Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

by Julien Faddoul

**   2 stars

d – Christopher Nolan
w – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer   (Based on the Comic Book by Bob Kane)
ph – Wally Pfister
pd – Nathan Crowley, Kevin Kavanaugh
m – Hans Zimmer
ed – Lee Smith
cos – Lindy Hemming

p – Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Charles Roven

Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Juno Temple, Ben Mendelsohn, Burn Gorman

Filmmakers from all walks of life have found aesthetic comfort in The Trilogy. And I say “aesthetic” because it has never necessarily been through storyline, whether its Bergman or Antonioni or Cocteau (whose Orphic trilogy did follow the same characters). Recently, separating a story into three different films has become just as much a marketing ploy as a directing choice. It has just been teased of late that Peter Jackson might be making three Hobbit movies, a thought that made me feel faint. To constantly follow and keep track of movies this way is more like studying for an exam than an evening of artistic insight. But there have been great works of art in this form of late, including Mr Jackson’s own The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Pixar’s Toy Story films. The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is a satisfying and honourable finale with some affecting moments, but all those moments come from the mindset of seeing the trilogy as a whole. The film itself is a bit of a mess. Batman Begins was an intelligent breath of fresh air, The Dark Knight was a haunting and exhilarating rollercoaster, this new film, at 165 minutes, is a fat and heavy cake that may feel pleasant but probably isn’t good for you.

The film opens with an excellently executed plane sequence (shot in IMAX) that does not factor into the narrative in any significant or substantial way. This, to me, is the perfect correspondence for how this entire picture feels when one is following it. We enter the story eight years after the previous film ended in which Gotham City is experiencing an incredibly low crime rate and Batman (Christian Bale) has disappeared. Both of these happenings are a result of Harvey Dent’s death in various ways that I won’t get into. That is, until a terrorist muscle-man with a face muzzle named Bane (Tom Hardy) – who is a character who only speaks in long, inspirational speeches – comes along to “set Gotham free” from its aristocratic way of life. He, in a sense, is here to complete the dream of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows in the first film.

What follows is a serious, heavy laundry list of action set-pieces and frenzied plot-threads, most of which begin before the previous one has even ended. The amount of characters we are required to follow is daunting: Mr Oldman, Mr Freeman, Mr Caine and even Cillian Murphy all reprise their roles from the previous films. Anne Hathaway plays Selina Kyle, a cat burglar who wants to start a new life for herself (she is never referred to as Catwoman). Marion Cotillard plays Miranda Tate, a philanthropist who is very interested in what Wayne enterprises is up to, of which she is a board member. Ben Mendelsohn plays John Daggett, Bruce Wayne’s business rival. Matthew Modine plays Gotham’s Deputy Commissioner with loyalty issues. And lastly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays John Blake, an intelligent young cop whose connections to the story I found laughable. I understand the idea of the quantity of characters because this picture is striving for grand themes on a grand scale. In fact, a better title for this film would have been The People of Gotham, especially since Bruce Wayne is somewhat sidelined in the middle act. The Gotham of the previous film was a visual parallel to Chicago, in this film its New York City (although it was apparently shot in Pittsburgh).

The picture is trying to be about everything under the sun: terrorism, fascism, rich vs. poor, government stability, physical stability, child abuse, anarchy, patriotism and yet never feels deep, an issue the first two pictures never had. Mr Nolan from the beginning has always been interested in complex narratives, but this one is arbitrarily complex. It’s plotted to within an inch of its life.

My main problem with the movie, and this is very pivotal to Mr Nolan’s approach as a filmmaker, is that it is a very symphonic one. His films operate in movements rather than pieces, huddling all over the place, galvanized by Hans Zimmer’s score. But here, everything is so normalised that many of the significant set-pieces or passages – which include the blowing up of Heinz Field, a motorcycle chase through the streets of Gotham, the destruction of a city bridge, a sewer rescue, a prison escape, and a big final confrontation between Batman and Bane – have no greater emotional or narrative weight than anything else in the movie. Having the audience keep track of all these characters in all these schemes in such a scattered manner, somehow, both complements and undermines Mr Nolan’s central endeavour.

Of the three films, this one is the most about the Batman mythology even though Batman himself is not as prevalent. The Dark Knight was much more about Batman as a figure, while The Dark Knight Rises is more about Bruce Wayne as a person. Mr Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is about this: individual responsibility and agency and assuming your own obligations require doing the good that is within your power to do. The film’s richest character financially is the one who has to ultimately “rise” to the occasion and do the greatest and most glaring moral good, which is obviously an observation on the state of America currently. I feel this works; it’s rare that an allegory so serious is tackled within the limits of the superhero genre. Even though this character totem probably would not work as well without Mr Nolan’s scattered vision.

By far the best scene takes place down in a sewer, where Batman and Bane first meet, that is an exercise in brilliant brutality. And the reason that scene works so well is because we are seeing it through the point-of-view of a third character; a character who has just done something very wrong. Therefore, by weaving in and out of these tense moments – all of which are serious and none of which can be sacrificed – the picture is walking on a tightrope of quality that I feel has nothing to do with expectations but rather the film itself.

I wish the other characters worked better. For me, Selina Kyle’s account in the film was the most silly and mishandled. I love the idea that Selina’s interest is as rooted in identity and starting afresh as Bruce Wayne’s introspective, but the whole device that demonstrates her wiping her slate clean is very silly.  Mr Gordon-Levitt is a fine performer but in this movie he is wasted. He knows the identity of Batman for downright stupid reasons, he’s promoted from lackey cop to head detective for stupid reasons, and moreover, he is never seen doing actual police work; he just always happens to be in the right place at the right time. He’s only value as a character is to service the last five minutes. And as for Bane, his motivation is never easy to pinpoint. It is revealed grandly near the end of the film what his emotional motivation is, but his actual plan makes very little sense. The Joker’s dream of destruction and chaos was much clearer.

I have always given Mr Nolan credit; he is one of the few directors who mainstream people are familiar with and he has earned that status not through showboating, but sheer talent and expertise. But in trying to make his best film he has ultimately made his least interesting. Once again, The Dark Knight Rises is an honourable film because it completes the trilogy satisfactorily without denigrating the first two, both of which are exceptional in my eyes. But for me (and I never thought I’d say this) the best superhero blockbuster of 2012 is Marvel’s The Avengers.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Crisp Criticism - "Savages", "Ted", "Wuthering Heights"

Savages (2012/US)

Two marijuana growers face off against the Mexican drug cartel that kidnapped their shared girlfriend.
Silly and strained attempt at provocation and excessiveness. A lot of effort by a lot of talent is spent on woefully uninteresting characters.
d – Oliver Stone
w – Shane Slerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone   (Based on the Novel by Don Winslow)
ph – Daniel Mindel
pd – Tomas Voth
m – Adam Peters
ed – Joe Hutshing, Stuart Levy, Alex Marquez
cos – Cindy Evans

p – Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff

Cast:    Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Emile Hirsch, John Travolta, Sandra Echeverria, Diego Cataño, Joel David Moore, Demián Bichir, Trevor Donovan

Ted (2012/US)   *

As the result of a childhood wish, a thirty-year-old man’s teddy bear came to life and has been by his side ever since.
Unusual, rather lumpy and stiff foul-comedy which can never get over how brilliant it thinks its central concept is.
d – Seth MacFarlane
w – Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
ph – Michael Barrett
pd – Stephen J. Lineweaver
m – Walter Murphy
ed – Jeff Freeman
cos – Debra McGuire

p – Jason Clark, John Jacobs, Seth MacFarlane, Scott Stuber, Wellesley Wild

Cast:    Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel McHale, Patrick             Warburton, Matt Walsh, Jessica Barth, Bill Smitrovich, Ralph Garman, Alex Borstein

Wuthering Heights (2012/UK)   **

A poor black boy of unknown origins is rescued from poverty and taken in by a farming family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister.
Indefinably gloomy, occasionally beautiful, stylistically interesting take on the classic novel; typical work of the director.
d – Andrea Arnold
w – Andrea Arnold, Olivia Hetreed   (Based on the Novel by Emily Bronte)
ph – Robbie Ryan
pd – Helen Scott
ed – Nicolas Chauderuge
cos – Steven Noble

p – Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader, Douglas Rae

Cast:    Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Oliver Milburn, Nichola Burley, Eve Coverley, James Northcote, Lee Shaw, Amy Wren, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave, Steve Evets, Paul Hilton, Simone Jackson, Jonny Powell

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

by Julien Faddoul

0 stars

d – Marc Webb
w – James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves   (Based on the Comic book by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko)
ph – John Schwartzman
pd – J. Michael Riva
m – James Horner
ed – Alan Edward Bell, Michael McCusker, Pietro Scalia
cos – Kym Barrett

p – Avi Arad, Matthew Tolmach, Laura Ziskin

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Chris Zylka

Many movies spend their entire running times trying to prove to the audience their existence. This applies to almost every film to come out of Hollywood in the last thirty years. Because Hollywood no longer relies on originality to tell stories, but rather variations on an already existing (not necessarily established) spoil. Nine times out of ten, audiences don’t walk into a cinema with a blank easel of a mind ready for the movie to coat it with a spectral of colour and insight. Instead, audience’s minds are programmed with balderdash detectors, waiting for a red light to go off whenever something doesn’t “feel” right, or authentic, or respectful to the source. Instead of hoping to have a good time, audiences fear of having a bad one.

Because of this, one can intrinsically feel the movie constantly trying to prove its worth, trying to stand out from the pack, trying to fill you with a sense of satisfaction, rather than elation. And of course the higher the budget and the bigger the names and the more respected the source, the deadlier the game is. This has caused me much consternation in my movie-going lifetime, for I feel this is not the calling of the cinema, but that of the pathetic scoundrel.

However, rarely have I come across a picture quite like The Amazing Spider-Man, which not only has no reason for existing, but it doesn’t seem to have it on so many levels. I urge all audience members going to see The Amazing Spider-Man to turn their detectors on at full blast, seeing as how most people who are going to see The Amazing Spider-Man are people who like Spider-Man. Right? By the time this movie gets done telling us stuff we already know, its half over. And by that point, you won’t be wanting to care about the second half. For you see, this is not an adaptation or even a sequel. It’s a reboot. This latest adventure to feature the comic book webslinger takes three movies worth of established mythology and turns them into an utter waste of time and money (billions of it), swapping the original cast with an ensemble of fresh faces and rearranging the franchise with a new “origin” story.

This makes the paragraph where I write a synopsis completely unnecessary. The film is about two and a half hours long, but I couldn’t tell you why. This episode, I mean reboot, is directed by Marc Webb, whose sophomore film it is. The first film, made a mere ten years ago, was by Sam Raimi. Here are the changes that Mr Webb, and his screenwriters, contribute: The main one is Peter Parker’s involvement with his parents, which is deeper here although is being totally mis-marketed in theatres as being much more prevalent than it is. Another is that Spidey’s girlfriend here is not Mary-Jane Watson but Gwen Stacy, the daughter of the police captain. The mood of this film is different, with Mr Webb creating an atmosphere less cartoony than Mr Raimi. And lastly the villain, who here is Dr Curt Connors, a scientist at Oscorp who, through an experimental mishap, becomes an enormous monster known as The Lizard.

But everything experientially is so beat-for-beat the same that all these little changes hardly make a difference. The villain is a Jekyll and Hyde concept, he’s a mad scientist who experiments on himself and starts hearing voices that make him go crazy, just like the first film. There is an action set-piece in the third act that takes place on a bridge, just like the first film. Peter has a measly involvement in the death of his Uncle Ben (spoiler, but I mean, come on!), just like the first film. It’s all exactly the same. The whole picture is locked in and dedicated into a mythology that everyone in the audience will already be aware of in an audacious attempt to plead with you to like it so much so that nothing actually really happens in the movie, but instead just sits around the movie. Characters and scenes come and go without consequence. It’s a cinematic whore.

What’s the point in redoing the origin if nothing of substance is added? Peter Parker has always been a genius for his age. Why? His emotional journey is that of learning responsibility. Why? He becomes a superhero because he feels he needs to atone for his uncle’s death. Why? (This section of the film is particularly mishandled). If all of these things are what Spider-Man is about – and I’m sure they are since these things are all in two separate films by two separate directors that span a ten year gap – then why isn’t the movie interested in telling the story of why such things inflame; why isn’t the movie about these things too?

Due to this, a lovely array of actors - Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Denis Leary (George Stacy), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), Sally Field (Aunt May) and especially Rhys Ifans (Curt Connors) – are left out sea with nothing to do, at least nothing that another array of fine actors didn’t already do ten years ago. Mr Leary survives the experience the best.

So does The Amazing Spider-Man have any reason for existing? No. And don’t you dare feel bad about comparing this to the original; ten years is hardly a different generation of audiences. This movie begs, begs and begs to be considered in the shadow of the previous films, where you fill in the blanks of its extremely messy plotting. Since the first film, many consider Mr Raimi’s follow-up, Spider-Man 2, to be the best of the three, exploring Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s themes with greater thirst than the former. The third film, Spider-Man 3, was a much maligned disappointment for everyone; the reigning winner of how bad a Spider-Man movie can be. We have a new champion.