Reaction to The Dark Knight

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By Craig Joseph

A beloved cautionary tale, The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Birthday, follows everyone’s favorite brother and sister grizzly team as they eat lots of cake, play some crazy games and open a slew of presents on their natal day.  By the end of the book, on account of their frenzied gluttony, greed and voraciousness, the bears are worn out and sick.  True to form, their mother gently extends a lesson to them (and the child reader, by extension) that you can sometimes have too much of a good thing.

Before I’m drawn and quartered, let me unequivocally state that I love The Dark Knight (and I’d never allow Tim’s seriously flawed estimation of Pete’s Dragon to cause spiteful retaliation).  But, during my tenth re-watching of the film, I found myself wishing that someone had handed Mr. Nolan a copy of the Berenstains.  There’s simply too much going on here and – as a result – it’s all less satisfying then it might have been.

For starters, the perennial problem with the franchise is that the villains are always more intriguing than the protagonist.  You’ll always find Bruce Wayne grappling with the same question: whether he should don the cape or retire it.  There will also be some variation of “do I fight alongside the city or behave like a vigilante?” and “can I let this woman into my life or not?”  In contrast, each villain presents us with a unique and compelling backstory motivating his or her nefarious deeds – alongside a complex and screwball plot for taking Gotham down.  The embarrassment of riches that is The Dark Knight gives us a Scarecrow cameo, hones in on The Joker for a while, and then teases us with Two-Face before killing him off pretty quickly.  I found myself less interested in Batman than ever, but with a desire to spend more time with any one of the villainous options that were presented to me – and then snatched away.

And this surfeit is not helped by the casting choices.  You can’t put Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in supporting roles and expect audience members not to go ADD when they leave the screen.  They’re just too good to be contained by what their roles and the plot give them room to do.

Thematically, there are complications as well.  Dark Knight deals largely with ideas about duality and the ways that people do or don’t reconcile warring sides of themselves.  This is very compelling and helps put this superhero flick a notch above the rest, but trying to execute this with such a large cast of characters means that Nolan sometimes resorts to facile answers and clichéd tactics.  In many regards, The Joker’s almost motiveless malice is more effective; it is simply more terrifying than any logical explanation drawn in a few brushstrokes could ever be.  Would I have settled for seeing two or three characters’ duality explored well, rather than trying to cover six or seven?  Probably.

None of this changes the fact that this is a great film.  And these impressions are mitigated by what the third film allows us to see: namely, that Nolan was using the Harvey Dent storyline (the third or fourth ending to The Dark Knight) to set things up for the final installment.  Nonetheless, I wish I didn’t feel like I’d gorged myself on birthday cake and was still hungry.

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The Dark Knight

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By Tim Barlow

Long before I ever saw The Dark Knight, I loved it.  True, I’ve always loved Batman, from the classic campy TV show, to the religiously watched after school cartoon.  Even the various big screen blockbusters of the late 80’s and 90’s each gunning to out-celebrity the last.  But all this history would simply place me in the theater on opening night, not necessarily declaring The Dark Knight a favorite movie.  But still, before I ever saw it, I knew I would love it.

I think that love was really formed as soon as the credits rolled on Christopher Nolan’s 2005 release of Batman Begins (to which The Dark Knight is a sequel).  In his version of a superhero movie Nolan blends thematic elements and a deeper purpose seamlessly and unpretentiously into a traditionally pretty cliche and predictable genre, all without compromising any of the action or fun people expect from a summer blockbuster.  In short, it’s a better class of superhero movie.

I actually re-watched that first installment in the trilogy while preparing for this post, and what struck me was the theme of fear, bobbing above and below the surface throughout the movie.  There are the more obvious manifestations, like Bruce’s fear of bats, or the chemically induced fear the Scarecrow uses as a weapon.  But there’s also the fear of action, of standing up against corruption, the fear of good people who do nothing, to which Bruce struggles, ultimately leading him to establish the Batman, an anonymous symbol with nothing to lose, nothing to be leveraged against, and therefore, nothing to fear.

With The Dark Knight, we again get Nolan’s take on a superhero movie, but this time, instead of fear, Batman is up against his own morality.  And similar to in Begins, Batman squares off against a villain that personifies these of-the-moment inner demons – this time another non-negotiating symbol with truly nothing to lose, and nothing to fear… a fellow freak.

In the Joker, Christopher Nolan (in collaboration with Heath Ledgers absolutely stunning performance) creates a dynamic character.  Even down to his incessant lip licking, it’s the subtle nuances that give depth and provoke questions of the audience.  Take for example how the Joker relays competing origin stories for his ‘Glasgow smile’ scars.  As if to say, why he has the scars doesn’t even matter, we all have scars, but its his realization of the inescapable randomness of life’s scars that sets him free.  Where Bruce Wayne has created the Batman and his morally righteous code to bring order to a world that scars with the selection of a coin flip, the Joker has set aside rules, realizing their futility.

So what is Nolan doing with this Nihilistic villain?  Is Batman’s line in the sand where it needs to be?

During what winds up being their final encounter, Batman has just knocked the Joker from the edge of a building, but saved him as he fell, by shooting a rope around the Joker’s leg.  Pulling him back up, they eventually face one another, with the Joker hanging upside down. They square off over the Joker’s vision of humanity, but instead of filming the Joker upside down, as he would have appeared to The Batman, Nolan flips the camera so that the Joker is right side up.  It may be just as likely that Nolan thought this view better for the audience to connect with Ledger’s expressions, but I prefer to think of this as Nolan’s shrewdly orchestrated final question to the audience.  Is the Joker really that crazy?  Maybe he isn’t so upside down?  Am I a little too serious, working like crazy to create order and manage through the chaos, feverishly making my own luck by sneaking in a trick coin?  Could I stand to put a smile on my face?  Is my morality line in place?  Do I have one?

The Dark Knight is brilliant not just for asking these big questions of its audience, but successfully doing so not in some laurel-wreathed art house darling but a mega-grossing superhero summer blockbuster.

Reaction to Pete’s Dragon

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By Tim Barlow

Pete’s Dragon, oh dear, what are you doing on this list?  Or more accurately, what are you doing on Craig’s list?  I expect this kind of crap from me, but Craig generally holds his choices to a higher standard (Mulligan approved for Heart & Souls).  But what is Pete’s Dragon doing here, this movie is simply terrible.

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I can hear you few loyal readers we haven’t yet driven away, gasping at your computer screens “Say Whaaaaat?!  No. Oh I know you can’t be talking about my Pete’s Dragon?!  Because I loooove that movie!” (in my head, all our loyal readers are Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act)  But let me ask you: do you actually love Pete’s Dragon or just think you love Pete’s Dragon?  Truth be told, I went into this re-watching pretty excited to reconnect with a treasured Disney “classic” from my youth.  If asked last week for my thoughts on Pete’s Dragon, I probably couldn’t have told you any of the plot points or character names (though “Pete” would have been a great guess), but I still would have rattled off nothing but glowing praise.

But that praise would have been misguided in light of some glaring issues I went on to observe during my subsequent re-watching. For starters, despite being made 13 yrs after Mary Poppins and 4 yrs after Bedknobs and Broomsticks, this live action/animation combo of a similar style, feels clunky, dated, cheap, and decidedly worse than its forebears.  The special effects, the sets, the editing, they’re all pretty lousy.  Then there’s the plot, which is a tangled, overstuffed pile of crap, complete with multiple villains, a missing person suddenly resurfacing after a bout of amnesia, and a mysterious, un-diagnosed (but ultimately still resolved) fish shortage, to name just a few of the head scratchers.  But perhaps my biggest issue comes from Pete’s Dragon, himself, Elliott.

Clearly there’s a dragon.  Elliott is not a figment of Pete’s imagination created out of loneliness and desperation. Elliott isn’t a metaphor for Pete’s dark past as a child slave(!).  Elliott is a dragon; he interacts with the world, creating all kinds of messes, while still looking out for Pete when bad guys come ‘round.  BUT, the world still seems to be confused that there’s actually a dragon right up until the end of the movie.  For example, in one scene Nora, who is Pete’s loving local caretaker, after just being rescued from the evil Gogans, by Elliott (THE DRAGON!), tells Pete how he can stop make-believing in Elliott because he’s not alone anymore.  What?!  Are you effing insane, Nora?  Did you miss when the Gogans’ boat was smashed to pieces right in front of you, and they went flying into the water, and then you were suddenly not in danger anymore?  Remember that recent history?  What the hell?!  How does a dragon (that is apparently only a dragon, and not a metaphor for lost youth) get some recognition?

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Now that isn’t to say that the whole movie is garbage and there aren’t some occasional bright spots.  There are.  For example, Mickey Rooney plays a wonderful drunk throughout the beginning of the movie (before he spontaneously sobers up…without any acknowledgment to that in the script).  In addition to Rooney’s skills at impersonating a drunk, there’s also some pretty enjoyable songs: ‘It’s so easy’ and ‘Candle on the Water’ being my personal favorites; the later even being nominated for an Oscar. (also I SWEAR my mom used to play Candle on the Water on the piano for us growing up. That’s a weird memory) There’s also some really lovable scenes between Pete and Elliott.  The other day at work, I went down a Youtube spiral of watching dogs greet their owners who were arriving back home after being deployed in Afghanistan (I know these aren’t new; this is like the third time I’ve done this) Anyways, more tender, cry-worthy shit, you’ll not find. And Elliott is kinda like those dogs. It’s heart warming seeing his care and love for Pete.  So yea, there’s still the occasional good thing going on here.

Regardless though, Craig, I write this now, without having read your rationale for adding this to our list.  Maybe this movie still stirs it all up for you or maybe you’re also scratching your head, acknowledging that this isn’t exactly the treasure you remember burying in your youth.  It’s okay, sometimes kids like stupid crap – I believe I remember Police Academy 3 making my list?  But that’s not going to stop me from saying that, Pete’s Dragon, I thought I would recognize you, but it turns out, you’ve aged pretty horribly.

 

 

Pete’s Dragon

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By Craig Joseph

I remember running downstairs on Christmas morning, aged 5, to find myself the recipient of my first record album: that which I’d begged Santa for, the soundtrack to the film, Pete’s Dragon.  To no one’s surprise, minutes after watching it on The Movie Channel, I’d fabricated an imaginary dragon of my own and began choreographing dance numbers with him in my bedroom.  How much easier my spectacle would play out with Mickey Rooney and Helen Reddy now blaring in the background!

Today, even with all of the advances in animation since Pete’s release – 3D, stop-gap, Claymation, CGI, Pixar and the like – there’s still, for me, a bit of awe and wonder at watching cartoon characters interact with real, flesh-and-blood, living human beings on the screen.  And I’m struck at how relatively short-lived this technique was in the cinematic world.  We have a few other Disney classics – Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (the only movie that turned up on both my and Tim’s lists – Angela Lansbury is a goddess), but that’s about it, unless you count Paula Abdul tap-dancing with an annoying cat.

I think that’s a shame, because my imagination was fueled then and is energized now by the thought that two different worlds – imaginary/invisible and real/physical can interact and intersect at certain points.  At 5, this notion sparked all sorts of imaginative play in me, resulting in, I’m certain, a career in theatre.  It’s also the genesis of how much good art comes into existence.  An idea, a feeling or a thought exists in the nether regions of an artist’s psyche and eventually manifests itself as a poem, painting, song or dance.  And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that religious faith is strengthened and undergirded by this same notion.  We come to believe that who we are and what we do is not all there is  – that we live in a world also subject to the activities of angels and demons, deities and forces, that occasionally reveal themselves like porpoises popping out of the ocean and then diving deep back under.

It’s perhaps too big of a leap, but I’m concerned with the movies, video games and technology of today that, in many cases, feed children a fully-formed fantasy world to escape to, instead of inviting them to partner in creating one that has touchpoints with reality.  If kids – and adults –aren’t taught to see the possibilities for magic, beauty and wonder right where they stand, we run the risk of becoming a society of people whose eyes are closed to the potential in nature, art, other people, and even mundane things transformed.  We live without alertness or anticipation, believing the world we live in to be empty and lifeless, living gray and drab lives or turning to addictions to liven them up and help us escape.  We need reminders that what we see is not all there is to reality – and an occasional classic childhood film can help bring this truth to mind.

 

Reaction to Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland

By Craig Joseph

Franz Kafka once wrote: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” His epigraph, with slight amendations, might easily apply to all the films that Tim has chosen for our blog, which invariably leave me blubbering like a junior high girl in my living room late at night, receiving inscrutable looks from my long-suffering canines.

Finding Neverland is no exception, and while there’s value in the therapeutic catharsis that Watching Ourselves has brought to my life, this evening’s sobfest was more: a kind of meta-cinematic object lesson.

I think that, at many points in my life, I’ve gone to crazy lengths to avoid grieving and mourning.  I don’t do closure well; a cherished friend moves away and  – instead of celebrating what he’s meant to me – I allow communication to wane because I’m too afraid of confronting the pain of his absence.  When someone dies, it’s eight months before I have a good cry about it – usually in private and usually provoked by something totally unrelated (piles of leaves in autumn always bring my grandmother to mind).  I realize I’m in love with you only when you’re no longer in my life.  And my coping mechanism for disappointing events?  Stay busy, be productive, work harder, joke, laugh and be merry.  Is it any wonder that my college friends chose “Tears of a Clown” as my theme song?

Mad, I do well.  Sad, not so much.

So it was easy to see myself in young Peter, played with disarming honesty by Freddie Highmore.  And I was then immediately overcome by memories of the many J.M Barries in my life who’ve helped me utilize my artistic giftings as a mode of self-expression when just “living those feelings” seemed too scary and too hard to handle.  A writing teacher – now deceased – who showed me how economically poetic words could capture the depth and intensity of my emotions.  A piano teacher – also gone – who taught me to channel passion into my fingers.  An acting teacher – many states away – who chided me for inauthenticity and made me dig deeper into my psyche.  And a boss – from whom I’ve grown apart – who insisted that I learn how to grieve and how to mourn, maintaining that my heart was the most powerful (and underutilized) muscle in my body.

These people gave me tremendous gifts, knowing, at various seasons in my life, how ready (or not) I was to live into my sensitive temperament and helping soften the donning of that mantle through art, beauty and imagination.  And as I watched the film, I missed them.  So I cried.

Truth be told, I’m sad, melancholy and brooding a lot of the time.  That these livesavers have taught me ways to express and manifest these parts of me means that true and beautiful things have come out of my mouth, sprung from my pen, emerged on the stage and hung on a wall.  Neverlands have been created and, everytime I get to show someone these new worlds, I’m grateful.

Finding Neverland

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By Tim Barlow

My hands clutch the standard issue AK-47 as I stealthily creep towards the corner of the house.  They’re out there, the rats, Adam, Evan, and even Pat, probably others, now. The air is thick, and they know this won’t end well.  Sweat drips from my brow, but my hands are steady.  I reach the corner and instinctively raise the gun’s barrel up, getting my shoulder flush to the edge, never revealing my position.  I tell myself to be quick, precise, and lethal, as if I had a choice – I was born that way.  I take a deep breath, exhale, and turn. “Bang!  Bang!”  They’re already firing.  I roll my tongue against the roof of my mouth, the motorboat noise, my AK’s vicious response.  “I got you!”  “No!”  “Yes, I did”  “No, missed”  “Yea, you’re dead!” I screech at their backs. But they’re already in retreat.  Behind them on the street, a local 3rd grader is riding his bike, he looks at us, makes a smirking face and shouts over his shoulder as he pedals away: “5th graders playing guns?  Now I’ve seen everything!”  And that was the day Santa Claus died.  Mocked for playing pretend, by a kid two grades younger.  I won’t be made a fool.

Truth be told, I went into re-watching Finding Neverland very reluctantly.  I’ve always loved the story of Peter Pan – becoming a Lost Boy was the only thing I really wanted to be when I didn’t grow up.  But this version, which I do remember loving in the theater, had been reduced in my own memories to an overly earnest, feel-good, yay-for-imagination, twee-fest, starring Johnny Depp, Hollywood’s top-billing eccentric.  And yes, Finding Neverland is still all those things.  But, while re-watching it, that’s not what I noticed.  No, what I love about Finding Neverland is its powerful argument against cynicism.

I’ve been struck lately by people, adults, who exude joy, who express wonder and thankfulness towards the world around them. I’ve been in the habit of interpreting the world in 3 stages.  Stage 1, blissful naivete aka happiness.  Stage 2, exploration aka learning about all the shit.  Stage 3, cynicism.  Think of the bumper sticker: “If you aren’t angry, then you aren’t paying attention”.  That’s this.  You either don’t know the full story about something or you’re angry, scared, hopeless, and cynical.  And this view does get its due in Finding Neverland:  When told there were rumors as to the nature of his relationship with the young boys, Barrie responds, “You find a glimmer of happiness in this world and there’s always someone who wants to destroy it.”  When his mother falls ill, young Peter says “All you’ll do, is have me make up stupid stories and pretend that things aren’t happening.  I won’t, I’m not blind, I won’t be made a fool.”

But what also occurred to me is that it doesn’t end here. It isn’t a denial or ignorance that causes joy and wonder.  It isn’t that Barrie and Peter aren’t aware of all that’s wrong with the world, they’re just fighting to move past it, and recognize all that’s left to cause joy.  And I envy this.  Rumor, scandal, jealousy, illness, needing to grow up before our time, even death, ending on cynicism leaves me prepared for the world’s worst, but it also means always running from the ticking crocodile.  But coming to a place of accepting that there is an ugly bad without ceding the joy along with it, disarms cynicism.  And recognizing that the opportunity is there, is the first step: where I could invite the 3rd grader to join in on the pretend battle, or the very least, shoot him with my AK-47 and rejoin the front.  Or to a place where I can accept a movie’s earnestness without writing it off.  And eventually to a place where even death is nothing more than “an awfully big adventure.”

 

Reaction to Avalon

Editors Note:  I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge and reflect on the passing of Roger Ebert.  Growing up in Chicago, his connection to the movies has been a consistent pillar since my earliest memories.  And without question, his work, whether out rightly acknowledged or not, had a tremendous impact on this blog and my writing.  His approach was empathetic and human, thoughtful and genuine.  And, at least in part, because of these reasons, his was maybe the first celebrity death that felt personal and strange, and which I still find myself processing.  But I will miss him and his work greatly.

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By Tim Barlow

The movie Avalon begins grandly, celebrating an immigrant as he steps off the pier in awe of his new surroundings, born again unto early 1900’s Baltimore, on the 4th of July.  He tours the city, taking in the excitement, ultimately landing later that night in the Avalon neighborhood, where his three brothers, having already arrived from the old country, are waiting to greet him.  Family.  Avalon.

From here, the movie is a sprawling epic, detailing three generations as they navigate American life in the first half of the twentieth century, surrounded by family.  There are successes and failures, scary close calls and heartwarming laughs, but as the movie goes on, we can see the once close knit extended family slowly drift apart.  They move to a nicer neighborhood, that is only one extra train transfer away, and leave the family business to try and break out on their own; relatable reasons, but the familiarity, and with it, the relationship fades.

Watching this all unfold, I couldn’t help but think of my family’s parallels: My Grandparents were raised in New England.  My parents were both raised (at least in part) near Detroit.  After they were married, they moved to Chicago, where they raised my siblings and I.  Shortly after my wife and I were married, we moved to Minneapolis.  Three generations of Barlow pioneering progressively West, successively pulling ourselves (up) from our roots, to be planted some place new.

During my twenties, as I set out on my own, putting the distance between ambition and the familiarity of home, I began to question the role, and with it, the point of family in my modern age.  The safety of numbers, or the many hands needed to work the land, were relics of a foreign system, and besides I had close friends whom I understand, and who get me. People I chose.  Is family irrelevant?

Back in Avalon, television has surfaced to play an interesting and clearly purposeful role.  Making its initial appearance early on, there are gradually more and more moments when it’s glow has captured one or multiple family members during the course of a scene.  Staring blankly, but contentedly as their familial surrounding fades into the background.  Was this Barry Levinson’s response to my question?  Is this self satisfied, but ultimately fruitless staring contest with a box what we choose when given the choice, when it’s all about us?  What if I don’t always realize what is best for myself in the moment?  What if I choose ice cream when I should be eating broccoli?

One of the things I so often fail to remember is that there is something powerful and good about the relationships we don’t choose.  The ones that are decided for us, without our vetting or say.  The people we wouldn’t have ever chosen or given a chance to, given the initial option, but who we now can’t imagine life without (or if we already are without, would give so much to have back).  Maybe there is freedom in that lack of choice, freedom to spend time together trying to make it work instead of worrying about missing a moment to cut ties and look for someone who fits a little better.

But Avalon reminded me that this is a tough lesson to put into practice in the moment.  Too often getting to a point where looking back on the forgotten traditions, the stories we’ve heard a hundred times, and the inane arguments played out at every single god-forsaken family event, we wind up lamenting over what might have been lost, from our newly, chosen position.