Sunday, March 27, 2016

Wearing a Mask: A Cine-Thematic and Provocative Retrospect of the Dark Knight

Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
This weekend's release of the highly-anticipated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has already become one of this year's most debatable movies. Most of the reviews have been negative, citing the film as too brooding and dark, not to mention lacking a sense of fun. The film presents a grittier interpretation of two of DC Comics' most iconic characters--Clark Kent a.k.a. the Man of Steel, and Bruce Wayne a.k.a. the Caped Crusader--as they clash over opposing worldviews following the events that occurred during the climax of the former's recent cinematic outing (2013's Man of Steel). This portrayal of Batman (from Ben Affleck) is the latest in a long-list of many roles the character has filled, and not just for the actors who've played him over the years. And like his super-strength counterpart on screen, Batman is certainly no stranger to controversy. He has always been an equally compelling, provocative, and brooding character--at least the way creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger intended him to be in the comics. Here is a recap on some of the significant live-action outings (including their controversies as well as their thematic undertones) in the Caped Crusader's filmography. 

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman
Batman (1989) 
Director Tim Burton's (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice) dark-yet-highly-engrossing adaptation was the first that brought the character and world of Gotham City out of the campy setting that pervaded the classic 1960s T.V. series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. And although it spends most of its time with Jack Nicholson's interpretation of the Joker, the film does (more than the others in the original series) tap into the enigma of Bruce Wayne and why he does what he does. The making of the film was a ten-year odyssey, facing several roadblocks including backlash towards casting (Michael Keaton, in particular) and controversial revealings of the murderer of Bruce Wayne's parents. There is also a provocative and compelling visual motif of the difference between heroes and villains, as well as which one makes the other. 

(Top to bottom) Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Danny DeVito
in a striking poster for Batman Returns
Batman Returns (1992) 
It seems Burton was given complete creative control for this even darker and more violent tale of characters with animal-like instincts and misguided ambitions in an equally dark and violent world. Easily the most neo-noir, grotesque, and disturbing of the original films (definitely not one for children or families), there are still intriguing themes and character studies of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Keaton), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). If only they could have given Keaton more screen time.

(Clockwise from top): Val Kilmer, Chris O'Donnell, Nicole Kidman,
Tommy Lee Jones, and Jim Carrey in Batman Forever
Batman Forever (1995)
Steering from the nightmarish nature of the previous film, Warner Brothers sought to lighten the tone of the Batman universe. Burton was replaced by director Joel Schumacher (The Client, A Time to Kill), who brought a new level of excitement and intrigue, and Keaton was replaced by Val Kilmer, who made the title role all his own, but with sex appeal. The subplots involving his duel pursuit of a psychiatrist (Nicole Kidman), his mentoring of Robin/Dick Greyson (Chris O'Donnell), and his battle with Two-Face/Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) and especially the Riddler (Jim Carrey). This latter villain represents the film's motif of characters with multiple personalities. A surprise box-office hit, the film did, however, face backlash for the inclusion of rubber nipples on the batsuit, and arguably some questionable sexuality. And these were just a few elements, along with mind-blowing, razzle-dazzle action sequences and special effects, that made the widely-disregarded follow-up, Batman & Robin (1997), a disappointment.

Christian Bale in Batman Begins
Batman Begins (2005)
Fans and critics were given a surprise as director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) brought them a gritty and intense reboot of the franchise, promising a more grounded-in-reality story that gave Batman new life and meaning, and made both groups forget the previous outing that reportedly killed the series. Boy, were their expectations exceeded! Nolan, co-writer David S. Goyer, and star Christian Bale set a new bar for backstory, character study, and intense action as Bruce Wayne's origins are traced back to his childhood all the way through his motivations for dressing up as a creature of the night, and setting an influence on Gotham City.

Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, and Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight (2008)
Widely regarded as the greatest comic book movie ever made, Nolan delivers a more-engrossing yet ultimately-tragic tale of Batman's (Bale) quest to rid Gotham City of crime, and his ultimate showdown with the character of the Joker (an unforgettable Heath Ledger), questioning the role of the former as hero or villain. The examinations of these characters, as well as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), are thoroughly riveting, and the direction of the story is constantly gripping and grim. In fact, several viewers felt the tone was far darker than it needed to be, and that the overall effect was (according to some) "nihilistic" and "violent". According to Nolan, in an interview with Newsweek in 2008, "Yeah, it is grim. But Batman is a grim character. It's a grim world. And that's part of the fun of it--it's operatic. It's exciting. But it's definitely grim." Although I do find the film thrilling and engrossing (and seen as an ensemble piece), I'm not as keen as Nolan is on calling it an entertaining film, nor am I content with all the publicity that the late Ledger (who tragically died of an overdose in January of 2008) has gotten for all the film's credit.

Anne Hathaway, Christian Bale, and Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Set eight years after the events of the last film, Rises finds Bruce Wayne as a bruised-and-beaten man who's hung up his cape and cowl. And then, a masked vigilante named Bane (Tom Hardy) and a mysterious woman named Selina Kyle enter the picture. What follows are character studies of people in masks, experiences of pain, a city on the brink of destruction, and the hero's journey to rid it of crime and bring life back to it. Shot with the most IMAX footage at the time, and featuring tremendous action sequences, the release of this film was only undermined by a real-life tragic shooting at a movie theater in Colorado opening weekend. Also, some fans found the third film didn't live up to the bar set in the previous installment. Nevertheless, it is a thrilling a well-made conclusion to Nolan's now-famous Dark Knight trilogy, which inspired co-writer Goyer to pen a more grounded-in-reality version of Superman.

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Actor Ben Affleck faced similar controversy, as Keaton did, when he was cast in director Zack Snyder's (300, Watchmen) follow-up to Man of Steel (and the second installment in the up-and-coming cinematic DC universe). Even Affleck had doubts about the role, until Snyder convinced him with the direction the film was going, and especially the take on Bruce Wayne he was going for. This risk pays off as Affleck portrays an older, more grim Wayne, who views the "Man of Steel" as a threat to mankind--ironic in how both represent opposing worldviews and provocative perceptions of what a hero is, how everything has a consequence, and how the world has fallen despite their well-meaning but misguided actions.

According to the current consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, the film "smothers a potentially powerful story--and some of America's most iconic superheroes--in a grim whirlwind of effects-driven action." To be fair, the film does suffer at times with its overbearing action and special-effects (a criticism that Man of Steel faced, regarding its destruction 45-minute climax), and the overall story is uneven and a bit convoluted from an initial viewing. Then again, so were Burton's films, as well as Nolan's predominant features, regarding the latter. Batman v Superman is still open for debate (as is the character himself). Yet it goes to show that there's no one way to interpret a classic character, and that everybody has their own take on him. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mindful or Mindless, Part II: Known and Remembered For (Actors and Filmmakers)

George Lucas, photographed at the Lucasfilm Big Rock Ranch in Marin County, CA, for USA Today in December 2011
Filmmaker George Lucas was interviewed by Wired magazine a few years ago, and he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. Lucas stated, 

"I'll be remembered as a filmmaker. . . . Hopefully some of the stories I told [Star Wars, Indiana Jones] will still be relevant. . . . If you've raised children, you know you have to explain things to them, and if you don't, they end up learning the hard way. . . . So the old stories have to be reiterated again in a form that's acceptable to each new generation. I don't think I'm ever going to go much beyond the old stories, because I think they still need to be told." 

Lucas's quote surely has great significant regarding one's legacy, as well as what that legacy consists of and what it leaves for future generations. Writing and reviewing about Adam Sandler last week (you can read my blog on that here) got me thinking about a few other famous actors and filmmakers in media and pop culture. Specifically, it got me thinking about what these famous people are known for, and what they may potentially be remembered for. In Sandler's case, he is known for lowbrow comedy, silly and/or angst-ridden humor and, in real-life, his nice-guy mentality. The late Roger Ebert once asked, "[Sandler] can't go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?" Film critic Richard Roeper once candidly pitted Sandler and Nicolas Cage against each other for the competition of how many bad movies each of them could make. I, for one, would like to see Sandler do more serious roles in films, just as he did in Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish. (His most recent one, in fact, was Men, Women & Children.) 

Adam Sandler
Michael Bay
Ebert's quote (replacing the "moronic comedy" aspect with certain filmmaking qualities) can stand as commentary on directors like Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino, known for bombastic action films or franchises and crafty-but-extremely-violent movies, respectfully. Like Sandler, Bay has created a resume of films that follow a certain formula that audiences and critics have come to expect and even loathe. The majority of said films for both include crude sexual and/or offensive humor, shameless product placement, and poor acting. Nevertheless, they have ironically made millions of dollars at the box-office. In Bay's case, we've also come to expect the aforementioned explosive and endless action sequences that go on longer than they need to. (Director Peter Jackson can also fit this bill, what with his recent Hobbit trilogy).

Case in point: the Transformers franchise. While the first film in this series had a sense of 80s nostalgia (not to mention revolutionary visual effects at the time), the other films went from appaling (Revenge of the Fallen) to improved-but-still-unbearable (Dark of the Moon) to meaningless (Age of Extinction). For what it's worth, though, Bay has stated on several reported occasions that he was done with the franchise in favor of other projects, yet the studio behind the films (Paramount Pictures) has reportedly allowed him to make other movies, like Pain and Gain and this year's 13 Hours (the latter of which got him some of his best reviews), only if he agreed to make another Transformers. (Bay will, in fact, be directing a fifth installment, reportedly and hopefully his last.) Bay certainly has a knack for action sequences, to be sure, including the fact that he prefers shooting on film and doing as many practical effects as possible. In fact, one YouTube subscriber commented that if he worked as a cinematographer instead of a director, his work would be "legendary". There's a great YouTube video that discusses Bay's films (and features said comment on the video page), and it commentates on why they don't work and what we can take from them for the future of film. 

Quentin Tarantino has directed nearly ten feature films since 1992's Reservoir Dogs, and all of his films have met with critical acclaim, not to mention spots on some of the "Greatest Films of All-Time" lists. (Pulp Fiction, arguably his best, was ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest movies ever made.) Tarantino is certainly a craftsman, not to mention a self-appointed cinephile. (Actor Christoph Waltz, who starred in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, will vouch for this.) However, like many of the films of director Martin Scorsese, Tarantino's films have not been accessible to all audiences because of their extreme, profane, and violent content. Tarantino was interviewed by Rolling Stone last fall, around the release of his latest film The Hateful Eight, and hinted that he may be retiring from film directing in favor of other avenues, such as writing plays or novels. 

Quentin Tarantino
Martin Scorsese
Speaking of filmmakers, Scorsese's film resume, despite the graphic nature of many titles on the list, has actually been very diverse. Often known for gangster crime dramas (GoodfellasThe Departed), the award-winning filmmaker had been involved in other categories like period drama (The Age of InnocenceGangs of New York), documentary (Shine a Light, on the Rolling Stones), biopic (The AviatorThe Wolf of Wall Street) and family entertainment (Hugo). He also stands as one of cinema's greatest advocates of film preservation. Such filmmakers who exemplify range in other mediums and fields are certainly worth commending. 

Steven Spielberg is another great example. He first came on the scene as the director of some of the greatest blockbuster films of all-time (Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park). In the mid-eighties, however, he made a transition into drama with an adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple. In 1993, the film Schindler's List inspired him to form the Shoah Foundation, which currently preserves over 50,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors. His passion for American and world history continued with films like Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), and last year's Bridge of Spies. Spielberg also happens to be a lifelong fan of animation, and executive-produced several acclaimed animated films (An American Tail, The Land Before TimeWho Framed Roger Rabbit) and T.V. shows (Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs) in the late-eighties and early-nineties, respectfully. 

Steven Spielberg
James Cameron
And there is James Cameron, who, like Spielberg, burst on the scene with blockbuster hits. His career launched with The Terminator in the early-eighties (putting Arnold Schwarzenegger on the map in the process), and continued with a string of action films like Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the multi-award-winning Titanic, and the record-breaking Avatar. Not only has Cameron proven a visual and visceral storyteller, as well as a leading expert in the field of digital technology and effects (Avatar practically changed the way we look at movies in recent years, for crying out loud!). He has proven an expert in various expeditions and discoveries, such as the submersible that was specifically designed and build for a deepsea expedition in 2012 to the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

While each of these people is certainly known for one or a variety of things (whether action or comedy or history), it's important to keep in mind how they have influenced culture, media, and the world. For some of them, diversifying their work if a good recommendation. Bay, for example, could arguably take some advice from directors like J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) or George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road), both directors of big-budget action/effects movies, as well as visual and visceral storytellers. Sandler could start working with other directors and get outside his comedy comfort zone more often. One site made a list of indie directors he could work with, including David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, Joy) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, Inherent Vice). Recently, it was announced that he and Ben Stiller will be headlining a new comedy-drama from director Noah Baumbach (While We're Young, Mistress America).

Sylvester Stallone
Vin Diesel
The same applies to action film stars like Sylvester Stallone, who won wide acclaim for his supporting role in last year's Creed, and Fast & Furious headliner Vin Diesel, who is currently shooting a biopic from director Ang Lee (Life of Pi). As for ourselves, we can all certainly choose how we want to live and choose to do. Yet we must consider that what we choose to do, whether as athletes or singers or movie stars or writers or what have you, must have a reason and that it will impact the world, for better or worse. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mindful Over Mindless: The Serious Side of Adam Sandler

WRITER'S NOTE: This piece focuses on films in Adam Sandler's resume where he put aside his typical goofy persona in favor of depth and understanding. Hence, films like The Wedding Singer, Click and Funny People aren't included on here, although they are commendable for showing Sandler's range as an actor.

The Mindful and the Mindless
The late film critic Roger Ebert once said, "I've met Adam Sandler a couple of times and he's a nice guy, smart and personable. Considering what I've written about his movies, he could also be described as forgiving and tactful. What I cannot understand is why he has devoted his career to finding new kinds of obnoxious voices and the characters to go along with them." Ebert also questioned why Sandler typically insists on playing goofy, lazy, and/or immature characters. Audiences (myself included) couldn't agree more, considering the fact that his recent movies (Jack & Jill, That's My Boy, Blended, and Pixels, among others) have been overblown, unfunny and, dare I say, resulted in poor box-office.

People have often perceived these and a majority of Sandler's films as mindless. One resource even went as far as making a list of so-called trademarks in his films, which include the aforementioned "obnoxious voices," crude sexual and/or offensive gags, shameless product placement, cameo appearances from various celebrities, and forced sentimentality. Some have wondered what message (if any) Sandler has been trying to send, or if he's just trying to be funny by any means necessary?

Simple Minds (with Complexity)
Sandler certainly has an admirable and likable personality in real life, and it's easy to see why many people like him. I may agree with a friend of mine in saying that he's best when he's serious. Make no mistake, there are moments from his old movies that are classics (Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore, anybody?), and there is a distinction in his characters, even though they are essentially one-dimensional. But it's when he does things for performance and not for cash-cow purposes that he really stands out.

Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love
Case in point: the 2002 critically-acclaimed, quirky and dark romance Punch-Drunk Love. This is a different kind of movie than what the SNL funnyman was previously known for. Sandler plays Barry Egan, a small novelty business owner who suffers from uncontrollable rage and emotions (another trait of Sandler's typical characters), partially due to the constant torment he receives from his seven sisters on a daily basis. One night, out of the sheer need to talk to somebody about his problems, he calls a phone-sex line, which only makes his life more complicated. That is, until he meets a mysterious woman named Lena (Emily Watson), who eventually brings out something in him that he never thought possible. This is arguably Sandler's best film to date (and his best reviewed, according to Rotten Tomatoes).

Ironically, many people (some die-hard Sandler fans) have said they were confused and disappointed by this one. Hence, this kind of movie, upon first-viewing, could be seen as "mindless" or trippy. But if one looks passed the Kubrick-esque and loopy elements and looks deep at the themes and ideas director Paul Thomas Anderson explores and illustrates, we find a story about a lonely man who finds and learns about love and companionship. In that regard, along with the fact that Sandler's character develops and matures (if only to a degree), we can find somewhat of a "mindful" performance.

Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer
With the possible exception of director Frank Coraci's 1998 movie The Wedding Singer (in which Sandler played 80s singer Robbie Hart), Anderson (who previously directed Boogie Nights and Magnolia) was the first filmmaker to really bring out a different side of Sandler. He has called this "an arthouse Adam Sandler film," yet it's very distinct and unconventional in the way Barry deals with his issues, and in his humility and flaws as he finds love in Emily Watson's character. Though not for everybody, this is the kind of movie that has the power to generate cinematic and spiritual discussion, should audiences choose to see it.

One may ask, though: Did this indicate a potentially new direction in Sandler's career, similar to what The Truman Show did for Jim Carrey? Or, like Anderson's film, was it just an experiment? Other directors who've followed suit have included James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets), Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), and Jason Reitman (Juno).

John Clasky in Spanglish
In Spanglish (2004), Sandler plays John Clasky, a renowned chef and devoted father with a bipolar wife and a Hispanic housemaid. Although he has more of a supporting role under Paz Vega's shining performance in director James L. Brooks' family dramedy, Sandler expresses understanding and confliction as a family man in the midst of a struggling marriage.

Charlie Fineman in Reign Over Me
In Reign Over Me (2007), Sandler gives possibly his most emotional and intense performance in director Mike Binder's drama as Charlie Fineman, a widow who lost his family on 9/11, and whose heart begins to open up again, thanks to the support and accountability of an old friend (played by Don Cheadle).

Don Truby in Men, Women and Children
In his most recent serious performance, in director Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, Sandler plays Don Truby, a man struggling with his relationship with his wife and son in the age of social media.

"Who knows how long it'll last?"
The slogan for the 2011 movie Young Adult (which Reitman also directed) reads, "Everybody gets older. Not everybody grows up." Likewise, is it appropriate to say that Adam Sandler has grown up? Or is he being pretentious and still marveling in manchild-like antics? (Some of these ideas are what others may possibly be thinking, and not just my own thoughts.) I can't help but wonder why he doesn't make more movies that have sincerity or depth or understanding. Some may even begin to think he simply doesn't know how anymore. Roger Ebert concluded in another of his Sandler reviews (read here), "He can't go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he? Who would have guessed he had such uncharted depths?" I, for one, believe he still does.

FUN FACT: My middle school class once voted me as "most likely to be the next Adam Sandler". I couldn't disagree more. However, out of any character Sandler has ever played, I identify with Barry Egan from Punch-Drunk Love the most.