Pass the Popcorn: Luck Is for Suckers!

January 6, 2015

2014-03-07-annie

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

How do I love the new Annie movie? Let me count the ways:

1) It’s really entertaining, as long as you don’t expect too much from it. It’s not saccharine and treacley like the original Annie. In fact, the very first thing you see on the screen is a huge, completely unsubtle, on-the-nose message from the filmmakers announcing: “This Annie will not be saccharine and treacley like that other Annie!” It’s a hilarious gag.

There’s a real artistry to the way this movie does the Annie story without treacle. I think half my enjoyment of the movie was admiring how they pulled this off.

Consider how they handle “Tomorrow.” You can’t have Annie without “Tomorrow.” But audiences in the post-Seinfeld culture are not going to sit still for “Tomorrow.” Not unless you do something that forces them to. How to do it? By putting the song in an unhappy scene. Annie gets a major disappointment – life basically kicks her in the teeth. The sad moment just lingers on screen quietly for a bit. And then Annie half-says, half-sings to herself, quietly, “the sun will come out tomorrow.” And a moment later she’s singing “Tomorrow” and it’s slowly but surely building steam. And you’re rooting for her.

These people actually know how to make a frikkin’ movie. Can you believe it? Where have they been for the last twenty years?

2) It has a fantastic set of core values. After the opening scene, Annie is racing out of school to get somewhere she needs to be on time. Her friends call out: “Hope you make it!” “We’ll cover for you!” “Good luck!” And to this last statement she turns around and shouts back: “Luck is for suckers!” We then follow her through the city as she uses her ingenuity (and several prominent product placements) to get where she needs to be on time.

The basic message of this movie is: “Yes, life often sucks, but if you work hard and have guts, you can get ahead. Once you do, remember that you need people, too.” And we can’t have too much of that these days.

The Daddy Warbucks character – who for obvious reasons can’t be called “Warbucks” anymore so he is now, cleverly, “Will Stacks” – takes Annie on a helicopter ride above the city. The following exchange occurs (I quote from memory):

Annie: So how did you get to be the king of the city?

Stacks: I don’t think I’m the king of anything. I just work my butt off. The harder I work, the more opportunities I have. In life you have to play the hand you’re dealt, no matter how bad the cards are.

Annie: What if you don’t have any cards?

Stacks: You bluff.

He then sings her a song – a song! – about how anyone can get ahead if they work hard and have “heart.” To some extent it even oversells the point; in fact, not everyone can get mega-wealthy and become famous and have a helicopter. But like I said, you can’t have too much praise for hard work these days.

Praise for hard work is basically hope.

3) The core values are wrapped in a (mild and relatively unobtrusive) progressive political veneer. Some of my conservative friends are put off by the movie’s occasionally bowing toward the idols of contemporary liberal fashion. To the contrary, that enhances my enjoyment. If the work ethic is exclusively “conservative,” only conservatives will have the work ethic. If praise for hard work is hope, seeing hard work affirmed across ideological lines provides some justification for that hope. And this leads me to my next point.

4) What I think I enjoyed most is that the makers of this movie felt responsible to the story of Annie. I almost wrote, to the “franchise,” but the “franchise” is essentially the business value of the Annie story to its copyright owners, and while that is considerable, this is about more than that.

Most remakes or reboots pay relatively little attention to the heart of the story they’re handling. They keep the superficial stuff the same – the names of the characters and so on – but they want to “update” the franchise, make it marketable today. So they swap out the old engine (the heart of the story) for a new one, and keep the chassis more or less the same for the sake of brand recognition.

This movie keeps the engine and swaps out the chassis. That’s what a remake ought to do.

So of course there are some mild liberal pieties. The Annie story is about rich and poor; there used to be a time when you could tell that story without politics, but not now. Of course there are several major plot twists that would never have worked in the original Annie. They do work with this Annie. The point is, this Annie is still Annie.

And of course the millionaire is now black and has an interracial love interest. That’s the world we live in now, everyone.

Annie is all the more Annie – she is more Annie than she ever was before – for being black. Who has more right to sing “It’s a Hard Knock Life”? And who has had more occasion to learn that life means looking toward “Tomorrow” by faith rather than by sight?

The story of Annie has always been America’s ideal of itself at its best. I’m not sure a black Annie isn’t a greater sign of triumph over historic injustice than a black president.

Now why on earth didn’t they name him “Bill” Stacks?


Pass the Popcorn: Much Ado About Nothing

July 29, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So in April I wondered whether 2013 would offer up anything to challenge a random collection of old movie favorites I had recently seen on the big screen. It wasn’t looking good, but the Prescott Film Festival just scored, even if it was kind of cheating with a 2012 film.

The Prescott Film festival had what they advertised as the only Arizona screening of Josh Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing this weekend (Phoenix is not just a physical desert) so I eagerly bought a ticket.  Actress Emma Bates, who played Ursula, was on hand for Q and A after the film.  Here’s the trailer:

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So the back story on the film is that Whedon has had actors over to his house on Sundays for years to read Shakespeare. He had a short break between shooting and post-production for The Avengers and instead of going on a trip to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary, Whedon’s wife talked him in to shooting Much Ado About Nothing.  Whedon summoned his friends, including veterans from Buffy, Angel, Firefly and the Avengers, assigned parts, and shot the entire film at his own house in 12 days.  Bates related that Whedon’s wife is an architect and that she had in fact designed their house with shooting Much Ado About Nothing in mind. When you see the flick, you won’t doubt it.

I generally have a bias against American film actors trying to pull off Shakespeare. I watched the old Julius Caesar recently, and while Heston made a pretty good Marc Anthony, enduring Jason Robards playing Brutus with a midwestern deadpan accent was, well, brutal. I don’t think there was a single Brit in the bunch for this Much Ado but it didn’t matter because these guys were rolling with it and having fun. Sean Maher in particular was very good:

But maybe it was because the last American actor I saw play his role was:

Whether you love Whedon or Shakespeare, this movie is well worth the watch.


Pass the Popcorn: Up in the Air

January 22, 2010

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Up in the Air is a must see flick.

Clooney plays a man purposely devoid of attachments, a middle-aged guy with a Peter Pan syndrome. He travels 300+ days a year for his job, rarely speaks to his siblings, and has no interest in owning a home or having a serious romantic relationship. Not only has Clooney’s character made these choices for himself, he evangelizes this lifestyle in public speaking. His spiel involves using a backpack as a prop. Wives, mortgages, kids, pets- these are all heavy burdens in your backpack, he essentially argues, and you want to travel light.

His job? Flying around the country firing people in corporate  down-sizings.

Clooney’s character reminds me of an older, grizzled manifestation of the flawed young men of Kay Hymowitz’s brilliant and biting social commentary. Hymowitz, a colleague of Jay’s at the Manhattan Institute, has written a series of articles lamenting the young men of today. While once it was expected that a man would actually make something of himself before seeking a wife, today sex is widely available outside of marriage. So, thinks today’s bachelor, why get married? Although I can’t find a link, I recall seeing Hymowitz describe the young men of today as “addicted to video games and masturbation.” 

I remember it because I spit my “tea, Earl Grey, hot” onto my computer screen when I read it. Anyhoo, Clooney’s character, a bit more mature, is addicted to the accumulation frequent flyer miles, staying in five-star hotels,  hanging out at the Admiral’s Club at the airport and one night stands.  It’s all going swell, or is it (?), until a young whippersnapper figures out that it is cheaper to fire people by text message and he hooks up with a female version of himself out on the road…

Up in the Air is a great movie that deserves the buzz it is receiving. Drop what you are doing and go see it.


Pass the Popcorn: Black Dynamite

December 18, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

All of western civilization was merely a dull prelude to BLACK DYNAMITE. Why oh why did we have to wait until 2009 until someone made this film? Aughts, you stand redeemed!

Okay, so I am exaggerating, but only a little.

Mix one part spoof, two parts homage, add generous amounts of kung-fu, crypto-racial conspiracy and revenge fantasy. The result: the best Blaxploitation flick since Truck Turner.

Avatar? Yawn…I prefer films that have a bad plot on purpose. Besides, Black Dynamite would kill James Cameron’s evil space marines with his nunchuk in about 10 minutes. Roll credits! Those 12 foot tall blue Scotty Pippen looking aliens would build a Black Dynamite statue and worship him like Ewoks who found a new protocol droid. Except it would be in 3D this time.

Black Dynamite battles THE MAN and his anti-brother conspiracy, and his fight takes him through drug pushers, the CIA, an evil Chinese super-villian, and all the way to the “Honky House.”  THE MAN is doomed and the ladies swoon. Run, don’t walk to the theatre!


Pass the Popcorn: They Went Boldly, And They Found New Life

May 9, 2009

Star Trek

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Note: This post is 100% spoiler free!

If you’re a Trekkie, you don’t need me to tell you to go see the new Star Trek movie.

But if you’re not a Trekkie: You should go see the new Star Trek movie. If it’s not the best movie you see all year, I’ll give you your money back on this blog. I’m that confident you’ll love it.

Star Trek 2

To keep this post spoiler-free (in hopes that I can convince the maximum number of people to go see the movie) I can’t tell you everything about what makes this such a good movie. But I’ll do my best to indicate as much as I can.

I think the biggest key to success here is the way J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman drilled down to the essence of what makes Star Trek such a wonderful platform for storytelling and built their whole story around that, ruthlessly cutting out anything and everything from the original franchise that got in their way.

Lots of things have been changed, sometimes dramatically. Some things that Trekkies hold dear have been destroyed; new things have been introduced that mossbacked fans will find jarring.

Star Trek 4

But all that destruction only makes way for Abrams & Co. to use the Star Trek setup the way it was originally used – before it got cluttered with the overgrowth that inevitably accumulates in any long-term franchise.

I felt like the more they dramatically changed everything, the more it became more like the Star Trek it always was. It was like they reached into the middle of a large, complex structure and pulled the center outward, turning the whole thing inside-out in the process, but at the end it was the same as it had been, even though it was completely different.

Star Trek 5

I’ve been trying to think of how to express this point more clearly. I keep coming back to the opening lines of G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, where he says that there are two ways of getting home. The first is to stay there. The second is to go all the way around the world and come back to where you started.

I think the Star Trek movies had just stayed home too long. Abrams & Co. have taken them all the way around the world, and the result is, the franchise is home again.

I think the most important thing they’ve built on is the simple but brilliant storytelling mechanic of taking eight or nine colorful, highly strung personalities and locking them all together for an extended period in a tin can where they can’t get out of each other’s way and are periodically threatened with death. Firefly recently proved again how well this can work when it’s properly used. Who knows? Maybe Abrams was watching.

But another important aspect – and this is something you should know going in – is that it brilliantly maintains the unique narrative style of Star Trek. Again, I’m not sure exactly how to make clear what I’m getting at.

Let’s put it this way. Star Trek has never been the kind of franchise where they stop to ask questions like, “how could Starfleet Academy possibly have a final exam that consists of role-playing a simulated scenario where everybody knows ahead of time that there’s no winning outcome to the scenario?” Merely the fact that you know you’re in a no-win situation will change your behavior. But as a poetic narrative device it works brilliantly, as the famous discussion of Kirk’s unique approach to the exam in Star Trek II demonstrated.

Oh, and it helps that they put in a lot of very clever references to the original series. Don’t worry, if you’re not a Trekkie you won’t even notice them. They aren’t obtrusive. But if you are a Trekkie, you will laugh your head off time and again at the sly way the movie nods its head to some of your favorite (and most cringe-worthy) memories.

Sulu Fencing

No, this is not a spoiler. Trust me.

Also, you get a lot of movie out of this movie. It’s fast-paced, but not because they’re always fighting. It’s because they’ve trimmed out absolutely all the fat. There is not a minute of screen time wasted in this movie. Yet nothing is rushed or sloppy – it’s just very efficient storytelling. You get twice as much out of it just from that alone. (That, by the way, is the secret to the success of a lot of great movies and TV shows – an efficient storyteller can give you more bang for the buck even with an otherwise ordinary narrative. But then, the highly efficient storytellers also tend to be excellent in other ways.)

Oh, just go see it already. The sooner you do, the sooner I can talk about it.


Quantifying the Popcorn

January 23, 2009

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

No time to write a lengthy discussion of it (why did I waste all that time this morning composing a post on something as useless as education policy?) but don’t miss the fascinating article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the history of, and debates over the merits of, the practice of movie critics assigning stars, letter grades, or “thumbs” to movies as a quick and easily accessible, yet frustratingly reductive, indication of their judgment on a movie.

Among other things, the article asks some prominent movie critics to give a star ranking to the practice of ranking movies by stars. One gives the practice four stars (“It helps the reader, and it helps us”) while another gives it one and a half (“It’s not necessary to film criticism but it’s not something that undermines it”). Some people quoted in the article are actively hostile to the practice, though.

The article is by “The Numbers Guy,” Carl Bialik, who apparently has a blog under that title at the Journal‘s website. Who knew? On the blog he has a follow-up to the story with more quotes and tidbits, including one critic who complains that he doesn’t know how to give an accurate ranking to a movie that he hated, yet enjoyed watching for its awfulness:

“The toughest one for me was Gran Torino, which I think is a terrible film but nonetheless found immensely entertaining in its awfulness,” Las Vegas Weekly film critic Mike D’Angelo told me about his 100-point grading system on his personal Web site. “I wound up giving it 34/100, which includes like 20 bonus points for camp value.”


Pass the Popcorn: Payback’s a Bitch

December 19, 2008

 vesper-1

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last weekend I finally got to see Quantum of Solace. I had heard it wasn’t as good as Casino Royale, so going in, I tried to manage my expectations.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s as good as Casino Royale,” I told myself. “It’ll be fun, and it’ll probably be better than just fun, and that’s better than most movies. I’ll just enjoy what’s on the screen without worrying about what’s not.” That’s how I try to approach most movies.

It wasn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong. Quantum of Solace is not a bad movie. I enjoyed most of the two hours I spent watching it. However, not only was there a tremendous amount of lost potential – an approach to the Bond story that could have taken the francise to a whole new level – but there were actually some pretty significant stretches that I couldn’t enjoy even on the level of fun or coolness.

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These data over here illustrate the precipitious decline of cool gadgets in James Bond films, as measured by both quality and quantity. I’ll move this electronic display across the tabletop just by moving my hand, so the audience will momentarily forget that this table-computer thingy is not an adequate substitute for a buzzsaw wristwatch.

 

The lost potential here is pretty darn serious. Casino Royale not only gave us a really cool  Bond movie, but the setup for what could have been a two-part (or longer) serious epic story arc- the first real epic storyline in the franchise.

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I can’t find it now, but in the runup to the new movie, some fan put together a desktop wallpaper image of Vesper Lynd with the tagline “Payback’s a Bitch.” That got me more excited to see the movie than anything in the official advertising – Bond both loves and hates Vesper (“the bitch is dead”) and thirsts for revenge on her killers even as he hardens his heart against all natural human affection.

bond-and-vesper-shower1

Quantum of Solace does try to redeem that promise, and there are some really good moments. The very last thing Bond does before the end credits roll is a really shocking twist – not so much a plot twist as a “character twist” – that works perfectly. It violates our expectations pretty radically, yet resolves the story perfectly, though not in the way we had thought.

And about two-thirds of the way through the movie, there is a scene that pays tribute to a famous moment in an earlier Bond movie that could have been incredibly cheap and derivative, but is pulled off with note-perfect direction and ends up being extremely effective.

There are also a number of great dialogues in the movie. Bond’s intereactions with M at the beginning are great – Judy Dench is finally permitted to do more than scowl at Bond, and her talents unexpectedly provide real depth to the M character here. And there’s a short but really powerful scene between Bond and Felix Leiter, about which more later.

But while there is some good action, some coolness, and several good moments that show us the epic this movie could have been, the movie not only doesn’t fulfill its potential, it frequently doesn’t even work on the level of standard Bond movie.

It wasn’t just the absence of a decent villain – although that flaw alone is more than enough to shame any director who makes a Bond movie.

 quantum_of_solace-villains

That guy on the left? Literally the instant he came on the screen I was scared of him. He’s in the movie for about five minutes. The loser on the right is the “villain.”

One does wonder just what has to happen to a man to cause him to make a James Bond movie with a lame villain. All action/adventure movies, but especially Bond movies, depend on the personality of the villain; his cunning is needed to test the hero’s wits, his ruthlessness to test the hero’s courage, his power to test the hero’s strength, his evil to test the hero’s good. The lame villain would have prevented the film from reaching anything like its full potential even if there were no other flaws.

quantum_of_solace-villain

He’s supposed to be scary. I’m told that if you stare long enough you’ll start to see it, like those “magic 3D” posters from the 90s. Anyway, I think they were going for “creepy guy who makes your skin crawl,” but they got “bug-eyed pervy loser.”

 

 

It wasn’t just the gaping holes in the plot. In case you’re curious, those holes arise primarily because the filmmakers decided to give the movie an environmental theme. I say “theme” because the movie is not at all didactic about the environment. They were smart enough to avoid that trap. But they wanted the evil scheme to somehow involve the environment, and what they came up with (I won’t spoil it, though really there’s not much to spoil) doesn’t pass the laugh test.

As for the lengthy scene in the middle of the movie that takes place at a radically avant-guarde European opera performance, while many (including my wife) found it annoying, I actually didn’t mind it.

quantum_of_solace-opera

I can see why they put it in – just like they put in that scene at the “dead bodies” museum exhibit in Casino Royale. They’re trying to reintroduce the tone of the older Bond movies that was simultenously highbrow and exotic. Flying off to Brazil (or wherever) used to be something only the rich could do, and for those who couldn’t do it, it was a little like flying to Mars. Today, when the Bond audience is comfortably upper-middle class and airfares to just about everywhere in the world are within their reach, it’s hard to take Bond to esoteric places. While the scene probably doesn’t work as well as the director hoped it would, I think it’s serviceable.

But now back to the flaws.

It wasn’t just the movie’s anti-Americanism. Here the movie is didactic, alas. One winces to hear the mass-murdering psychopath Haitian dictator Aristide discussed (though he is identified by a generic description and not by name) as a saint. And the filmmakers don’t seem to be aware that the Aristide whom they so admire was returned to office by U.S. power after being deposed in a coup.

But the damage here is pretty radically mitigated by several factors. First, it’s obvious that they felt they had to have something left-wing in there to counterbalance the fact that the movie’s villain is a phony environmental philanthropist, which might be taken as a critique of certain real-life phony environmental philanthropists. (“I did learn something about the environment from this movie,” my wife said to me afterward.  “I learned not to trust people who claim to be acting on behalf of the environment.”) There’s a sense, or at least I had the sense, that when they denounce American imperialism, they do so out of a sense of obligation. Second, on some occasions America really has been guilty of the kind of evil attributed to it here – although one wonders whether either the filmmakers or the audience are aware of who the real perpetrators of those evils were (and are), and which of the two political parties they tend to be clustered in.

But most importantly, Felix Leiter is given an opportunity to point out that if America has sometimes done nasty things, it is, on balance, not the world’s worst offender. In a Bolivian bar, Bond snorts, “you guys have carved up this place pretty well,” and Leiter spits back, “I’ll take that as a compliment – coming from a Brit.” Even by the standards of civilized nations, America stands up pretty well.

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In the Bond films, Felix Leiter has always stood for America. He lacks Bond’s air of elegant sophitication and savior-faire, but also Bond’s arrogance and hard-heartedness. Bond is the advanced-but-decadent Old World, Leiter is the plain-but-decent New.

Watch, for example, the first few minutes of Goldfinger, and see how differently Bond and Leiter treat the girl in the bikini by the poolside. If you’ve studied your Tocqueville, you know how to pick out the American in any crowd of men – he’s the one who talks to women like they’re human beings, not property.

On the subject of Felix Leiter as representative of America, it’s almost amazingly appropriate that the Felix Leiter character has switched races – and not for the first time, if you’re prepared to accept the quasi-official Bond film Never Say Never Again, where Bernie Casey took the role. Race is the most distinctive aspect of the American experience, so it’s fitting that the representative American should be alternately black and white. America is as much the slick East Coast sharpness of Jack Lord in Dr. No as it is the wry “aw shucks” Midwestern charm of Cec Linder in Goldfinger; America is also the simultaneous smoothness and bluntness of Jeffrey Wright.

leiter-1

“Felix Leiter – a brother from Langley.”

leiter-2

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I’ll go out on a limb and say that if Quantum of Solace had to be the first ever anti-American Bond film, it’s appropriate that the task of sticking up for America’s good name should fall to a black Felix Leiter. Those who hold themselves out as representatives of black America often don’t have much good to say about America, but that was not always the case, and if I may trust my personal experience, I find black Americans to be among the most intensely patriotic. Indeed, they’re almost the last sizeable population group among the core politically left groups who obviously mean it with all their hearts when they protest that they, too, love their country. And that’s not at all surprising – around the world, we are discovering that those who have been deprived of their liberties are the ones who cherish them most, while those who have long enjoyed liberty come to take it for granted. Why should we surprised to discover this at home? True, it was against American oppression that American blacks had to fight to gain their liberties, but now that they have liberty, they cherish it, and will not allow it to be lost. And they know that America, even with all it has done wrong, stands for liberty as no other nation does, or ever has.

But now, again, back to the flaws.

I think the main flaw in Quantum of Solace is the mandate that a sequel must be bigger and flashier than the original. Where Casino Royale centered around a card game and gave us intrigue, cunning, dialouge, and character development, Quantum of Solace is nonstop car chases, explosions, etc. Everything has to be bigger and blow up more spectacularly. That just doesn’t leave any time for the revenge plotline to develop properly.

This flaw is badly exacerbated by the poor editing and bad pacing of the action sequences. Each individual camera shot is too short, while each action sequence as a whole is too long. Because of the rapid-fire editing that spoils so much of the action, someone has called this “Bond for the ADD generation.” But I disagree; no one with ADD would have had the patience to sit through these interminably long action sequences. I barely had the patience to sit through them myself.

I wish I could say that this movie is good but not great. As I said, it’s not a bad movie. I enjoyed watching it, for the most part. But I just can’t bring myself to type that it’s a good movie. Looking at my grand unified field theorem of Bond movies, I’d have to say that where Casino Royale was “Reboot Awesomeness,” Quantum of Solace has skipped right past the “Still Good” phase and landed squarely in “Passable,” alongside The Spy Who Loved Me and The World Is Not Enough. That doesn’t bode well for the next one.

But remember the tagline to the end credits of every Bond movie: “James Bond will return.” And so he shall.


Pass the Popcorn: All-Time Great Summer Movies

October 16, 2008

epi518

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Inspired by Matt’s “all time best bad movie” contest, I decided to ask readers to cast their votes on the all-time great summer movies. And, like any good political science geek, I planned to use multiple voting systems. I was going to provide a slate of nominees and ask people to post a list of which nominated movies they thought were among the all-time great summer movies, in order of greatness. Then I was going to count up which movie got the most #1 votes, which movie got the most total votes, and which movie got the most votes if the votes were weighted based on where they fell on people’s lists.

But once I had compiled my list of nominees, I thought: why put it up for a vote? Excellence is not subject to democracy. So instead of being a list of nominees, this is just my list of the all-time great summer movies. (Since excellence is very much subject to freedom of speech even if it isn’t subject to democracy, you are very welcome to post your comments and your own lists!)

My list was selected by the following highly scientific process:

1) There was no such thing as a “summer movie” in the way we now think about that term before the 1980s or so. I chose 1980 as the cutoff date by a highly scientific process of noticing that it was divisible by both four and ten.

2) The definition of “summer” has changed over time. I chose May 1 to September 1 as my cutoff dates by a highly scientific process of deciding that I’m willing to stretch into May, but not April or September. I have manfully resisted the temptation to include as “honorary” summer movies the many excellent films with non-summer release dates (e.g. The Incredibles, November 5, 2004; Serenity, September 30, 2005; Casino Royale, November 17, 2006).

3) I examined the lists of movies first released in the US between May 1 and September 1 in every year from 1980 forward (that’s why God made IMDB) and chose the best nominees, selecting them by the highly scientific standard of whether or not I thought they were plausbile candidates for being an all-time great summer movie. After 2001 the IMDB lists get too long (they include not only the rapidly expanding straight-to-video market, but also a lot of miscellaneous media like video games) so for 2002 to 2008 I switched to using the list of the top 100 grossing movies and then seeing which of the plausible candidates was released in the summer. The dropoff in nominees after 2002 may be due to this methodology change, but I’m inclined to think not; rather while the quality of movies in general has not (I think) gone down, the rate of production for all-time great summer movies has.

After prolonged, highly scientific consideration, I decided to exclude small-budget comedies, even the major classics, on grounds that a movie needs a big budget to be a “summer movie.” Exceptions were made where I felt that a movie was striving for a big-budget, summer-movie “feel” even if the budget wasn’t actually big (e.g. the many big-name guest stars and over-the-top musical numbers in The Blues Brothers make it feel like a summer movie even though it probably didn’t cost summer-movie money; I got a similarly “summery” vibe from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Likewise, dramas with a strongly “gritty” and/or “realistic” tone (e.g. Untouchables, June 3, 1987; Unforgiven, August 7, 1992; 28 Days Later, June 27, 2003) and movies intended to be accessible to younger children (e.g. E.T., June 11, 1982; Labyrinth, June 27, 1986; Finding Nemo, May 30, 2003) were excluded as not fitting the genre.

On the other hand, I strove to include movies that we might not immediately think of as “summer movies,” but which, upon reflection, might be considered within that category. And I did make allowances where I felt that a franchise was “owed” a place on the list, as you’ll see from my comments.

The Empire Strikes Back

May 21, 1980

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From Leia’s anguished confession as Han goes into the carbonite to Luke’s heroic-cum-suicidal showdown with the Dark Lord, this movie was a high point not only for the franchise, but for science fiction generally and for film generally.

The Blues Brothers

June 20, 1980

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It’s big, it’s in your face, it has musical numbers and a finale where a SWAT team storms the building – it’s a summer movie. For me the most memorable line is during that final sequence when the police are closing in as the brothers are about to make the orphanage’s mortgage payment, and a police dispatcher, in a totally calm, monotone nasal voice, says: “The use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues brothers has been approved.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark

June 21, 1981

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In film as in all other occupations, the first step to doing great work is to do what you love. Spielberg loved 1930s cliffhanger serials and knew them well enough to bring them up to date, preserving what made them great in their own time while translating them into the (vastly superior) narrative idiom of modern film.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

June 4, 1982

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On this list, The Wrath of Khan stands as representative of the Star Trek franchise, not all of which were summer movies, but which cumulatively deserve representation. (Group rights are no good in politics but they have their place in “all-time greatest” lists.) But it’s convenient that one of the best of the series happens to have been a summer movie (two of them, actually – Insurrection was released in summer as well). Do you recognize the graphic above? The Kobayashi Maru is so widely referenced among sci-fi geeks that it’s a cliche, but there’s a reason it resonates so widely; it’s one of the best (in the sense of most fitting and most revealing) character backstories on film.

WarGames

June 3, 1983

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Remember this? Laugh if you will, but I think there’s a reason everyone from my generation remembers this movie. Has there ever been a more tense opening scene? “Turn your key, sir. TURN YOUR KEY.”

Krull

July 29, 1983

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Also in the “laugh if you will” department, this odd but oddly gripping sci-fi/fantasy hybrid stretched your imagination. If you could get past the “Huh?” factor, the film clearly knows how to tap into the vein of epic drama even with a story that doesn’t follow the standard genre conventions.

Ghost Busters

June 8, 1984

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What makes this movie so surpassingly great is that all the little things are consistently right. You remember all the really great moments, of course, but think about some of the ones you don’t usually remember, like Annie Potts trying to handle the sudden surge of business (“I’ve quit better jobs than this.” [Picks up the phone] “Ghostbusters! Whaddaya want!”). These fully-drawn characters are why the movie succeeds when it reaches for something more than just comedy – like near the end, when the boys crawl back out of the broken street and the crowd goes wild, chanting “Ghost busters!” “Ghost busters!” and Venkman brags, “That’s all right, we can take it. We can take it. They wanna play rough!” It’s not a gag; it’s played straight, as heroism, offered for our admiration. And it works.

Back to the Future

July 3, 1985

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Behold the man, Christopher Lloyd. He’s spent decades doing nothing but crap, yet for just a couple of brief, shining moments, he was brilliant – so brilliant that no amount of subsequently produced crap can ever move us to regret his career.

Top Gun

May 16, 1986

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Yes, the silliness quotient is getting a little high here. But this is the movie that set the standard for macho cool. (“We were inverted.”) And as Harvey Mansfield has recently demonstrated, machismo is not in itself a silly thing; in a dangerous world, the culture of machismo is serious business.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

June 11, 1986

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Contains just enough “bigness” (the parade, “Save Ferris” on the stadium’s electronic billboard) and summer-ness to bump up from the “comedy” category to the “summer movie” category in my mind. The city itself is as much a character as Ferris and Cameron. Sure, it lacks the drama and epic scope of most summer movies, but Ferris himself is larger than life – more primal force than man, the Iago of slackers.

Big Trouble in Little China

July 2, 1986

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The Ghost Busters of the kung fu genre. Cheesy over-the-top martial arts thriller (half spoof, half serious) meets super-sharp dialogue and fully drawn characters, again with all the little things done right: “A brave man likes the feel of nature on his back, Jack.” “Yeah, and a wise man has got enough sense to get in out of the rain!

Aliens

July 18, 1986

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Continuing a theme, it’s the characters who make this a big cut above the standard action flick – another real high point for sci-fi, and one of the best “straight action” movies ever made (as distinct from movies that are more in the “epic” or “adventure” subgenres). The debate in the APC about whether to nuke the site from orbit (“it’s the only way to be sure”) is one of the most note-perfect scenes I’ve ever seen. It also serves (in a way so subtle that you don’t notice it until it’s all over) as a great character intro for Hicks, who has been silent in the background until now while Apone and Hudson stole the show, but now must lead the unit. “But he’s a grunt! No offense?” “None taken.” And the way he says it, it’s clear that there really was no offense taken. It’s not the standard “call of destiny” scene, like Luke standing over the still-smoldering ruins of his aunt and uncle’s farm. But it serves the same function in the narrative – for both Ripley and Hicks.

Spaceballs

June 24, 1987

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“Aww, that’s just what we need . . . a Druish princess.”

“Funny – she doesn’t look Druish.”

Robocop

July 17, 1987

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Blends two of the great strengths of sci-fi that rarely go together well, but do so here: super-cool hi-tech action and smart social commentary, including some very clever social satire (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”). Kudos also for the excellent twist ending: The elderly corporation president is held hostage with a gun to his head by his villainous vice president. Robocop can’t save him because the VP has had him programmed to be unable to take action against an officer of the company. Then the old president, who has been mostly a smiling-grandfather figure until now, suddenly shows that he didn’t get to be the president without learning how to think quickly under pressure. “Dick . . YOU’RE FIRED!” Whereupon Robocop blows the VP away.

The Living Daylights

July 31, 1987

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Just as the Wrath of Khan stands for the Star Trek franchise, this stands for the Bond franchise. But, again as with Wrath of Khan, it’s convenient that one of the franchise’s strongest entries happens to have been a summer movie. Vastly underappreciated due to the juvenile public reaction against the toning down of Bond’s sexual immorality, this complex espionage thriller delivers action, snappy dialogue (targeting recticles appear on the windshield of Bond’s car and he explains to the girl: “I’ve had a few optional extras installed”), and – not least important – marks the start of the series’ deliberate development of Desmond Llewelyn’s comic genius. Bond observes as an MI6 technician carrying a loud stereo on his shoulder flips a few switches and launches an RPG-type rocket out of it. “It’s a little something we’ve worked up for the Americans,” remarks Q with evident delight. “It’s called a Ghetto Blaster.”

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

June 22, 1988

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One of those times when a super-clever novelty act turns out to be more than just a novelty act. It does for classic cartoons what Raiders did for 1930s cliffhanger serials – translates it into the idiom of modern film. And see above re: Christopher Lloyd.

Batman

June 23, 1989

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Remembered, of course, for Jack Nicholson’s Joker – and it still will be, even now that Heath Ledger has reinvented the character in an even more impressive way – it’s hard to remember now that it was this movie that resurrected the then-mostly-defunct genere of comic book movies, which is no small feat given the peculiar imperatives of that type of narrative, and also revolutionized the visual style of movies in related genres. One of the most influential movies of the last generation.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

July 3, 1991

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Noted at the time for its then-record budget, Terminator 2 did for special effects what Tim Burton’s Batman did for comic book narratives – showed the narrative power they were capable of weilding.

A Brief History of Time (Documentary)

August 21, 1992

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Just kidding! 🙂

But I think his appearances on The Simpsons have shown Stephen Hawking’s potential as an action hero (“If you are looking for trouble, you found it”), and if they made a summer movie starring him, I’d go.

Jurassic Park

June 11, 1993

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I suppose I’m including this mostly out of a sense of obligation, given its prominence and influence – although I did decide not to include Rambo 2 in spite of its (probably greater) influence. In this case I think the craftsmanship of the movie is better. (The moment where Sam Neil dismisses Jeff Goldblum as a “rock star” intellectual lightweight, for example, works well.) This is a movie I wouldn’t spontaneously suggest watching, but would happily watch if others in the room wanted it.

Speed

June 10, 1994

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Continuing that theme, here’s another movie that I include largely out of a sense of obligation, yet I wouldn’t include it if I didn’t think it had merits. Craftsmanship again makes the difference.

Apollo 13

June 30, 1995

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Much more than a nerds-as-heros flick (although it is clearly that), this movie is a triumph of the filmmaker’s craft. Nothing in it is particularly spectacular in itself, but all the pieces click perfectly and the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

May 2, 1997

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The franchise degenerated so quickly in the subsequent films that I don’t think the full cleverness of the original is still as widely appreciated. The better you know Bond, the more gags you’ll notice here. And maybe it’s just me, but I bust a gut laughing at Austin trying to get the little go-kart turned around in the narrow dead-end hallway. I don’t know why, it just works.

Men in Black

July 2, 1997

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If you haven’t seen it in a while, plug it back in. It’s a lot funnier than you remember.

The Mask of Zorro

July 17, 1998

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One more for the “laugh if you will” file, but I think this movie stands out from the crowd. Action, comedy, terrific performances, and – in case you haven’t noticed, this is an important mark of a great movie for me – really good dialogue. The aging Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) wants to train a drifter he’s picked up (Antonio Banderas) to replace him. Hopkins points to the sword in Banderas’s hand and asks, “Do you even know how to use that thing?” “Of course I do,” replies Banderas. “The pointy end goes in the other man.”

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

June 30, 1999

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What does one say? If you haven’t seen it, words aren’t going to convey the experience. I’m only about 50% on board for the movie’s agenda, but they do it cleverly so as to avoid turning away people who aren’t ultimately with them – their focus is on the failure of parental responsibility, not on the policy question of what should be allowed on TV.

Shrek

May 18, 2001

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It could have been a one-joke movie, but consistent cleverness and Eddie Murphy’s breakout performance made it franchise-worthy.

Spider-Man

May 3, 2002

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What Batman created, Spider-Man recreated. Standing as radiant day to Tim Burton’s somber night, Sam Raimi’s equally powerful vision of the super hero radically broadened the scope of the genre.

Batman Begins

June 15, 2005

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And then, of course, the dark night of Batman came roaring back with its own reinvention – this time with subtlety and intellectual heft. Chris Nolan embarks on the novel mission of making a Batman movie that’s all about Batman, and it works on every level.

The Dark Knight

July 18, 2008

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See here, here, here, here, here, and here. Nuff said.


Pass the Popcorn: In Praise of Sequels . . . But Not These Sequels!

September 12, 2008

Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season! (It’s Kevin Smith, so use caution)

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Sequels are a good thing. Why does everybody complain about them?

Do they represent a new trend, one whose influence might be negative? No, they’ve been around since the medium of film began. If you’re going to assert that sequels have ruined the movies, what’s your control group?

Are sequels on average lower in quality than non-sequels? It seems unlikely. Sure, most sequels are bad. So are most other movies. That’s just the way it is.

And that’s the starting point, I think, for why people get this bee in their bonnets about sequels. The one thing sequels have in common is that they all follow upon, and thus invite comparisons to, a successful movie – the one that started the franchise. Since the first movie in the series is always one that a lot of people thought was good, and most movies are bad, statistically it will always be unusual for a sequel to live up to the standard set by the original. And since that’s the metric we judge them by, we dislike them.

But sequels do for movies what brands do for other consumer products: they convey information about the content of the product, thus helping consumers make a more informed choice.

It’s true that the imperatives of the movie business create much stronger incentives for filmmakers to “dilute the brand” than are present for other consumer goods. Thus, the extremely strong trend for movies to get worse as a franchise ages. In some of the older francises, you can actually trace the life cycle from awesome to mediocre to brain-numbingly stupid to the franchise reboot that brings you back to awesome. (Cue Elton John: “It’s the ciiiiiiiiiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiiife . . .”) Occasionally you get a fallow period between the end of one cycle and the start of the next, where the filmmakers have realized something is wrong, so the quality gets somewhat better again, but they’re still trying to figure out how to get back to where they should be. And, of course, sometimes there’s a failed reboot.

By my count, James Bond has had six reboots since its debut. I include Goldfinger as a reboot because the previous two movies just don’t have the winning Bond formula down yet (in contrast to the books, where the Bond formula was actually in place from the very start). And Dr. No is in the “awesomeness” category solely because it was first – I dare you to sit all the way through it now. Few movies have aged worse.

Reboot Awesomeness Dr. No Goldfinger Live and Let Die The Living Daylights GoldenEye Casino Royale
Still Good From Russia with Love   The Man with the Golden Gun   Tomorrow Never Dies  
Passable     The Spy Who Loved Me   The World Is Not Enough  
Please Kill Me Now!   Thunderball Moonraker Licence to Kill Die Another Day  
Fallow Period   You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, View to a Kill      
Failed Reboot   On Her Majesty’s Secret Service        

And if that doesn’t get a comment thread going, nothing will.

But, having praised the phenomenon of sequels in general, let me balance the scales by making fun of some upcoming sequels that the world really, really does not need:

Huh? Of all the movies Pixar could be making a sequel to, they’re going with this?

All the world’s a racetrack as racing superstar Lightning McQueen zooms back into action, with his best friend Mater in tow, to take on the globe’s fastest and finest in this thrilling high-octane new installment of the ‘Cars’ saga. Mater and McQueen will need their passports as they find themselves in a new world of intrigue, thrills and fast-paced comedic escapades around the globe.”

Do you like that? Cars is now a “saga.” Wonder how many they’ll make before the well runs dry.

Uh . . . they all died. That’s the point of the story. What’s the sequel going to be about?

Movieinsider.com dryly notes of “Untitled 300 Sequel Project” that “no plot details have been announced.”

Maybe we get to watch them bury all the bodies.

The sequel will be shot in the Smithsonian. The perfect pair – a brainless movie franchise and the museum conglomerate that actually manages to make American history boring.

The project was started by Disney without Pixar’s involvement, solely to gain bargaining leverage over Pixar. In other words, they started it because they knew it was a bad idea and they wanted to hold Pixar’s baby hostage. The first thing the Pixar people did when they merged with Disney was kill this project.

Now they’re really making it. Check out the plot. Can even Pixar pull this off?

Where have you gone, Steve Martin? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you . . .

Rambo 5. Yes, Rambo 5. I would never make that up.

But after making fun of all these sequels, let me end on a positive note: Power of the Dark Crystal. See you in 2009.


Pass the Popcorn: City of the Dark Knight (Issue #5)

September 5, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay.

I saw it for a third time last night and now I just have to post one more City of the Dark Knight before letting this movie go (as promised two weeks ago).

You may not be surprised to hear that after three viewings within three months, the “pencil trick” has lost all its magic (so to speak). As the Joker walks into the room, I’m sitting there thinking, “here comes the pencil trick.” And of course that sucks all the life out of it.

But much more important, every time I see this movie the story of Harvey Dent comes across more fully and more believably. Since Dent has been mostly in the background in my posts on this movie, today we’re going to be all Dent all the time.

Part of the reason the Dent story made less of an impression on me during the first viewing is just my own idiosyncratic way of experiencing movies. I generally don’t “look ahead” mentally while watching a movie. I know lots of people do that, and God bless them. Among regular moviegoers, those who look ahead are probably in the majority. One very dear friend of mine, who has worked in Hollywood full time for about twelve years now, looks ahead so diligently and is so intimately familiar with the conventions of the medium and the imperatives of storytelling that she claims no movie ending has ever surprised her – yet she also claims this has no impact on her enjoyment of movies. (And I guess the latter claim must be true, or she wouldn’t work in Hollywood.)

But that just isn’t how I’m built. It isn’t a conscious decision; I just don’t do it. I experience the movie as it comes. In some ways it’s better, in some it’s worse. Despite my friend’s testimony, I can’t help but think that plot twists and surprises must be much more enjoyable for me than for her. And I have a lot more patience for slow-paced movies like Heat, Unbreakable and Ghost Dog. I’m not sitting there thinking, “come on, come on, get on with it,” because I’m not looking at where we’re going, just at where we are. On the other hand, foreshadowing has to be pretty blatant before I’ll notice it. (One clever little movie, The Opposite of Sex, has the main character – a teenage girl – narrating the movie as it happens, on the pretense that she’s in control of what’s on the screen. In the first scene she’s packing up to run away from home, and she puts her father’s pistol in the backpack. Narration: “Oh, and this part where I take the gun? That’s like, duh, gonna be important later! My English teacher says that’s called foreshadowing.”) And if things happen early in a movie that turn out to have more significance later, I’m slower to catch up.

On second and subsequent viewing, however, you can’t help but look ahead. And when you do that, the Dent narrative comes across much better. The second time, when things happened like Dent saying “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” I noticed them and said, “oh, I see what they’re doing here.” But it was still coming across all in bits and pieces. The third time was the charm – I saw the whole Dent narrative pull together. On the third viewing you’re bearing these things in mind from beginning to end – for example, one of the keys to the Dent narrative is that Dent knew all the time that Wertz and Ramierez – the cops in Gordon’s unit who got Rachel killed and him disfigured – were dirty. I don’t think I realized the full importance of that until the third viewing.

Obviously Chris Nolan was counting on you to look ahead. From the moment you hear the name “Harvey Dent,” you’re supposed to be thinking, “oh, he’s going to become evil.” And given the core audience for this movie, I’m sure that was a very sound decision. The movie is much more economical this way – sound economy being a precondition of artistic achievement.

It also helped that I now understand the Joker’s plan better. (Yes, in spite of his claims, he has a plan.) When he says to Dent “introduce a little anarchy” and hands him a gun, he’s not mainly inviting Dent to go out and kill Maroni – which is what I thought the first time. Obviously he does hope that Dent will go out and kill Maroni, which is why he plants the idea with Dent that killing Rachel was all Maroni’s idea. But what he mainly wants is for Dent to kill him, just as he previously wanted Batman to kill him. That makes the whole scene make a lot more sense.

The Joker tells Dent that the world is controlled by “schemers” who make “plans,” and that everybody organizes their lives around the “plans” even if the plans are horrible. Now let’s look at this from Dent’s persepective. All his career he’s been fighting to clean up Gotham. And what has been his primary obstacle? Not the bad guys, but the system. He has Maroni dead to rights, and Maroni walks. For that matter, years ago he had Wertz and Rameriez dead to rights on corruption and racketeering charges, and they walked, too. And then the system let Gordon set up his own little unit and put these dirty cops to work on Dent’s cases. And even after Gordon and Dent round up a whole city of full of bad guys by taking advantage of the broad racketeering laws, and Dent gets a judge to sign off on it, he still has to go to the mayor and beg for permission to prosecute the cases – over the vocal objections of the police commissioner (Gordon’s predecessor). Examples like this could be multiplied.

After a track record like that, is it any surprise that Dent, lying in that hospital bed, was receptive to the Joker’s message that the legal system’s “schemers” with their “plans” are not essentially different from the mafia’s “schemers” with their “plans”? That the real problem is the futility of trying to do things by “plans” at all?

But – and here I’m sort of half expositing the movie and half speculating to fill in the blanks – Dent is not the Joker. Dent will not become simply an “agent of chaos.” He resents the system because it stands in the way of justice, and he’s still motivated by a desire to see justice done. So when he rejects the system, he doesn’t (at least from his perspective) simply set himself up as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, because that’s not how justice works. Instead, he sets up a new “judge and jury” system of his own, one that will substitute for the real judges and juries who have proven so ineffective (their “plans” are “horrible,” as the Joker puts it). This leaves him to serve simply as prosecutor (he decides whose “cases” will come to the bar) and executioner. And the system he sets up – “chance,” as embodied in the coin toss – is “fair” not only in that it has no favorites but also in that it is not subject to all the other forms of human weakness and corruption. There will be no crazy, arbitrary rewriting of the rules by ideologically blinded judges or by self-serving, scheming politicians and police. How could there be, when chance by definition has no plans?

The temptation to set aside all civilized procedure in the pursuit of justice is a perennial one, inherent in the nature of a human race whose members are each good enough to desire justice yet evil enough not to be able to carry it out without the need for checks and balances. It is partly this temptation that makes Batman so popular in the first place, as this movie clearly understands. (“What gives you the right?” demands the Batman imitator. “What makes you different from me?” The crushing rejoinder “I’m not wearing hockey pants” is good for a laugh, yet the question remains.)

It’s a temptation that must be strictly avoided, because it never ends according to plan, as the Joker knows only too well – that, of course, is why the Joker starts Dent down this road in the first place, because he knows that Dent will end up an agent of injustice rather than of justice. He wanted to do the same with Batman. When Batman throws him from the building, he laughs with glee on the way down because he thinks he’s won. When Batman ropes him and hauls him back up, he says “you really are incorruptible, aren’t you?” That line is his admission of defeat, at least as far as Batman is concerned. But a moment later he drops the hammer: he admits defeat with respect to Batman, but (correctly) claims victory over Harvey Dent.

And in this game, the good guys have to win every time. The bad guys only have to win once.

Unless, of course, the good guys break the rules.