Talking Movies

July 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Dark Knight

On this day ten years ago I saw The Dark Knight on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. Yeah…

“Where do we begin?” The Dark Knight is a sequel that expands upon and darkens an existing cinematic universe so successfully and unsettlingly that it ranks far above what one would think of as the obvious reference point The Empire Strikes Back and instead starts advancing menacingly towards The Godfather: Part II…

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan are very clever, as evidenced by their last collaboration The Prestige, and see greatness where others do not, as evidenced by reading the original novel of The Prestige. In The Dark Knight they have constructed a story that takes the mythology of the DC comic books and turns it into both high tragedy and violent mayhem.

Christian Bale is superb as Bruce Wayne who is quickly becoming a physical and emotional wreck after one year of being the Batman. What was intended as a short-term project to clean up corruption looks to be nearing its end with a final audacious swoop on the mob’s money-men. Bruce’s only chance of a normal life is slipping away though as his sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most winning), tired of waiting for Bruce, is dating the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wonderfully charismatic Aaron Eckhart who also communicates an underlying instability that could lead Harvey to places of great moral darkness). Bruce can only compete against Dent for Rachel if he can trust Dent enough to retire Batman and leave the crime-fighting to the legitimate forces of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Major Crimes Unit. However such plans are wrecked when the mob in their desperation at Batman’s success decide to fight back by hiring, in the Don Sal Maroni’s own words, “a two bit whack-job in a cheap purple suit and make up”…The Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, physical and unhinged – licking his lips like a snake sensing its prey, blows away the inert Jack Nicholson performance and retires the role for a generation if not all time. Oscars don’t go to films like this but Ledger’s performance here is worthy of consideration. His Joker is blackly hilarious and utterly terrifying, usually at the same time, and even his musical theme is chilling. The Nolan brothers cross many lines in depicting his psychopathic unpredictability. One of the taglines for this film was “Welcome to a world without rules”. Batman cannot understand Joker.  Carmine Falcone wanted power, Scarecrow wanted money, Ras Al’Ghul wanted order, The Joker? –  “I’m an agent of chaos”… His escalating mind games in the film move from straight crime with a superbly staged opening heist against a Mob bank, to terrorist attacks, to sick mass murder and beyond…

The Dark Knight is fiercely intelligent, ingeniously structured (to reveal plot details would be a sin) and gives memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble, while the twisted bond between Batman and Joker that exists in the comics finally receives a cinematic depiction. This is all incredibly realistic looking with 60% of the film shot on location and if seen on an Imax screen, as Christopher Nolan indeed shot it especially for, Gotham becomes a character in its own right with its cityscape lovingly captured in vertiginous shots. Written, played and directed with supreme assuredness this is one of the most gut-wrenchingly suspenseful films of the year that looks to 1970s crime thrillers like Serpico rather than superhero films for its modus operandi with its theme of police corruption. Indeed this is unlike any previous Bat-sequel, as can be seen by the difference between the grisly Two-Face in this film compared to previous camp interpretations, and is even tonally different in many ways to Batman Begins. Wanted may be the most fun blockbuster this summer but the Bat has captured the classy end of the spectrum with a film that combines meaty drama with explosive action.

You need to see The Dark Knight. Repeatedly…

5/5

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November 9, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Bane
I’m expanding my tweeted reservations about Bane’s role in The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve heard it argued that Bane is a great villain because he makes Batman physically vulnerable. But Nolan’s Batman is already physically vulnerable. We’ve seen Scarecrow set him on fire, Ras Al’Ghul drop a log on him and Two-Face shoot him. Bane making Batman scared of a beating isn’t really that interesting, and it’s certainly not as interesting as what the Joker did to him. The Joker was able to wound Batman deeply both emotionally and ethically, and it’s not at all clear that you can actually top that combined intensity and subtlety of villainy. Ultimately Bane remains defined by his physique, hence the casting of the post-Bronson bulked-up Tom Hardy; he is a hulking villain in the proper sense of the word. But therein lies the problem, Bane’s physique is his defining characteristic to the exclusion of almost all else. His appearance instantly raises the question of whether this film will end with the Dark Knight crippled in a wheelchair after Bane easily breaks his back. Choose nearly any other villain in the Batman universe and it doesn’t lead to that sort of immediate mere physicality based second-guessing because they have multiple interesting storylines in the comics. Bane has Knightfall…

Just In Time
I’m becoming increasingly aggravated at the spoiler-filled trailers and TV spots being authorised by major studios for films. The Ides of March’s TV spot gives away all but one development in the entire freaking movie, which is meant to be twisty. Knowing beforehand how characters react to events you haven’t seen yet only diminishes a movie. But there’re worse examples. Olivia Wilde Thirteen dies in the first act of In Time. I knew this before I saw the film because it was flagged by a voiceover and accompanying dramatic images on a TV spot. If you know your story structure and can calculate her star value, you can easily guess that her death marks the end of the first act and is the traumatic plot-point that spurs our hero into violent action against the villains in the second act. And you’d be right. But it’d be nice to find that out in the cinema as a genuine shock rather than be told it on TV by seeing a frantic Thirteen running and collapsing into Timberlake’s arms with her body-clock showing all zeros as we’re warned ‘just don’t let your time run out’…

The Dark Knight Dies
Let’s second-guess Christopher Nolan shall we? Nolan said The Dark Knight had been chosen as a title for a very specific reason so I instantly assumed something sent Batman over the edge of his code, and predicted that it was Joker killing Alfred. I later refined that to Alfred or Rachel, and was thus not too surprised when it came to pass. I’m convinced that The Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer is subtly hinting that Batman is going to die in its final minutes. I think the closing images of rising up past skyscrapers are the hallucinations of a dying Batman imagining an ascent out of crumbling skylines, as Gotham’s consumed by evil, to the white light of Heaven. Bane will probably break someone’s back but I think it won’t be Batman it will be Gordon, and that’s why Gordon is in hospital in this trailer…

September 21, 2010

The Hole 3-D

Joe Dante, director of The Howling and Gremlins, helms a kid’s film as scary as most adult horror films…

Nietzsche’s “And remember, if you stare long into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you” is a more apt tag-line than “What are you so afraid of?” which implies a jokey approach to the material largely absent from the film. Sure, Dante inserts parodic “Ha! Made you jump…” moments where people unexpectedly pop out of nowhere to deliver their lines, but he’s such a good horror director that he’s achieved the jump in technique that Anne Radcliffe defined as the difference between horror, make an audience jump and groan with buckets of gore, and terror, the purer feeling induced by sheer dread, which is infinitely more disturbing for a young audience. Whether such pure gore-free scares are suitable for children at all is a very serious question and one which the Irish censor has answered with a definitive ‘No!’ courtesy of a 15s cert.

Sullen teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia) and his younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) move into a new house, dragged 2,000 miles from their beloved Brooklyn by their flakey single mother (Teri Polo). It’s not all bad though as they quickly strike up a friendship with the cute bookworm next door (Haley Bennett). Exploring a mysterious hole in their new basement together, however, proves a very bad idea. Life-lesson: if you find something heavily secured with pad-locks for no apparent reason, for the love of God trust whoever put them on and lock them again when you’re finished gawking. As Bennett surmises “You have a gateway to hell in your basement”. Her next line “Cool” is quickly retracted when it unleashes a dead girl, dripping blood from one eye, who limps after her in unsettling digitally manipulated motion. Gamble meanwhile follows up playing Gordon’s son who was terrorised by Two-Face in The Dark Knight by being terrorised by a court-jester puppet – a mini-Joker. This puppet moves when he’s not looking, before winking, and eventually traps him in the basement and chuckles maliciously as it slowly walks towards him….

Impressive sound design makes the scenes where the unseen stalking puppet’s bells ring absolutely terrifying as they rattle all around and even behind you. By contrast the third dimension is as superfluous as always and lends an air of unreality to proceedings which only becomes interesting in the funhouse set at the end where the outsized and crazily twisted furniture leaping off the screen enhances the perilous mental state of the hero finally sucked into his worst nightmare. Massoglia’s endearingly mumbly hero leads an impressive central trio of performances by young actors who hold their own against Bruce Dern’s scenery-chewing cameo.

The Hole is a very well constructed Hallowe’en chiller that sadly falls between two target audiences by virtue of its own effectiveness.

3/5

March 22, 2010

The Morpheus Problem

Laurence Fishburne will shortly return to our television screens to continue causing all manner of structural problems for CSI: LV. The Morpheus Problem has become so obvious and acute that CBS and CSI producers actually conducted research during the summer break to see just what problem audiences had with Fishburne’s starring role in CSI as Dr Ray Langston and, more to the point, what they could do to fix the snag. The fix was simple and damn near unanimous – “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”. It was nearly unanimous because what they really meant was – “We’d like to see Morpheus in more of a leadership role, cos, like, he’s Morpheus…”

How did we get here? William Petersen after 8 ½ seasons of playing Dr Gil Grissom, supervisor of the Night Shift in the Las Vegas Crime Lab, could no longer resist the urge to get back to treading the boards of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Petersen also produces CSI: LV so this meant finding a suitable replacement before leaving the cast of the TV uber-franchise of the decade. Fellow Steppenwolf alumni Gary Sinise had already been tapped to headline CSI:NY and there were no obvious fallen stars like NYPD Blue’s David Caruso, who had been resurrected with the absurd role of Lt. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami, so they got ambitious and drafted in Laurence Fishburne. A worthy replacement in star-power for Grissom’s role, except that crippling stupidity then struck the writers’ room…

A two-part episode saw Grissom retire from CSI to join lost true love Sara Sidle doing scientific research in the rainforest. He passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited Ray to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy, not to replace him as supervisor. Catherine Willows therefore became the new supervisor of the night shift and Ray joined the team at the bottom of the food chain as the new rookie Level 1 CSI. Fishburne of course waltzed into first billing above Marg Helgenberger who it appears will be eternally second-billed as Catherine Willows. But first billed was then depicted making an ass of himself as Rookie Ray who spent his first crime scene investigation involved in a life and death struggle with his latex gloves that just did not want to be put on… This is not a good move, especially as the writers had already given Ray two careers. He was a medical doctor who failed to notice a serial killer at work in his hospital, and his book about how he had failed to piece together the clues that came across his administrative desk somehow secured him a professorship of criminology at Western Las Vegas University, which he then quit for CSI – after failing to notice a serial killer at work in his class… This back-story couldn’t have been designed to create a bigger Morpheus problem. But the writers did quickly drop the rookie shtick and try to fix their blunder

Ray’s medical background allowed them belatedly have him literally fill Grissom’s shoes by attending autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins, before outrageously jump-starting a Grissom/Robbins dynamic by having Ray and Robbins turn out to both be blues fans, who then go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to the blues. So far so Grissom but then some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray lecturing the other CSIs on ancient Greek history and philosophy and then using his reading of Aeschylus to solve the ‘murder’ of a self-proclaimed monk. But these attempted fixes all miss the real problem.

Fishburne is too big a screen presence to be the lowest ranked person on the team, beneath even Lauren Lee Smith. It’s not that Smith hasn’t redeemed herself for Mutant X with fine turns in The L Word and The Dead Zone it’s just that she can’t dominate a scene with Fishburne, few can. Is the Morpheus problem soluble? Can Ray really take over a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 years of CSI, or can the writers belatedly contrive as clever an implausible jumping of the ranks as Commissioner’s Gordon’s ascension in just two Nolan Bat-films? And how did this problem arise in the first place, did the writers not realise that sometimes one role really can haunt an actor? That, despite a long and varied career from a thug in Death Wish 2 and the youngest member of the crew in Apocalypse Now, thru the abusive Ike Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? and the noble Shakespearean tragic hero in Othello, to the untrustworthy spy-master in M:I-3, Fishburne’s kung-fu knowing mentor in The Matrix has seared itself indelibly into the popular imagination.

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