Blown Out of Proportion — The Dark Knight Rises

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

A great burden has fallen to Nolan’s Batman films. In a genre dominated by successful affirmative super hero films like ‘The Avengers,’ they remain the only deconstructive superhero films to still be successful with audiences.  And this is no easy task—because it is fundamentally harder for audiences to like a film that challenges their faith rather than rewards them for it.  Other attempts at superhero deconstruction, like 2009’s ‘Watchmen,’ failed miserably.  The secret to both ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight’, I think, was that they sat precariously, but perfectly, on the edge of a knife between philosophy and entertainment—too much generic action and they would have become a confusing mess; too much overt philosophy and it would have become pedantic and muffled.  It’s a miracle that both previous films stayed so balanced, but in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ the series has wobbled.

Let me be clear here: This is by no means an awful film.  I don’t think it’s possible for Nolan to make such a thing.  He fills ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with many great elements: a great villain, relevant social themes, clear and concise action.  It’s all there: it just doesn’t mesh the way it should.  Like the child who puts too much sugar in a recipe because he thinks it will be sweeter, Nolan fails in this film to remember that balance and proportion means as much as the ingredients itself.

Nolan’s Batman films, as a whole, intelligently ask the question: Is Batman a good thing?  ‘Batman Begins’ consists of Bruce Wayne’s initial decision to become Batman. ‘The Dark Knight’ deals with the consequences of that decision.  Now it’s up to the ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to answer whether or not Batman is still “worth it.”  This is the conflict of this film; it should drive it.  We see it with Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, with a young cop, with Commissioner Gordon, and with many other characters.  Everyone, it seems, except Bruce Wayne.

The film begins with a robbery at Wayne Manner that rather suddenly sends Bruce Wayne, a recluse who hasn’t put on the batsuit for eight years, back into Batman mode.  There’s very little sense that Bruce Wayne is at all conflicted about this decision, even as Alfred begs him not to.  Perhaps this is motivated in part by a young cop, Blake, who inexplicably knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman–because of a gut feeling–and tells Wayne to be Batman again.  Afterwards, there’s no real doubt in Wayne’s mind that he should be Batman, and so the fundamental question of the entire series is answered very early on.

Two things come to mind after watching this section of the film.  First, how is it that this cop is the only person that could figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman?  In the past Nolan found clever ways to get around this issue, but here it just seems like lazy writing.  Second, and more importantly, this film’s decision to answer the key question of the entire franchise so early feels like a mistake.  Yes, most of us were probably expecting Bruce Wayne to conclude that Batman is necessary to inspire people, to remind them that the only true defense against either anarchy (as represented by the Joker in the last film) or tyranny (as represented by Bane in this one) lies in an individual’s choice to do good.  But this should have been a grand climax to this film.  It is not so here.  The events of this first half hour of the film could compromise the entire plot, but instead we are given the shorthand version.  And it seems so strange—Nolan had all the ingredients there, he just forgot about balance and proportion.

Despite this error in the first half hour, the next two hours of the film, which consist of Batman battling the villain Bane, still play out well despite now being devoid of the series’ main question.  Nolan gives us a lot of good action and some great character moments.  Though Bruce Wayne is no longer struggling with the idea of Batman’s existence, he still learns a few important lessons.  Catwoman, as portrayed surprisingly well by Anne Hathaway, is a lot of fun.  In particular, Nolan does a brilliant job with Bane, whom he creates to be an anti-Batman, someone with all the training and resources of Batman (who also wears a mask) who uses his abilities for the complete opposite goal.  This dichotomy really works well, and on the strength of this section I was willing to forgive the film for its earlier blunder.  Though he miscalculated earlier, Nolan remembers balance very well here.

And then in the last fifteen minutes of the film, things go down hill once again.  It begins with a plot twist that derails Bane as the main villain, revealing that he was working for “someone else” all along. And this “someone else” (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for those who still haven’t seen the film) is then killed five minutes later, so that there isn’t really enough time to develop this twist.  It feels cheap and tawdry, and it is something that Nolan should have known better than to do.  A twist is fine, you just need enough time to make it mean something, and it doesn’t do so here.  I really loved Bane as a villain, and to mark him down to “Number 2” so close to the end just doesn’t work.  And the ending itself is a little confusing–still more plot twists manifest  as Nolan tries to manipulate the audience from somberness to joy in a matter of seconds.  It’s a little too much, even for Nolan, and so this part falls a little flat.  Not a lot, but a little.  And a little is all it takes sometimes.  As in the beginning, Nolan makes the mistake of mismanaging elements.  All the ingredients are there, he just didn’t have a sense of proportion and balance.

In that sense ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is ultimately a disappointment.  The series, which for two films had sat precariously on the edge of the knife, finally loses balance and slips off, and so this film falls short of being truly groundbreaking. But, to take some of my own advice, let’s keep things in proportion. ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is still good, it is still entertaining, and there are still ideas and themes in it that are worth examining by writers much more capable than I; and so while it is not what it should be, it is good for what it is, and it ultimately doesn’t hurt the legacy of the earlier films, nor Nolan as an auteur.  This is still the definitive Batman saga, and it will be a long time before anybody tops it.

In one more bit of reflection, let’s look over this summer as a whole in regards to the superhero genre. Right before the ‘Avengers’ came out in May, I recalled thinking that this summer, with the ultimate affirmation (‘The Avengers’), what I thought would be the ultimate deconstruction (‘The Dark Knight Rises’), and a reboot of Spider-Man (‘The Amazing Spider-Man’) would be legendary and represent the height of this genre.  And financially, at least, it was, as all three films did very well, which shows that the public still has a lot of faith in super heroes.  But because of my disappointment with ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ (which was edited out of greatness) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (which was mismanaged), I can’t say, with full conviction, that this was the best summer for superheroes ever. Still, as Heimdall said in ‘Thor’, there is always hope; and with the continued success of superhero films, I still find myself excited for what the likes of Marvel and DC have in store for us in the years to come.

Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

Cameras in Orbit — Chronicle

Review: If there’s any conceit in post-modern filmmaking that strikes me as dubious, it’s found-footage.  Though of course, it certainly is a fantastic example of blatantly post-modern filmmaking, in that it deliberately makes the audience aware that they are watching a fictional world through a camera.  Conversely, classical Hollywood style — the most pervasive form of filmmaking in the world — tries to render narrative construction and the camera invisible, so that the viewer sees only the story and not the seams.  Found-footage changes the rules, reframing fictional narratives as cinema verite documentaries, and therein lies the rub — audiences don’t like being reminded of a film’s fictionality while they are watching it.  They want to be fooled.  (As an aside, this is exactly why the French New Wave persists as such a big hit with filmmakers and the intelligentsia and not regular disinterested folks; French New Wave techniques, being deliberate exposures of the filmmaking process, appeal to those who can appreciate films objectively or even ironically.  Most people just want to have a good time, and why shouldn’t they?)  To understand this phenomenon, consider dreams: the emotional power of a dream relies on the dreamer’s belief, while in the dreamworld, in the dream’s veracity.  When the dreamer becomes aware that the dreamworld is a lie, the dream loses its power, and the dreamer seeks escape or control over the dreamworld, a rebellion against the unconscious fears and desires that shape dream logic.  Movies, however, require willing suspension of disbelief.  They are, in effect, dreams on demand.  What matters, therefore, is the filmmaker’s promise to the prospective dreamer about what sort of story, and, more importantly, what sort of emotions they will experience in the fictional world.  This is why genre exists: it’s a shorthand for a promise.

Since found-footage is a conceit, not a genre, it cannot be used as such a promise.  In fact, found-footage often betrays these promises by failing to justify its use as a narrative conceit.  For example, ‘The Blair Witch Project‘, which, as perhaps the most famous found-footage horror film ever made, set the tone for all films of its type.  A great deal of its box office power came from the filmmakers’ elaborate marketing campaign, in which they promised that the fictional legend of the Blair Witch was real, and that the footage assembled into a mass-market horror film came from a real ill-fated expedition.  How or why or even if anybody ever really believed that is unclear.  But they were making a promise, one that tied directly into the found-footage conceit and supported it; though the film has lost its luster now due to endless imitations, it’s still fascinating as an experiment.  Of course, what it really proved was that the found-footage conceit is limited to how plausible it seems to the audience, making any narrative so framed vulnerable to critiques leveled at the conceit rather than the narrative itself.  In short, found-footage is dubious to me because it’s a needless risk.  That’s not to mention the aesthetic shortcuts made by filmmakers in its name, of course, although these shortcuts are arguably just as bad in classical Hollywood style films that employ lots of shaky-cam.

To counter that sour note, let’s move on to ‘Chronicle’, the first film from young director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (yes, the son of John.)  Beyond being remarkably succinct and emotionally credible as a story, ‘Chronicle’ does two really interesting things.  First, it directly challenges the superhero genre — which is in a bit of a renaissance at the moment — by playing out as a superhero drama rather than an action-adventure.  Second, it uses the found-footage conceit primarily as a character device, and at the first opportunity more or less jettisons cinema verite in the name of a unique binding aesthetic that could only exist in its particular fictional world.  In other words, it presents a real step forward for its genre and conceit, an organic evolution in narrative technique that emerges out of human drama rather than pure experimentalism.  It is, in a way, the anti-‘Blair Witch’.

There’s no attempt to get the viewer to believe any of this actually happened; instead, from the outset, Trank & Landis establish the camera as the protagonist’s method of engagement with the world.  It’s how the character defends himself against harm, makes sense of life, exercises control and renders his identity.  As the story progresses, the protagonist makes friends (with whom he gains telekinetic powers, which is almost incidental) and the camera’s use expands — it no longer functions at his exclusive command.  Instead, the movie includes cameras of all sorts, the sort of footage you could never find and assemble into a narrative like this.  That’s because “found-footage” is in this instance a misnomer — ‘Chronicle’ is too evolved for that.  Brilliantly, Trank & Landis hijack the conceit and make it do something a great deal more interesting.  Since the story revolves around three contemporary teenagers, the camera’s function as a metaphor for the nexus between the self and the world makes perfect sense.  The titular chronicle is the echoes their lives leave behind in omnipresent media devices, and the protagonist’s struggle to gain control over his world means he must direct the camera, thereby seizing the chronicle itself.  Hence, the protagonist literally fights for control over the movie, a daringly meta dramatic device that never rings false.

Earlier I alluded to the notion that this is a superhero drama and not an action movie.  While there is action, there’s no good vs. evil or find-the-MacGuffin plot, but plenty of deft writing that strives moment-to-moment to cultivate empathy for the characters.  Action, therefore, appears as character crisis.   Indeed, the biggest and most satisfying burst of action in the story emerges out of the rage of a traumatized teenager.   Furthermore, this climatic battle serves to sum up the film that preceded it, pitting the protagonist — who becomes the villain in a practical sense — against his super-powered cousin, as hundreds of visible cameras spin around them in the air, a striking image that renders the film’s main theme obvious.  Interestingly, the protagonist acts as if he’s fighting to protect his dominion over the movie, centering the cameras on him, putting them up, as he does in the opening scene, as an emotional shield.  His cousin isn’t interested in wresting the movie from his grasp, though he’s aware of its existence; he just wants to break through the shield and rescue the protagonist.  In sum, the climatic sequence functions as pure drama, simultaneously thrilling and tragic, and says everything the film wants to say with poetic brilliance.  Is it too early to call Trank & Landis virtuosos?  Too bad.  They’re virtuosos.  Deal with it.

Unfortunately for found-footage filmmakers, ‘Chronicle’ is a logical end-point for the conceit, returning to filmmaking’s raison d’être — any image created by the camera must develop the immediate experience of human emotion.  An audience, once betrayed, is never emotionally invested in the story.  Therefore, found-footage should be avoided in all cases that do not reward audiences for their faith.  ‘Chronicle’, by reinventing the conceit, builds a bridge between the audience and its characters, never once denying that it is fictional, while simultaneously being self-reflexive in order to strengthen that very bridge.  As a drama and an evolution in cinematic technique, ‘Chronicle’ is a triumph.

Cult Classic: Django

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review:  Attempting to review ‘Django’ seriously is the equivalent of giving a restaurant style review to McDonald’s: I’d just be criticizing something that was never intended to be quality, and that misses the point entirely.

This spaghetti western never wanted to be “good” in the traditional sense.  We aren’t watching it for any lavish production value — the set is one of the filthiest, muddiest and bleakest ever constructed.  We aren’t watching it to enjoy normal spaghetti-western-grade music — it’s pretty forgettable with the exception of a completely out of place pop song detailing the main character’s plight.  We aren’t here for the actors, who are all foreign and obscure, or for the plot, which is a rip-off of ‘Fistful of Dollars’ (and yes, I am aware that ‘Fistful’ stole its plot as well).

We are watching ‘Django’ for the sole reason that the main character’s weapon of choice is not a standard six-shooter, but a machine gun (yes, a machine gun) that he carries inside a coffin (yes, a coffin) that he drags around for no real reason.  And when he uses it, oh boy, does all hell break loose.

It’s ridiculous, anachronistic, shocking, completely out of place, and, for 1966, absolutely awesome.

‘Django’ is pop-cinema at its rawest; it’s a movie that relies on a gimmick to sell, and it works.  It works so well that it’s still talked about, lampooned, and paid tribute almost fifty years after it’s release.  If you want proof, a little filmmaker by the name of Quentin Tarantino is currently shooting a film titled ‘Django Unchained’.  Considering that it was a cheap, obscure Italian film, that is quite an achievement.

I understand why critics and film buffs readily pass up this film, not granting it a serious examination.  ‘Django’ just isn’t a film of great depth.  Heck, even I said at the beginning of this review that it never wanted to be a good movie.  But what it does have, and why this film is ultimately worth checking out, is attitude.  Even in the days of the modern action picture, when something like a machine gun is no longer quite so shocking, you can still watch ‘Django’ and get a sense of edginess.  You can still feel a twinge of amusement at the thought of some cheap 60’s Italian film studio, making a movie about a place they’d never been in a thousand miles of, and just saying (in Italian of course) “Screw it, give ‘em a machine gun.  It’ll be fun.”  No worries about history, or film codes, or critical panning; just a desire to give audiences something they hadn’t seen before.

It’s the willingness of B-movies to do gimmicks like that, to take chances on something new, to shake up a formula ever so slightly just so it can be a little different, to put real attitude into their films, that I admire so much.  Even if ‘Django’ is objectively pure trash in all other ways, it at least had the attitude, the audacity, to go somewhere others hadn’t.  It’s an attitude that inspired the likes of Lucas, Spielberg, and, of course, Tarantino, and frankly, we could use a lot more of it in the film industry.  So, despite its flaws, I have no choice but to recommend ‘Django’ to the world.  For once, it might do us all some good to take off our critical hats, grab a bag of popcorn, and just enjoy some machine-gun-induced spectacle.

Real Steel

Review: The first thing we hear in director Shawn Levy’s ‘Real Steel’ is an acoustic guitar being plucked sentimentally, the kind of music that tells you, before the first lyrics are sung, that it is about a man down on his luck, probably on the road, desperate for a second chance.  Which is, of course, exactly what we get.  Hugh Jackman is a former boxer eclipsed by the robot fighting craze, but he’s trying to stay in the game with his own machines.  He’s not doing particularly well.  He also has an eleven-year-old son he’s never met… and you can probably guess where this is going.  The boy doesn’t want him, he doesn’t want the boy, and the story is about bringing them together — while they take a unique fighting machine to international stardom.

With its diverse team of producers, a couple story-by credits and a usually terrifying partially-inspired-by credit, it’s clear that this is a movie that was made by committee.  It’s cheese, fluff, and big CGI robots beating the crud out of each other.  A story this thoroughly soaked in sentimentalism and the mush of recycled pop culture should be so rote and manufactured that it fails to achieve a modicum of emotional impact.

But that’s not the case; just because it is an exercise in efficient Hollywood money-making does not mean it is fundamentally wrong or, for that matter, ineffective.  Levy and company employ an army of clichés that prove their familiar power; there will be slow-motion, there will be last stands, there will be unlikely heroes, and somehow there will still be tears in the audience.  Hell, I cried, and I knew exactly what they were doing in a cool, objective way.  This is a film that blatantly mashes up giant robots with ‘Rocky’ and dares you to sneer at it.  It’s like a cinematic staring contest; whose eyes will get watery first?  Let this serve as an important reminder: originality is not King — truth is.  Well-worn clichés persist because of their inherent value, and when communicated through good performances and rousing sequences, they can reach the most cynical of viewers.

The fights are the heart and soul of this film, even more so than the dramatic beats in between.  They are tense, exciting, well-photographed, and always character driven.  There are no superfluous action sequences.  I will call them good, certainly, but I will not call them great.  Like so many other postmodern films, ‘Real Steel’ succumbs to an excess of cuts and angles, which results in frequent disorientation and intermittent suspense.  The cinematography and editing outshine most other contemporary action films, but are still hamstrung by an underlining impatience.  Quick editing is powerful in small doses, while in large amounts it is simply wearying.  Slow motion is not an acceptable respite, either, as in effect the pace only slows about two to four seconds per shot, and while it highlights emotion, it does not balance out the marathon tempo of a given scene.  Here’s a simple slice of cinematic theory: The longer the take, the longer the characters live and breathe in the frame, the suspense persists, and the action plays.  In short, more bang for your buck, all because you didn’t cut to camera B until another five to ten seconds had passed.  Say you’ve got your robot hero enduring punches thrown by his opponent, and you want to emphasize the assault’s punishing duration.  Don’t cut to a “more intense” angle or return to a reaction shot more than once or twice, the bare minimum necessary to set up an emotional relationship between your characters in the moment.  Stay focused.  We should endure the assault along with our hero, as long as it takes.  Therefore, when he finally ducks a blow and hits his opponent square in the jaw, the reversal’s impact is substantially heightened.  Save the quick cuts for the quick changes.  For example, say the robot combatants are tangling back and forth, only keeping the upper hand for split second intervals.  Use quick cuts to mirror the choppy nature of the battle.  A filmmaker who perfectly fits their visual progression to the story’s events (i.e., cause and effect from moment to moment) is a perfect filmmaker.

Lastly, I’d like to consider the ideas the exist in the film’s text and subtext.  I think, if ‘Real Steel’ is successful (and it deserves to be), there is room to explore these notions in a respectable sequel.  Centrally, the robots serve as avatars, helping humans achieve emotional catharsis through violence.  Both Jackman’s character, and his son, express themselves through the robot called Atom, who can learn any movement he sees performed by a human being.  This relationship is what makes the finale so powerful, and ultimately justifies ‘Real Steel’ to me.  Indeed, the last shot is of the machine mimicking the boy and his father simultaneously — he’s the synergistic bridge between the two, where their souls meet and act as one.  He may also be a self-aware A.I.; if he is, then that has terrific implications for the robot boxing enterprise.  If a boxing robot’s nature is that of an avatar, could it choose what person to represent?  What if a boxing robot wished only to represent itself?  I won’t suggest that the filmmakers should tread down the familiar path of the robot uprising.  ‘Real Steel’ should be limited to explorations of its peculiar territory, nothing more or less.

In conclusion, I can say that ‘Real Steel’ is a solid work of genre filmmaking for a wide audience.  It’s a movie that young boys will drag their parents to see, but I don’t think that anyone in attendance — provided they are not hopelessly jaded — will remain unaffected.  It’s not a film geared toward (snobbish) cinephiles such as myself, but I recognize that good, comfortable narratives like this are why many people go to the movies at all.  In IMAX, ‘Real Steel’ has all the rumble of a roller coaster, and it is in that spectacular format that I would recommend you to experience this sentimental, rousing, bubblegum, two-fisted, populist dreck.

I liked it.

Cult Classic: The Rocketeer

Summary: A good, classy adventure with an excellent cast and loads of heart, but with a deficiency of nail-biting suspense, hard-hitting action, and unique spectacle.

Review: If there’s any proof that I’m a full-blooded American fellow, it’s my love of two-fisted tales and cinematic adventures owing to the cliffhanger serials of yore.  They tend to show great heart and idealism, allowing a greater capacity for laughter, tears, and screams than run-of-the-mill action pictures.  Most folks know ‘Indiana Jones’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Zorro’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, but there have been many efforts to bring their more obscure relatives to the screen.  Most of these films, I’m sorry to say, were overlooked, only to be rediscovered and appreciated by cinephiles with the advent of home video.  ‘The Rocketeer’, adapted from Dave Stevens’ comic book, was Disney’s 1991 attempt to create a cash cow franchise comparable to Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones’.  It failed, possibly due to mismarketing, but the film has gained a well-deserved cult following.

To be sure, ‘The Rocketeer’ is not a spectacular film.  It lacks exactly that: Really great spectacle.  That’s the sort of thing that its successful brethren have in spades.  But what ‘The Rocketeer’ has is the most important thing — an adventurous spirit that provokes wide-eyed wonder and that infection that makes you want to jump into the screen and join in, despite the danger.  This aspect of the screenplay, coupled with perfect casting and very good character direction, makes the film worth watching.

Then-unknown Billy Campbell plays the lead, Cliff Secord, and he is perfect.  He has tangible chemistry with the leading lady, a very young and extraordinarily gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, and stands in stark contrast to the typically brilliant Timothy Dalton, his adversary.  The story takes a lot of time to stack the deck against Cliff, and his tenacity makes us want him to win.  That tenacious nobility, balanced with crucial character flaws, is the soul of the two-fisted tale.  We see it in Indy when he climbs onto the submarine in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, in Luke when he lets himself fall out of the Cloud City in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in Will when he breaks Jack out of prison in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl’, and in Cliff when he chooses to strap on the mysterious jetpack for the first time.  It’s a simple equation, yet one that’s easily ignored — the hero must get his/her ass kicked before she/he can kick ass.  The more devastating an emotional and physical beatdown the hero receives, the more devastating their vengeance.

The effects by ILM are as good as they had circa 1991, and that’s certainly not the reason that it fails in terms of spectacle.  The rocket effects and the flying sequences have charm, style, and a certain boyish glory.  The movie makes flight in general extremely appealing.  Parts of the ending fight on top of a zeppelin over Hollywood are adventurous gold, mostly due to the setting and Cliff’s simple but ingenious solution.  What undoes it is the lack of impact.  The action is competently directed, but for helmsman Joe Johnston this was only his second feature, and he had not yet evolved proper action chops.  The gunfights are pedestrian, there are no great fisticuffs, and there’s not enough suspense to drive us to the edge of our seats.  For a film based on cliffhanger serials, there’s not a lot of cliffhanging.  It’s not for a lack of running time.  It’s a short movie, clocking in at just about 100 minutes plus credits.  It needs at least a singular, iconic set piece that rivets audiences and demands repeat viewings.

Taken as a sum, ‘The Rocketeer’ works.  The story brings a smile to my face.  The characters are magnetic and make me wish for further adventures.  What this film needs is guts.  I speak of it in the present tense because I believe that the right creative team can improve on this film with an affectionate remake.  ‘The Rocketeer’ deserves to be a classic, but until it can be retold with as much visceral impact as it has heart, it’s stuck as an object of cultish affection.  If you enjoy these sorts of films, however, I’d urge you to see this film and love it for what it is, and what it can be.

Thor

A Note from James: I will no longer be rating by stars, or any other quantitative system.  It’s an awfully rigid way to measure a fluid, dreamlike medium.

Summary: A solid, fun fantasy film with impressive performances, Marvel’s best cinematic villain to date, and the promise of a lot more to come.

Review:  Through its recently formed Studios branch, comic book giant Marvel is putting together the most ambitious sci-fi/fantasy effort since Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Four superheroes — Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor — are getting solo cinematic treatments, then being tied together in next year’s ‘The Avengers’, which is shooting under Joss Whedon’s direction now.  While Captain America has yet to debut, Iron Man and The Hulk performed well, and now the burden falls to Thor.

With a rich fantasy backstory drawn from Norse mythology comes an inherit risk of camp.  Director Kenneth Branagh and Marvel’s team of writers crafted an effective, if not terribly fresh, story, but what sells the film is its leads.  Newcomer Chris Hemsworth — who previously provided a tear-jerkingly heroic performance as George Kirk in J.J. Abram’s ‘Star Trek’ — simply kicks ass as Thor.  He’s a miraculously good actor, someone who can sell subtle emotional changes and go toe-to-toe with great hams like Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Natalie Portman is his earthbound love interest,  physicist Jane Foster, and she refuses to play her as a typical determined scientist, instead letting her dissolve into a giggling schoolgirl around Thor, an amusing and sympathetic reaction.  Given her brief screentime, she deserves a good deal of praise.

Of course, no comic book film excels without a good villain, and the true distinctive of ‘Thor’ is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.  He’s a truly Shakespearean baddie, a guy who thinks of himself as the hero of his story, a good guy gone bad by going mad.  While another villain might cackle and spit out threats with an uncompromised glee, Loki actually weeps when he confronts his heroic brother in the final battle, even as he laughs and snarls and throws down with the best of them.  He’s a manipulative liar, but he believes he’s doing the right thing, and we feel his pain.

Most of the film takes place on a cosmic stage, as war brews between noble Asgard and bitter Jotunheim, the home of the Frost Giants.  With fantastic CGI and refreshingly tangible sets, I found myself believing in it.  The action has a real weight to it, and while Branagh isn’t the best action director around, he and his team still know that matters is clarity and impact.  When it desperately needs to work, it does.  This isn’t the best superhero action, but it is on a larger canvas than most, and deserves recognition.

As excited as I am for ‘The Avengers’, even if that wasn’t on the horizon, I’d be game for a ‘Thor’ sequel, a chance to cut loose from the trappings of an origin story and really let the “God of Thunder” loose in an even bigger conflict.  I really hope they do.