Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Batman, Billy The Kid and the Zodiac in the Castro

The Castro Theater had a strong lineup in February. I was particularly keen on the Fincher-Nolan Chronicles which consisted of three double features. Each twin bill screened a David Fincher film and a Christopher Nolan film. The Fincher films included Zodiac, Fight Club and Se7en. Those films were paired with three Nolan films - The Dark Knight, Insomnia and Memento, respectively. Unfortunately, I was only able to watch the Zodiac/The Dark Knight combination.

I've partially seen both films on television. In particular, I've watched much of Zodiac in 15 to 30 minute blocks. I've read good reviews of Fincher's Zodiac and liked what I saw on television so seeing the unedited film on the big screen was appealing.

Zodiac starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey, Jr.; directed by David Fincher; (2007) - Official Website

The Dark Knight starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger,
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart; with Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman; directed by Christopher Nolan; (2008) - Official Website

Both of those films are well reviewed and much discussed. I was partial to Zodiac. In particular, I enjoyed the relationship between Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as the cops investigating the killings. Brian Cox turns in a flashy cameo as Melvin Belli. Zodiac kept the audience at arms length as Gyllenhaal gives a muted performance and the killer's face isn't revealed until close to the end of the film. Even at 2.5 hours, the film never lost my interest and is a top notch crime thriller as well as 70's period piece.

The Dark Knight is the 2nd installment of the Batman relaunch with Christian Bale. At the time, it was overshadowed by Heath Ledger's death and performance as the Joker. The Joker must be an actor's wet dream because it is impossible to overplay the role. I thought Christian Bale was kind of flat as Batman using a growling voice instead acting. The heart of the film is Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent who would become Two Face after locking horns with the Joker. Eckhart delivers an awesome performance in transforming Dent to Two Face.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Dent's current and Bruce Wayne's former girlfriend makes the most of her screen time. Gyllenhaal has really built up an impressive filmography dating back to Donnie Darko. Gary Oldman is tremendous as the single-minded Lt. James Gordon (promoted to Police Commissioner at the end of the film).

The Dark Knight was a bit silly at times. I could have done without the large-tired Batcycle or whatever it was called. The film stayed true to Frank Miller's version of the story. In fact, the biggest compliment I can give The Dark Knight is that it looks and feels like a Frank Miller film.


I have long wanted to see Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid starring James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson; with Bob Dylan; directed by Sam Peckinpah; (1973)

The film is most famous for its soundtrack by Dylan. The most well known track is "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." The film has a reputation for being a flawed masterpiece and a sign of Peckinpah's waning abilities brought about by alcohol and drug abuse.

The first thing I notice about the film is the title which gives preference to Pat Garrett. This implies the film is as much if not more about Garrett than the Kid. The film largely follows that premise. After watching the film, I was motivated enough to do a little research. I read "To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West" by Mark Lee Gardner.

To be honest, I was more captivated by Gardner's book than Peckinpah's film. I was surprised at how closely Peckinpah followed the documented events of the story. Peckinpah depicted Billy's escape from the Fort Sumner jail and later his fatal encounter with Garrett very close to Gardner's recounting. The major shortcoming is that Garrett lived another 25 years after killing the Kid. His life was interesting as well as how he handled being Pat Garrett...the Killer of Billy the Kid.

James Coburn seems to capture the essence of Pat Garrett and entertains the audience as well. Garrett was a more subdued man than the Kid. Kristofferson doesn't really let loose as the Kid. I was expecting Emilio Estevez from Young Guns but I was a little more spirited portrayal than what Kristofferson offered. In fact, I thought his Billy was a younger and nicer version of the sheriff in Lone Star.

Part of the problem may have been the ages of the stars. Billy the Kid was 21 years old when he was killed. Kristofferson was 36 during the filming. Pat Garrett was 31 at the time of Billy's death. Coburn was 45 when the film was made. Both Kristofferson and Coburn looked their ages and then some. These were middle aged men that looked weary while Pat and Billy were young men full of life. To me that was the essence of the legend that gives it endless possibilities and interest. Billy was a cocksure young man that ran into an extremely capable Pat Garrett. Garrett was brave enough and had experienced enough to give the edge. Garrett's backstory adds to the legend; he was the son of a slaveowner whose family lost their social standing as a result of the Civil War. Garrett cut his teeth as buffalo hunter which was a hard life. None of this came out in the film.

Peckinpah presents Billy and Pat as equals except Pat has moved on in life while Billy is stuck in a outlaw rut. As progress come to the Wild West, Garrett is better prepared because he has given up his wild ways. Billy on the other hand, is a dinosaur and the authorities hire Garrett to track one of his own as it were. There are elements of truth to this but it seems to miss the totality of the two men and their relationship.

Peckinpah seems to be delivering an elegy for the Old West (or perhaps Western films) by packing the cast with familiar faces such as Chill Wills, Katy Jurado, Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Barry Sullivan, R.G. Armstrong, Elisha Cook, Jr., Paul Fix & Jason Robards. Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" perfectly fits the tone of the film. It's as if the two men are dueling on the Titanic; no matter what, their lives as they know it is coming to an end. That cheapens the character of the two men and just as importantly takes away a powerful plot element from the story.

However, Peckinpah's skills as a storyteller are enough to carry the film. I saw the Director's Cut which was made a decade or so after the original edited film was released. The film was enough to inspire me to read more about the characters so film can't be that bad. Indeed, I was in rapt attention throughout the screening. As for those old character actors I mentioned in the previous paragraph, each one is given a scene to shine in and they all deliver (mostly death scenes). That's not surprising but what is surprising is that it doesn't throw off the balance of the film. It doesn't become a series of hammy cameos but advances the film and my enjoyment.

In the interest of full disclosure, I went to school in New Mexico so Billy the Kid has special interest to me. "To Hell on a Fast Horse" sets action in place that I'm quite familiar with - Dona Ana County, Mesilla, Las Cruces, El Paso, Organ Mountains & White Sands.

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