Although easily overlooked among the Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise filmographies, I actually rather enjoy their 2005 War of the Worlds remake.
Unfortunately, what makes it unique also sabotages it:
It’s practically a requirement for the alien invasion genre that the protagonist be the big hero that saves the world. Refreshingly, Cruise’s character here is just a blue-collar guy trying to survive, minute-to-minute. Trying his best, making errors of judgement, and sometimes just wearily trudging along from incident to incident along with crowds of fellow refugees. Compare and contrast with the hyper-competent expert he typically plays: the world’s premiere spy, race car driver, or fighter pilot.
Although I’ll bet Cruise probably performed much of his own stunts as usual here, the film isn’t structured around major set pieces like much of his later work. Instead of watching Cruise actually jump out of an airplane, free climb, or crash a motorcycle, here he’s mostly seen operating shipping cranes and running away from stuff.
[spoilers for a 120 year old novel] The premise of the source material is inherently uncinematic, even if it is quoted directly in the prelude and coda by one of cinema’s greatest voices, Morgan Freeman. It’s just plain strange that no one from the creative, financial, or distribution teams insisted on reworking the material to give humanity (if not Cruise’s character himself) a more active role in defeating the aliens.
It’s also infected with that weird ultra-grainy cinematography in vogue at the time. I blame Ridley Scott for that, most evident in Hannibal and Black Hawk Down.
It’s hard to believe now, but The Shawshank Redemption was a relative flop at the box office, and overlooked in all seven of its Academy Award nominations (losing the 1994 Best Picture to Forrest Gump). But true to its own themes, it found redemption late in life, on television and home video. It regularly tops the running popularity poll in IMDB.com, but has the reputation for never being taken very seriously by critics.
That said, director Frank Darabont pierces the legend that the film was poorly reviewed, in a Charlie Rose Show interview included among the DVD bonus features. The four or five most widely read papers in the country did pan the film (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times being a notable exception), but nationwide, the contemporary reviews were highly positive.
Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature, a British television documentary also included on the DVD, posits the theory that any critical disdain is attributable to its conclusive happy ending. The original novella and Darabont’s screenplay adaptation both end on an ambiguous note of hope, but the studio Castle Rock specifically requested a concrete happy ending. Darabont still seems to have mixed feelings about the inserted coda, but there’s no doubt it delivers massive satisfaction and uplift.
Despite the movie’s wild popularity, it doesn’t widely known that it is an adaption of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (a clunky title without even a “The” to aid in its scansion). It’s an atypical work that deals not at all with the supernatural, but King’s highly characteristic voice does show through in the sharp plotting, monstrous villains, and hilariously colorful dialogue. Seriously, did anyone at any time or in any social milieu ever actually call anyone “fuckstick?” Like many of King’s filthy turns of phrase, if they didn’t, they should have.
Of note, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was originally published with three other novellas in a single volume, Different Seasons. Two more became successful films: Apt Pupil (by director Bryan Singer) and The Body (as Stand By Me, by Barry Levinson).
The Shawshank Redemption has its share of warm fuzzies, but repeatedly counterpunches with frank representations of the injustice of prison life, including rape, brutality, and exploitation. One glaring area in which it appears to wimp out, however, is its failure to acknowledge race. Racial tensions must have been at least as much of a problem in 1930s-50s prisons as they are now, if not more so.
The original character in the novella was a white Irish American, and Darabont reveals in the DVD bonus features that Morgan Freeman was an unconventional addition to the cast, an obviously correct decision they couldn’t pass up. Perhaps injecting racial themes into the script at that point would have been one theme too many for an already overstuffed movie, but they do percolate in the background. Red, for example, reflexively calls even the most marginal authority figure “sir.” Not only does Freeman carry a wholly natural gravitas (I recall a review of March of the Penguins that described him as “America’s favorite narrator”) but Red & Andy’s friendship is made that much more profound for the effective irrelevance of their races.
While most Hollywood movies are structured around adversarial relationships between male antagonists, The Shawshank Redemption is a rare tale of deep, sincere male friendship. It could very well be the greatest man-love story ever told, able to bring a lump to the throat of even the most macho of viewers.
I really wanted to like The Dark Knight. Director Christopher Nolan (also cowriter with brother Jonathan) and star Christian Bale have long proved themselves thoughtful, serious filmmakers, but if they have one common flaw it might be a terminal deficiency of levity. The Dark Knight inarguably has all the hallmarks of quality, intelligence, and craft, but it makes a miscalculation in tone.
Aspiring to the cinematic heights of epic crime melodramas like Heat and The Godfather Part II, The Dark Knight overshoots the limits of its source material and becomes oppressively grim and depressing. One of the film’s marketing taglines was The Joker’s catchphrase “Why so serious?”, a question it should have taken to heart itself. Batman is, after all, a dude who dresses up in a rubber bat suit with pointy ears.
The Dark Knight takes its name from the seminal 1980s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns by comics auteur Frank Miller, but is not an adaptation. At this point, an adaptation would be redundant anyway, as Miller’s general tone and interpretation of the character as an obsessed, psychotic loner has informed every Batman film so far. Spider-Man 2 remains, for me, the only film adaptation of a comic book superhero property to strike the right balance between comics’ heightened reality and cinema’s more grounded literalness.
This blogger grew up with Tim Burton’s two original Batman films, which took the character “seriously” insofar as giving him a reasonably plausible psychological motivation. But they also plopped the character down in an obviously fantastical parallel universe in which such things as rocket-powered penguins and literal death by laughter were real. In contrast, the two Nolan / Bale films drain all the wit and whimsy from the core Batman mythos, and place him in a decaying, corrupt, crime-ridden city straight out of 1940s pulp noir novels.
Living in modern-day New York City, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine Russian and Italian organized crime families being so powerful as to commandeer five big city banks for money laundering purposes, and yet that is a key plot point in the supposedly serious and realistic The Dark Knight. Indeed, any viewer of The Wire and The Sopranos will know that what contemporary organized crime families are capable of is far more mundane. Comic book fans will realize this is the same mistake often made in post-80s comic books: mistaking bloody murder and mayhem for “realism.” If The Dark Knight wanted to be taken so seriously, it could have begun by tweaking its depiction of the contemporary real world.
Every emotion, motivation, and plot point is pushed to such an absurd degree of pretentious gravity and self-seriousness that it almost becomes comic. The precise moment where the film irrevocably lost me is the scene in which the grievously disfigured Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) bellows at Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) from his hospital bed, commanding him to speak his old derogatory nickname gleaned from years of working internal affairs cases: Two-Face. The performances were so exaggeratedly despairing and melodramatic that I frankly started to laugh.
What little deliberate humor there is is misplaced and awkward. As before, there is some levity to be mined from Bruce Wayne’s deliberate pretense to aimless trust-fund wastrel. Most of Alfred’s reliably dry dialogue amuses, mostly thanks to Michael Caine’s superlative ability to command the audience’s attentions and sympathies. But other stabs at humor misfire; during The Joker’s extended siege on Harvey Dent’s motorcade, one of the security guards provides a running commentary on the proceedings, as if the audience needed any verbal cue that an about-to-be collision with a tumbling helicopter is a bad thing indeed.
The action, while spectacular, is nevertheless mostly plausible, save for Batman and Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal)’s fall of some 20 stories from Wayne’s penthouse apartment onto the roof of a car. How is it even remotely believable that they could survive without a scratch? I doubt such a plot device would pass muster in a vintage Batman comic book.
The performances are good all around, but The Dark Knight could very well be subtitled the Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart Show. Christian Bale, the ostensible star of the proceedings, is given little to do. I assume his hoarse Batman voice is meant, in story terms, to prevent him from being recognized as Bruce Wayne while also making him sound more scary. Instead, he seems asthmatic and out of breath. Morgan Freeman summons his reliable gravitas to plays Batman’s supremely capable beard, Lucius Fox, the nominal head of Wayne Industries. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a huge improvement over Katie Holmes. Although just as young and stylish, it is slightly easier to suspect disbelief that she is the top District Attorney in Gotham. Gary Oldman provides another example of his ability to subsume his physical appearance behind makeup and props (as in Hannibal and Dracula), but here he is all cuddly fatherly warmth and righteous but fair vengeance (basically a retread of his characterization of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films).
Setting aside the nostalgia and goodwill surrounding his premature death, Heath Ledger is indeed amazing. Even if he hadn’t died shortly after completing the role, his performance as The Joker would likely be remembered alongside other classic cinema nightmares: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter, and Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en. One of the best aspects of the character is the clear emphasis that he’s not in the least bit interested in the traditional pasttimes of Batman’s colorful rogues’ gallery. Rather, his aim is to foment anarchy, even self-aware enough to ask “Do I look like a man with a plan?” He does occasionally let rip with a maniacal laugh on a par with the great Jokers of the past (no less all-time great scenery chewers than Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero, but most of the time he’s creepiest when not even smiling.
One nice idea that isn’t fully developed is that this Joker doesn’t have the standard comic book “secret origin.” This Joker tells two very different stories explaining how he became both physically and mentally scarred. It’s possible he may not even remember how he became the way he is, but even if he does, does it matter? Which is all the more scary.