The Problem With The Dark Knight Rises

I saw The Dark Knight Rises early, thanks to a corporate morale event. We even got free popcorn. I was excited to see the movie, but also to knock out a 800-word review that evening, sharing my enthusiasm for the franchise and gloating about having seen the film two days before you.

That review was not written, alas. My pervasive laziness shares 80% of the blame, as it doesn’t in all things. But I also didn’t want to be the killjoy. Nor did I particularly want to receive death threats. Because, honestly, I found the movie a little dull.

In the months since the release of TDKR it has become fashionable to grouse about the film — search Google for “dark knight rises” “plot holes” and you get somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 results. And so, now that I have ample cover, I will slink out of the shadows and explain my disappointment.

First, though, let me establish credentials. I am not only a huge fan of Batman (I was an avid reader of the comic books in my prime), and also of Christopher Nolan (Memento is in my top ten films of all time). Thus, Batman Begins seemed like a dream come true, a perfect marriage of these twin enthusiasm, and with The Scarecrow, my favorite Batman villain, as bridesmaid. And like everyone I thought The Dark Knight was off-the-charts great.

And let me state for the record that, despite everything I’m about to say, I think The Dark Knight Rises is good. It’s a good film. I liked it. Mostly.

But the film has a problem. And the problem ain’t plot holes. I mean, The Avengers has plot holes the size of Galactus and is still fantastic.

No, the problem with The Dark Knight Rises is that it doesn’t contain any goddamned Batman.

Here’s the thing. In the DC Universe, Batman holds his own against the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. In fact, it is generally acknowledged that Batman could beat anyone in fight, given sufficient time to prepare, despite having no powers whatsoever.

He is able to do this because he possesses the following qualities, approximately zero of which are on display in The Dark Knight Rises:

  • He is in peak physical condition: The difference between a contestant on The Biggest Loser and Michael Phelps is negligible when stacked up against, say, Superman, so this is the least of the attributes that make Batman Batman. But it’s worth mentioning. In TDKR, Batman starts out hobbled and later gets his back all busted, but, really, no big deal. I give it a pass.
  • He is monomaniacal in his fight against crime: When TDKR opens, Batman has been retired for a long stretch of time. To be fair, (a) The Dark Knight Returns — Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel — opened the same way, and (b) TDKR explained that Gotham had been relatively crime-free during Batman’s absence (another egregious variation from canon, but whatever). Even so, Bruce Wayne’s (clinical) obsession with fighting crime is central to the character.
  • He is the World’s Greatest Detective (yes, all capitalized like that): Batman didn’t premiere in “Detective Comics” for nothing. TDKR pretty much only had one mystery — the identity of the person in the pit — and Batman not only failed to solve it, he didn’t even realize it existed.
  • He is a master strategist: This ability, along with the aforementioned skill at detection, is what enables him to not only serve on the Justice League of America, but often lead it: while everyone else is running around punching things, he’s figuring shit out and issuing orders. Alas, there’s no evidence of this talent in TDKR where, even after having five months in a hole to plan, Batman spends his time in Gotham reacting to one crisis after another.
  • He is a world-class inventor: In the comics, Bruce Wayne is essentially Tony Stark sans the drinking problem or ability to get laid. Which is to say, he makes his own gadgets. In the film (as I recall), all the hardware was made by either Lucius Fox or acquired by Wayne Industries; in fact, Batman doesn’t even know about the stuff until he gets a tour of the toybox. Worse, it wasn’t even as if Bruce Wayne alone could drive the stuff; he hands the Batcycle over to Catwoman, and she’s doing 180 turns in a matter of moments. When the main mode of fighting the bad guys is a bunch of technology that anyone can use, who needs the Caped Crusader at all?
  • He is fabulously wealthy: Okay, he was still fabulously wealthy in TDKR. Ima give you that one.

I liked The Dark Knight Rises, I really did. It was a good Christopher Nolan film. I’d just kinda been hoping for some Batman.

Movies: Thor

Superheroes are like pop songs: there’s a zillion of them on the market, but only a few become breakout hits. And superhero teams are like albums: a couple of good singles and a whole bunch of filler.

The Avengers, for sure, got more than their fair share of radio play, what with Captain America and Iron Man and The Hulk. But despite his rank as Founding Member, Thor was always a track buried on the B-side.

Thor’s literal strength was also his figurative weakness: he was a god, while comic books were ultimately supposed to be about humans. And he was especially ill-suited for Marvel, which was (at least during the era when I was reading comics) all about teenage angst and relatability, neither of which Thor brought to the table. Thus, he struck me as less a character and more a literal deus ex machine, whose main function was to call down a huge bolt of lightning when The Avengers had been written into a corner.

So I didn’t expect much from the film, and was pleasantly surprised by the opening sequence, which is set in New Mexico and completely dietyfree. That lasts just long enough for you to think that the story will be about Earth rather than about Asgard. But: yeah no. Ten minutes in the movie switches focus to Odin’s Hallowed Halls, and camps out there for a fourth of the running time. It reminded me of the prologue on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, except that was 10 minutes of exposition for 540 minutes of story instead of 30 for 120.

Thor’s arrogance eventually ticks off his old man, and he is banished to Earth to learn some humility. That he is expected to do this while being hit on by Natalie Portman is a major plot flaw, but we’ll allow it because, hey: Natalie Portman. Meanwhile, back in Asgard, brother Loki realizes that his true calling is to become a Total Jerk, and he does a bunch of underhanded stuff to usurp the throne.

Anyway, after an hour of running around the desert shirtless, Thor regains his powers, heads for home, and strives to do right by Dad.

Idiot, you sent me to New Mexico! Burning Man is in Nevaaaaaaada!!

I mostly went to see this film in the hopes that it would suck, allowing me to declare “It’s Thorible!” to anyone who asked. Alas, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, Thor managed to be pretty good despite running afoul of my Superhero Movie Pet Peeve #2. To wit:

The whole story is self-contained. This is when the hero causes the very problem he is fighting to solve, or is just struggling to save his own miserable skin. I understand the point of making the final battle personal for the protagonist, but these circular plots often seem like the hero is more motivated by a desire to undo his mistakes … than do anything, you know, heroic.

I’m glad I wrote that back in 2008, so it doesn’t look like I am just whining about this issue now. (Instead it looks like I’ve been whining about this issue for three straight years, a vast improvement I am sure.) In the case of Thor, the film fails The Great Superhero Movie Self-Containment Test, which consists of a single question: would it have been better for the world if the protagonist had never existed? I’m sure all the SHIELD agents who got punched in the nose for standing around a hammer, as well as the people who owned the buildings that were blow’d up by Giant Norse Robot, would have been happy if Thor had opted for a staycation.

Still! Kinda fun! And Kenneth Branagh turned out to be a wise choice for director of this Hamlet for Dummies, chock full of royal intrigue and doggerel-as-dialogue. It fails as a superhero film but, in an era in which every third film has a leading man in a cowl, that’s ain’t so bad.

Best Picture Reviews: The Rest

Just under the wire!

One of my self-assigned tasks was to view and provide capsule reviews for all 10 Best Picture nominees prior to the Academy Awards. I previously covered 127 Hours, The Social Network, and Toy Story 3. The rest are below.

Spoiler warning! As in, I don’t make much of an effort to avoid them. Be careful.
The Fighter

I’m a total sucker for boxing movies: Rocky is one of my favorite films of all time, and there are few documentaries I’ve enjoyed more than When We Were Kings. That said, entries in the genre tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern. Thank goodness, then, that The Fighter is “based on a true story”. The truth in this case isn’t necessarily stranger than fiction, but it does introduce some plot twists that a screenwriter might have dismissed out of hand were she penning the piece from scratch.

Also biasing me toward the film is the presence of Mark Wahlberg, of whom I have been a fan ever since them underwear ads. And it’s a testament to Christian Bale’s range that you can tell yourself “this is the same guy who plays Bruce Wayne!” while watching his performance, but you can’t quite get yourself to believe it.

I don’t see The Fighter winning–is the academy really going to give a boxing movie the Best Picture award twice in less than a decade? (Million Dollar Baby won in 2006, recall.) But of the ten films nominated, this is one of the few that I recommend to friends … if only to reassure them that it transcends the subject matter.
The King’s Speech

I don’t even know who is nominated for Best Actor, but if Colin Firth doesn’t win I will eat my hat. (Reminder to self: wear marzipan hat today to hedge bets.) Firth gives the definitive portrayal of “misery”–not “depression”, not “sadness”, not “brooding”, but the very specific emotion we mean when we say “miserable”, that toxic combination of frustration, defeat, and self-loathing when confronted with a seemingly insurmountable task or situation. Firth is to misery in The King’s Speech what Nicholson was to batshit insane in The Shining.

Firth’s performance is so amazing, in fact, that I am kind of conflicted on this film, at least in regards to the Best Picture award. On the one hand, I actually think this was the best of the ten nominated; on the other, I kind of think the “Best Actor” award would be sufficient, as that’s what makes the movie work. Had any other actor in the role of King George, I suspect The King’s Speech would have been a snoozer.

Also: Twitter jocularity.

True Grit

I don’t know how many Westerns I can enjoy until I can no longer say that I don’t generally enjoy Westerns, but I am one closer to that number for having seen True Grit. (Last month I saw The Proposition, which also put me closer to the tipping point.) I have no reservation about saying that I loves me a Coen Brother’s movie though, and they don’t disappoint here. The film does seem a little more straightforward-Hollywoody than some of their earlier works, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: films like Fargo and Barton Fink never let you forget that you are watching a Coen Brother’s film, but in Grit they mostly keep their eccentricities in the background, allowing the audience to instead focus on the story and performances.

And what performances they are. Jeff Bridges has mastered the bizarre skill of seemingly mumbling his words beyond comprehension while still remaining perfecting understandable, and Matt Damon is predictably great as the kinda-heroic Texas Ranger. But they, and everyone else in the film, is overshadowed by Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the 14-year-old girl at the center of the narrative. I was convinced that she, Steinfeld, could not possibly by 14, and was actually a young-looking classically trained actress of 22 or something; a glance at her IMDB pageshows she was born in 1996, though. What the amazing?!
Winter’s Bone

I saw True Grit Friday night and Winter’s Bone Saturday night. Unless you see the films back-to-back as I did, it’s probably not apparent that the movies have essentially the same plot: young girls with nerves of steel, aided by violent ne’er-do-wells, set out to right the wrongs caused by the death of their fathers.

Unfortunately, Winter suffered from the comparison. The first hour of the film reminded me of one of those multi-stage video game quests, as the protagonists goes from person to person, only to be told that her princess is in another castle. I understand that this was intended to be a kind of guided tour of Ozark drug communities, but plenty of documentaries that have already trod that ground.

Things pick up in the latter 90 minutes, but they had kind of lost me by that point. And although I had no desire to see the filmmaker go all Lars von Trier, the kinda upbeat ending struck me as a bit much.

I saw Inception twice in the theater, something I have not done that since The Matrix. It also belongs to my absolutely favorite genre of film. Given that, I’ll leave my appraisal of the film as an exercise to the reader.
Black Swan

Best Picture, rilly? I mean I liked Black Swan okay–it also falls in my favorite genre, and hey: masturbation. But this really seemed like a pretty standard thriller to me, albeit one made high-brow by the inclusion of erotica and “Swan Lake”. I mean, would this have been nominated if it revolved around the production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch or something?

I’ve always considered Natalie Portman to be a pretty good actress, so her high-caliber showing here came as no surprise. But the pretensions of the film are belied by the performance of Mila Kunis, who drags the whole thing down to the level of a high-school drama.

Honestly, the more I think about it the more I am convinced that Portman is the only element that elevates the film above that of a routine popcorn flick. Even so, I’ll be kind of bummed if this is the role for which Portman wins “Best Actress”, especially considering that Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Annette Bening (The Kids are All Right) are more worthy of the award this year. Still, it’s probably not wise to bet against her. As Angelina Jolie’s win for Girl, Interrupted proved, the academy loves a beautiful, rail-thin crazy chick (or at least, in Portman’s case, the portrayal thereof).

By the way, if you’d like to see the whole “events in the lives of actors begin mirroring the plot of their play” thing done right, do yourself a favor and watch Slings & Arrows: Season One, available via Netflix Streaming.
The Kids Are All Right

So let me get this straight: this is a movie about women, written by a woman, and directed by a woman, and it’s up for Best Picture? WE’RE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS HERE PEOPLE!

To be fair, Winter’s Bone is also about a woman, as well as written and directed by Debra Granik. So it’s a twofer this year. But was either Granik or Lisa Cholodenko, director of The Kids are All Right, nominated for Best Director? I find out I went to the Nominations page of Oscars website. Answer: Nope! But this was in the upper-right corner, so I guess it’s all good:

Well anyway, the real ground broken by The Kids Are All Right is in showing same-sex marriage to be fundamentally the same as any other, with ups and downs and joy and tedium and sperm donors. (Well, that last part is a bit unusual, I guess.) It’s also effing hilarious. I previously referred to The King’s Speech as “the best of the ten nominated”, but The Kids Are All Right was easily my favorite. ★★★★★

Best Picture Reviews: 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3

One of my self-assigned tasks is to view and provide capsule reviews for all 10 Best Picture nominees prior to the Academy Awards. Here are the first three.
127 Hours

I don’t know what idiot at 20th Century Fox entrusted the 127 hours screenplay to Danny Boyle–a director best known for movies about game shows and zombies–but that idiot is a genius!. Of course that assumes there was a screenplay at all, and not just a five-page treatement that said stuff like “bunch of shots of the main dude riding his bike here” and “now he screams for like five minutes”.

Like everyone I was leery of this film due to the subject matter, and fully expected it to be quasi-horror tragedy-porn or inspirational triumph-over-odds glurge. Maybe it was, originally. But between Boyle’s direction, and the unmazing cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak (Mantle also did the cinematography for Slumdog Millionaire, it winds up being more of a meditation on existentialism. Somehow.

Not Best Picture material, but waay better than I expected. That said: WTF product placements? Seriously, the guy is trapped alone in a cave and they still figure out a way to plug a credit card? Shameless. If there was a name-brand urine, that’s probably what they would have shown Franco imbibing.
The Social Network

I am probably the biggest fan of Aaron Sorkin than has never seen an episode of The West Wing (it’s in my queue, I swear!), but Sports Night is easily one of my favorite shows ever, and I thought the dialogue in Charlie Wilson’s War was top-shelf. So even though I did not know he was the screenwriter for The Social Network as I walked into the cinema, I figured it out after about the first machine-gunned 17 words.

The story and pacing of The Social Network are fairly pedestrian, and the film’s accuracy has been called into question. But, as in pretty much everything Sorkin does, the plot is mostly there just so the characters can pontificate on the philosophical implications of the plot. That’s A-OK in my book, as social media (and Facebook in particular) is a subject of particular fascination to me. (Although I’ll confess to finding the final scene of the film waaaay too contrived.) I also concur with other nerdanaylsists in declaring that, even though it’s only 2011, we are unlikely to see a better use of “wget” in a movie this decade.
Toy Story 3

My enthusiasm for animated movies is well publicised but, in the case of Toy Story 3, that zeal was perfectly balanced by my innate wariness of any film that ends in a 3 (a phobia no doubt instilled by my childhood exposure to Superman 3). Thus, I waited to catch it on DVD. But it absolutely lived up to the dazzlingly high standard set by the previous two films, and managed to do so even though the novelty of talking toys had long since worn off. And just as Andy has matured, so too have the themes explored by the series, as this installment is less a routine adventure tale and more an examination of obsolescence and mortality. That doesn’t prevent the filmmakers from packing nearly every scene with clever sight gags and references that you only catch on your second viewing, though. Toy Story will rightly go down as one of the greatest trilogies ever made.

Movies: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

A split-second after the final scene cut to black, my wife turned to me and exclaimed “That was amazing-” …

I am not a Harry Potter fan. I am, however, the spouse of a Harry Potter fan. Seeing the films is as compulsory for one as it is the other. And so I found myself in the cinema watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on Saturday evening.

This is the final motion picture in the series. Or rather it would have been, had the filmmakers not decided to break the novel into two separate films so as to better preserve the artistic integrity of the hahahaha no I’m just kidding. They broke it up to milk this cash cow drier than gravel on Arrakis, as near as I can tell.

Which is too bad, because Deathly Hallows was one of the few books in the series I actually enjoyed. After the rambling mess that was book five (a.k.a., “Harry Potter and the Interminable Livejournal”), Ms. Rowling was apparently and at long-last assigned an editor, who kept the narrative in Half-Blood Prince reasonably tight. Although J.K.’s penchant for prolixity crept back into Deathly Hallows, it was still a moderately quick and engrossing read. It of course helped that the last book actually contained an ending toward which the action could build, and therefore didn’t require the introduction of new characters or subplots to pad things out.

Unfortunately, this lack of introductions was my first grievance with the film. We join Deathly Hallows “already in progress” as they say, with the action picking up where the previous film left off. For someone like me, who has not internalized the entire Potter canon (and who somehow got out of seeing the sixth movie–I’m not sure how that happened), I spent a lot of time wondering “what is going on?” and “who is that guy?” and “why are they giving potions to a dozen people to make them look like Harry instead of just giving one potion to Harry to make him look like John Cleese?” (or whomever). A cricket match would have made as much sense to me.

Oh, well. Honestly, I appreciate films that assume their audience are up-to-date, instead of dumbing things down for those who neglected their homework. And anyway, the first third of the film kept me sufficiently riveted, even when I didn’t understand the nuances. The opening scene, for instance, is remarkably grim for what I have always considered a “kid’s series”, with a table full of Bad Guys discussing the subjugation of the world while a bruised and bleeding innocent twists in midair, pleading for help. Even after the action moves to the protagonists, the films lacks the pervasive whimsy found in earlier chapters, with no Whomping Willows or booger-flavored jellybeans to lighten the mood. Perhaps taking their cue from the success of Twilight, the makers of this film apparently decided that that Dark Sells. (As does sex, it seems: both Harry and Ron wind up shirtless, and they even manage to shoehorn a CGI sex scene into the story).

And then a funny thing happens: nothing. Nothing whatsoever, for a long, long while. Fleeing from their enemies, Harry pitches a tent for Hermoine (literally), and the two wind up camping for what feels like an eternity. Where before things were all whiz-bang action, the film suddenly becomes more Blair Witch than Teen Wizard. During this stretch, the guy in the seat next to me checked the time on his iPhone no fewer than thrice.

Even this might have been excusable if the film had an end. But it doesn’t, of course, as this is only “Part I”. And as you roll past the 120 minute mark, “Part II” looks less and less defensible.

I spent the final third of the film fidgeting in my chair, wondering how I was going to tell The Queen that I found the movie frightfully dull. I imagined an acrimonious ride back home, as I was pilloried for my attention deficit and lack of appreciation for the classics.

And my fears seemed confirmed, when she swiveled in her seat the moment the film ended and said, “that was amazing-”

Should I agree? Should I voice my honest opinion? I agonized over how to respond.

Thankfully, she was still talking. “-ly boring,” she concluded. That’s my girl.

Tears and Gears

I just watched The Road while on the trainer. If the biathlon was “cycling and sobbing”, I’d be in Canada right now wearing a bronze at least.

While consoling me immediately afterward, The Queen said, “I am not laughing because you are crying. I am laughing because you smell terrible.”

Movies: Paranormal Activity

This contains no spoilers, even though I assume that anyone with an interest in seeing Paranormal Activity has done so already.

Among obnoxiously pedantic board game enthusiasts (a group of which I am a founding member), a distinction is made between “games” and “activities”.

A game, you see, is one in which the players compete against one another and, on average, the most skillful or experienced player emerges as the winner. In other words, while the playing of the game might be fun, the winning is the goal (or, at the least, it’s important for the players to at least pretend that winning is the goal, if the game is to work). Chess is a game, as is Scrabble or Go.

At the end of an activity, on the other hand, the determination and declaration of a winner is largely unimportant, and sometimes skipped entirely. Think Cranium, or Taboo, or any party game really. An activity is all journey, no destination. It’s as important for players to not care about winning in an activity (or, at the least, pretend to not care) as is for players to earnestly compete in a game.

Given those definitions, Paranormal Activity is aptly titled.

I saw PA in the Neptune theater in Seattle, on Halloween Eve, and can think of no better venue. The cinema, with its creepy pelagic decor and location blocks away from the University of Washington, provided the perfect atmosphere and audience for this film. Specifically, the seats were filled with young and quick-to-startle college students, at least during those moments when said kids were not several feet above the seats and screaming bloody murder.

Set in a haunted house (of sorts), and presenting itself as a faux-documentary of the Blair Witch ilk, the film alternates between the day (during which anxious but largely uneventful discussions take place amongst the protagonists) and the night (during which Bad Things Happen). Each nocturnal chapter is incrementally more pants-crapping that the one prior. By the end of the film, folks in the Neptune were vocal and sincere about their displeasure in not having fled the theater before. “Oh god no,” They would say, as the scene switched to the owners of the house sleeping peacefully in bed. “No no no no god no please no more.”

The ending of Paranormal Activity, like that of all activities, is not the point. The ending just signals that the festivities have ended. Knowing this ahead of time is probably essential to truly enjoying the film. (I did not, and thus left somewhat disappointed).

And although I would normally encourage people to see a film of this cinematographic caliber on DVD rather than ponying up for a movie ticket, I’ll make an exception for PA. If you are going to see it at all, see it in a theater, preferably one as packed as possible. The fun in the film is in the watching–both the watching of the film, and the watching of those around you watching the film. Approaching Paranormal Activity any other way is like trying to play chess on a Cranium board.

Mindfuck Movies

At The Morning News today I quantify and enumerate my favorite brand of film: movies during which you have no freakin’ idea what the hell is going on.

Pretty much any list of this sort is going to provoke violent “this list is worthless without ______?!” reactions. (Ha! Halfway through writing that sentence someone IM’d me the link to this Metafilter thread). The last minute addition of Donnie Darko to the list was an acknowledgment of this fact, but I had to draw the line somewhere.

I decided early to not include more than one film per director. Scanners and eXistenZ and absent because Videodrome is there; Mulholland Dr. precluded Eraserhead and Lost Highway; and so forth.

There were a fair number of other movies that I skipped because of the “premillennium problem”–that is, the huge spate of remarkably similar films released just prior to the year 2000 (e.g., The Thirteenth Floor) Given that, you may wonder how The Game got on there. Well, first of all, it perfectly fit the criteria I set out in the introduction, so it wins on a technicality. And I quite enjoyed it. It’s also significant because it sort of forecasts the rise of ARGs, but I somehow neglected to mention that in my review.

Here’s some others I considered adding to the article … and that you should consider adding to your Netflix queue:

Also, if you haven’t watched the 1967 BBC series The Prisoner … yeah. You should do that.

Thanks to this site for cluing me into La Jetée, and Fipi Lele who provided a ton of great suggestions.

Feel free to mention your favorites in the comments.

Movies: Tropic Thunder

Let’s begin this review by demolishing any credibility I may have accrued over the years: I like Ben Stiller. Maybe not all the films he’s done–well, maybe only a few of the films he’s done, on reflection–but I think he’s a genuinely funny guy, and the projects he personally helms tend to make me laugh. And although he can really only do two characters–lovable loser and Zoolander–they’re not bad, as characters go.

Combine that with my recently-developed Robert Downey Jr. man-crush and my seeing Tropic Thunder was a foregone conclusion.

Plus, the film is getting remarkably high scores on Metacritic. That, honestly, was something I instantly regretted seeing, certain that my only hope of truly enjoying the movie was to go in with expectations as low as possible.

My prescience proved correct, in this case. If I’d gone in expecting a run-of-the-mill Stiller flick, it would have been a revelation. Instead, I found it a very funny but often disjointed movie that, while well worth seeing, fell short of the gutbuster promised by some reviews.

Downey Jr. was amaaaaaaaazing; Stiller (as writer and directory) wisely opted to give most of the funniest material to his costars and play the straightman; Jack Black’s character came in a distant third in terms of interestingness (as Flickr calls it), and was often eclipsed by that of Brandon T. Jackson, whose banter with Downey Jr. composes the funniest scenes in the whole caboodle.

You never really feel like the four men are a cohesive group, but that is sort of the point: each is a self-absorbed actor, obsessed with himself and largely indifferent to others. Still, the lack of chemistry (aside from the Downey Jr. / Jackson friction), and the preponderance of action sequences as overblown as those they are presumably spoofing, sometimes make the film feel like a collection of comedy sketches

Also, the movie is awful. Unforgivably terrible and a blot on the film industry. Get your self to believe that before seeing Tropic Thunder and you’ll have a blast.

Now, let’s talk about the Simple Jack controversy for a moment. For those unawares, some folks have been demonstrating outside of theaters showing Tropic Thunder because, in the film, Ben Stiller plays a developmentally disabled character, and there are many usages of what the protesters refer to as “the r-word” (and then follow up with “meaning ‘retard'”, since otherwise you’d be going “which r-word? Republican?”)

I appreciate where these folks are coming from but, man, they are totally off the mark on this one. In context there is absolutely no ambiguity about who iTropic Thunder is making fun of: that is, actors who seek our roles in films such as Rain Man and i am sam in the explicit hopes of garnering an Oscar, rather than the disabled people they portray. In fact, it’s not even accurate to say that Stiller “plays a developmentally disabled character” in the movie–Stiller plays an actor who plays a developmentally disabled character, and is soundly mocked for that decision throughout.

Advocate Patricia E. Bauer acknowledges as much in this Washington Post editorial condemning the movie, but says “the studio was careful to build nuance and subtlety into the film’s racial humor … but there’s no on-screen presence countering the Simple Jack portrayal.” What she has failed to grasp is that the “never go full retard” scene, on which most of the criticism has been heaped, is exactly the on-screen denouncement she demands, with Downey Jr. exposing Stiller’s (and, by extension, Hollywood’s) shallowness for all the audience to see.

The controversy over Tropic Thunder is very reminiscent of that over The Last Temptation of Christ 20 years ago. In the latter instance, many religious folks were outraged that the film depicted Christ living a normal life–avoiding crucifixion, marrying, having children, growing old. Such a portrayal, they argued, denied Jesus his divinity. Yes, it did! That was the point! In the film (um, spoilers here, if you care), Satan temps Jesus with that life–everything we see of it is essentially a proposal put forth by the devil. But Jesus overcomes this last temptation and dies on the cross. By seizing on these scenes, and ignoring the rejection of them, protesters basically turned the meaning of the film on it’s head and then groused about its message.

So too with this movie. The Simple Jack scenes are offensive, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Indeed, much of Tropic Thunder is devoted to deconstructing just how offensive they are. And, as someone who has previously railed about the portrayal of developmentally disabled people on film, I am thrilled that Tropic Thunder pretty much guarantees that we won’t see another The Other Sister for a decade or more. Regardless of how you feel about “the r-word”, I think that’s something we can all applaud.

Movies: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

No film in recent memory has received as divergent reviews from my friends as Indiana Jones and the [inhale] Kingdom of the Crystal [inhale] Skull, having been declared AWESOME or AWFUL, but rarely anything in between. And so, while I hadn’t intended on seeing it, it clearly fell to me to make a Definitive Ruling on the quality of the film.

Thus, having viewed and contemplated the film, I am ready to render judgment: Indiana Jones and the etc. etc. Skull is … AWESOME! Mostly. Except for the five minutes of every 20 that were apparently set aside for AWFUL.

I could recap the plot, but what’s the point? If you guessed that the film would contain ancient artifacts of purportedly mystic power, a multi-stage globe-spanning quest, boatloads of nazis russkies, guns that fire an inexhaustible supply of bullets that never strike the protagonists, a big red line zig-zagging across a gargantuan map, a John Williams score, and lots and lots of leaping and punching and dodging and whipping and driving and running and wisecracking–well, then, nice guessing there, Tex.

Unfortunately, Crystal Skull also contains something that the previous films did not–scenes so beyond the realm of believability that they jar you completely out of the narrative flow. And I’m talking scenes that are incredible even by the standards of an Indiana Jones film, events that abuse your willing suspension of disbelief. A third of the way into the movie it is essentially established that Indiana Jones is invulnerable; two-thirds in it’s implied that his companions are likewise impervious to harm. By raising the dramatic stakes in these scenes (and then letting the characters walk away without adverse effect), Lucas robs subsequent events of their tension. You’re, like, “well, if he didn’t even sprain an ankle before, he sure as hell ain’t gonna die now …”

And while the Indiana Jones franchise has always been a homage to the Saturday morning serials, they go overboard in trying to honor them here. By throwing in elements from pretty much every adventure subgenre–from armpit slicks to war to science-fiction to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs–the Crystal Skull sometimes feels like the “Scary Movie” of pulp, filching recognizable scenes from earlier works instead of minting new ones. (Lucas even manages to sneak in a fair amount of American Graffiti.)

So what’s good about the movie? Pretty much everything else–including, to my surprise, Shia LaBeouf as Indy’s protege. Lucas has a terrible track record of picking young actors (as the Star Wars prequels attest), but I quite enjoyed LaBeouf’s performance, and wouldn’t mind seeing him in future films as well.

And oh yes, there will be more installments in the series, a fact the film makes clear. Curiously, this has generated no end of grousing from the fanboys on Teh NetarWebs. The same people who popped a boner two years ago when Indiana Jones 4 was announced and held it until they attended the special 12:01 AM showing on opening day are the same ones bellyaching about the possibility of sequels–go figure. Apparently it is best to leave those films we enjoyed as children as pleasant memories rather than to mine them for OH SHIT DID YOU SAY GREMLINS III DUDE I AM SO THERE!!!!