For many people, this would be the number one film on the list. And I have complete resepect for that.
The Dark Knight is a great film.
Let's start by talking about the boldness of having a Batman movie without "Batman" in the title. (Man of Steel would copy this formula later). Christopher Nolan had complete confidence in separating this movie from every other Batman movie that had come before. He believed he was telling a different story than anything we had ever seen.
And he was right.
Watch Batman Begins and then watch The Dark Knight. The two movies feel so different that if I didn't know better I would think that they were directed by two different people. The tone, the depth, the locations, the cinematography, and the performances all feel so different. Moving from the London soundstages to the streets of Chicago makes the film feel raw and rooted in reality.
But that is only part of the battle. The movie soars for two essential reasons:
The first is the thematic depths.
As I wrote when I analyzed the movie's philosophy:
Here we find the central thematic elements of the series. Are we essentially good or essentially bad? Thomas Aquinas said that humans are essentially good and that given the choice between good and evil they will always choose the good (even if it is only an apparent good). Martin Luther said that people are by nature bad and given the choice, we will always choose the bad. Both acknowledge that human nature is fallen, but one thinks that we can rise above it, the other does not. Thomas says that we can be transformed and become good. Luther says that we have to be covered up by the righteousness of another.
The Dark Knight Trilogy recognizes the worst and the best in humanity. The Joker is the embodiment of evil. It is important that we do not know his origins or his true identity. It does not matter what his upbringing was. “[S]ome men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” The trilogy recognizes that some men will choose evil no matter what. They cannot be persuaded or moved by compassion. Men can become monsters.
But men can also be heroes. Batman is incorruptible on the issue of life. He refuses to kill (though he does skirt the line at the end of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises). He constantly puts others before himself. There is a lot of Christology in the Batman character. Though he is too flawed to be a perfect Christ figure, Bruce goes out of his way to take on the burdens of others.
But what about the common man? Sure we have great saints and horrible sinners in our history, but those are the exceptions. What about the rule?
But the most important anthropological statement comes at the end of The Dark Knight. The Joker sets a bomb on two boats, one with convicts, the other with ordinary citizens. Each has explosives and the detonator to the others boat. Either they blow the other up or they both blow up. This test was the Joker's ultimate point. “See, their morals, their code... it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you, when the chips are down, these... these civilized people? They'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster, I'm just ahead of the curve.” He is trying to prove that everyone, deep down, is like him. So what do they do? These people are faced with a choice for survival: Murder others or die.
The second are the characters.
When they cast Heath Ledger as the Joker I thought it was a terrible choice. And then when they showed early pictures of him I was less convinced. I thought his makeup and scars look was Nolan's way of dissing the character's comic book origins of falling into a vat of chemicals. But this was a case where Nolan understood that the change from page to cinema was a way to more effectively get across the character. There are reasons why Ledger's Joker is one of the great movie villains and that is because he embodies the spirit of the comic character. He is boiled down to his archetypal essence: he is, as he says, "an agent of chaos." I actually am comfortable with the theory that he is the devil incarnate. He has no name, no origin, and he is not interested in taking lives but taking souls.
Watch Ledger's performance and you can see the chaos in it. I have some limited training as an actor and what struck me the most about what he did was that he made all of the opposite choices I would have naturally made as an actor. His voice goes high when it goes low. He gets menacing when he should go lighter. And therein is part of the genius of the role: you cannot predict what he is going to do and it feels completely natural to the character. He is terrifying because you cannot out-think him. Even Batman has to do something morally questionable to get even a fighting chance to stop him.
Harvey Dent also is a better character than people realize. They often look to his third act turn as a bit extreme. But you can see how the unfairness of life has utterly destroyed him. He lost everything because he did the best he could. There is nothing fair about what happened to him and Rachel and I completely believe how that drove him over the edge. This is especially true because his downfall comes because of the moral failing of his partner Jim Gordon. Gordon put up with corruption and that corruption opened the door to Dent losing everything. But Gordon is the good man trying how cannot afford to be idealistic. He believes that the perefect is the enemy of the good but Dent sees how the moral compromise destroys him.
And this moral compromise leads to the biggest problem in The Dark Knight: Batman and Gordon's lie. Granted that the consequences of this lie play out wonderfully in the sequel, but you can see how Gordon and Batman have not learned their lesson and bring on more misery to themselves.
Finally, there is Batman himself. There are two things mark this as one of the best depictions of Batman. The first was his interrogation scene with the Joker. The foiling of that scene was incredible, but the conclusion of the scene is the most important. Batman uses all of his physical intimdation on the Joker and it is powerless. Look at the desperate rage in Batman's eyes as he realizes that he has no power in this situatation and that he needs the Joker to save the woman he loves. And he is so desperate that he doesn't even consider the most obvious thing: the Joker lies.
The second is something that you almost never see in depictions of Batman: his optimism. Someone who works outside the law to fight crime must believe in human corruption. But that overlooks the fact that Batman believes that he can make a difference. He believes that human beings can become better.
This leads to the most important scene in the film: the defeat of the Joker. This is not where Batman captures him. This is where the Joker has set up a situation where average people and criminals will blow each other up. Batman has total faith in the people. When the Joker says that they should watch the fireworks, Batman says "There's not going to be any fireworks." And when the explosion doesn't happen you see the Joker's practiced hysteria crack. The Joker had complete belief in the ugliness of humanity and that small moment of common heroism destroys his whole world and fills his certaintity in evil with the doubt of goodness.
And all of this is without talking about Nolan's mastery with the camera to tell a story so visually compelling. He uses big spectacles like the exploding hospital or flipping truck to underscore the human drama in a way that few action movies do. He paces the movie as he ratchets the tension and the stakes until you cannot help but understand the horrible choice made at the end.
To this day, that final monologue scene fills me with emotion. I cannot help think of Isaiah 53 where the Suffering Servant takes on the sins of another. And so Batman takes on Dent's sins. "So we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector... a Dark Knight."
This is the first trailer that lays out the main plot of the film.
Our beloved Avengers are facing an enemy that has a goal that is simple and diabolical: he wants to kill half of the living beings in the universe. If he gets all of the infinity stones, then he will achieve his goal.
Here are my assorted thoughts:
-Scale: The original Avengers was an incredible feat because it brought the leads from four franchise films into one. As far as I can tell, this movie at least doubles that. The amount of star power is staggering.
-Spectacle: This movie looks like an epic that eclipses the last two Avengers films.
-Darkness: I get the sneaking suspicion that this is going to be Marvel's Empire Strikes Back. The heroes are going to go against nearly impossible odds and I don't think they are going to win. In fact, I get the feeling that we are going to lose some of our heroes to Thanos.
-Humor: I got such a kick out of seeing Star Lord and Iron Man match wits for the first time. Something tells me we are going to need those moments of humor to add levity to the story.
-Music: Marvel is not known for having iconic scores. But the Avengers theme rises above. And to hear that dark piano version in the beginning gave me chills.
-Bearded Cap: I don't know... there's something about bearded Captain America that is so... raw. It's like he's been through the desert or he's been in obsesive training ala Rocky IV. And I really dig it. That shot of him going mano-a-mano with Thanos is so reminscent of one of the most iconic moments in all of comic books... I can't wait to see it.
First of all, thank you to everyone who played this year's Oscar game!
In second place with a total of 11.2 is someone I will call Fiona E. Von Trapp (real name withheld by request).
And with a score of 15.4 it is a tie for first place between:
Angeline W. and me.
Congratulations Angeline! And I guess congratulations to me as well? Either I am getting better at predicting the Oscars or I have rigged this game sufficiently now in my favor.
Anyway, back to the Oscars themselves and my assorted musings.
1. LOWEST RATED OSCARS
I predicted last week that this would be the lowest rated Oscars in recent memory. It was actually worse: this was the lowest rated Oscars ever!
Many political pundits posit that the left-leaning tone of the show turns off viewers. And to some extent I believe that is true. But in truth it comes down to the fact that most people don't care about the movies that were nominated.
The winner of Best Picture, The Shape of Water, has a domestic box office of around $60 million. That means that in a nation of around 300 million people, around 6 million or 2% of the country have seen this movie. Contrast that with Black Panther which to date is around $530 million, which is closer to 18% of the population or 9x as many people as have seen The Shape of Water. If Black Panther gets nominated next year you are going to see a huge bump in the ratings.
I always make clear on this blog that pure populism is not a guarantee of quality. But in terms of show ratings, there is not enough interest in the movies. In recent years I have seen fewer and fewer of the movies nominated because they are less and less interesting.
Mark Twain once remarked, "Everyone always talks about the weather, but no on ever does anything about it!" I feel the same way about the length of the Oscar telecast. Host Jimmy Kimmel made light of this with his gag about the jet ski, but that did not help at all.
Things to cut:
-Best Documentary Short
-Best Animated Short
-Best Live Action Short
-Best Foreign Language Featuere
-Every single montage except for the "In Memoriam"
-The "Best Song" nominees should be combined into one mashup number.
3. Gary Oldman Rules!
The world's greatest living actor finally won an Oscar and he gave easily the best speech of the night. It wasn't a lecture, but a heartfelt thank you to the people in his life, to America, and to his art. And the way he ended it by speaking to his mom was touching. I was glad to have watched through that entire telecast to see that moment.
4. The Other Results.
- I can't comment on the acting awards because I didn't see any of their performances
-I'm glad Dunkirk won the much-deserved technical Oscars
-"This is Me" is a better song than "Remember Me" and should have won.
-Coco deserved it's Oscar.
-We can now say: "NBA World Champion and Academy Award Winner Kobe Bryant" (who is Catholic, by the way)
I've received a number of messages from people who are reluctant to play this year because they have seen so few of the movies predicted. I sympathize and this continues to be a real problem for the Academy. This would have been a much more highly rated Oscars if Logan had been nominated.
But without further ado here are my choices and my predictions:
This may be the first time that I can remember where I have not seen any of the nominees in one of the acting categories. All of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor are in films I haven't seen. I remember back in 2002, I hurried to see A Beautiful Mind so that I could see what all the hype was about before the show. But so many nominees just don't interest me.
No is going to care about or remember the winner this year.
While I haved not seen The Darkest Hour, I have heard nothing but good things about Oldman's performance. And seeing as he is the greatest living actor working today, I would be very happy for him if he would get the Oscar.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
This should go to Logan. If the Academy voters are gutsy enough to do this, then I will keep my complaints about the rest of the show to myself. But Logan won't win.
I predict that this will be the lowest rated Oscars in recent memory.
And it has nothing to do with the host, the pageantry, the dumb jokes, or the length. It goes back to my first point: so few people care about the nominated films. The average viewer has no emotional attachment to any of these movies. Even Dunkirk, which is a technical masterpiece, does not engender any kind of affection.
If the previous award shows are any indication, the winners are going to use their platform to speak about politics. This will make for a long and uncomfortable night. I predict at least 10 President Trump jokes in the opening monologue alone. This is why I miss Billy Crystal as host: he kept the show light and fun even when it became slow and bogged down.
Sexuality/Nudity Mature Violence No Objection Vulgarity Mature Anti-Catholic Philosophy Objectionable
I hated this movie.
And my hate for this movie is compounded by the fact that there were a number of Catholics who reviewed the film and said that it was largely pro-Catholic.
I am not sure what movie they were watching, but the casual sacrilege of this film precludes it from being anything close pro-Catholic.
Lady Bird is (I'm assuming) the autobiographical account of writer/director Gretta Gerwig's senior year of high school. Gerwig has long been an independant darling. And while she has charisma, there doesn't seem to be much else working for her. All of the movies I have seen with her in it have been terrible, including this one.
The main character is Christine MacPherson (Soirse Ronan) who demands inexplicably to be called "Lady Bird." She starting her senior year of high school at Immaculate Heart in the early 2000's. She is not Catholic, but attends because of her parents' worry about violence in public schools. Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is the sole breadwinner for the family while her father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job. Also at their home is her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend Marielle (Shelly Yuhan). Lady Bird pals around with her sycophantic best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and she gets into relationship misadventures throughout the movie.
I would try describing the plot but it virtually non-existent. The movie feels like we are reading entries in a pretentious teenagers diary. There is very little to connect the narrative. All we get a little vignettes about Lady Bird's odd life. Interesting characters and storylines are abandoned just when they get interesting, probably because they do not revolve around the main character. In that sense, Gerwig has captured a strong sense of entitlement and narcissism that many young people feel. For example we have a priest who suffers from depression and a gay Catholic who is terrified about coming out to his parents. Can we get any follow up on any of the interesting developments? Nope because they don't involve Lady Bird.
And if this movie was my only impression of Catholic high school, I would never want to send my children there. As a teacher in a Catholic high school, I don't think that the film is dishonest when it shows the moral struggles of many of our young people. But there is almost no virtue present in their lives. Lady Bird engages in drinking, drugs, and sex with her classmates. But she also casually munches on unconsecrated communion hosts (while lying on the floor of the sacristy and letting her skirt fly up), calls a nun the c-word, vandalizes said nun's car, and makes fun of an aborted fetus at an all-school pro-life assembly. My level of disgust with this character continually rose and never found redemption.
Those who call the movie pro-Catholic point to the fact that most of the priests and nuns are portrayed positively, which they are. But their kindness is so benign that it has no effect in the sinful lives of their charges. It shows a pop culture compromise of not insulting the Catholic faith as long as it makes no demands to change our lives. Once it does, as with the pro-life speaker, it will be subject to merciless ridicule. And are Catholics so desperate for pop culture crumbs that we will take the fact that our faithful are not depicted as monsters as some kind of positive endorsement?
At least Gerwig has enough distance from these years that she can see Lady Bird's flaws. The movie doesn't make Lady Bird the world-wise ingenue in a world of retrograde minds. Her parents come off so much better than she does. But even here we can see the flaws. They send their child to Catholic school for the safety, but care nothing for its culture. When Lady Bird asks Marion about sex, Marion doesn't enter into a discussion of morality and value, only safety and maturity. Lady Bird is the like the path from the parable of the sower: she is surrounded by God's word but it is snatched away and never takes root. Almost all of the other teenagers also come off horribly, particularly Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) who projects how deep he is by wearing black, rolling his own cigarettes, and reading Howard Zinn. These characters would make me laugh if they didn't make me want to cry.
The only reason this movie gets any merit from me are the performances. Ronan captures the pressures and contradiction of being a teenage girl in America today. And she plays Lady Bird with as little sentimentality as possible, so that we can see her clearly, warts and all. Metcalf is also very good as Marion as we see her frustrations at trying to get her self-absorbed daughter to grow up and think about other people first. In her face, I saw all of my frustrations as I watched the film.
But beyond that, there is nothing special about this movie. There is certainly nothing Oscar-worthy about it (apart from those two performances). And it is without a doubt not a positive portrayl of Catholic education.
Lady Bird wants to be a film that soars, but instead it feels like it never hatched and is now a bad egg.