Tag Archives: movies

How to Make Secret References and Lure Unsuspecting People

Last Sunday night, Chris and I decided on the spur of the moment to go see a movie; at 10:30 on a Sunday, however, the only thing showing was How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. This blip of a film may remember itself to you from its preview (which ran before Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, and a number of other summer hits), but I doubt it’ll be in theaters at all come this weekend: it opened at a dismal #19, which is shockingly poor for a major-studio film in its first week of release. And I’m not going to insist that How to Lose Friends has much to recommend it, either; it’s a trifling romantic comedy that skirts some interesting moral issues in favor of being likable. Frankly, it’s not that likable. Simon Pegg (one of the impresarios behind the brilliant Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, as well as Spaced, which is on my to-watch list) gives the character his all, but it’s underdeveloped, and Kirsten Dunst’s perpetually-pissed-off love interest (the opposite, really, of her Manic Pixie Dream Girl turn in Elizabethtown) doesn’t really win a lot of affection from the viewer.

The interesting thing about How to Lose Friends, for me, was the handful of sly references that it dropped in the background. A minor plot point in the film is that Dunst’s all-time favorite film is La Dolce Vita, which, like How to Lose Friends, is about the simultaneous allure and peril of celebrity journalism. From my perspective, at least, this is weird. If you’re writing a crappy studio comedy about celebrity journalism, why would you drop in constant allusions to a film that is not only one of the greatest of all time– but also does a much better job making comedy out of celebrity journalism? And that’s not the only allusion in the film; Jeff Bridges’ editor character has the French poster for Godard’s peerless Contempt in his office, another film about…the simultaneous allure and peril of celebrity journalism.

“Maybe they just want to prove that they’re smart,” Chris noted, and while I do think that’s a relevant point, I think it may be even worse than mere ego. I think these little references are a cry for help– and this isn’t the only place I’ve seen them, either.

Almost every major-studio romantic comedy has some kind of tiny plot point revolving around a beloved piece of high culture. I remember almost nothing about Jennifer Garner’s Big clone 13 Going on 30 (including why I saw it), save that it had a number of references to Talking Heads in it. (They were the favorite band of the love-interest character, played by Mark Ruffalo.) My favorite movie around age 10 or so was the Uma Thurman-Janeane Garofalo rom-com The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a diffuse 90’s take on Cyrano de Bergerac. That film prominently featured Barthes’ Camera Lucida and the letters of de Beauvoir and Sartre among more relevant plot devices, like a dog on roller skates.

I’m really not making that last part up.

So why the breadcrumb trail of high culture amidst the low? To me, it seems almost like a cry for help. Most young scribes don’t head out to Hollywood with dreams of writing 13 Going on 30. To put it in the terms of the best work on this subject, Barton Fink, they want to inspire the proletariat, and they usually end up writing a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But if one person who goes to see their middling romantic comedy picks up a Fellini DVD or a Talking Heads album, perhaps they can feel a little better about what they’re doing. And yes, proving they’re smart does have something to do with it, but I think it’s less grandstanding and more “Please realize that I have good taste and let me out of this cinematic ghetto.”

Or maybe all one incredibly savvy recruiting tool devised by studios: sneak a few brainy references into some dinner-and-a-movie pabulum, let one or two people follow the trail and become culture snobs, have those people come out to Hollywood with Big Dreams of being A Real Writer, assign them crappy movies to write. Repeat cycle indefinitely.

Either that, or let them become amateur film critics who warm slightly to crappy movies because of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to things they actually like.


No Country for Greedy Men

As usual, if you haven’t seen the film and want to, it’s probably best not to read this post.

The Coen brothers like to make movies about greed. Whether it’s the sizable sums of Fargo and The Big Lebowski or the more modest returns of Blood Simple, cheating, stealing, and generally playing fast and loose with the promise of wealth are hallmarks of Coen characters. Hell, they even made a movie about people stealing a baby. Come to think of it, I can’t come up with one Coen movie where money isn’t a central point of the plot– even Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, which don’t feature theft or cons outright, are still about the ethics of business, and how wealth and class interact.

So even though No Country for Old Men was a very serious film for the Coens, it wasn’t necessarily a departure from their major themes. In fact, it was almost a distillation of them: once Josh Brolin steals that money, you know he’s doomed sooner or later, and the outright admission of that point doesn’t detract at all from the pleasure of watching it.

Burn After Reading is a very strange thing: it’s No Country, recast in an upper-crust setting and, somewhat strangely, as a comedy. The Brolin stand-ins are the even more incompetent Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt, as numbskull gym employees; filling in for Anton Chigurh is the equally foolish John Malkovich, a retired CIA agent whose memoirs the pair hold for ransom. As in the previous film, mix two unacquainted enemies, throw in a swath of supporting characters, add greed, and let the sparks fly.

The strange thing is that despite the film’s comedic tone, the stakes are no less lofty. People do die in Burn After Reading, a surprising fact that simultaneously elevates the comedy and makes the already shaggy-dog story even harder to read. Usually, the Coens can’t be matched for tonal consistency, but this movie definitely has some evenness problems: it’s equal parts spy-movie parody, Bourne-style shoot ’em up, and Lebowski-flavored bizarro comedy. The Coens also typically love regionalisms (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou), but this film has few. Maybe it’s because it takes place in D.C., a place where many people live but where few people are from; maybe it’s because the cast itself is so varied, from ultra-slick Tilda Swinton (with original accent!) to surfer-aping Brad Pitt to the always-unplaceable Malkovich (who further confuses the proceedings with some odd accent shifts and a smattering of too-perfect French pronunciation). It’s a weird thing to see a Coen film with little to no sense of place, and the background feels perfunctory rather than illuminating. Other than its involvement of a lot of government agencies, the plot of the film could take place in any city, and the variance from No Country‘s new-West setting is probably the biggest difference between the two films.

Burn After Reading also has a surprisingly large amount of throwaway gags that add up to nothing: Clooney’s character repeatedly eats foods he may or may not be allergic to, and there’s a bizarre number of appearances by the actor Dermot Mulroney and his fake film, Coming Up Daisy. (Mulroney is a somewhat failed rom-com actor, best known for My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I am utterly clueless as to why the Coens feature him so heavily, other than the fact that his name is really funny-sounding.) The title (probably a parody of the CIA memoir Burn Before Reading) also has nothing to do with the film’s content.

There is a wonderful and weird thing about Burn After Reading, though, in that it features its own Tommy Lee Jones-style Greek chorus. It consists of a CIA agent and his boss, played brilliantly by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, and their observations are as trenchantly hilarious as Jones’ were poignant. They only have two scenes together, but those five minutes pretty much make the movie.

The funny part is that their conclusions are still the same as No Country‘s: greed is deadly, violence is senseless, and there seems to be no way to prevent either of them from sprouting up again and again. It’s the same lesson the Coens have been trying to teach us for over two decades, and it probably won’t be long before they find yet another innovative way to present it.

The Noble “Savages”

When you set out to write something that matters to you, it always seems that the first thing to go is the idea of telling a story that no one has told before. I’m not saying that every detail of every story is the same (they’re like snowflakes in that way), but the basic plots still seem to repeat themselves over and over. I’ve set a goal over the next couple of years to write a novel, but the actual act of doing the writing isn’t what scares me; it’s coming up with a plot that’s smart and relevant and hasn’t been trod a thousand times before.

The Savages has that plot. And if nothing else, Tamara Jenkins, the writer/director of the film, should be immensely proud of that fact. No one before Jenkins has made the film that seems so obvious given the number of people going through it each day: the endless war of attrition that is dealing with a sick, aging parent in America.

The Savages
stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy and Jon Savage, brother and sister. They’re both enamored of theater; she’s an aspiring playwright, while he’s a Buffalo academic writing a book on Bertolt Brecht. This aspect could have been badly handled from the start, but Jenkins wisely chooses to avoid the concept of theatrics in relation to the siblings’ actual crisis. That would be the dementia of their elderly father (Philip Bosco); when his longtime girlfriend dies and her family evicts them from the house, the siblings Savage are forced to deal with finding care for their father, from whom they’ve long been estranged (it’s implied that he abused them).

The estrangement thing is another cleverly avoided pitfall that could not be executed more simply: Bosco is just too far gone mentally to have a series of histrionic “You never loved me” scenes, and the childhood experience is dealt with quietly and sadly. Instead of being a constant source of tension because of his past, Bosco is really something of a shell, his self only surfacing from time to time, and not in the ways the siblings want. And so the story becomes much richer; Jon and Wendy have to take care not of the father they’ve steeled themselves against, but of a lost, dissolute version. And that makes their emotions about the situation infinitely more complicated. While Hoffman shuts down, placing Bosco in a comparatively modest facility, Linney, racked with guilt, tries to get him into a more elite nursing home. The interview goes disastrously; it has shades of overanxious parents trying to get their kid into a right kindergarten, and when it’s over, Hoffman blows up. I couldn’t find a clip, but here’s his speech:

Jon Savage:
Dad’s not the one that has a problem with the Valley View. There’s nothing wrong with Dad’s situation. Dad’s situation is fine. He’s never gonna adjust to it if we keep yanking him outta there. And, actually, this upward mobility fixation of yours, it’s counterproductive and, frankly, pretty selfish. Because it’s not about Dad, it’s about you and your guilt. That’s what these places prey upon.

Wendy Savage:
I happen to think it’s nicer here.

Jon Savage:
Of course you do, because you are the consumer they want to target. You are the guilty demographic. The landscaping, the neighborhoods of care; they’re not for the residents, they’re for the relatives. People like you and me who don’t want to admit to what’s really going on here.

Wendy Savage:
Which is what, Jon?

Jon Savage:
People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building right now, it’s a fucking horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and the landscaping, it’s just there to obscure the miserable fact that people die! And death is gaseous and gruesome and it’s filled with shit and piss and rotten stink!

In one of the movie’s funniest moments, Hoffman abruptly cuts off this speech when he sees an orderly gently rolling an elderly woman in a wheelchair out for a walk.

And I think that’s what really elevates The Savages from other dealing-with-parental-problems stories: it’s deeply, darkly funny. Every time the grimness of the situation gets too out of control, Jenkins throws in a lovely counterpoint of wit. Another great example is a scene where the siblings try to help their father regain his memory by screening old movies he liked at the nursing home. The film turns out to feature a scene with blackface, offending everyone in the room; the good deed is decidedly punished.

Much was made in reviews of the film that the Savage siblings are abject failures. While they do have some obvious personal problems (they are not professionally or romantically successful, and Wendy seems to have a mild tendency towards compulsive lying), I think the “F word” seems to be a little harsh. They are conflicted people, aiming to do their best, and while failure is a part of that, they’re still bright and concerned. I don’t necessarily think that their failure is even supposed to be the heart of the film.

The failure that really concerns The Savages, and the one that I think will make the film an enduring one, is the American medical system’s need to keep the elderly alive at any cost. It’s an issue the Savage family has to face as their father approaches the end of his life, and the film is boldfaced about the inhumanity of growing old in America, the way that personal and religious guilt make the end of life a place of infinitely more suffering than it needs to be.

Towards the end of the film, Linney’s married lover has come to tell her that he is going to put down his beloved old dog; her hip problems have been painful for her, and if she gets the needed surgery, the recuperation will be long and arduous. At scene’s end, Linney asks him if he can do her a favor, and in the film’s final shot, we see her running by the river, encouraging the old dog to follow as her back legs are pinned to wheels.

This image has not left my mind since I saw the film, and as we face a generation of baby boomers who will age in ever-more-taxing ways, I wonder how often I’ll keep thinking of the dog on wheels.

The Twinkie Defense

Biggest Mirror apologizes for our recent decline in posts. The past two weeks have seen two moves, the most recent to an entirely new house that needs furnishings and work. Now that things have settled down, we aim to bring you the same high-quality pop-cultural analysis, dashed with mild self-hatred and moderate pretension. Kthx!

Moving changes a lot of your conceptions of what you will and won’t watch; the sake of roommate unity is often on the line, especially when you’re in the minority in the collective taste of a group. My new roommates are something like the Fairy Godmothers of entertainment technology; they flitted in with the biggest TV I’ve ever seen, a complete surround sound system for said, a PS3, an Xbox 360, a Wii, and an Apple TV. Overnight, I’ve gone from watching movies on my computer screen to watching them on a high-def monster in full Blu-Ray glory. So when they said they wanted to watch anime, I was certainly in no position to argue. My sheaf of French art films from Netflix are going to have to get some surreptitious viewing, that’s all.

I don’t have anything against anime on a constitutional level. In high school, I was briefly entangled by two Japan-loving friends into the genre, but I think they were disappointed when my tastes ran less to “Naruto” and more to “Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster” (still one of the funniest/raunchiest shows I’ve ever seen). The romantic fare, notably “Kare Kano,” played better with me, but it wasn’t compelling enough for me to really seek out the manga or the show.

We watched “Appleseed: Ex Machina,” a serviceable, if implausible futurist actioner. Even with its numerous plot holes, it looked damn good in Blu-Ray, and I found myself absorbed in a way I haven’t with many of the artsy-type films I’ve been watching lately. It reminded me of a time earlier this summer, when I was coaxed into viewing “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” which I also found shockingly entertaining.

My name is Allie, I write a high-culture blog, and I enjoyed “Resident Evil: Apocalypse.” There, I said it.

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with watching these films. In fact, watching them has taught me to stop judging people as much for liking them (always a good thing when your primary hobby is soaking in pretentiousness). What’s even stranger, though, is that I’ve begun to wonder if my understanding of movies is really complete without ever having watched them.

I’ve been a big reader of film criticism since my earliest days; once I realized that critics seemed to champion most of my favorite early-childhood fodder (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), I quickly became enamored with reading whatever it was they had to say. Suffice it to say that I was the only twelve-year-old around who was seeking out Tarantino films and considered Philip Seymour Hoffman to be her favorite actor.

Part of the reason why movie critics don’t like genre movies, on the whole, is that they’re stubbornly formulaic. If you watch the latest cop, superhero, and horror films every week for a year, it’s not going to be long before you realize that there’s nothing new out there. So all but the most innovative genre flicks tend to get trashed. Critical teacher’s pet that I was, I learned to avoid them. Besides, how could I justify watching the Morgan Freeman thriller-of-the-week when I hadn’t seen anything by Cronenberg or Ozu or Renoir? There was a whole world of cinematic history to catch up on, and turning on some mindless Hollywood crap seemed anything but worthwhile in the face of all the learning there was to do.

I’ve come to realize, though, that watching Hollywood crap is maybe the only way to learn that these things are good. Every movie that’s made is going to give some kind of thrill: a really good stunt in an otherwise crappy action film, a hilarious throwaway line in a mediocre comedy. Dull colors, uninventive camera angles, bad acting, and poor plotting are mostly absent from the long list of modern classics; they’re all more or less perfect, and that’s great. But understanding that perfection from this perspective is like trying to understand what makes a really good meal without ever having had a bad one. You can enjoy the meal, but there’s no real point of contrast. (An alternative perspective: Oscar Wilde once said that “if nothing is serious, nothing is funny.”)

So I’m going to try to indulge in more movies that wouldn’t normally make my radar, and try to better understand what makes them a little less than perfect. When I do get back to my raw-food diet of international art films and classics, maybe a few Twinkies along the way will make me appreciate them all the more.

Or maybe they’ll just send me into glycemic shock.

Can Violence Be Funny?

Last night, Tim and I returned to the movies, this time to see the new Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow offering, Pineapple Express. (If you’re interested in seeing the movie, be forewarned: there are spoilers in this post.) I’m a huge fan of the Apatow empire, and have been since the Freaks & Geeks days; I watched Undeclared religiously, and have seen every movie they’ve made since. If you had told me back in 1999 that everyone who worked on Freaks & Geeks would be big movie stars, and that Rogen, my middle school mega-crush, would be their leader, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. So seeing these guys succeed has always been pretty sweet for me, almost like having a group of geeky friends that all struck it big. I tend to be an apologist for even the weakest points of their films (the female characters in Knocked Up come to mind, as does Jonah Hill). And one of the things I love most about their movies is that they’re not afraid of being open about pot use (this joke about Gandhi always comes to mind). Some of their characters are stoners, some are casual users, but there’s no huge anti-drug message in any of the films: it’s just not a big deal. Hell, sometimes you can even do it after you take a promotional photo:

I offer all of this as a preface because I’m feeling kind of lukewarm about Pineapple Express, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not that the movie isn’t funny — I laughed out loud during it, many times in fact. I’m just not sure that its overall subject matter is necessarily something that should be mined for humor. Yes, it’s about stoners, but after its first third, the movie isn’t really about pot at all. It’s an action movie, and a pretty violent one at that.

The Apatow crew is all about mining humor from difficult places. Not necessarily dark places, or unlikely places, just places that are strewn with peril for making things funny. Having an unplanned pregnancy with someone you barely know isn’t a funny thing for a lot of people, but Knocked Up took that risk and managed to mine pretty good humor from it. The naked desperation of teenage boys fixated on getting laid also isn’t a wellspring of humor (especially for those who have daughters as a result of those unplanned pregnancies). Superbad took some really lewd stuff and still made it funny. Bad, intense break-ups, especially ones where the guy is the one devastated, aren’t all that funny. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was.

Looking at that list, there’s an obvious new frontier: violence. Can more-than-moderate violence be funny? Pineapple Express seems to be the test, and for me, at least, I think the answer is no. The movie tries to mine humor out of people getting shot, scalded, stabbed, and everything in between, and unlike other action comedies, it’s not shy about showing the gory results. Some of it works, most notably the scenes where the film shows that action movies just aren’t true. James Franco trying to bust open a cracked windshield and getting his leg stuck instead? Brilliant. And “You just got killed by a Daewoo Lanos, motherfucker!” may be a candidate for line of the year.

But there are several violent scenes that cross the line into uncomfortable. The one that comes to mind is when Franco and Rogen find Red (Danny McBride), Franco’s supplier, bleeding to death on his bathroom floor. He’s been shot twice, and has smoked some weed (and grabbed a bottle of vodka) to help kill the pain. He ends up so stoned that he doesn’t really seem to care about whether or not he dies, even though the guys offer to take him to the hospital. To make a long story short, he reappears at the end of the film, still not having received medical attention. As the guys reminisce about their action-packed day, he passes out from lack of blood, and the other two make fun of him.

Seriously, if my friend was bleeding to death and had just passed out, I would not be laughing. Even if I was high as a kite. Hell, if I was really stoned, I’d probably worry more, not less.

Even the choice to make the action scenes feel goofy and real, with tons of mistakes, ends up backfiring. In Rogen’s climactic fight scene with Gary Cole, I was literally cringing as they beat each other with blunt objects. Throwing a regular Joe into a Batman-style fight scene makes me nervous, not amused. It just hits a little too close to home for someone who’s not a particularly big fighter herself.

I think enjoying Pineapple Express really depends on whether or not you’ve crossed the threshold where you can find relatively realistic violence and killing funny. I don’t have a lot of taboos in my brain, and I enjoyed the hell out of every single one that Team Apatow has broken, but violence seems to just be something that isn’t really rife with humor for me. I’m certainly not trying to argue that you’re desensitized to violence if you love Pineapple Express — you can be anti-war, anti-killing, whatever, and still find that the film’s level of violence might be tolerable enough for you to laugh. But I can’t be the only one who will feel that it isn’t, and I wonder if this movie is going to have the kind of word-of-mouth power that the other Apatow films have ridden to glory.

Even if this film breaks their string of hits, though, I’m sure Team Apatow will recover. As long as homelessness, racism, and alcoholism are still around, there will be plenty of great taboos to break, maybe just one notch below this one. Go Judd go!

Hell Isn’t Other People

In the past week, I’ve seen both of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films with Tim and Tantek. We watched the first on DVD at Tantek’s house, and saw the new second installment last night at the Metreon, in a pretty empty theatre.

I wish I could say that the Hellboy movies are good, but they’re probably really not. They have hackneyed dialogue, cliched plots, bad supporting actors– all the B-movie trappings that a Dark Knight or an Iron Man spends those extra millions to obviate. There are some lessons thrown into the films, but nothing of particular philosophical merit– mostly, things tend to get resolved in the end, and lingering moral questions are irrelevant.

If the Hellboy movies aren’t good, though, they are certainly crazy as hell, which is almost the same thing. It’s clear that all of the silliness is intentional (this is pan-American comic book geeks, not Texan fertilizer salesmen, that we’re talking about), but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. Given the opportunity to blow stuff up real good, do some nifty CGI, and ogle some breasts, how many action movie directors instead devote at least five minutes of their film to the main character and his sidekick drunkenly singing along to Barry Manilow? Or a slapstick action sequence involving a ghost, a series of locker doors, and a can of Tecate? Most superheroes live the lives of 80’s rock stars: money, glamour, women, fame. In contrast, the adventures of Hellboy and friends are much more amateurish, kind of like “Wayne’s World.”

Oh man, and don’t even get me started on the Forbidden Planet-meets-Dr. Strangelove German robot with the mechanical mouth and the steam blowing out. Voiced by Seth MacFarlane, no less– yes, that Seth MacFarlane.

Of course, no exegesis on a del Toro film is complete without noting the elegance of his signature visual style. The creatures and crawlies in this film are truly incredible, from the oracle with eyes in her wings (reminiscent of the cherubim from L’Engle’s “A Wind in the Door,” as Tantek cleverly noted) to the gnawing, clawing tiny tooth fairies. The floppy-faced skin bags from Pan’s Labyrinth also make a reappearance.

Oh yeah, and there’s a weird-looking evil elf guy who wants to end the world. But that’s not really the first, or even the fifth concern, for the Hellboy crew. Watching the Hellboy films reminds me of my time at Harvard in more than a few ways: it’s about an isolated group of different, gifted, slightly crazy people who are trying to find a way to get along. Okay, so none of my classmates turned into columns of fire or lived in fishtanks, and only a few emerged from the bowels of hell. But at the end of the day, they all had to get along and work together– regardless of whether the task was saving the world or saving their GPAs. There was a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, a lot of gossiping behind every back. But in the end, it worked, and we worked. Hellboy‘s merit as a film, besides its batshit-crazy good humor, is its assertion that the inmates can run the asylum– and do a damn good job at that. No, we may not have been different enough back at the old alma mater to blow stuff up or fight giant plant gods. But we were all pretty good at being weird. Like the characters in Hellboy, that’s what brought us together.

Batman Gets His (Psychological) Wings

Like everyone else on these here Internets, I feel like I definitely need to say something about The Dark Knight. If you’re one of the five people in America who didn’t see it this past weekend (it had the biggest opening of all time), be forewarned: mild spoilers ahead.

I, like most of the audience, left my screening of Dark Knight in a bit of a grim mood. In fact, I was rather grateful that there was going to be an afterparty for the film, because I was sorely in need of a drink. Some people claim that this was to be expected (one of Tantek’s friends noted that “after all, it isn’t titled The Mildly Ominous Knight,”) and I didn’t mind the film’s sacrificing some of the zip that characterized Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan did the best he could by introducing a lot of humor in the first half of the film– I was almost blown away by how funny it was in places, which is a rare thing in a superhero film. Ultimately, however, endings stay with you, and I think Nolan did realize that the audience was going to be walking out with a pretty grim view of the world. To paraphrase Commissioner Gordon, it wasn’t the ending we wanted, it was the ending we deserved.

What’s even more interesting about that ending, and Dark Knight in general, is that it’s one of the only pieces in the movie that prominently features Batman. Most of the Batman films are about Batman and his problems, from the mythmaking in the original and rebooted origin stories to the juvenile pop psychology of Batman Forever (with none other than Nicole Kidman flashing her Rorshachs at Mr. Wayne). It’s an understandable impulse at first: especially at the beginning of a story, we want to know why this character is making the drastic decisions he’s making, want to feel the effect of his inner moral turmoil. The original Batman, as well as Batman Begins, accomplished that task ably.

But in sequels, I think it’s just as, if not more, important to spread the psychological wealth a little. If we’re three movies in with our old pal Batman and still hearing about how his parents were murdered, he has poor impulse control, et al, the films start to become like therapy sessions peppered with car chases and explosions– and the supporting characters, many of whom have equally interesting tales, stay completely flat. The paper-thin development of Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face in Forever is a great example: he appears from nowhere in the beginning of the film, starts pouring some acid on people in a bank vault, and sneaks in a little bit of exposition about how Batman is somehow responsible for his mangled visage. It’s like Insta-Villain: ten seconds in the microwave, a poorly thought-out motive for revenge, now let’s just go blow stuff up real good.

Contrast this with Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face in the new film. Frankly, I was surprised that Nolan chose to do both the Two-Face and Joker arcs in one film; I figured we might see a set-up for a Two-Face-centric third film (a la James Franco’s New Goblin at the end of Spider-Man), but not the entire Harvey Dent saga in one go. That being said, however, what a fucking brilliant piece of character development. Not only does Dent work on the symbolic level, he works on the real one as well: we can understand his history, his affection, his pain, and a real motive for revenge– this is no namby-pamby I’m-gonna-get-you-sucka setup.

And the supporting character buck doesn’t stop there: Gary Oldman gets in a very nice backstory as Gordon, there’s a little more clarity on Alfred’s history, and while Maggie Gyllenhaal may still be more of a token skirt than a real person, she acts the hell out of what little she’s given. I’m deducting some points here for Morgan Freeman’s performance as “Magical Black Man #467,” but overall, some pretty solid character development.

And then, of course, there’s the Joker. His character, in some ways, really defines what worked about the film for me. We watch him caper and connive, pressure and squirm, and eventually bite the dust, but through all of this, we know nothing about him. We don’t know why he does what he does. We don’t know if he’s genuinely crazy, or just a little mad. What little backstory he has (brought out in his myriad knifepoint speeches) is constantly changing; it might be the truth, it might not. And yet, none of it matters. He’s still totally riveting and compelling, right up until the last frame. Some of this is owed to Heath Ledger’s excellent performance, but just as much of it might be owed to the release of a burden: the constant focus on the minutiae of hero/villain psychology. It turns out that all you really need to build a superhero or supervillain is enough to get by: no Tommy Lee Jones-style cop-outs, but no endless digressions into Batman’s childhood and what he ate for breakfast last Tuesday, either. Give us what we need to know to make it comprehensible and believable, and let the actions (and acting) do the rest.

The long-held trope about horror movies is that what you can’t see is always much scarier than what you can. Batman’s power over his enemies (and the Joker’s as well) is exactly that: he’s mysterious and unknowable, and for that reason, he’s all the more frightening. I think Nolan and his comrades were really able to take a big leap for Batman, and for superhero films in general, by embracing the unknown and the unknowable. Just as the adage predicted, the results were scary. And scarily good.

(Thanks to Tantek and Cyan at Zivity for the opportunity to see the film a day early. You guys rock.)