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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December 22, 2011

Thus Endeth the Winning Streak

I’ve already cast doubt on the wisdom of using Bane as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises, but I have strong presentiments of disaster that extend well beyond that.

I was alarmed after writing my piece to read Christopher Nolan talking about Bane to Empire and specifically extolling how he makes Batman physically vulnerable; and Scarecrow setting Bats on fire, Ras Al’Ghul dropping a log on him and Two-Face shooting him can go to ret-con hell. Nolan then went on to quite graphically describe Bane’s brutal fighting style before belatedly backtracking and talking about Bane’s great tactical mind hidden behind the monstrous physique. The scent of Knightfall is heavy in the air, and the sound of breaking spines emerge from crystal balls and runes everywhere. But I’ve come to feel that it’s inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be a disaster because Nolan is quite simply overdue one at this point.

Indeed in an article during the summer I wrote “Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point.” I’ve quoted an old Charlie Brown line as my title because I’ve since traced back the origins of my belief in the inevitability of disaster in artistic careers to a Peanuts comic strip.  Charlie Brown’s baseball team had been on an unwonted winning streak, and as he stood on the base he knew this couldn’t possibly last – a massive disaster had to scupper them at some point to restore the cosmic balance. And they immediately lost, and he sighed “Thus endeth the winning streak.” But how does this apply to artists?

My favourite directors Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg have both suffered disastrous ends to great winning streaks. I think that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be that moment when the wheels come off the wagon spectacularly, and Christopher Nolan will stand up amidst the wreckage, look around, mutter “Thus endeth the winning streak”, and dream it all up again. And it’s not all superstition that somehow one can become overdrawn at the Bank of Inspiration – if we may call whatever that external well of ideas is that Jung dubbed the spiritus mundi, and which every writer knows the tingling feeling of tapping into; when the characters start to say things to each other that you, their creator, didn’t know they were going to…

There are obvious tangible reasons why great directors suddenly make a catastrophic hash of things. Continued success surrounds you with money, yes men, and a feeling of invincibility. Your judgement is temporarily euphorically suspended, as you breezily take risks you wouldn’t have taken before, and you become implacably convinced that whatever idea you come up with is pure gold because you’re a genius (rather than sifting thru a number of ideas to find which is the best one because you’re good but you need hard work and inspiration to hit pay-dirt) – and then WHACK! Box office disaster slaps you back to reality like a wet fish right in the kisser. Disaster is what makes next the winning streak possible. Forced back to smaller budgets and second-guessing yourself you sift thru ideas, regain your critical eye and return stronger than ever.

Spielberg screwed up with 1941 and returned with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hitchcock bored everyone with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man and roared back with Vertigo. Even Joel Schumacher rose from the ashes of Bat-disaster with Tigerland and Phone Booth. Who knows just how good Nolan’s comeback would be?

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…

November 4, 2010

Let the Right Script In

If you haven’t seen Let the Right One In now would be a good time to stop reading as I’m about to do a spoiler-tastic comparison between it and the American version Let Me In.

I was whelmed last year by Let the Right One In, not least because I went to it many weeks after its release having read nothing but ridiculous praise for it. Most of those reviews were littered with condemnations of Twilight mixed in with praises of how this movie was Art, unlike, say, Twilight. The trouble was that many of these hyperbolic notices had confused glacial pacing with artistic substance, and vacuous ambiguity with intellectual integrity. I was thus intrigued when I heard Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was to write/direct an American version. Could he fix the problems? The answer is yes, apart from the pacing. It turns out that glacial pacing is structurally embedded because of the way Lindqvist unfurls his story. It’s at this point I should state that I still haven’t read the book so I’m basing my assumption that this is Lindqvist’s modus operandi on his screenplay adaptation for the Swedish version. Reeves’ version is thus slow-paced but considerably better at generating suspense, with one scene where the detective hunts Abby becoming unbearably tense, courtesy of a violin crescendo by LOST composer Michael Giacchino.

Reeves’ opening disrupts clichés about Hollywood simplification by upending the straightforward chronology of the Swedish version in favour of a film-noir style opening which renders the first half of the film an extended flashback. His sustained long-shot of an ambulance and cop-cars roaring down a snowy road in New Mexico leads to interior shots of an unseen criminal with acid burns being taken to hospital where Elias Koteas’ detective tries to interrogate him. The manhunt by this cop is one of the huge changes of this version and it injects considerable momentum. Also interesting is how the Familiar’s melted face is never seen during this lengthy pre-credits opening sequence. Reeves replaces utter ambiguity with clarity for his own purposes, but substitutes an off-focus camera style when it’s needed; for instance Owen’s isolation is rendered by having his mother’s face never being glimpsed while his father is a mere voice on the phone. I criticised the Swedish film for having utterly pointless scenes. One of the most epically purposeless was the scene where the boy visits his father and his father’s friend/boyfriend, here replaced by a short to the point phone-call. Reeves also dispatches with an entire sub-plot with the female neighbour who accidentally gets turned by Abby. That awful padding led to unintentionally hilarious scenes as she burst into flames in the hospital when a nurse opened the curtain, after being attacked by preposterously bad CGI cats. Reeves simply has her attacked by Abby and then kills her in the hospital scene after a gory moment that stifles any laughter at her subsequent conflagration.

Reeves instead uses CGI in long-shots to make Abby super-agile in her vampiric attacks, which, alongside close-ups of her demonic veined face, renders her far scarier in this version. He also inserts a new highly realistic scene where Owen takes Abby out to play Pac-Man at the local arcade and Abby takes some of his favourite sweets, which she knows will make her sick, rather than hurt his feelings. This appears cute on the surface but because Reeves has made Abby more sinister we’re suspicious and so pick up on the ambiguity of her actions, which is hammered home in the scene where she starts bleeding after Owen forces her to enter his flat uninvited. In the Swedish version it seems like this is a surprise to her but here Abby states that she knew it would happen, but also knew that Owen would belatedly invite her in. Once again Abby is being sweet but there’s a certain level of a vampire manipulating a potential Familiar underneath the surface interpretation.

Reeves has Abby’s Familiar kill by breaking into cars and hiding in the back-seat before garrotting the driver and harvesting his blood. This is a more realistic and sustainable m.o. than the varied methods employed in the Swedish version and leads to the Familiar bungling a harvest, not because of random passers-by intruding on an absurd crime scene, but because he’s getting sloppy. He muses to Abby, as only the inimitably subdued Richard Jenkins can do to such involving effect, that he’s tired of this life so maybe subconsciously he wants to get caught. This realism extends to his self-inflicted injuries. The Swedish version presented a prosthetics Two-Face where Reeves opts for a simple melted off nose, lips and tongue, so that “I’m sorry Abby” are his last scrawled words. This is less of a horror moment, but it’s far sadder. It also of course means Abby has known she might need a new Familiar…

Abby explicitly tells Owen that the Familiar was not her father, removing the ambiguity of the Swedish version which traded on the fake pathos of a father killing for his cursed daughter. Reeves then places Owen in Abby’s room when the detective bursts into it, and has Owen save Abby from the cop, before closing the door as she feeds on him. The iconic image of the original was the splash of blood on that white door, but here the huge splash of blood on the door isn’t just Hollywood excess it’s a signal that the iconic image of this version is about to come; the blood-soaked Abby emerging from the room to hug Owen from behind for saving her; and in its own way it’s an even more stark image. Koteas’ detective is almost a variant on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in No Country for Old Men, emotionally troubled by vicious murders, and, here, ultimately fatally betrayed by a new amorality. The fact that an early nod to Rear Window makes all Abby’s victims known to Owen personally only increases his complicity. He embraces the role of the Familiar, even after seeing a photograph which confirms that Richard Jenkins’ character has wasted 50 years of his life on Abby after meeting her at the same age as Owen. The Swedish version achieved a ridiculously happy ending by glossing over the doomed fate he embraces in becoming her Familiar. Reeves by contrast makes that same ending bleaker by having emphasised throughout that Owen is in effect selling his soul. Re-instating moral horror into this sinister coming-of-age story reverses the clichés of Hollywood’s addiction to upbeat conclusions.

Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more emotionally affecting. A true re-imagining.

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

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

December 1, 2009

The Box

Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly ends his rollercoaster decade with an attempt to edge back towards the mainstream by aping I Am Legend and releasing a Christmas horror based on a Richard Matheson story. Kelly succeeds, to an extent, as his third film as director is closer in feel to his sublime Donnie Darko than to his vey muddled sophomore effort Southland Tales which was delayed for years before being given a notional distribution. But getting more coherent doesn’t mean getting better…

The Box opens promisingly, speedily establishing the lives of happily married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz and their twelve year old son living in Washington DC in an acutely observed 1976. The Viking exploration of Mars dominates the TV news, and this family, as Marsden’s NASA scientist and aspiring astronaut designed its camera system. A series of unfortunate events (including an incredibly odd scene featuring a creepy pupil disrupting teacher Diaz’s class) serve notice that this is one of those many, many films in which things will not go well for James Marsden. And sure enough into their money worries comes a mysterious box with a button under a glass dome, left on their doorstep with a card from Arlington Steward. Frank Langella is wonderfully sinister as Steward who visits them to explain the function of the button: if pressed two things will happen, someone they do not know will die instantly, and he will pay them 1 million dollars…

Langella is a fine actor yet Kelly does a very unsettling Two-Face style CGI make-up job on him to communicate otherness, though it is so effective it makes the plonky 1950s B-movie music that accompanies him seem scary. The 1950s B movie vibe ramps up as paranoia sets in that Mr Steward wants more from the couple than just a simple decision on whether or not to push the button and that he might not be working alone. Coincidences, a baby-sitter with a secret, an inexplicable killing by another NASA employee and a punch up at a wedding rehearsal dinner all broaden the terror of the story efficiently but then Invasion of the Bodysnatchers intrudes too obviously and our heroes start reading books explaining the plot. You are now leaving Darkoland, welcome to Southland. Cue embarrassingly bad special effects involving water, mutterings of conspiracies and aliens and alien conspiracies, and half-explained sub-plots involving time-travel, moral tests and free will.

Marsden is nicely sympathetic as the hero, infinitely more effective than Diaz whose now fading looks highlight her feeble acting skills, but the script’s convolutions defeat his best efforts while Langella’s villain is over-explained out of existence. There is much to like here but Kelly’s persistent concern with elaborate conspiracies suggests only low budgets which restrain his imagination can inspire him to succinct brilliance. Paradoxically, avoiding The Box could improve his work.

2/5

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