will be Blood.

I had no idea, at that time (2007) who Paul Thomas Anderson was. I simply remembered that the trailer for this film came up a whole hell of a lot when I went to the movies that year. It was usually shown with No Country and the Assassination of Jesse James.

And I remember telling a friend that I wanted to see it and they seemed unsure as to whether it was good.

I saw it once close to its first weekend in limited release and again in wide release after I had moved to Humboldt County a few months later.

At that point, I was hooked. I needed to see his other movies. It was the same with the Coen Brothers after No Country came out. I spent most of the next year seeing the films of these three folks.

But the Coens will come later (see, eventually). We’re talking about PT Anderson who is, unabashedly, my favorite filmmaker.

The second film of his that I saw was Magnolia. This came about both by happenstance and pure boredom. I had been wanting to watch the film but thought I had no means to. I was new in town, living in dorms, and spent most of my time cooped up in my room writing a really shitty screenplay/watching baseball/hanging out with my roommate.

But then, from one of my suitemates, I found out that the library has a small collection of films you can either rent for free or watch in the library. And one of those films, it turned out was Magnolia.

But I wasn’t ready to spend three hours watching it even though I’m more than willing to spend three hours a night six months per year watching baseball games. Weird, I know.

The next thing domino to fall was that it was a Saturday (I think, let’s call it Saturday), and I was bored and I had time to kill. So I went to the library to pick up the copy. I figured I could go back to my room and watch it on my laptop even though that would incur a litany of questions from the roommate who loved to ask questions because my lifestyle choice was so fascinating since I didn’t listen to Janis Joplin and Cypress Hill and think that Smokin’ Aces was the best film ever (I’m making that last one up, but it fits, doesn’t it).

I get to the library and what do you know: the copy they have is on VHS. And it’s one of those double-tape packs so it’s extra daunting. That killed the idea of hiding in my room all afternoon, but the library itself has VCRs.

So I plop down in front of one of the 13 inch TVs, put on giant space-man/hipster headphones that are vinyl and make your ears sweat, and strapped in for 3 hours and 9 minutes of… something. I had no idea what to expect. Keep in mind I had only ever seen There Will be Blood and that is so very very different from his previous efforts.

I can remember, between tapes, going down for a cigarette and just thinking “I gotta finish this. I have no idea what is going on, but I fucking love it.”

Since that day, I’ve seen the movie eight more times as well as his other films: Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and Hard Eight.

There is something at work in his esthetic that I absolutely adore. The fast moving cameras, the dollying and panning and constant running of the camera only for it to stop and really accentuate a moment in time. It brings everything to a halt and your mind is forced deep into the moment at hand.

I love the long shots/composite long shots that he does in Boogie Nights–both at the beginning and at the party. Especially the beginning because, in the first ten to fifteen minutes of a film, you have to stuff every major character in and give them a slight introduction so the audience has something to grab onto.

That’s what that shot does. It pans down from the club sign–Reseda, giving geographic context–and into the club where we meet all the main characters that will have a roll in the story. The shot stops with Eddie Adams from Torrance, washing dishes. The camera stops, and stays with him, and we immediately gather that he is the center of the story.

He does something similar in Magnolia after the three vignettes at the beginning of the film that are brilliant and set up the context of chance and serendipity of the story. From there, he buzzes through every single character you’re going to be spending time with in the story, showing them at their story’s genesis–alone in an apartment, on top of the world of inspirational speeches, doing drugs, studying, panicking, starting their shift.

I love Magnolia because it’s really a portrait of a young filmmaker trying to stuff everything he knows into a single film. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Infinite Jest: it’s long, and it’s a constant give and take relationship between creator and audience. Both are ensemble pieces that play out like Robert Altman hasn’t been taking his meds. (Infinite Jest is more affecting, mostly because it’s a book I spent 9 months reading–and when you spend that much time with one piece of media, it’s gonna fucking stay with you)

And on the companion disc to Magnolia is an hour and a half long making of documentary that is absolutely fascinating because it takes the movie from preproduction to premiere, it shows how he works with actors and with his crew–it’s an intimate portrait of how not to suck at being a director.

Hard Eight, his first film, was one that you can tell is a learning experience. It’s a prototype film that gives off glimmers of genius–especially in his ability to get good performances from his actors. The movie itself is best described as “okay:” it has some amazing moments, its story is solid, but it kind of drags ass. I’m curious to see what would happen if he remade it today.

The wildcard in his oeuvre is Punch Drunk Love, a 90-minute Adam Sandler comedy.

But it’s so much more than that and maybe my second or third favorite movie of his. He was actually able to prove to the world that Adam Sandler has a soul.

The whole movie is an off-kilter love story that uses all the conventions of the genre to their logical conclusion and amps everything about them up to 11. Barry is weird and depressed and suppressed by his seven sisters. His love interest is perhaps more curious to see where things go with him than actually interested in him at the beginning.

The camera movements and everything is there, as well as another Jon Brion score that kicks an amazing amount of ass. His use of atonal chords and noises adds to the weirdness and unsettling nature of the film.

I was trying to think if there was a thematic constant to all of his films, and I’m not sure. Hard Eight’s about Vegas and gambling and base-level being-John-C.-Reilly; Boogie Nights is about porno; Magnolia is about people of all different kinds; Punch Drunk Love is about love; and There Will be Blood is about an androgynous/asexual oilman.

If there’s one constant, though, it’s this: they are looks at the ebbs and flows of life. There are the highest highs and the lowest lows. What I like about his take on this idea, though, is that after such a mountainous high, it never gets to be as good; and after a rock bottom low, it never feels so bad. It’s best described as “movement and repose,” because instead of it being fucking perfect again, it’s just “okay,” and that’s fine to lay back on.

In Boogie Nights this was Dirk Diggler’s story: catastrophic rise to fast cars and easy women and awards. Then cocaine. Then decent into madness. Then a leveling out.

In Magnolia, every one is at a different point of this cycle, but it all levels out at the end. And it never feels like a completely happy ending with him.

Even in There Will be Blood when Plainview defeats his enemy, it never feels completely happy.

But my favorite remains Magnolia. It’s a three hour emotional ebb and flow with some amazing cinematography (notice in the bar, with William H. Macy, how the camera comes back to him and sits and then moves as his exhaled smoke moves. I like that little touch and I only noticed it on viewing #9).

He pays homage a lot to Scorsese and obscure cinema. He likes to use the same actors a lot. He’s married to Maya Rudolph and has two daughters. He was raised in the Valley. He’s trying to make another movie but hit road blocks even though everything was in place.