Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The film(s) that changed my life, pt. 2

See part one for my first installment. 

On Tuesday afternoons throughout summers in junior high, I'd make a list, bike to my neighborhood video store, and load up on 99-cent rentals. At the time, those rows of VHS tapes were my only available link to movies I'd merely heard about, but was fascinated by. Similar to experiencing Batman on the big screen as an extremely rare chance to see a comic book adapted to film, this now seems like a foreign concept. But in this, the era of the mid-'90s indie boom, Mr. Movies' five-rentals-per-visit policy allowed me to see Do the Right Thing, Clerks, El Mariachi, Hoop Dreams, and Reservoir Dogs (to name a few) for the first time. Each excited me, but Dogs was the one that made me starting thinking differently about movies. 

"This can be a movie?" I thought, watching Quentin Tarantino's debut. As was the case for many Americans my age, Dogs was my first experience with this kind of filmmaking. The bulk of the movie takes place in one room, manages style and bold choices without a big budget, uses pop culture references as currency, and plays with nonlinear narrative. It felt fresh and accessibly challenging, and helped me begin to think about movies in an analytical way. Looking back, Reservoir Dogs may be the first movie that made me love film. 

Simultaneously, my mom started teaching high school film courses, and I reaped the benefits. A public school teacher whose areas of expertise were theater and speech, she was enthusiastic about the possibilities that the subject matter of her new classes afforded. I poured over her curricula and film texts, and watched and re-watched the movies she was teaching when she'd bring them home. This is when I began reading collections of reviews by Roger Ebert, among others, and mentally logging "important" films that I knew I needed to see. As a result, I fell in love not just with movies, but with directors.

In high school, I first saw Coppola (Apocalypse Now may have been the first movie to truly blow my adolescent mind), Scorsese, Hitchcock, Welles, Huston, Polanski. But it was Stanley Kubrick who became my first favorite director as a "serious" (read: pretentious) aspiring teenage cinephile. Specifically, 2001 challenged and thrilled me in a way that still makes it a strong contender for my current Favorite Movie Ever. If Spielberg was the first director I'd checked out library books about growing up, Kubrick was the first director I did the same for in college. (Or at least, he'd do until I could start throwing around names like Truffaut and Rosselliniwho carried more cache in film class—without really knowing what I was talking about.)

The final, key piece of the puzzle was the blessing of having access to my grandma's cable package. We didn't have cable at home, so in addition to typical teen favorites like MTV and Comedy Central, I'd plan spending summer nights at her house based around the Independent Film Channel's (now called IFC, to dispel any confusion about it being home to independent film any longer) schedule. I'd scour the newspaper's TV guide and bring blank tapes to record all kinds of films I never would've seen otherwise, including older and classic movies, world cinema, and documentaries. Of course, I took it for granted then, but in retrospect, I'm incredibly grateful for being exposed to, say, Powell and Pressburger, by a fledgling basic cable channel.

So, it's that combination of luck, video store discounts, and family who encouraged my emerging cinematic addiction that exposed me to the films that shaped my sensibilities, broadened my view of the world, and changed my life. What are some of yours?

Monday, October 8, 2012

The film(s) that changed my life, pt. 1

In the great book The Film That Changed My Life, author Robert K. Elder asks prominent directors to name the one movie that was most influential and formative for them. Similarly, on his Cinephiliacs podcast, Peter Labuza begins each interview by asking critics about their first cinematic memory. As Rob observes in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, autobiographically sorting through one's pop-cultural experiences can be a very comforting experience. So it's in that spirit—rather than expecting any of my insights here to be particularly new or insightfulthat I offer some of my own answers to those questions.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is the first film that I can remember being so excited by seeing in the theater that I couldn't stop thinking or talking about it for days after. (It's also the first VHS tape that I signed up on a waiting list to buy, eagerly anticipating its arrival at my local video store.) Animation has fascinated me from as far back as I can remember, and the film's sophisticated melding of cartoons and live action was enough to send five-year-old me over the edge. (It was also likely my earliest conscious experience with a meta narrative; movies about movies became a beloved subgenre of mine—an affinity that grew when I got deeply into the Muppets a couple of years later.) 

The first movie that I can remember waiting in a line down the block to see is Tim Burton's Batman. In a sign of the burgeoning, pre-Internet comic-book nerd culture, it's also the first film I can recall there being widely-distributed magazines and newsletters for, devoted entirely to its production. I read them obsessively in the months leading up to the movie's summer release, along with the Batman comics of the (Jason Todd-killing) day, putting my anticipation level for the film at fever pitch. It seems quaint now, but the idea of a comic book up on the big screen was an amazing prospect to me as a little kid. 

In retrospect, Burton may have been the first director to cause me to realize that such a job existed. Between Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman, I'd become an ardent Burton fan, and from then on, I was aware enough of him to seek out movies he made, regardless of what they were about. Not long after, I checked out my first library book on film, a Steven Spielberg biography. Like many kids, I saw every movie Spielberg directed in the '80s and early '90s (E.T. was especially important for me) without even trying. Through reading in-depth about his work, I began piecing together in earnest how movies were made and who made them. 

So, those are a few of my first "first"s growing up. Next time, I'll talk about how, by the time I reached junior high, a trifecta of lucky circumstances helped me fill in the gaps on movies—both classic and more recent—that I knew were "important": 99-cent Tuesdays at Mr. Movies; my mom teaching film classes; and my grandma having cable TV. Stay tuned for part two. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The first music I can remember hearing

I'm confident that my parents played plenty of Sesame Street and Raffi albums for me as a toddler, but my first, strongest memory of a specific artist really making an impact remains a vivid one: I lay on the carpeted basement floor of my childhood home while my mom pulled the 12-inch vinyl of the Beatles' Revolver from its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. Revolver was one of her favorite records, and one of several in regular rotation as a soundtrack to lazy, mid-'80s summer days (adventures with the VTech Socrates and He-Man action figures abounded).

As Paul McCartney counted off the record's "One, two, three, four" intro, I began to pour over the album artwork, which, like much of Revolver (and the Yellow Submarine movie), I found alternately creepy and inviting. The upbeat jangle of "Taxman" lead into the haunting "Eleanor Rigby," whose refrain of "All the lonely people / Where do they all belong?" is disquieting to any listener. But as a small child, the line about "wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door" messed my stuff up especially.

My reaction at the time probably wasn't unlike most Beatles fans' upon the LP's release; Revolver neatly straddles the line between the pop leanings of the band's discography up to that point and the experimental, psychedelic freakouts that were to come. I can only imagine the average listener's response to album closer "Tomorrow Never Knows" in 1966. (Actually, thanks to one of Mad Men's best episode endings, I don't really have to imagine.)

Because of the indelible impression the album left on me at an early age, Revolver (usually) remains my most-loved Beatles album. (Harry Nilsson's The Point was another record in regular rotation in that era, and it, too, is still one of my favorites.)

So, what's the first music you can remember hearing?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What did and didn't work in the Dark Knight Rises ending

Now that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy has hung up its cape and cowl, it's time to overanalyze the series' ending, and speculate about what might come next (because this is the Internet, and we're talking about Batman, here). The SPOILERIEST of SPOILERS ahead, folks, so take proper heed:

It's simultaneously not in keeping with the comics, and respectful of their canon
One of the biggest digs I've heard against Dark Knight Rises is that "killing off" a still-young Bruce Wayne—and presumably making someone else the new Batman—necessarily makes this not really a Batman story. I understand this argument and have some sympathy for it, but I actually think Rises, moreso than the other two films in the trilogy, pays close attention to the collective mythology of the characters, and incorporates elements from many Batman incarnations in a way that no other live-action adaptation has.

We're ok with potentially non-canon versions like Dark Knight Returns (the ending of which was lifted pretty directly for Rises's closing scenes) giving Bruce a funeral, or Batman Beyond passing the Batman mantle on to a new inhabitant, because they're stories that could happen to Bruce, y'know... later on. Rises plays with that concept by incorporating it much earlier into Bruce's timeline, but considering that it occurs in this particular series' final chapter, that makes sense.

Consider Robin
Those who weren't pleased with Bruce's fate in Rises were also generally not fans of sort-of-Robin's introduction to the series—but count me among John Blake's supporters. The way that elements of each incarnation of the Robin character throughout Batman mythology were woven into Blake's story paid homage to the canon while incorporating the general spirit of Robin into the (supposedly grounded) "Nolanverse." The construction of this Robin betrayed a careful consideration of the comics' history that wasn't always on display in the trilogy's other entries. His arc also provides the franchise with some interesting choices for its future.

A definitive ending is offered 
Like many Batman fans—especially those my age—I consider Batman: The Animated Series to be pretty much the definitive onscreen depiction of the character. It managed to walk a fine line between the gothic, '30s-inspired Tim Burton Batman and the more subdued, detective-oriented history of (certain eras of) the comics. While Nolan's "serious" take in Batman Begins seemed almost too good to be true to fans who'd longed for such a live-action version, by The Dark Knight, I was wishing for a bit more of the comics' and animated series's influence. As Nolan's trilogy was about to wrap, my hope for future film entries was for them to stay in the world Nolan created, while possibly expanding a bit into the "Dark Deco" leanings of a slightly-otherworldly Gotham. But in a final act of genius, Nolan made that essentially impossible.

Rises provides a satisfying, definitive ending to the trilogy in a way that doesn't allow for a casual continuation of the Nolanverse. But it also keeps the door open enough to excite audiences about where future Batman films could go next. Filmspotting's Jonathan Larson pejoratively calls this "franchise care," but I was so pleasantly surprised by the ambiguity of the movie's ending that, to me, it seems a perfectly appropriate finale, consistent with the constantly-rolling narrative of the comics canon.

What's next?
At the same time, giving a more-conclusive ending to a franchise entry naturally takes away some of the power that comes from the continuity of the characters' history and mythology. Part of what made The Dark Knight's ending work as well as it did was its treatment of the Joker's fate. The decision to commit Joker to Arkham rather than killing him off reflected an important piece of the Batman mythos, and was summed up beautifully with the "You and I are destined to do this forever" line. (Made all the more poignant, of course, with Heath Ledger's death.) It felt right, knowing that he and Batman would be endlessly squaring off, and Rises's ending suggests a "No, they won't" conclusion.

I wish it was even more ambiguous (I've heard several people say that while it's emotionally satisfying to see Bruce and Selina kicking it in Florence, that scene might've played better just staying on Alfred's face), but I do love that something as big as the death of Batman can be open-ended enough to leave fans debating its outcome. Will Bruce return and train a young successor, as he does in Dark Knight Returns, Batman Beyond, and the Knightfall arc? Will Robin become Batman all on his own? Or maybe even Nightwing? Will Bruce decide to resurrect Batman, and team up with Robin? Will this serve as a series end, with the franchise rebooting entirely for the next chapter? It's exciting that we're left with so many possibilities.

Nolan's legacy
It's sometimes hard for me to evaluate the success of a Batman film because, honestly, I'm just as interested in seeing Batman look cool and do cool things in keeping with the history of his character as I am in seeing a great movie that Batman happens to be in. I'm much more of a Batman Begins booster than most people seem to be, not because I think it's a more successful piece of filmmaking than The Dark Knight, but because I think it's a better Batman story, one that got a live-action version of the character right for the first time. Rises continues that great Batman story from Begins, and as such, many viewers seem to be disappointed that Begins's influence is felt more heavily here than Dark Knight's. I'd argue that Dark Knight, in its bleakness, is an important second chapter in a trilogy, and seeing the complete story now, I think it works effectively as a whole.

This is a trilogy that's understood the character and history of Batman better than any previous feature adaptation, and for a fan of both Batman and well-made films, it's been a thrill to watch the story unfold. I've no clue what the franchise's next incarnation will be, although signs point to a Justice League movie, which raises its own interesting set of questions. (It seems like a terrible idea to me, but that's what I said about an Avengers movie, and that worked out pretty well.) But I'm glad that Nolan is staying on as producer, and, for all their flaws, I still kind of can't believe that these films exist. I'm excited to see what's next, but pleased that we got them at all.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Trailer Watch: Summer movie alternatives '12

As with last summer, the coming blockbuster season has a plethora of popcorn mega-hits slated for release—but also plenty of exciting, albeit less-explosion-having indies headed to the art house. Here are a few potential breakouts:

Screened at Tribeca last year, the Canadian sci-fi throwback Beyond the Black Rainbow finally got a proper limited U.S. release this weekend. Writer-director Panos Cosmatos's debut effectively channels the film's lo-fi '80s influences with a synthy score and trippy visuals, promising at least an interesting-looking experience.  

Winner of the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Beasts of the Southern Wild seems to evoke Where the Wild Things Are by way of Terrence Malick. First-time director Benh Zeitlin co-wrote the screenplay with Lucy Alibar, upon whose bayou-set play Juicy and Delicious the movie is loosely based. Expect a limited release June 27, followed by a much-wider rollout.

From the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction files comes The Imposter, TV documentary director Bart Layton's stylish feature debut. The doc dives into the sometimes-iffy territory of staged reenactments, though their purposes here aren't for Errol Morris-style ends, but to enhance the unbelievable story's thematic refrain. In the process, Layton appears to have pulled off something special. Riding strong Sundance buzz, The Imposter opens July 13.

See you in the air-conditioned theater!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

3 things that endear me to Tina Fey even further

Yes, yes, everyone loves Tina Fey. But here are three takeaways from her characteristically great Nerdist interview this week that make me hold her in even higher esteem than I already did:

1. She says that, were she still a Chicago resident, she'd be living in Andersonville, which is totally my neighborhood, you guys.

2. She references the Mothman.

3. She says that post-30 Rock, she'd like to try her hand at writing another screenplay, citing Pixar as the ultimate in contemporary American film storytelling.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Attention, Internet: I have written some short things

I've written a few brief posts for The A.V. Club's Newswire and Great Job, Internet! columns lately, on topics as sort-of-varied as Miley Cyrus, The Cabin in the Woods, Nicolas Cage, forensic sketches of fictional characters, and James Cameron.

Check 'em out if that's your bag.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A few thoughts on the new, final, Dark Knight Rises trailer

1. Hey, you can understand what Bane’s saying now.

2. Still not sold on Hathaway as Catwoman. (But then, I was initially skeptical of Ledger’s Joker too.)

3. OMFG!!!1 dfgldkfjgs