Friday, March 19, 2010


Ever get the feeling that some movies just do not change, no matter how many times you view them? That’s the gist that links the core group of pictures that were in my focus during the past week. It’s always been a pleasant surprise to reassess something and realize that you might have been wrong about it the first time, but a movie that stands up – that retains its energy, its purpose, and warrants the same response time after time – those are often the films I appreciate more. We often find ourselves disgusted with the condition of the products clogging up mainstream movie theaters, and sometimes the only thing that keeps us from losing sight of the prize is revisiting a film that you know will still have the same impact on you that it did from day one. Dependability, indeed, is the passage to endurance in times of doubt.

The Dark Knight (2008)
What once was the most engrossing and effective comic book excursion on film still leaves a lasting impression, but even deeper than before. Chris Nolan’s second outing with Batman reaches outside the shell of its name and finds ground as both a stirring character study and an effective crime thriller. Surely, the point can be made that Nolan is also the first director in a comic book franchise who seems genuinely disinterested in making the visuals the foreground. The screenplay by he and David Goyer is so on target and focused that it could almost play as a traditional urban drama, and its performances are so on target that they seem pulled from studies in psychology rather than pages of comic books. Heath Legder’s performance as the Joker, now legendary, remains the film’s most stirring and haunting quality, and every time he is on screen, he radiates more than just traits of a twisted persona but a certain understanding of it. It mystifies me just as much as the movie itself enraptures me. A film that must be already owned, and seldom forgotten.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Speaking of forgotten – the third endeavor in Stephen Sommers’ highly successful – and highly criticized – Mummy franchise is, well, forgettable. Not that it doesn’t at least have fun with the material. The story revolves around the revival of an ancient Asian emperor whom, when resurrected, will no doubt cause the world to quake in fear and fall to his command. The problem is we just don’t care as much as we used to about characters going after and killing creepy mummies, and the movie isn’t nearly as ambitious or persuasive as it needs to be to abolish our cynicism. Top that off with the fact that Rachel Weisz is no longer around to play the fetching Evelyn, and what you have is a two-hour invitation to guaranteed boredom. Second viewing. See it on television if there’s nothing better to see.

Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
 The most puzzling export to come out of China in generations, “Curse of the Golden Flower” is one-third of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and two-thirds of various plot situations straight out of the most twisted Shakespeare tragedies. A first viewing was inconclusive, a second simply maddening. Upon its third, I simply went with the experience, stopped all attempts to analyze the effect it had on me, and left with no better understanding than I had before. In that effect, perhaps it is a great movie. But perhaps it is also one with no intention other than to be twisty and convoluted. I dunno. What I do know is this: I was fascinated by the characters, genuinely interested in the outcome, put off by the bombastic and over-the-top nature of the sets and costumes, and yet dazzled by the scope of the cinematography. What a tug-of-war. Third viewing. See it, and see if you can come to a better conclusion than I.

Milk (2008)
A star vehicle of high caliber, “Milk” is a movie that reminds us that we routinely are unfair to our actors, often diminishing their work in favor of crediting the director with the positives of a finished product. Thankfully Gus Van Sant is a director willing to take a step back on occasion, and much like “Good Will Hunting” and “Elephant,” his stars find strike a chord here that don’t just ring true but are genuinely deep enough to allow their stars to disappear into them. This marks Sean Penn’s finest performance to date, playing the first openly gay elected public official in San Fransisco, who in the 1970s help spearhead a movement of acceptance just as Anita Bryant swept through the nation on a crusade against homosexuality. The gay community had to speak louder than most in order to be heard, and Harvey Milk was its first opportunity to be heard at the government level. Penn plays him to high standard, and by the end, few are left untouched. Own it on DVD, now.

Poltergeist (1982)
 What can be said about a movie that has been revisited so many times by yours truly over the course of twenty years? It’s still just as fun and ambitious as the first time. The characters have presence. The story is fascinating (and perhaps, in an era when the ghost story was looking for new ideas, also a benchmark). The pacing is effective. And the fact that it manages to deliver not one but two effective and exciting climaxes stresses only the most fundamental point: if you know what you’re doing as a moviemaker and not letting yourself be assaulted by convenient plot escape routes, we are capable of receiving – and appreciating – most of what you can throw at us. You probably already own it – just dust if off and take a trip down memory lane.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
The first Werner Herzog movie I ever saw, and still a perennial favorite, it is the most wild and unrestrained of the director’s great works. Telling the tale of an ill-fated expedition into the forests of South America as characters search for the city of El Dorado, the movie is genius in the ways it creates a setup and spends its time worrying not about payoff but rather the absence of it. Like the great contemporaries, Herzog has a great understanding of what creeps us out, and he uses that as an underlying force to push his characters through a film that is strategically slow and tempered. Only improves with age. See it, own it, revisit it often.

- Written by David M Keyes

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