Well, whilst I can’t speak for you illuminated souls I’ve had better years. A brief spell in hospital wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, and my growing suspicions that my meatspace world career has been finally wrecked by the 2008 bail out, the slow economic tsunami finally emanating out to gouge local government resources seem to have been finally and depressingly realised. For the uninitiated that was where the powers that be and the politicians in thrall to the wealthy and powerful took my and your tax payers money that we have invested into the system, into society for the universal benefit of all was plundered to bail out the malignant thieves, liars and crooks who now continue to pay themselves millions and millions and millions of pounds of bonuses whilst the rest of society stagnates – quite honestly the pharaoh kings of old can only be looking down on this new class of self entitled, greed driven liars and shake their heads in quiet respect, at least they didn’t collude with terrorists and murdering drug cartels which are raping an entire series of South American countries. I’m really not sure what on earth I’m going to do in 2013 and frankly it’s pretty fucking scary, so let’s dispense with the politics and ignore the mass shootings, devastating weather events, incompetent and destructive right-wing economic and social politics and….well I could go on, it’s been a wretched year in many spheres but let’s take succor in the eternal movies….
Halfway through the year and this was looking like a particularly poor cycle, a few highlights to be sure but on a consistency level a fairly erratic beast, but the Autumn and Winter months has reassuringly seen an explosion of talent across the board with a number of works that have thankfully raised the median to higher levels. Of course I’ve delivered my two most proficient film seasons, the David Lynch series back in February which I’m immensely proud of and my subsequent oodles of spare time gave me the opportunity to delve much deeper into the BFI Hitchcock retrospective that previously anticipated, with no fewer than 15 reviews and 7 associated features which is now the ballistic baseline to beat. My best screening experience of 2012 was unquestionably that ravishing digital print of Vertigo – more on that technological division later on – following Camille Paglia’s fascinatingly enthusiastic lecture, if I have one regret it has been in not visiting many new cinema locations in London, an oversight that I intend to rectify in 2013. We also have my 1,000th post zeroing in with the unerring accuracy of OCD afflicted kamikaze pilot, although I think I’ve finally cracked the subject matter of that significant milestone, all I need to do now is select the examples and write the damn thing. I managed to cover some bona fide classics – Jaws, Lawrence Of Arabia, Casablanca, The Evil Dead - and although I missed quite a few festivals the LFF was a sanity saviour, and on the smaller screen I managed mini-retrospectives of Theo Angelolopous (I can see the adoration but he mostly left me cold), a shotgun scattering of David Mamet films (before he went right-wing loony brigade he made some great films) and Louis Malle which was a treasure trove of gallic gems, as I was particularly uneducated on his early continental films. I bookended these activities with a second look at some of Dennis Hopper’s lesser known material from both sides of the camera, ignoring the likes of Easy Rider, Speed and Blue Velvet in favour of the likes of The Hot Spot, Hoosiers and Catchfire (AKA Backtrack), a curious blend of twitched performances in unremarkable films, and sultry toned neo-noirs which made a pleasing change to my usual auteur led traditions. I’d quite like to repeat this with another actor or actress next year, maybe Gloria Grahame or Robert Ryan for a historical change of pace. I’m also thinking about changing the graphic design format of the blog, using larger photos for a start and maybe a change a WordPress theme in terms of the colours, fonts and design, thus I’d welcome any feedback – but for now let’s get on with the business of show…..
The Films Of The Year
A mixed bag as usual, veering from the art house to the blockbuster, the genre busting to the horrific, as usual the auteurs are out in force as is my preferable idiom – it’s just what jacks my celluloid concerns. So let’s start proceedings with this list which I’ve expanded out to a full ten for the first time ever, I warn you now that this is predominantly a very grotesque year of occasionally challenging material, if the movies reflect the current temperature and agenda – and of course they do – the malfunctions run deep and one hopes the influx of SF material warping in for 2013 may redress the gloomy balance. As always these are presented in no specific order of merit, simply kicking off with one of the years biggest films, SPOILERS BEWARE and a very sad tale of computer malfunction;
The Dark Knight Rises – From the autumn browns of Batman Begins to the electric blue of The Dark Knight I did predict a seasonal drift to the icy ivory of The Dark Knight Rises, and if I hear one more pedantic idiot whine about the lack of explanation of how Bruce got back to Gotham then I’ll fucking scream. This triumphant peroration of the psychological nitroglycerine of Bruce Wayne’s furtive odyssey pummeled that all so elusive demographic mix into submission, both the passing cinema-goer and the fanboys being given the respect and treated with the intelligence that Hollywood frequently abhors. How the Nolan brothers with David S. Goyer have circled the story into a self-contained chronicle of how one tortured man mastered his demons is state of the art Hollywood filmmaking, smart enough to know where you need the gadgets and pyrotechnics alongside the character development and core narrative, commissioning elite-class technical crews and core creative collaborations (I think Hans Zimmer’s scores are 25% of the brilliance of these films), with a firm grasp of new technologies such as IMAX formats and visual effects, all nested within a visual and thematic iconography that permeates from film to film.
It’s scenes such as this where Nolan and his team didn’t so much as nail but crucify their take on the iconic Batman, his dark heroism and neurotically driven crusade, toying with the very notions of what it is to be a hero in the modern world, all lacquered with a throughly electrifying action thriller which has the audacity to blend in some pungent political commentary. That scene above is the moment when it comes to this trilogy that I passed from Batman fan into eternal champion mode disciple, for first time ever, ever, I genuinely was moved and cared about a character in such a cardboard comic book multiverse, and that is the ultimate and unique achievement of this blockbuster series. In terms of material I have spent the past six months accruing links and articles, but due to some malfunction they’ve all vanished in some anarchic electronic massacre, from memory however I humbly submit this and this, here is a side post on costume design and this has been doing the rounds (Not as funny as it thinks it is, but Bruce’s Batwing driving music made me laugh) and finally here is a terrific interview with Nolan which may answer some key questions on his ideas and purpose throughout the trio of films, a brilliantly epic nocturnal compendium here.
Killer Joe – I was recently reading Pauline Kael’s 1971 review of The French Connection, in which she remarks that the film is as fundamentally existential as Popeye Doyle is reprehensible, a racist goal-driven character who is compelled to get that sweet smack off the streets not due to any personally derived civic or social duty, but because he is a twisted obsessive and that is the only motivation for his unorthodox methods. It’s a useful insight that we can apply to Killer Joe, Friedkin’s most compelling work for thirty years, a film which keeps surfacing out of the subconscious to remind me of its wicked, draining and giggling power. Amidst the summer when one is besieged by movies designed for kids and adolescents it was a pleasure to be brutally assaulted by this powerful little bastard, this slimy, ugly, deep-fried tale of sexual malevolence, treacherous greed and seething Grand Guignol glee, making you laugh in uncomfortable uncertainty as Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar worthy lawman goes about his hysterical business – more like this please Mr. Friedkin who has recently become my Facebook friend, I’m anxiously waiting for updates on his legal case to finally get Sorcerer released in an appropriate restored format as I’m ashamed I’ve never seen it. Finger licking good etc….
West Of Memphis - As much as I love a good documentary it’s rare for them to crack my yearly top ten, however two candidates emerged this year, although I was deeply moved by the celestial scrying of Nostalgia For The Light the more earthly concerns of the horrendous West Memphis 3 miscarriage of justice yields closer to current concerns of institutional, bureaucratic corruption. The arrangement is exquisite – firstly just telling the facts from an independent perspective – who was killed, when, who was arrested and charged on the basis of what evidence – before delving beneath the surface to obliterate the prosecutions claims, and in the best tradition of the likes of The Thin Blue Line decouple the empirical facts of the case and its protagonists ulterior motives, before finally identifying a credible culprit. I’m told my review went as they say viral and got plastered onto their official Facebook feed which is encouraging, and a sober thought is that such incidents happen all the time, this just happens to be one occurrence when the authorities were exposed.
The Master – Harking back to transformative, robust performances of James Dean and Marlon Brando The Master has an umbilical connection to an earlier period of American cinema when the performance was the nucleus of a film rather than any high concept idea, and this is clearly a film of dense characterisation and mutual symbiosis. Having seen this twice it remains mysterious and is slightly more elusive on repeat, the widespread speculation on the ‘a-roving’ scene baffles me though as it is pretty clearly signalled that it’s all in Freddie’s chaotic head. Here’s a strange and sad connection – Jeremy Blake, the visual artist responsible for the colourful kaleidoscope mood interludes in Punch Drunk Love committed suicide with his girlfriend, both were scientologists who reputedly fled the church and were then remorselessly hounded to their death. P.T. Anderson once again displays what Sight & Sound cite as his ‘gun-slinging’ artistic bravery – think of the unexpected doughnut shop bloodbath in Boogie Nights, the pulverizing climax of Blood or the biblical rain of frogs in Magnolia, moments of bizarre and unexpected interlude that puncture the established realism, the auditing exchange and that long take as Freddy approaches the Master’s yacht for the first time are amongst the greatest single sequences of the year.
Amour – As cinema screenings go this was a smothering experience, a combination of sheer terror, grief and perversely exhilaration, as I realised I had just absorbed a melancholic masterpiece that was meticulously planned and executed. Amour is a deeply moving masterpiece – and I use that word with the respect deserves – like a film such as Irrerversible it’s a film that I hugely admire but never want to see again, you know those stories about Normandy veterans who were refered to a therapist after watching the opening of Saving Private Ryan? I imagine the same reaction for anyone who has had to nurse a loved one to their inevitable void. In a recent interview Haneke who is edging into his Seventies stated that his only professional regret is not making a SF series – the mind boggles.
Excision - It’s a rare occurrence these days given my iron cinematic constitution but sometimes a film can be genuinely and absolutely shocking, even for an old-school gore hound such as yours truly. This high-school horror film from debutante Richard Bates is a staggering debut, if you’ll forgive me I’ll go to the writers cliché dictionary and describe it as Heathers on meta-amphetamines or perhaps a better metaphor would be Todd Solondz fisting a Chuck Palahuink screenplay under the bleachers during the big homecoming game (if you find that excessive image troublesome then you need to avoid this film), you don’t cast teenage porn starlet Traci Lords as a conservative, self-righteous mom or John Waters as a sneering priest unless you’re clearly aiming to broach truly transgressive territory. There is an astonishing central performance from Anna Lynne McCord as the deranged Pauline, as a metaphor for the pain and awkwardness of your adolescent years Excision works as a terrific teen movie, before wrenching you down to a vision of suburban, clinical hell in a brilliantly orchestrated, incredibly horrifying and fitting finale to an occasionally uneven but uniquely idiosyncratic piece of work – this is a new talent I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Killing Them Softly - We continue with the comedy, (Jesus, looking back over this list it has been an extraordinarily bleak year) with Andrew Dominik’s pilloried crime tale, I am immensely discouraged at just how savaged this film has been in the US by critics who really should know better – it just shows goes to show the nerves that the film has politically and culturally grazed. Now, as agreed the film is very much a blunt force instrument and not very subtle, but criticisms such as James Gandolfini’s assassin ’never doing anything’ – presumably uttered because he doesn’t go on some ‘cool’ killing spree – well, this level of intellectual rigour should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. Yes it’s an exceptionally bleak and sour evisceration of the American dream and the current world we live in, fractured through the lens of a criminal genre piece, but that’s what effective crime and criminal movies have always been about on one level, on economic and social realities which shine a light on the margins of society where we won’t like what we see. It’s rare enough to see such a serious genre piece on-screen with such an uncompromising position in almost forty years, so as a major fan of urban material on both the printed page and silver scream this has definitely grown on me and will be more rewarding with future viewings, if this was Domink’s immediate sequel to Chopper I’ll bet my meagre pay cheque it wouldn’t have been quite so stigmatized. An ideal festive companion piece to Killer Joe on the ‘developed’ worlds body politic during this incrementally declining decade, although you may wish to have the Samaritans on speed-dial….
The Cabin In The Woods – Whilst many critics have been going crazy for Holy Motors serpent eating its tail post-modern deconstruction of cinema I have to opt for this frequently hilarious evisceration of the horror genre, this perhaps being the closest beast on my list to a comedy movie, a laugh-riot which just happens to feature the brutal massacre of young students and the annihilation of mankind – like I said it’s been a tough year. It is certainly diminished on a small screen re-watch and does shrink to the diminutive dimensions of a special extended episode of Buffy or Angel, but as an unprepossessing cinema visit this was just so much darn fun, dreadfully entertaining and amusing with a central bloody mystery which kept my neurons firing in uncertain anticipation. Heck, I could also get into how like all good horror it does confront some uncomfortable issues of the day, in this case the sacrifice of a younger generation in order to maintain the status quo and the exalted position of the elite baby-boomer generation but let’s not get into that here….
Headhunters – Clearly I’m a fraud as this is probably the real ‘comedy’ on my list, and who’d have expected a Norwegian thriller to infiltrate the top ten? I love a good caper movie and Headhunters takes a risk in portraying its hero as an arrogant bastard who identifies potential marks by posing as a senior CEO recruitment consultant, acquiring intelligence to steal and fence their expensive art portfolios, usually the protagonists in this pedigree of pictures are loveable rogues such as Clooney in the Ocean’s movies or Robert Redford in The Hot Rock. This was just a brilliant script with more twists than a spaghetti supper at M.Night Shyamlan’s lair, and a gruesome line of pitch-black gallows humor which had me roaring in disgusted mirth. It’s also got a neat line in corporate espionage and malfeasance which gives the nightmare a contemporary edge, Hitchcock would have loved this MacGuffins and all, and you can’t praise a thriller higher than that.
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey - Yeah, it just made it. This might be a surprise inclusion given my initial tepid to warm review, but on a second and indeed third 2D, 24fps view many of my disagreements faded into insignificance, and on reflection this is another superb addition to the beloved franchise. When you think about it, what other film series has been lavished with six three-hour movies (not to mention the Extended Editions, an extra 25 minutes has been confirmed for TH:AUJ already) with a consistent team of director, screenwriters and core creative personnel who display such an obvious love, reverence and understanding of the source material? I have my issues that I won’t rehash here, but the fanboy wailing over certain changes and amendments to make these films more cinematic are absurd, and I charge them to think of exactly which world they would prefer – the Jackson take on just one three-hour movie which was always the anticipated treatment? In this case the 3D and 48fps works beautifully and not since Avatar has an event movie delivered the goods in such a ravishing fashion, narrative, tone and pacing issues aside this is genuine cinema as event, film as spectacle, and how this installment sets up the next two episodes is a truly glorious achievement – I’m starting the petition for The Silmarillion in 2021 now.
Special mentions to God Bless America, Moonrise Kingdom, Berberian Sound Studio, Haywire, Margaret, End Of Watch, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Dreams For Sale and Looper, as I said I was despairing at how poor this year was maturing but then there was an abrupt volte face after Summer season when a whole crop of stronger material was harvested. I have to say the small screen still out distances cinema by a small margin when you factor in their ability to develop character and themes over numerous hours of transmission, Mad Men, Justified, The Walking Dead, Treme, the overrated but undeniably entertaining Breaking Bad and my personal favourite Boardwalk Empire have all had superior seasons, although I think I might finally drop the likes of Dexter and True Blood as they are both anemic parodies of their earlier, entertaining incarnations. For comparison purposes on the film front, this is useful.
I warn you now, anyone looking for some festive cheer best look elsewhere, it’s been a fucking tough year and these films continue in that dark vein of experience (sobs uncontrollably)……
Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz, 2008) – In this psychological horror a distressed couple – Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart)- travel to the remote jungles of the Thai-Burmese border to look for their young son who was swept away in the 2004 Asian tsunami, a choking starting point for the real horror to come. The final images of those pint-sized, mud cloaked wraiths swarming around a steamy, misty jungle ruins obviously brings to mind Apocalypse Now, but this is more of a companion piece to Antichrist or Possession with the devastating loss of a child driving an increasingly emotional and violent wedge between the two frantic parents. This also treads similar mud-caked ground to next years The Impossible by the looks of things, but this is a much more submerged piece of work that gnaws at the very souls of the protagonists, a genuinely unsettling work that cautiously descends into a sweltering heart of darkness.
Son Of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939) – As I’ve mentioned I’ve been on a trawl of the Universal horror movies, whilst the majority of them are clearly swiftly lensed, badly written movies designed as a quick cash cow that would be knocked out if the studio were in financial danger, Son Of Frankenstein is a genuine sequel after 1935′s Bride Of Frankenstein (considered as superior to the original in some circles), as this third entry to the cycle was clearly considered and designed with those evocative expressionist contours (the stairs of the Baron’s castle remind of a horizontally arranged tombstones), evidenced by its expansive run-time – most of the knock-offs average about 70 minutes, Son being a fully fleshed 100 minutes. With Basil Rathbone as the Frankenstein’s genial son, Boris Karloff’s last appearance as the ‘monster’ and Bela Lugosi as the snivellingly malicious Ygor this is terrific fun, with a fairly exciting and explosive finale. If you dig mist shrouded moors, pitchfork and torch wielding baying mobs, and monosyllabic, misunderstood monsters then you can’t go wrong, even if one can’t fail to be reminded of Young Frankenstein which culled many of its characters from the picture.
Spartan (Mamet, 2003) – ‘Where’s the girl? Where’s the girl?’ David Mamet’s rare foray into action cinema may sound clichéd on paper – the presidents daughter is kidnapped and Val Kilmer is despatched as an elite special forces officer to bring her back – but like a great Michael Mann flick it’s the attention to detail that makes this work. The infiltration techniques, the survival skills, the combat clinician, the clandestine tricks of the trade, all these elements have been impeccably researched and are superbly portrayed through a state of the art warrior operating at the peak of his profession. As you’d expect from Mamet some of the narrative twists and turns will have you questioning what has gone before, and some faintly ludicrous reveals are subsequently fleshed out to make all the pieces drop into place like a well oiled plot machine, sure you have to abandon any pretence to realism early on but as action movies go this is nourishing slug of water in the dehydrated desert of recent American combat conflicts. Considering Mamet’s lurch to right-wing politics after 9/11 it is surprising that this dossier remains intensely critical of the American war machine whilst celebrating its fearless soldiers, a taut and tense combat flick that knocks both Taken movies dicks in the dirt.
The Turin Horse (Tarr, 2011) – At two and a half hours of gloomy insights into the empty, bruising and difficult lives of two peasants which centres around their deeply repetitive daily tasks of pure survival, of getting dressed, boiling potatoes, chopping wood, drawing water from the well and conducting chores this will not be for everyone (that’s the understatement of the year) but this caught me in exactly the right reflective mood, and I loved the repetitive yet lyrical score reminiscent of Philip Glass from the brilliant ears of Mihály Vig, this example from the earlier collaboration on the Wreckmeister Harmonies has entranced me for the past few months. The Turin Horse is more Tarkovsky than Bresson in terms of pacing and its wider religious questioning, yes it’s a very academic, parched and dare I say it depressing film but if you embrace its monochromatic idiom of the absurd and abyssal pointlessness of life then you might just achieve some strange, infinite nirvana. Apparently Tarr has exhaustively hurled down his viewfinder and abandoned his fruitless quest for artistic succor in the face of overwhelming disgust of the modern world, sometimes I know how he feels…..
The Keep (Mann, 1982) – Where to begin with this rarely exhumed Nazi inflected Grimm’s fairy tale that received a rare UK screening on Film4 last month? Sandwiched between the twin urbanity of Thief and Manhunter this is the one true oddity in Michael Mann’s clenched career, a film he has completely disowned due to its butchering in the editing suite by the film’s philistine producers, consequently it’s a difficult behemoth to track down with only inferior region 1 DVD’s available to the truly committed fans of Mann. It’s very much a film of two halves, the dialogue and performances are simply atrocious, particularly Ian McKellen’s Jewish academic and Robert Prosky’s Romanian Priest out chomping each other to decimate the Lovecraftian scenery, but it eclipses these barbarities with the evocative obsidian production designs of UK legend John Box, some eerie mist drenched haunting cinematography, and a palpitating score from Tangerine Dream which has become a cult collectors item in its own right. The editing is horrendous with characters arriving with no prior explanation (Scott Glen’s Jesus inspired saviour being particularly egregious) and it’s apparent how much of this languishes on the cutting room floor, but that barbarity is what alludes to its potential as the shell of a terrific film is incorporeally evident, it has a very odd, itchy vibe, and even the old school optical printing and reverse cranking SFX hold a strangely magnetic fascination for us cult movie aficionados. It’s an angular companion piece to Prince Of Darkness (or even Prometheus for that matter) with a grinding fairy tale aura, with notions of the seduction of overwhelming power lurking over the titular citadel like disembodied charcoal clouds, a pale cult item that is obsequiously flawed yet nebulously fascinating.
Films To See In 2013
Some repeats from last year and some material that has already been blessed with an international release, we Europeans might get certain texts early – Killing Them Softly for example only just opened in the States yet clipped the UK months ago – yet we must be patient with other material. Django goes without saying, its been getting extraordinarily good reviews, even from those who aren’t usually enamoured with Tarantino’s celluloid circle-jerks. I am filled with a quiet gnawing horror at the prospect of one of my favourite ever books finally galloping its way to the screen, on the one hand it does have some talent involved – Hans Zimmer on symphonic strides, Caleb Deschanel on lighting duties – but it’s being directed by the cretin who wrote the rightly loathed Batman & Robin and is responsible for a host of retch-inducing Ron fricking Howard pictures – uurrgghh. I guess we’ll see a trailer soon and the budget being slashed to $46 million also doesn’t bode well, then again Jennifer Connelly is in it and she’s always worth watching – and once that restraining order is lifted etc. etc. Anywho, the main theme is fairly obvious for 2013 – there must be something lurking in the distant grinding nebula as a glut Science Fiction projects are finally warping in for battle;
Gravity - Well, maybe this will actually dock next year, still no scans of the trailer so we’ll have to look back to Children of Men to remind ourselves of Cuaron’s astounding camerawork. Pushed back from an initial November 2012 release schedule the project seems to be beset with production problems, with supporting players to George Clooney’s lead orbiting through Scarlett Johansson to Sandra Bullock in the female astronauts chair, and detecting the merest fragment of production photos, SFX designs or that rarest of treasures an actual trailer has been as elusive as detecting H2O on the dusty plateaus of Mars. Still we SF fans are a patient breed, and we await this potential new evolutionary step in genre machinery and robotics with a baited, audible breath. It’s been granted an MPAA certificate so it must be in the can, perhaps they’re just polishing some of the visuals and then nervously deciding when to launch it into the stratosphere….
The Grandmaster – The wildly talented Wong Kar Wai returns to the screen after the disappointing My Blueberry Nights with this martial arts biopic of the legendary sensei Ip Man who famously taught Bruce Lee his memorable skills. This film has been beset with production problems and delays, as I understand it re-shoots are currently being conducted for the international market, but it opens in China next week and should secure world-wide distribution in the new year. A look at that trailer promises some ravishing images, with his frequent muse Tony Leung in the title role and the elfin Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) one guesses that a passionate love affair will also be on the cards. This has also reminded to finally track down Chungking Express, I can’t believe I still haven’t seen that supposed classic of world cinema yet…..
Stoker - Well, something else with an actual trailer, so that’s nice. How will a director with Park Chan-wook’s affectations and obsessions translate into an English language dark mystery drama, with a reasonably heavyweight cast including Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode? That’s an intriguing cast combination in this film which is supposedly inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt which gives me some signals as to what it might be about, I’m pulling something of an embargo on this now to keep expectations fresh. Stoker also has a Clint Mansell score and this is always a good thing.
Upstream Color - Shane Carruth, he of 2004′s Primer fame finally returns to the big screen (Where has he been? Stuck in a box somewhere?) with this Sundance premiering paradox, very little is known on this other than this curious tagline – ‘A man and woman find themselves drawn together as they struggle to reassemble the fragments of their wrecked lives’. Carruth seems to have been paying the rent with script consultant duties on the likes of Looper, whether he’s back in time travel territory remains to be seen. There’s no-one particularly famous in the cast, thus I assume it’s another lo-fi budget effort, I hope he can match the confusing yet alluring heights of his debut – Sundance hits in January so not long to wait for initial reactions. For those confused (obligatory Primer link) about the prospects of his long gestating A Topiary I hear that film would be very expensive given the SFX requirements inherent in the script, so this is probably a ‘bridge’ film where he has to prove himself as a filmmaker with talent and a certain degree of critical popularity – he has after all been off the scene for eight years – before the purse holders at the major studios are persuaded to break out the cheque books…..
Cloud Atlas – Yesterday’s papers for our US and Canadian cousins, the more I’ve heard about this box-office failure (which can mostly be attributed to its misjudged, staggered release pattern) the more I’m curiously intrigued. Opinions have verged from a horrendous muddled mess with embarrassing Charlie Chan make-up to the more Aint It Cool style breathlessly gushing sites citing the film as a ‘life changing experience’ – although that does not bode well truly ambitious cinema of the $100 million plus range is all too rare, and I look forward to making my own mind up come February. At the very least Cloud Atlas is going to be a different experience with articles citing the current experimentation with traditional film structures mapping the film with the likes of The Master, Holy Motors and Life Of Pi, the very fact that the Wachowski’s got this made at all through private funding – one possible reason for the lack of screens and poor advertising hobbling the films opportunities – is a minor miracle in itself. I just hope that with their supposed disregard of narrative continuity that they haven’t thrown the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
What does next year hold in store retrospective wise? Well the BFI are hosting a Polanski retrospective in January which I’m musing over, and I have this rather strange urge to revisit the Hong Kong John Woo gangster films of the Eighties and Nineties, I have no idea where this impulse has sprung from but I like the idea of also seeking out ancillary material by other filmmakers of the era, a period of genre cinema I’m not entirely au fait with. I’m also going to see what I can do about covering more festivals, I’ve had opportunities which I failed to follow-up on due to sheer laziness (the Nordic Film Festival, the South Korean Film Festival), and certainly Sundance O2 which returns to the UK in February. The two biographies Hitchcock and Lincoln are of course on the playlist as is the new Malick picture To The Wonder and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, on the genre front I’m also looking forward to The Canyons, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, a Cruise to Oblivion should be surpassed by Del Toro’s thundering Pacific Rim, the Star Trek sequel should be fun, romantics will get woozy as Linklater concludes his international romanticism with Before Midnight and the epic Cornetto trilogy closes with World’s End, hopefully a re-teaming of Frost and Pegg with Edgar Wright will actually, y’know, make them funny again after the horrendous failure of Paul.
So finally let’s wave a melancholic goodbye to analogue film which is certainly what 2012 will be remembered for, with Kodak ceasing major production of film stock and theatres now all but abandoning 35mm projection, I’m no Luddite as I do embrace the technical marvels of 3D and CGI when used effectively and appropriately, but I can’t help but feel that something tangible has slipped away, a physical capture of reality through a tactile storage and delivery device. Holding a frame of 35mm or 70mm film stock up to the light to judge its contents is obviously more romantic and idyllic a symbol of the magic of the movies, of letting light pour and permeate through an image to illuminate a fantastic illusion is infinitely more affecting than plugging a hard drive into a throbbing bank of hardware but that’s just me, a digital beeping of zeroes and ones simply can’t cut it as the world shifts to a more impersonal and diffused fashion of communication, ‘social’ media be damned. The format won’t completely die out of course, certain films will continue to be shot photo-chemically on a probable sliding, declining scale – I’m not entirely sure what the status is with shooting practices away from Hollywood in the likes of Bollywood, in the strong indigenous industries of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, or even the recently emerging powerhouses such as Nigeria – but commerce is always the watchword and if costs are reduced in the never quenched search for product then the writing is clearly on the wall. I think there will always be some movement of analogue lovers who demand traditional projection from original, physical masters and dupes, maybe like formats such as vinyl it will become increasingly marginalised but that loyal and rabid fan base should stick around for another generation at least – so farewell film, Rest In shattered, indiscriminate Pieces;
After* two years of reckless, lumbering, gnawing waiting, after a near pandemic of anticipation that bloody film is finally here – The Dark Knight Rises arrived in cinemas this weekend and just to set the tone from my initial, electrifying screening – yes there was a standing ovation – this may well be one of the finest Hollywood blockbusters I’ve seen, and as a final installment of a critical and box acclaimed franchise it is
difficult impossible to imagine how director Christopher Nolan, screenwriting partners Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer could have concluded the series in a more majestic, fulfilling and riveting fashion. Breaking pre-release records as tickets went on sale - the Waterloo IMAX screen alone has had a staggering 42 shows completely sold out for a cool £1 million – the movie was received with near universal critical acclaim, sweeping four and five-star plaudits across the board. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such a palpable sense of anticipation since The Phantom Menace back in 1999, but don’t worry, I only invoke such horrendous disappointments as a negative talisman although there may be some spectral allusions haunting both pictures, as just about everything that Star Wars Episode I got wrong Batman III gets comprehensively right. The spoofs, mash-ups and associated nerdisms are already reaching a feverish pitch, I dread to think of what will happen when the film actually gets out there into the sweaty palms of the hordes of fanboys and girls of both the comic book and superhero movie persuasion, as I’m sure that incendarily fierce discussion board battles are already raging around the carnage inducing thread titles of ‘Best Movie Trilogy Evar?’ I think what I’ll do is keep this largely spoiler free except for some plot breakdown, I do have to set some sort of context, and then add a spoiler section in a week or so to give everyone who’s genuinely interested a chance to see it, so consider yourself warned.
Eight years on from the closing sacrifice of The Dark Knight and the legend of the Batman is passing into Gotham history. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets another Oscar nomination) has hung up his cape and descended into a Howard Hughes isolation, withdrawing from public life and physically and psychically wounded, much to the concern of his only loyal mentor, and family surrogate Alfred (Michael Caine, ectopically procrastinating as always) whose twitching moments of elderly concern pay narrative dividends further down the films labyrinthine story arc. The Dent act, ushered in after the apparent murder of the crusading district attorney has sequestered the majority of Gotham’s criminals and felons in Blackgate Prison – alas there is no mention of Arkham Asylum in this issue - ushering in an uneasy peace and relatively safety throughout the metropolis’s inviolable streets, but this capricious truce has been predicated on a falsehood, that Batman was the murderer of Dent and numerous police officers during the finale of The Dark Knight, and a terrible reckoning quivers on the disenfranchised horizon. Not all crime has been eradicated however, and the feline cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, purrfect) paths soon cross with our retired hero, and as they say when a black cat crosses your path be prepared for a run of bad luck, as the hulking, monstrous and occasionally incomprehensible Bane (Tom Hardy, terrifyingly terrific) makes his glowering appearance, an analogue anarchist with a virulent, undiluted venom for Gotham and its regal society. Recruiting an underclass infantry from the poor and dispossed whose lives are worlds removed from the pampered elite of the city, he sacks Gotham’s stock exchange and ignites a terrible campaign of wealth redistribution predicated on the acquisition of a weapon of mass destruction, prompting our hero to stirringly discard his cane and reach for his cowl. The forces of justice and decency have been complacent in their privileged luxury, with only Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) feeling a gnawing guilt at the lies foisted on the body politic, with his recently promoted Deputy Foley (Matthew Modine, good to see him back in something of merit) and the curiously hot-headed young police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) buttressing a potential counter offensive to Bane’s complex and dissimulated blitzkrieg of terror. With the sweeping cityscapes (one of Nolan’s trademark flourishes of visual calligraphy) punctuating the vertingious and increasingly mosaic narrative a grandiose, metaphoric scent is formidably set for the final chapter in the chronicle of Bruce Wayne, of his soaring crusade and dizzying plunge into the abyss.
As I’m an idiot I sneered in light derision at the early reports of The Dark Knight Rises being superior to the previous entry in the franchise, and it gives me great joy to report that I was (as usual) completely and utterly wrong – this emotional, torpid close to the trilogy is a phenomenal achievement and is unquestionably the best Hollywood film of the year thus far. It quite clearly will reward the viewer with multiple viewings – I’m still processing much of the films epic design and sheer fuliginous audacity – thus I’m left leafing through the film critics dictionary of clichés for the necessary and needed superlatives – bold, compelling, engrossing, intelligent, kinetic, contemporary and finally elegiac - with the aforementioned emotional core lurking and leeching beneath the masks and kevlar, and it’s as ruthless and genuinely moving a picture that you’ll see this year, or indeed any year. The sheer adroit audacity of Nolan and his crew is truly something to behold, especially as to where the narrative goes, into utterly unexpected territory once the first hour or so has elapsed for my part, coupled with occasional shocking bursts of brutality that elevate the stakes to near operatic intensity. The metaphors are clear, of characters and institutions driven into the darkness and the underworld, a striving for the light amidst near impossible redemption, all umbilically and organically welded to the notion of what truly makes a man a hero, and of facing and conquering his syncretic and symbiotic opponents.
Some of the light comic relief, and boy does this movie yearn for some shards of pearlescent relief among the choking & cloaking darkness, mostly emanates as silken purrs from the mercenary Kyle as she ameliorates some of the increasingly intense tension – I’m not kidding, from roughly the middle of the film to its conclusion I was almost wheezing in anxiety – and even a tiresome purist like me who is prone to roll their eyes in mock disgust at drama reducing quips I found much to enjoy in her lustrous performance. The slightly hectoring Alfred proves the emotional foil to Bruce’s narcissist drives, and Bane is a constant and legitimate spectre of destruction who proves to be an overwhelming and deeply threatening foe, even from behind that muffling mask Thomas Hardy’s villainous turn is quite affecting, even if he isn’t quite as memorable as Ledgers lunatic Joker. There are surprises in store for fans with a necklace of references and throwbacks to the prior movies, at times it can seem overly coagulated in construction, but for the most part both Goyer and the Nolan brothers weave together a personal journey in a vivid cinematic universe, punctuated with their electrifying set pieces, before the final stretch is reached and seemingly impossibly the film ratches up a further gear to a bruising and yes weep inducing finale - and this is where the real achievement of the film finaly resides. After this first screening I fully grasped the sense of an overarcing whole, as one tale subdivided into a trio of arcs that intersect and reference back upon each other, as the central theme of genuine heroism, of impossibly besting your personal demons and failures is achieved in an unparalleled and brilliant fashion, its bravura film-making from its opening frame to its final, expertly paced, revelatory montage. Also, William Devane as the president was a nice touch, with Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) from Animal Kingdom as a slithering corporate vampire and Morgan Freeman as the franchise ‘Q’ also getting their brief moments to shine upon this urban, dark side of the sun.
Nolan is quite clearly one of the finest auters working in the system today, and I finally feel comfortable in elevating him up the Minty pantheon to nestle in the heady heights with the likes of Scorsese and Mann, Hitchcock and early Carpenter, bizarrely there were some portions of this movie that reminded me of Escape From New York - I’m sure he’s relived to finally hear that eh? I’ve started ploughing through some interviews now that I’ve seen the film and was fascinated to hear that the touchstone movies that he screened for his department heads and cast was the eclectic trio of Dr. Zhivago, The Battle Of Algiers and Lumet’s Prince Of The City. His loosely intellectual action films see him working with the same cinematographer, editor, musical score composer and production designer which is a tradition that most of the planets leading film-makers seem to follow, although his DP Wally Pfister – certainly one of the most talented lighting cameramen currently drawing breath – is moving up to directing next with Nolan in the producers chair, now that could be interesting. He has also built a retinue of strong and versatile actors populating his work – Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and of course Michael Caine, it’s a volcanic blend of performers rather than distracting and increasingly redundant screen ‘icons’ who carry with them the baggage of previous work. Once again Nolan and his screenwriting brother collaborate with David S. Goyer in impugning their tales with significant density and gravitas that some may find overly portentous or ridiculous – this after all is a series of films about a billionaire who dresses up as a big bat and goes punching people – but if you find anything to enjoy in the previous installments then there is much more to enjoy here, as Bruce Wayne’s story finally draws to its deistic conclusion. Those tiresome allegations of his being an icy empathist finally get neutralised in The Dark Knight Rises and its stirring climax, his commitment to reality – always a faintly ridiculous notion to direct to any work of fiction - gets little thrift here, as some of the criticisms I’ve read seem to overtly expect a fundamental fidelity to vérité in these films which is really rather absurd.
It’s not perfect – what is? – it’s a little muddied in its opening hour and for me Bruce’s decision to reprise his nocturnal avenging persona was a little rushed, technically I still found some of the distorted speeches difficult to translate, Nolan still resorts to some clumsy exchanges of exposition laced dialogue and there are a few dropped beats in some cadences of the storytelling tempo, but as whole, as a series of texts charting a mythic character of popular culture this is the ultimate and definitive screen iteration, I can’t possibly see how this could remotely be bettered by the current crop of filmmakers, I’d give it a couple of decades until this 73-year-old icon gets a plausible treatment in a different era. As for the films supposed politics I’m not really in a position to offer an opinion at this time, I’m still processing and will need a second visit (probably a Monday matinée at this point) to conduct such discussions, but the Occupy and class war related atmospherics couldn’t be more tangible, they are pummelled front and center into the narrative like an obsidian fist, with a thundering shockwave of our real world, tangible, extinction level threats, yet the movers and shakers, the central figures and associated clergy are all in the thrall of a wider invisible, incredulous, economic tempest, and it’s under these auscipous flarings that our hero makes the ultimate, liberating, human sacrifice – as the world burns.
It’s difficult to articulate but sometimes when watching a movie you experience those moments that literally send shivers down the spine, when all the forces of storytelling coalesce in brilliant formation, in visual and aural alignment as the music rises - I’m immediately reminded of the childhood reaction that I and many other film fans have to Luke’s renewal of his assault against the old man in Jedi for example - and I guess I had about a half-dozen of those pure, unadulterated celluloid instances of joie de vivre in The Dark Knight Rises. The finesse by which they stitch together the three films, birthed through Bruce Wayne’s initial trauma - and never is such a word so perfectly pitched to encapsulate this trilogy – through to his final fate is unsurpassed in mainstream storytelling of this particular, difficult species, a depth charge under the waters of Hollywood’s busting of blocks. As the pieces of the puzzle are romantically resisted and gothically twixed, as the avengers history is so wrathfully twisted and transcendently glyphed, the opera is complete with a devastating final aria that discreetly emits a final nourishing growl of aphoristic glee, a sonar echo of liberty and liberation. Is this equal – a charged word – to the original old testament Star Wars? Maybe. As satisfying a quest as The Lord of The Rings? Perhaps. My initial instincts suggest that it may surpass both, and as someone who lives, breathes and dies movies as a major part of their life, and has been in a turbulent state of flux in their personal and professional life for the past few years it’s a work that has provided some genuine inspiration and illumination as to what may come next, and how we all can rise - can I recommend it any more than that?
*As previously mentioned, I’m completely ignoring the wider dimensions of the film and those tragic circumstances at this point. Fuck that murderous idiot, fuck firearms and fuck the people and organisations that backwardly believe that weapons are some sort of masculine enhancing, god derived ‘right’ – it’s an obvious but little expressed point that this and this makes for a fucked up world. Also this. If you want to do something to redress this terrible event then donate here, give blood, smile a bit more and be nicer to people, fuck I dunno…..
A countdown isn’t a countdown unless you’ve got three distinct ticks, right? Well, at least that’s my excuse for another filler post. Anyway, (coughs) let’s see how far we’ve come since the character’s printed birth back in 1939, and his early screen incarnations;
Yeah, I realise this whole blog strand is pure Chris & Jonathan Nolan / Bob Kane fanboy indulgence but I’m a big, big fan of the series – as if you hadn’t guessed yet – and this is obviously the biggest movie since Avatar (well apart from that premature movie that we don’t speak of anymore) as expectations run catastrophically high, it’s not that often that we
geeks/nerds/fanboys <delete as applicable< get to shamefully express our unadulterated sheer love of the movies, or rather the expectation of a genuinely special experience. I’m almost 1/8 excited of the IMAX paralysis as I am for seeing the film itself, for me that’s a major part of the fun. Oh, OK then, I’ll share this with you early, it made me laugh;
What the fuck indeed. Anyway, I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been reading the Development Hell book and coincidently just got to the section about the machinations of the Batman franchise since the nadir of the Schumcher atrocity, the subsequent Aronofsky & Frank Miller Year One influenced plans were quite ambitious for such a mainstream property which are worthy of their own blog post, here’s a headline taster from Aronofsky circa 1998 - ’I told them I’d cast Clint Eastwood as The Dark Knight, and shoot it in Tokyo, doubling for Gotham City - that got their attention.’ Yeah, I’d still pay to see that. Anyway, scripts developed into a more modest, low-budget noir idea of a storyline which deteriorated to Bruce Wayne as a Travis Bickle simulacra (including nervous voiceover) alongside Commissioner Gordon as a Serpico styled rebel against the corrupt system, then the project floundered before it was picked up later – and the rest is history. So for the last time, from this moment that raised some definitive excitement of such material;
I’m hoping to get my initial review up this evening but we’ll see how it goes, I’ve already collected some amusing non-spolier specific material but don’t worry, I will clarify the situation in my opening remarks, so I’ll see you then….
We continue with all things batty, new readers may wish to review part one of my two-part retrospective of The Dark Knight which can be viewed here. I didn’t think I’d get the time to complete this before the opening of The Dark Knight Rises but I don’t have any other reviews outstanding at the moment, and all the smart distributors have pretty much cleared their release schedule as none of them are brave enough to programme any of their offerings against what is certain to be this years second box-office behemoth, so there won’t much else going on review wise for at least a month. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t link to this, it’s 13 minutes of behind the scenes material for the new film, I am not going to watch it or anything else until the 20th as I’m not risking any more spoilers, your self-control threshold may be weaker. Anyway, enough of this procrastination, let’s pick up events where we left them, after the climactic confrontation between our hero and his lunatic nemesis, I’m not sure why but I simply love this moment, it’s a rare shard of reflection when the films engine isn’t accelerating along at a breakneck pace, and in many ways encapsulates the film in one brief moment, of those yapping ‘dogs chasing cars’;
There is a glaring editing failure in the preceding sequence where the Joker taunts his captor in an unusually cruel dialogue exchange, a shivering piece of writing which demonstrates again just what a nasty and wily piece of work he is. Suddenly through the frantic cross cutting of Bruce racing to Rachel’s / Harvey’s side and the revelation of the internalized IED’s implanted in the Joker’s goons - another War On Terror® reference of course – at the police station we suddenly see Detective Stephens (Keith Szarabajka) as hostage, the Joker with a knife to his throat, presumably the same blade that he has concealed in his shoe from the earlier champagne reception crash or maybe Nolan’s just a fan of Rosa Klebb and decided to throw in another Bond reference to go along with his wholesale sacking of OHMSS for Inception. So the bomb goes off, Rachel is killed, Two Face is forged in the cauterizing inferno and the Joker’s dastardly scheme continues apace. I was quite shocked by Rachel’s death I have to say, the filmmakers had taken the time to establish her as a feisty, independent, professional type nor merely hostage / arm candy – well, apart from the champagne reception bit where she and Bats implausibly fall several hundred feet but we’ll just forgot about that - which is a rarity in itself for today’s action blockbusters, but to actually kill off a major character is almost unheard off, and this time there is no cinematic sleight of hand to bring her back as they did with Gordon’s expertly arranged feint, thus the stakes are established and the audience is distressed to understand that all bets are off, I mean it’s not like they’ll be bombing hospitals next or something (nervously laughs), right? Oh…..
I’ve mentioned in previous pieces that Gotham city itself is a defined and central character in the films, a formless vortex of myriad citizens, corrupt and decaying institutions on both sides of that porous veneer of legality, the huddled masses suspended in an urban thrall which both Batman and his repeated opponents seek to manipulate and cajole, from Ra’s Al Ghul & the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, from the Joker in The Dark Knight and I’m sure Bane will have the same objective in The Dark Knight Rises, the fight is always for the soul of the people and this is no more acute than in the second and final acts of this film, where the fascistic drive of the film becomes fully acute, speaking from a strictly academic, dictionary definition of the ideology*. Crime fiction has always been a rich artery for channeling the anxiety of the day, operating as it does on the cusp of legality and the transgressive, and although the film was widely interpreted as a cultural manifestation of the War On Terror® Bordwell says that Hollywood can be strategically ambiguous about politics, as he argues against the zeitgeist theory in his usual erudite and convincing fashion, I’m reminded of the scene in Jarhead where the Marines unironically enjoy watching Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now as exciting war films, not as the complex works which on the immediate surface are not flagrantly anti-war, but operate more as obtuse texts with different ideas and images leading to different meanings and conclusions to differing alternate individuals. Therefore the credo or dogma of the film is further obfuscated by the elevation of Nolan and his immediate companions – Michael Bay, Peter Jackson, Spielberg, Lucas and the bombastic others – into being the chief proponents of so-called ’Shock & Awe’ cinema, deploying intense sound and visual material to literally befuddle and deafen the audience into a numbed obsequious servitude, with 3D, motion capture and IMAX being the latest weapons in their cinematic arsenal – the volume drowns the message.
Whilst we’re on the subject of critics some of the mediums more insightful sophists such as David Denby have remarked that The Dark Knight operates in a state of almost hysterical ’constant climax’, a phrase which alludes to the exhausting combination of pummeling and deep edit rhythms, heightened performances, an emphasis on melee and confrontation, and the high-pitched strings from Hans Zimmer’s vociferous score, an analysis which mirrors the Shock & Awe assessment propagated by Bordwell and their ilk. It’s an observation which I broadly accept as it’s obvious that this is exactly the effect than Nolan and his team are striving to achieve – unlike his contemporaries he insists on shooting even the largest action sequences with single fixed cameras, such is the level of pre-visualisation he has already mentally constructed before building or scoping sets, instead of arranging the scenes from a plethora of sources in the editing suite, and the film has an undeniably pulsing, coruscating rhythm and aura throughout its second half with perhaps a few too many plot strands to be competently weaved together. The conflict arises as to the opinion of this being a legitimate and desirable evolution of cinema, of whether potent ideas and commentary can simmer under the surface of what is ostentatiously a commercial, fiscally attuned cinema, but I’d argue that from Intolerance to The Wizard of Oz to Singing In The Rain to The Godfather - to use some widely acclaimed and loved examples across both historical and genre palettes – cinema is spectacle, it is grandiose and accelerated, overbearing and in your face, in certain cases this is what distinguishes it from TV or theatre, from live music or gaming, and sometimes I think the critics lose sight of this when assembling these critiques, just because they are genre pieces the message and interpretations are just as valid in a Nolan film as they are in a Kiarostami film.
One of the more amusing theories I’ve recently absorbed refers to Nolan’s work being a detailed treatise on what it means to be a modern human in a post-religious world. In Batman Begins for example Bruce Wayne, as the primary audience avatar, must face his intangible, superstitious demons and self-actualize his fear, with such emotional paralysis being a major component of the film on a host of different thematic and narrative levels. In The Dark Knight, the second stage of development in the pursuit of the elusive self-actualisation is to define a framework of ethics and social order, or chaos results. In The Dark Knight Rises - who knows? Perhaps it will be the conflict with other self-actualized beings and their definitions of self, order and ethics? Will Bane as a Oedipal ’other’ be seeking to usurp the city and indoctrinate its citizens to his Occupy themed socialist ideology? Will Catwoman be the franchise’s first signal of overt sexuality, liberated by the death of Rachel, Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart from the previous film? In Batman Begins our orphaned hero defeats the Scarecrow as a childhood boogeyman in the first stage of development, and Ra’s al Ghul as the Oedipal father is rejected and defeated to ascend to the next psychological threshold. In The Dark Knight it’s the Joker as the malicious id who fosters the birth and drive of Two-Face as the mirroring ego, with Ra’s al Ghul now the intangible, overarching super-ego, invisibly fostering the drives and desires of the schizophrenic Batman to conduct the greatest sacrifice, the destruction of his ego (Two Face) to thwart the ruinous desires of his id (Joker), assimilating the shattered remnants of his own, better, manifest self (Harvey Dent) at the apex of the film? With both the id locked away in Arkham Asylum and the ego subdued the arrival of Bane and Catwoman in the new film activate a new neurosis, they are just as good as Batman, if not better, at simply being who they are - competent, goal-oriented and already self-actualized – forcing his return to the alter-ego? Or maybe I’ve got too much time on my hands and I’ve been reading far too much psychoanalytical theory dossiers. Well then hmmm….
So we finally arrive at the hospital scene where the Joker gets his most revelatory scene. Heath Ledger’s performance throughout this controlled, asceptic film as the fractured, disembodied Loki figure with his unreliable and ambiguous origin stories are quite simply breathtakingly audacious, it breaks every Hollywood screenwriting rule where you must have a clearly defined antagonist from which the hero can ricochet in full dramatic glory, and full marks to both Jonathan & Christopher Nolan for not even giving us a final act resolution to his origin or psychological purpose. Such an approach really makes him some sort of free-floating insurgent agent of anarchy, and Ledger really captured the zeitgeist with his performance whose charismatic chaos speaks to some of the disenfranchised generation X, Y’s and Z being expressed in that speech, the mouthpiece of frustration of a segment of society (in their view) under the thrall of absurd, corrupt and ineffectual systems of control, a catalyst which viewers can chaotically indulge in some of their more disorderly fantasies. It’s curious then that Nolan operates at societies nodal points throughout his movies, he frequently arranges scenes in the airports and the cities, in City Hall or police stations, on aircraft or in hospitals, throughout the works the march of civilisation is centered, and then there is the insane court jester whose role throughout history has always been to speak truth to power and disrupt and lampoon the perilous position of the elite, it’s maybe an instinctive choice of apparatus that we all, commonly, subconsciously realise and loathe. Ledger, in his tragic final performance was throughly brilliant; twitchy but not overwrought, malicious but not cartoonish, even in that scene above – in drag as a nurse for christsakes - he simultaneously comes off as deranged and dangerous, even during a narrative snapshot that could so easily have descended into farce. The Iraq allusions are overwhelming with an opponent using asymmetric warfare against a homogenic foe, sending scratchy, out of focused shaky footage which hints at unseen atrocities, in an identical manner to the fanatic self-proclaimed ’Islamist’ brigades who continue to blaze a bloody vengeance across the Middle East. The film drips with an ichorous nihilism which again tapped a chord with its vast audience, a darkness which can have only been intensified with the tragic death of Ledger and his posthumous Academy Award, is it not one of those cruel twists that a millionaire and critically acclaimed film star, supposedly a figure of adoration the world over, one of the lucky souls who through a difficult conflation of luck and talent ascended to the movie star pantheon yet still led such a wearisome life that he was wedded to the crutch of numerous legal drugs to simply face the next day? That’s no joke….
But the center rings true, at least for the moment. Some cultural theorists, acolytes and other academic cinema types have identified a genre of film that emerged in both the wheezing, dying breaths of the past millennium and the birth pangs of the new, through a series of American movies whose purpose was to separate an illusory reality from the allegedly more authentic ‘real‘, a sequence that was immediately guillotined by 9/11 and replaced with texts positing the simulation coming under attack from overseas, from sources very much alien in both senses of the word from the prevailing ideology. I’d argue that The Dark Knight is very much the next logical development in that sequence with the disembodied threat being supplanted with indigenous foes, the paranoid surveillance state engaging in widespread doublespeak and triplethink, an enemy within responding to maelstroms of cultural contradictions which is the very essence of the ludicrous and terrifying notion of a ‘war on terror’. With the exception of Wayne, Gordon and Rachel everyone in The Dark Knight is susceptible to being perverted, corrupted and turned, from the men and women of law enforcement to the crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, solidly portrayed by Aaron Eckhert who never seemed to get the kudos he richly deserved for a difficult performance that is foreshadowed with just enough seething rage to make his final descent psychologically convincing – well, I mean convincing for a tent pole Hollywood movie, this isn’t nor is it trying to be Strindberg or Ibsen – and just a quick word on Gary Oldman – he’s just fucking great isn’t he? Another unimpeachable foundation stone in the series success, alongside Michael Caine noble Alfred, who I’ve never fully appreciated until I caught the films back to back yesterday.
Screens and surfaces, media and manipulation. Before seeing the film again I was sympathetic to the captious claims that the final confrontation, the climactic set-piece with the ferry booby traps and moral gauntlet proffered by the Joker felt just a little ‘forced’, another sequence in a slightly obese film with the sonar enhanced melee becoming a little tiresome by dredging out a blockbuster movie to an unnecessary two and a half hour run-time, a complaint that was compounded by the fiscal fallacy circulating Hollywood at the time that more villains equalled more thrills, so merchandising minded executives urged screenwriters to insert redundant threats ad nauseam to pointlessly elevate the dramatic ante, but with another visit to this movie the criticism simply doesn’t hold water – Spiderman 3 however is another entity. I’m happy to be proved wrong but if memory serves The Dark Knight is the only movie where the villains actually seem to functionally operate in the same film universe, to recant and reflect upon each other in a clearly logical and dramatic sense, the Joker’s murderous creation of the dually horrific Two Face is perfectly played and serves at the final checkmate move of his increasingly convoluted and perhaps absurdly contrived master plan, yet it makes narrative sense as his final coup de grâce in potentially disrupting the moral imperatives of Gotham’s citizens, which was anarchicaly expressed as his ultimate goal in the hospital scene. Although the film’s editing gets choppy and slightly confusing with the cross maneuvers urging a rather confrontational reaction – again the ‘constant climax’ exhaustion comes into play and this is perhaps Nolan’s occasional stumble throughout his cluttered storytelling style - yet the meridian of one opponents defeat is expertly despatched;
So here is some more of Nolan’s gravity defying camera techniques that he went on to explore more fully with Inception and judging by the prologue to The Dark Knight Rises we will be seeing more of those unusually inverted movements. The Joker gets his final speech alluding to the similarities between the two symbiotic nemesis ‘dragging Harvey down to our level’ before he gets one final maniacal laugh to haunt us as he pushes off into the ether, as in one sense he has won and pushed the hero into his personal Gehenna, as a common murdering criminal that ignited his nocturnal crusade in Batman Begins. I really like the way that the Nolan’s have almost written themselves into a corner by maintaining the heightened realism and cast Bruce as a murderous vigilante, and in just a few days we’ll know how they’ve extracted themselves from that potential narrative cul-de-sac.
Cue applause, house lights up, long exhale – we’re almost done. Some of the success resides in the little touches – Bruce playing playboy and ditching the champagne on the veranda as he must remain focused and in control, the Joker responding to accusations to being crazy by nervously muttering ’no…no…no I’m not…’ as if he’s having to convince himself, Bruce effortlessly dispatching a goon and dismantling his weapon as he walks toward the panic room in the party scene, the Joker’s hand-washing moment in the hospital, that evocative moment of Bats musing over his failure in the smoldering debris of Rachel’s homicide - they all add up to a textural pattern which displays a tangent of filmmakers completely in control of his material, and judging by the early word on The Dark Knight Rises that vice like grip continues into the final installment. I’m not the only one to have been immediately reminded of the ending to Shane with the close of Dark Knight, my esteemed colleague Philip French noted the same thoughts during his review back in the day, it’s a final allusion to the mythic grandeur that cinema can provoke for its eternal celluloid heroes when manipulated by the right hands. So whats next ? Watching the first two back to back reminds me of just what an outstanding narrative arc they have developed for the franchise, of the psychological allusions and confusions, I’m certain we’ll see more of the same in Rises but I was also struck by just how emotional the films are, there is a real heart and spirit churning under the action sequences and gadgets, a real sense of threat and struggle beyond the pyrotechnics and intellectual shadow-play, and this I think is what has elevated them above other superhero and blockbuster fare, and if early reports are anything to go by then we’re in for some intense material for the final chapter – I have my suspicions of where certain things will go but we’ll leave that Pandora’s box firmly closed for now. Looking beyond the weekend you Bat-fans will also be excited to hear of this bat-project which I stumbled across during my research, but for now let’s just calmly convalesce and wait for Friday, and see just how the Nolan’s and Bale, Caine and Freeman will finally wrap up this outstanding, incredible series of films – are you excited yet?
* OK, I’m not suggesting that Nolan are Fascists or anything, I’m merely pointing out if you look at the strictly academic view of what that political ideology ia, then apply that to millionaire Bruce Wayne’s ideology and activities and well….
Absolutely bloody typical. So I wake up early today, throw together a news post and recline back in satisfied, self-indulgent satiation, confident that my posting quota for the day is complete. After twatting off to the cinema for the afternoon I return home to see that Hollywood has deigned to share with us two more tasty morsels concerning some wldly anticipated upcoming projects,
Hmm, how many trailers is that now? Three? Four? Not to mention the MTV footage and TV spots. Then again, I keep posting them so I shouldn’t be such a hypocrite, it’s jolly exciting to see these actually in the cinema as we are now only a month away from assessing whether Nolan has defeated that difficult ‘third film in a trilogy’ syndrome….
Quite unexpected was the second teaser for The Master which seems to be taking rather a different promotional path, with a first look at Philip Seymour Hoffman as
L. Ron Hubbard some eccentric theologian / grifter. This looks Fucking Brilliant, it’s definitely my most anticipated project of 2012 and it officially hits the UK on the 9th November. As I was remarking to some friends at the weekend this year is looking particularly poor in terms of movie quality, maybe these two can redress that imbalance and some of the early reviews of Spider Man that I glanced at today are also generally positive, so maybe there is hope yet?
After the colossal disappointment of Prometheus, a film so bad I can’t be bothered to finish my review, comes Nolan with a deft uppercut;
I’m seeing reports that it’s almost three hours long. Nice.
And lo, on the 1st of May, the prescribed date of the global Occupy day of passive resistance, the new Dark Knight trailer was revealed to the universe. Coincidence? I think not;
I’m literally out the door to visit our glorious NHS and have this pesky cast removed so I’ll just say this – it doesn’t show a huge amount (which is a good thing), thank god they’ve cleaned up Bane’s mffighling, and I’m finally sold on the whole Catwoman thing and am intrigued to see how she slots into the enterprise – and boy did that ‘this isn’t a car’ quip elicit a laugh. This is gonna be a fucking great summer…..
You might have heard of this, it was a little project that Warners put out a few years ago, having been reasonably successful (over $1 billion in worldwide box office alone), it’s got itself a sequel this year. True to form after promising a write-up on this as part of my ancient Films of 2008 entry I’ve finally managed to fulfil this promise a mere four years later, punctuality evidently being my strong point. Why the delay? Well, initially I wanted to give it yet another look after the two cinema visits and a couple of Blu-Ray revisions, but after the rabid exposure the film and its potential sequel engendered over the subsequent couple of years I frankly got a little sick of the movie (although that’s not the films fault), there must have been some tangential news story in the on-line press almost every day during the first couple of quarters of 2009 so I really wanted to go away, take a breather, then come back to the movie fresh and attempt to explain why I think The Dark Knight really touched a nerve with not only the rabid fan-boys who went to see it four, five, even six times at the cinema (which of course explains some of that box office) but also the appeal to the more mainstream punters who visit the cinema maybe once or twice a year. Of course the interest and speculation has continued to swirl unabated around what we know as The Dark Knight Rises over the intervening few years, as its 20th July release date inexorably marches forward it’s finally time to step up the plate and push some thoughts out there prior to the release of the historically difficult third movie in the trilogy, be warned as this may very well be the most absurd, lengthy, fanboy inspired nonsense I’ve ever fabricated so I’m preemptively blaming the pain-killers. It’s an obvious allusion I know but I’d argue that The Dark Knight is the quintessential film of the last decade, with its domineering leitmotifs of entropy, corruption, instability and insanity it is the primary exemplar in reflecting and illustrating many of the crumbling structures that are under assault by a panoply of threats - fear, anguish, destruction, hypocrisy, paranoia – that have perverted the citadels of the West as their hegemonic stranglehold exigently slips away, as the moral lines are increasingly obscured as independent, ideological driven groups fight for their interests by violating the margins of the status quo and established, increasingly redundant and rejected political methods are superseded by direct action, and it’s also got some kick-ass action sequences so where better to start than with the introduction of the films hero, and I ain’t talking about some nocturnal psychopathic vigilante;
Click on the top left link to catch the final moments of that opening, alas I couldn’t find it in its entirety. Firstly, this obviously serves as the second part of a trilogy with the opening blue flame hued bat symbol – we’ll seeing that more of that temperature in the film of course – serving as a thematic and design continuation of the opening of Batman Begins and its auburn hues which both dispense with any titles or credits, both serve as semiotic glimpses of the tale that follows and its cinematographic palettes. An expansive helicopter mounted dolly penetrates the world of the film, the modern urban environment, its briefly tranquil atmosphere shattered as the goons rupture the status quo as they prepare their aerial assault that is immediately reinforced with a cunning character introduction, an empty mask shown in silhouette with the unidentified character turned away from the camera lens, a presage of the fruitless search for identity, reason and morality that gravitate around the films real protagonist – The Joker – whom subliminally mocks the film’s title. He is a void, a vessel for the audiences fears, a mysterious agent of chaos and entropy with a constantly shifting origin and history (does he even know his own back-story?) but I’ll delve fully into that in part two of this brief series. A meticulously planned robbery ensues, cut to the tempo of Hans Zimmer’s shrill and stretched score, a criminal inauguration which simultaneously references The Killing (there, didn’t take long for the Kubrick mention did it?) with similar nods to Heat via the casting of William Fichtner, signaling Nolan’s impeccable influences and inspirations. I love the nonchalant shooting of the bus driver and the grenades imposed on the trembling bank customers, we’re clearly dealing with a meticulously prepared and efficient psychotic (unusual for a PG13 movie for obvious reasons) whom immediately obliterates the scenery chewing antics of Nicholson, reinforced with the callous execution of his comrades and the grenade smoke bomb gag which acquaints us with this clown prince of crimes nebulous attitude to life and death. This merciful introduction is inverted with a shock a few minutes later in which writers Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer perfectly pitch a moment of terrible violence with splenetic humor, a grim yin-yang that reverberates throughout the film, both times I saw it with an audience they went fucking wild and that’s cinema right there, the shared experience that nothing can equal. So the films temperature and temperament is independently established away from the usual carnage saturated action-film context, it’s afferent inductions functioning within the narrative, not being a function of the narrative, not merely an excuse for kinetic deviations that leapfrog the recital to the next ballistic set-piece - in The Dark Knight they are intrinsic designs and conceptions that embed the characters psychology and environment – the oppidan and urban, the criminally lunatic, the dispassionately violent – at the core of the films anfractuous ambitions.
After this bravura prologue the film settles into its rhythm and the major plot lines emerge, Harvey Dent is introduced as the passive reflection of Batman, the principled idealist who is committed to make a difference, battling the crime and corruption of Gotham city within the confines of the system rather than following an individual, morally suspect, unhinged nocturnal crusade unfettered by such ridiculous notions as civil rights, presumption of innocence and trial by jury - in a word, Guantanamo. The political praxis is set, the City Hall and legislature machinations are placed in dichotomy with the criminal syndicate operations, as Gotham City itself is established as a living entity with enough sparse sociological dimensions to serve the plot developments in the films succeeding acts, a pivotal stroke as Nolan and his screenwriter accomplices understand that the city is as crucial a character in their legendarium as Bruce Wayne or Alfred, Lt. Gordon or Harvey Dent. Maggie Gyllenhaal replaces Katie Holmes from Batman Begins as the romantic plot device, as Rachael is re-contextualised from the first movie as Bruce’s most significant personal sacrifice – a totem which shortly becomes mortally intangible - a love requited but impossible to consummate given his psychological demons and the potential of an Achilles heel should a particularly fervid villain learn of their secret affections. After an entertaining (although rather redundant) sojourn to Hong Kong and an escalating body count the narrative reaches a second plateau, the preceding hour or so is undoubtedly the films weakest section, I don’t want to belabor the point but the frantic cutting of editor Lee Smith can leave the viewers a little confused and a few redundant threads are raised – the copycat vigilantes, the blackmail attempt from a suicidally ambitious Wayne Industries executive - all of which seems a little forced even as it inevitably links in with later developments in a rather overly complex*, serpentine script. All of these maneuvers are presented in the usual single character frame shots, spiced up with a creeping track-in camera movement as characters spin out some occasionally portentous dialogue, all punctuated with Nolan’s beloved cityscape establishing shot transitions, before we are relived of this flagitious framing with a rather memorable soirée amongst the higher echelons of Gotham society;
What’s that? No, no we erm don’t talk about what subsequently happened back at the party as that seems to be quite a serious omission from the cutting room floor, given that the narrative moves along without resolving the threatening incursion upon Gotham’s 1% one assumes that the protracted run time urged some serious snipping of the editors cruel scissors. Anyway, note the swirling, circling camera moves as the Joker expresses his fluctuating origin story, a simple but efficient tool to suggest the disorientation of having that mentalist literally in your face with a knife in view, as the threat moves from the abstract to personal for both Bruce and Harvey as the competing paramour of moon-faced Gyllenhaal. I think both Wally Pfster and Nathan Crowley have been somewhat overlooked in favour of Nolan’s and Ledger’s achievements on the movie, both these talents evidently worked in harmonious tandem, populating the film with a metallic sheen of reflections in the architecture of the film and embedding stark, regimented angular designs for the forces of order and control whose arrogant perch is assaulted by the explosive campaign of the Joker. Note that the native, primeval lair of the original Batcave has been exchanged for the rigid geometric order of the Batcave 2.0, the gothic and elemental superseded with the mechanised and controlled, the new nest of our nocturnal paladin sporting a sleek, cool and fetishistic sheen (as does his weapons, vehicles and armour), a sharp contrast to the primordial, instinctive tools of his opponent, as simple bombs and knives are the inventory of his anarchist adversary. The next sequence of note is the terrifying Al-Qaeda video inspired moment when the first hostage demand is transmitted by the press, I still can’t quite believe this sneaked into a 12A certificate film as it is numbingly nasty and genuinely unsettling, both times at the flicks the patrons were shocked into a dumbstruck silence, as cunningly Nolan cuts to an overhead shot of Gotham as a chance for the audience to catch their breath and compose their spirits, a lull in the storm before the next action sequence ignites;
After this meandering we come to the central action set-piece and the film never looks back. I’ve been somewhat beaten to the punch by this widely circulated analysis of the sequence which has its merits, although I think having issues with the 180° rule being consistently violated is somewhat missing the point – if it convinces, if it excites and thrills then it’s job is done, regardless of any arbitrary academic transgression, and the claim that this is just sloppy film-making and is not intentional on the part of Nolan and his editor is frankly ludicrous. The ominous and subtle joke of the fire engines ablaze is another nice touch, the shift from diagetic sound to Zimmer’s (quite literally) highly strung score easing us into a frenetic, brilliantly conceived and executed action sequence which stands above its peers by virtue of being, well, real. That’s real vehicles doing real stunts with real human beings, I’m not naive enough to think some of it wasn’t tweaked back in the labs but there are real visceral thrills in the sequence which does not rely solely on CGI domination (perhaps a little too real as a stuntman was killed during production), rather than using your cornea as a punching bag the concatenation has a drama, a lift and a presence through the characters and the parallel cutting techniques, and I’d argue that the entire film strives for a slightly disorienting, anxious ambience, embedded through every level of the film-making from the costumes to performances, soundtrack to set design. For all the films submerged depths and edifying intricacies it also delivers on the action and excitement front – let’s not forget that this is a $250 million Hollywood movie and as such it has some obligations to the cultural tropes of that breed of cinema – and this scene works as a microcosm three-act embezzlement of the form with its set-up and establishment of the characters in relation to the physical universe, the underground tussle and mêlée, and a final triumphant revelation of the Bat-pod and Westernesque showdown, all crowned with the twist reveal of Lt. Gordon bringing the maniac martinet to justice. I’ll admit I was suckered, I honestly thought Gordy had been killed earlier on so when he was revealed as the arresting officer on scene I was mentally punching the air in triumph along with the audience members who clapped and cheered along with this disclosure, a superb finish to what can roughly be parsed as the mid-point of the film, but not before we interrogate one of the more critical scenes of the entire movie;
There is nothing I can add to what already been expressed about this by Nolan here, it’s an illuminating interview, and you can see from that piece how the film works at an iconic level, he and Goyer and his brother got it and understand that the symbiotic relationship culled from the more mature Batman & Joker graphic novels are what makes them so intriguing and psychologically charged, this scene being the crux of the entire movie from which all the tendrils and all the other themes and events coalesce to lurk in a slithering, quivering mania. How can a force that thrives on conflict and degrading its opponent to its level ever be defeated? When do the ends justify the means in the face of illogical and indiscriminate brutality? When faced with the dispassionate, indifferent cruelty of the world and its hollow and hypocritical moral structures isn’t the only sane response to go insane? On that charming note let me draw a veil over part one of this reprise, giving me a breather to compose part 2 where we’ll get into the remainder of the film along with the performances, with some of the more virulent adumbrations and crucially how the film slots neatly into Nolan’s wider worldview, it’s all to come in a couple of weeks after this apprehensive musical interlude;
* Here is my favourite, most sarcastic appraisal of one of the films most glaring flaws – ‘I especially like the part where he (the Joker) had arranged to have two guys named Harvey and Dent killed so as to draw Batman’s attention to a bullet fired into the brick wall at the crime scene knowing that bullet would shatter but that Batman would recover it and take it to an improvised crime lab where he would then discover a way to model the shattered bullet on his computer and virtually reassemble the bullet in order to discover a fingerprint belonging to the minion who put the bullet in the gun and in whose apartment Batman would then discover that the funeral guard for Commisioner Loeb’s funeral has been bound and gagged and as Batman walks to the window to discover that the apartment overlooks the funeral of the commissioner, he fails to notice that a timer has been set to snap the window shade up at exactly the second that Batman arrives at the window, causing the snipers covering the funeral to fire at the window and allowing the Joker to make his next move! That is tight planning! I can see why audiences were so swept up by this story, which was not at all horseshit’….
What a crazy year – a devastating tsunami, indigenous riots, distant earthquakes, lethal hurricanes and militant uprisings, and that was just my reaction to Transformers 3 (distant cymbal crash). As usual its been a mixed bag on the small and larger screen, another dismal summer mildly off-set by the likes of Super 8 and ROTPOTA, which were both good fun but are hardly going to storm the films of the year defences, I have to say that blockbuster season is swiftly becoming my least favourite portion of the year although 2012 is looking much more attractive with its xenomorphic threats and nocturnal vigilantes promising the release of some stratospherically anticipated projects. I had varying degrees of success with three festivals, my LFF was probably the best coverage I’ve managed yet but I didn’t manage to see everything I’d like at the Australian London Film Festival, and Empire’s Big Screen in the final analysis was simply too mainstream for my current palette as I really don’t have any interest in seeing advance footage of Real Steel or Anonymous which is the sort of movie they excel in promoting these days – nothing necessarily wrong with that, I’m just saying it ain’t for me. The Autumn and Spring of 2011 brought the delights of the films that the studios aren’t quite sure what to do with, including the award friendly, strategically positioned, independently minded fare of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Blue Valentine and Drive which were all delicious banquets of differing ingredients, and the likes of Hugo and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo have provided some festive fun from differing ends of the age spectrum. I can’t say there is much of a thread throughout the films although the LFF was infected with a variety of films that concerned psychological fractures, cultish lunacy, atrocities, solitude, violence, death and madness, make of that what you will but our glorious leaders austerity measures did begin to bite this year – this already fills me with a palpable sense of illness and dread, as the iron lady gets a hagiography which is bound to provoke a litany of documentaries and articles on her sickening legacy and ‘the good ole days’ – urgh. Technically speaking the news that film stock lines are being further discontinued and that the shift to digital projection avalanche ignited by Avatar closes 2011 with more digital equipped screens on the planet than those equipped for 35mm analogue proves that an era of the art form is passing with a quiet solemnity – all those fans of flickering prints, cigarette burns and a grainy luminosity are in silent mourning. On the flip-side it was fun to see some of the 3D haters receive a deft uppercut from the likes of Scorsese, Herzog, and Wenders who proved that the technique is viable with the correct level of craft coupled with the intrinsic, artistic thrust of a project, I am becoming so fucking tired with Mark Kermode’s broken-record commentary every Friday that I’ve seriously contemplated abandoning the BBC R5 podcast – you don’t like it, you never will, and people who do like it for certain projects are wrong as he knows better – OK we get it so can’t we move on?
On the smaller screen I’ve been moping up some giallo that got released this year (plus another look at these three Argento’s and a Fulci which was one of the sleaziest films I’ve seen for some time, great title though) and launched brief retrospectives on fellow Anglophiles Nicholas Roeg, Alex Cox (watched this, this and this) and Peter Greenaway, thus I’ve finally caught A Zed & Two Noughts, The Pillow Book and The Draughtsman’s Contract which eluded my glazzies in my mis-spent youth. I’m betting I’m the only blogger who also went on a Harold Becker season, an unforeseen result of a bizarre compulsion to see this which led me on something of a nineties nostalgia trawl through a few older thrillers that stand in marked contrast to the hyperkinetic stylistics and cacophonous narratives that we are currently bludgeoned with at the flicks. I also caught up with the early work of David Gordon Green who has many admirers Stateside, he’s not quite the ‘new Malick’ has some have outrageously claimed but his early films were interesting, with a definite, dreamy texture which he seems to have abandoned in favour of some larger scale comedies that all seem to feature Danny McBride. My insistence on seeing more older films didn’t quite live up to expectations despite a final push on the horror front, I shall make a redoubled effort next year, inspired by the utterly brilliant The Story Of Film which to my mind is the best coverage the art form has received since Scorsese’s two journeys through cinema over a decade ago. Nevertheless I did manage a triumvirate of Billy Wilder movies in the opening months of the year alongside a few Preston Sturges sized gaps in the viewing history, I’m toying with a Fritz Lang season next year so watch this space. Finally I’m fairly proud of some of the other retrospective stuff I’ve crafted this year which have solidly been accruing hits in the higher three figures, the likes of The Last Picture Show, Apocalypse Now and Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid being amongst my strongest contributions ever. But there’s no time to rest on our laurels as we have plenty to get through, so on with the show;
The Films of the Year
The usual top five in no particular order, not necessarily the greatest films of the year as I can’t see everything, but this is certainly the pentagon that provided the most enjoyment in the menagerie;
13 Assassins - Slightly less impressive on the small screen but still a fantastic achievement, certainly Miike’s best film for a decade during which he lazily released a sluggish 612 other films adorned with oriental finery. Seriously though, the courtly intrigue leads deftly into that brazenly lengthy and beautifully crafted battle sequence, that tour de force alone earns the film a place in the annual Minty pantheon. The second time round it was easier to identify the different characters and better appreciate their personalities, understandably some critics had disliked the fact that all 13 heroes dress almost identically with the same haircut for most of the film which makes distinguishing them somewhat difficult during the mud and blood drenched finale. The final stand-off at the apex of that battle was more measured and textured on a repeat viewing, I didn’t quite pick up on all the story cues and notions of honour versus duty, of moral imperatives swamped by the ruling castes protocols for the empire, all that good stuff that any half decent samurai movie has in spades. The chief villain is a delicious Miike creation with some moments of shocking cruelty that you wouldn’t get in Western cinema, but these moments are earned and provide the context for the final, bloody blitzkrieg. Unfortunately I missed Miike’s follow-up which screened at the LFF, hopefully it will get a limited release next year so I can see where he’s taking this historical strand of his work next – and being the dictionary definition of prolific he’s also managed to slot another film in as well….
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Guaranteed a covert swipe of the gongs come awards season (although it seemed to get overlooked at the UK Independent Spirit Awards) this opening skirmish between those 20th century foes – the Soviets and the West – has already generated a sequel of sorts, in the form of the next book in Le Carré’s Smiley series getting an unsurprising green light toward the end of the year – I wonder who they’ll get to play Karla? Probably Michael Gambon or some other heavyweight British thespian I suspect. Maybe Brian Blessed? I’m joking. Maybe. Anyway this warrants a second viewing early in the new year, it’s good to see the UK punching above its weight and showing the world how you craft a superior, cerebral thriller, even if it was deviously helmed by a Swede. Brilliantly directed, impeccably acted, Le Carré’s tale of betrayal, subterfuge and deceit seems to ripen with age and Gary Oldman back in a leading role – what’s not to like?
Martha Marcy May Marlene - Innovative, left-field and unpredictable, the very definition of a successful Sundance movie. This has retained a position in the top five I think due to that marriage of subject matter and cinema technique, and having the skill to mesh the two together to produce such a spellbinding and dreamlike aura, achieving that drone (in the best sense of the word) of atmosphere is a difficult task to accomplish and it normally takes someone with the prowess of a David Lynch to pull it off. A remarkable performance from Elizabeth Olsen and I’d wager that we will be seeing interesting things from first time director Sean Durkin in the years to come, it’s just so wonderful to watch a film where you have no idea of where things are going, or how the drama is going to be resolved – or if it need be resolved at all. Another fine addition to the cinema of 21st century nervosa that is percolating at the moment, with both absolute truths and reliable narrators quivering on increasingly shaky ground. Now, speaking of cult films (groans);
Drive – Whilst some people didn’t like it this years certified breakthrough cult film pulled off a minor miracle, the brittle and skeletal husk I call a heart has been near warmed by the adoration and praise heaped on this nice little mover. Ryan Gosling has had a remarkable year, a 2011 only equalled by Michael Fassbender who also delivered three acclaimed performances – Drive, Blue Valentine and The Ides Of March versus Shame, First Class and Jane Eyre – in a trio of acclaimed films from both the arthouse and blockbuster sides of the business. Refn has suddenly become hot property with a $60 million return on a modest $15 million outlay, I can’t wait to see his version of Logan’s Run which is reputedly his next project, that should be an interesting take on another cult property with a SF twinge. For all you completests out there can I recommend Fear X, Refn’s first American film from 2002 which is worth a look? It’s not totally successful in its sub-Lynchian tone and approach, but any film with a screenplay by Hubert Selby Jr. and a Brian Eno score is worth a look, especially as it fits into that paranoid urban CCTV noir sub-genre that someone needs to write an article about. Must I also remind you again to beg, borrow or steal copies of his opening trilogy? No? Good. The final word is that anyone who still doubted that European auteurs could work within the American genre paradigm and not produce something extraordinary need to shut their mouth before I kick their teeth down their throat and shut it for ya.
Tree of Life - Originally I’d written over a thousand words on this film alone but sanity has got the better of me and I think I can cut things down to one amusing anecdote and a scattering of thoughts on the undisputed Minty film of the year. Malick’s return to the big screen provoked lofty levels of expectation and fervour amongst the cineaste community, and consequently some of us (myself included) were slightly, just slightly underwhelmed on a first viewing. After that initial experience was percolated, after the banquet was digested many of us returned to a second bite of the celestial fruit in the cathedral of cinema and one podcaster reported that although he loved the film he felt that something was missing, such were his ludicrously high levels of expectation. So he sat down for a second viewing, calmly looking forward to a duplicate journey through the celluloid cosmology, and promptly burst into tears as the first hesitant flickering titles of the film ignited on-screen. Tree of Life got Sight & Sound’s film of the year and who am I to argue, already some fascinating stuff has emerged in the subsequent months concerning production stories and critical analysis – they filmed a tornado scene where the town was ripped to pieces, initial cuts were around four hours long, a side IMAX documentary piece is still in the works. What’s the deal with the kid with the burns? He’s never explained and some other strands that I missed on the first pass include Sean Penn in the elevator going up and then coming down during the final movement (which sounds trite and forced when it’s written down but works in the context of the visual language of the film), and on the soundtrack a heart monitor is forward in the sound mix, I did notice this on the first viewing but it becomes more centred on a second pass. S&S correspondents discussed the film with a half-dozen US critics at Cannes who grew up in that period and they felt that Malick had got that aura absolutely spot on, from the romantic lighting and credo to the underlying arguments and domestic unease, and also the suicide of Malick’s brother back in his adolescence and the alleged death of his second sibling during shooting makes this one of the all time great cinema autobiographies. Not one, not two but three new films are in the pipeline, one of which has lensed and another two which are scheduled for 2012 shoots, given his languid editing process I expect to see all three of them sometime around my retirement age. What a strange career, with a duo of masterpieces in the Seventies and an enormous hiatus, then a return with a late burst of ambition and fervour that would challenge men half his age both creatively and financially. A film that is certain to be discussed, argued, pondered and praised in another fifty years.
Close nominees include Blue Valentine, Animal Kingdom, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Shame, The Descendants, Super-8 and We Need To Talk About Kevin, its been another great year with British cinema in particular punching above its weight. I do groan in exasperation when people complain that movies are getting worse and worse and it’s only stupid kids / super-hero movies that get made these days, quite honestly these cretins need to look beyond the summer season and understand that if you pay attention there are great things out there, and if they get the support they need the trend will continue. The biggest misses at the flicks were Meeks Cutoff, I Saw The Devil, Take Shelter and Guilty of Romance (which only played at the ICA for a week whilst the LFF was on, so not really feasible) all of which I have subsequently caught on the small screen and all of which are worth a couple of hours of your time.
Dog Soldiers - No, not that one, this is a 1978 post-Nam character study / crime flick, otherwise known as Who’ll Stop The Rain this is a film that I’ve been meaning to track down for ages, as it’s often mentioned in the same breath as the beloved Cutters Way which got a welcome re-release and wider re-appraisal this year. Some interesting faces – Richard Masur (Clarke from The Thing), Michael Moriarty, early Nolte, Tuesday Weld and the politician from The Dead Zone are all recognisable faces to the Seventies movie crowd, directed by Englishman Karel Reisz it’s a foreigners take on a jaded, apoertic and weary post Watergate America just before the success of Star Wars and its ilk wiped away the majority of adult drama and political commentary in Hollywood cinema - this crew ain’t dealing cause they can do, but because they have to. The main characters are flawed and interesting human beings – our ‘hero’ is a psychologically scarred smack dealer – and the film has a pulpy, Elmore Leonard vibe which may or may not be your cup of tea. I’ve always thought Tuesday Weld was an interesting actress who hasn’t appeared in enough movies, and Nolte has a cracked and grizzled quality that reminds one of Mitchum or Bogart, a real hulking on-screen presence whom provides a genuine authenticity to the macho posturing and direct, unvarnished violence. Based on the novel by Robert Stone it’s a picture that stacks up nicely with the likes of Straight Time, Thief, The French Connection or any other decent crime drama of that decade, and if you like that strain of cinema then this needs to be on your playlist. OK, whilst we’re here can I also recommend Reisz’s previous US film The Gambler? It’s another terrific character study of those who operate on the margins of society.
Shoah - Just to keep things cheery here is a film which singlehandedly proves the power of cinema and its repercussive efficacy, no-one who has ever seen it should or will be the same person again. At a gruelling nine hours it is of course a documentary that you need to split into multiple sessions – and given the grevious subject matter this is something of a relief – as Claud Lanzman takes us through the unimaginable horror of the holocaust. The whole thing is here and just to dip into the clichéd waters it’s a masterpiece documentary that everyone should see, what is most remarkable is that it doesn’t rely on grainy black and white footage of goose-stepping Nazi’s or any selections of Pathé or March Of Time newsreel footage, it goes straight to eye-witness testimony, from camp guards to Polish observers, from historians to surviving Jews, and some of their recollections and anecdotes are amongst the most horrific things you will ever witness. Cinema as document, Ebert nails it here, and I can also recommend Sarah’s Key which got a quiet release this year, it’s a skillful weaving of contemporary investigation into a suppressed French implication in the atrocities, twinned with historical reportage through a childs eyes first person take on these horrendous crimes, her fate, despite her surviving the holocaust, is absolutely heartbreaking and submits the notion that such abominations echo throughout the ages. Well crafted, moving, adult drama with Kristen Scott Thomas quietly remaining one of the best and most overlooked actress working today.
Female Prisoner Scorpion 701 – Or the film that Sucker Punch wanted to be, if Snyder had a single molecule of talent and the strength of his juvenile convictions. If you’re going to make a lurid, exploitative, violent revenge flick then make a fucking lurid, exploitative, violent revenge flick, not some embarrasing insight into your cocaine fuelled, sweaty palmed, adolescent daydreams. Joshuu 701-gô: Sasori on the other hand is the real deal, it’s transgressive (for its period), hallucinogenic, sleazy filth, and that’s why we cult movie weirdos love it so much. If you’re going to have skimpily dressed young women rebelling against their patriarchal oppressors then at least break a few boundaries and disturb some viewers bourgeoise attitudes whilst you’re at it, have these lethal little sirens coquettishly giggle as they disembowel, bisect and behead their persecutors, igniting arching rivulets of their coercers blood to soak their heaving cleavages and cotton white panties, don’t inflict us with some tediously overproduced, steam-punk derived backdrop to your barely concealed girls in uniform fantasies. Actually, Female Prisoner Scorpion isn’t that bad by todays standards, it’s actually quite a good little revenge flick with a bit of lezzing up and some ferocious bursts of action to spice things up, plus it’s a got a great soundtrack (as opposed to pilfering the most pedestrian, sub X-Factor vomit inducing covers of great tracks that Snyder has polluting his ipod) and a genuine, deliriously deranged phantasmagoric flavour that the best of these Japanese genre flicks have in spades. Here’s a trailer as a taster, unfortunately some killjoy has taken down the other clip I had secured, if you’re interested this is the first of a series of four Scorpion movies which all have their own exaggerated and vivid charms.
House Of Bamboo - Snarling Sam Fuller directed this displaced Technicolor film noir back in 1955, it’s the tale of washed-up GI Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack) infiltrating a Tokyo crime syndicate, only to find that fellow American ex-servicemen are behind the shake-downs and packinko protection rackets, all led by the brutally brilliant Robert Ryan. Fuller was always more attuned to those on the margins of society, the criminals and crazies, the hookers and hooked, with his journalistic, surly and cynical newspaperman instincts his is a cinema of tabloid sensation with a worthy purpose – a lost art it seems - wielding his camera as a stiletto blade through the heart of American triumphalism. Godard cast him in Pierrot Le Fou, one of the greatest director cameos in cinema, and House of Bamboo is worth seeing for its set-piece climax atop a rotating Tokyo theme park ride, it’s no surprise to see Spielberg reference the same scene in Minority Report and bonus trivia – Oliver Stone nicked his idea of signalling the start of each take of the riot scenes in Natural Born Killers by discharging a firearm directly from Fullers threatening approach to inspiring his cast on the likes of Fixed Bayonets! Great interview here.
Demon Seed - I realise that on first appearance this is a very strange-looking, almost sexploitation themed movie with the notion of a computer forcibly impregnating a woman in order to realise the next stage in evolution, but beyond its absurd premise and dated SFX this is an extraordinarily prophetic film from 1977 which prefigures the surveillance state and the infiltration of the computer in every facet of 21st century life. Donald Cammell is something of a cinematic Aleister Crowley (speaking of which why hasn’t anyone made a decent bio-pic of his colourful life? That could be amazing) given his interest in the occult, in other dimensions and the psychoactive expansion of ones horizons, and the film reflects many of these arenas through a spiritual techno-fetishist prism, a mirror to the then infant Silicon Valley developments that grew out of the hippie and protest movements of the preceding decade. Proteus IV is spookily voiced by Robert Vaughan and it seems as if HAL has gone suburbanly broody, the film reminds me of one of Bill Gates early predictions that computers would be running our households – opening the curtains at seasonally programmed parts of the day, ordering the milk from sensors in the fridge, running our baths to perfect temperatures – which hasn’t quite yet come to pass but travel on any form of public transport today and show me anyone under the age of 50 who isn’t besotted with some form of electronic device, browsing their twitter feed, clearing their e-mail or playing Angry Birds, and already they are starting to answer back. It’s also amusing to see what these films got wrong – in one word miniaturization - as computers in this period are seen as being powered by enormous hulks of flashing and beeping hardware, rather than the slightly more efficient phone in your pocket or plastic box in your study. Spoiler laden clip here which should give you a flavour of Cammell’s prophecy.
Films for 2012
An epic year is in store, I don’t think we’ve seen such a mouth-watering pentacle of anticipation since I started this blog a shocking five years ago, given the return of three fantastic franchises (well, maybe two but you’ll get where I’m coming from) and a couple of other essential contemporary talents back in multiplexes. Let’s begin with the obvious;
The Dark Knight Rises - Occupy Gotham!! Maybe in the current climate the prospect of an idle billionaire beating up poor people might be a little too much to handle – and don’t get me started on the Ivy League educated denizens of Inception using psychological financial instruments to surreptitiously influence the streams of corporate capital through the application of military technology – seriously, just don’t. Anyway, as someone with a reasonably vibrant movie based twitter feed I’ve seen links to spoiler details and set photos recede off into infinity over the past twelve months, it’s one of the facets of 21st century movie fandom that I find most exasperating as I really do prefer to see the trailer as a first exposure to new projects, but its been simply impossible to evade news of the eight year hiatus between issues two and three, or the frankly shocking photos of Hathaway in costume which still leave me slightly concerned. I did have a bad feeling about this one, I did suspect that Nolan would not be able to evade the dreaded third film of a trilogy syndrome but the six-minute intro attached to Ghost Protocol has allayed some of these concerns, despite the usual choppy editing and I’m afraid those nervous Warner Brother executives are correct (I couldn’t understand a fucking word Bane was saying) this is beginning to look like a worthy successor to The Dark Knight. Speaking of Bane (the villains are far more interesting than the hero, right?) he’s still an alien concept to me, he made his debut after I’d stopped reading comics regularly and just to be a grouchy old man I would still prefer to see an updated take on the Penguin or the Riddler given how successful and now iconic Ledgers portrayal of the clown prince of crime was back in 2009, then again that prologue seems to promise a worthy nemesis for the concluding meridian of a fantastic series of films. Here’s a nice little appreciation of Nolan which teases out some of his visual anaphora, July 2012 can’t arrive quickly enough;
So from one mega franchise to another;
The Hobbit - Another catastrophic shock I’m sure, this hardcore Tolkien nerd might just be a little, just a little excited about Jackson’s delayed return to Middle Earth, given the torturous and prolonged production history its a little bizarre to see that these films exist at all. I’m still a little hesitant about some of the casting decisions but the Kiwi did us proud with the trilogy, it would have been nice to see some Mirkwood spiders or just maybe a glimpse of Smaug in that trailer although I concede that said material has probably not been captured yet - 10 to 1 the first film ends with the first appearance of that scourge of the frigid north. I’m sure I’d be a bit more up to speed if I’d seen some of the background video blogs but I’m pulling an epic embargo on this one, nevertheless the news that the two films will be padded with the broader details of the epic legendarium has been absorbed and excitedly received. Quite apart from the source material this will also be fascinating from a technical, industrial standpoint given the extensive use of the state of the art red cameras and the 48 frames per second photographic ratio – which will bleed into Avatar 2 & 3′s dimensions - this quest is therefore unmissable on every level. It can’t be worse than this.
Prometheus – It’s the soundtrack, stupid. It’s not often but sometimes a trailer can literally make the hairs stand on end, I fully agree that Ridley has been churning out sub-par material since his so-called regeneration with Gladiator back in 2000 but sometimes the stars come into alignment and a visually brilliant director secures material that might just assimilate perfectly with his overwhelming strengths. The echoes that this has with the original trailer are incendiary, that howling score is simply phenomenal and the texture and design looks stunning. A terrific looking cast, one of the worlds finest visual stylists in the cockpit, plenty of references and echoes to the original films to keep us nerds happy – it’s certainly in the same universe as Weyland-Yutani logos are all over that trailer - and heck, just the prospect of a Sir Ridley film in 3D is enough to get my money, and just who is that guy on the right?*
Gravity - We SF fans are in for another supernova treat as Cuarón’s galactically ambitious new project wrapped principal photography this year, this has a November 2012 release date to spend a whole year on SFX development, including an opening 20 minute single take sequence which could make the single fragments of Children Of Men seem primitive in comparison. Any director taking on a big, ambitious SF movie obviously hits my radar but this could really be something else, with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock the only actors in the piece I’m intrigued at what the film’s premise might be – I’m sure it’s out there on the web but again I’ll just wait for the trailer. It’s obviously partial marketing guff from Cuarón’s best mate Del Toro but his claims that the film ’is pushing a new boundary in film-making’ raises my eyebrows, mark my words 2012 is going to be quite a year for technical innovation across the board.
The Master - Any new Paul Thomas Anderson project prompts immediate jubilation and this plot summary – ‘After witnessing the horrors of World War II, a man (Hoffman) returns home to rediscover who he is in post-war America. He creates a belief system that catches on with other lost souls’ – fills me with deistic joy. I’ve been fascinated, as in repulsed, by Scientology for many years and anyone willing to kinda take them on given their litigious impulses gets an immediate gold star, when it’s one of the finest directors working today behind the subversive assault then even I’ll sing hallelujah! It fits neatly into Anderson’s career long analysis of West Coast American culture and history, and as expected a densely heavyweight cast – Phil Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern - promises an acting treat if nothing else . The news that Anderson abandoned initial rehearsals earlier in the year before approaching the project from a different angle casts a potential shadow, one hopes he’s found his mojo for one of the most eagerly anticipated projects of the year. I’ve also just heard that Johnny Greenwood is back for scoring duties which is also fantastic news, I just hope he doesn’t get crucified for not necessarily racking up against Blood which is still considered one of the finest films of the young century.
In terms of genre material the paddock has a number of potential thoroughbreds nervously cantering around the compound, waiting to stretch their legs, in no particular order I’m looking forward to World War Z – Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m fairly tired of zombies as a cultural trope which seems to intensify and not diminish over the past few years, and revelations such as this have got the internets in full-blown spittle flecked invective, but it still could be an intriguing take on the inevitable undead apocalypse, anyone who’s read the source book understands that this could be great. Iron Sky could also be fun – as long as Snyder hasn’t killed any appetite for steampunk Nazis - the sight of Udo Kier (whom I forgot to mention was hilarious in Melancholia) means that die zungen is thrust firmly in the wange, and whether you worship or loathe Tarantino (I’m somewhere in the middle) Django Unchained promises to be an event just like every one of his pictures. Soderbergh goes Haywire, The Innkeepers finally rents a room, The Divide has got some praise and of course a new Haneke and Audiard will be slightly more hilarious, heartwarming fare. I try not to be too negative on the blog, hence the lack of redundant exercises such as ‘the top five worst films of the year’ but I have to say that both Spiderman and Judge Dredd leave me permafrost arctic cold, but I suppose if it’s a slow weekend and there is nothing else around I may pay them a visit and Dark Shadows doesn’t punch my buttons, although the presence of Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter and Michelle Pfeiffer in the same film with Burton’s gothic visuals is sure to invoke the same flushing swoon as a Victorian glimpse of a naked female ankle in some quarters.
The herculean efforts I made on the London Film Festival, a combined total of 19 reviews which I feel represent my best collective effort thus far hopefully means that I’m a little more embedded in my press credentials for next year, I really hope I manage to get a pass for Sundance London as that’s sure to be a big deal amongst the capitals celluloid community. I appeared on my first podcast (I’m simply too embarrassed and loathe the sound of my voice too much to ever listen to that) so now that the dust has settled let’s see what coverage I can lever in the new year, I’m also aiming for the London SF Film festival, (day-job schedule permitting), I’ll be retrospectively reviewing Leone’s dollars quartet, the BFI are hosting a David Lynch season in February - why couldn’t you programme at least one screening of The Elephant Man in NFT1 Southbank people? – and a certain punk masterpiece is getting a limited re-release around the same time – shrimptastic. So that’s that, thanks for playing, I normally close these posts with a nice montage or look back at past achievements, this year let me revisit the most awe-inspiring and magnificent sequence of cinema I’ve seen in years, proof positive that the medium is as vibrant and astonishing as it has been over the past century and change, as the great Stanley K said ‘if it can be written or thought, you can film it’;
*Asterixed for potential spoiler carnage, if you’re interested then look here.
I like the possible infiltration of the Batcave and the Escher hints, like most the sporty centrepiece seems incongruous. Slightly more convinced about Hathaway. Here;
I was going to wait to embed these all in my end of year / look forward to 2012 post along with The Hobbit trailer which I’ve heard will be unleashed shortly – as in the next 24hrs - but my resistance has been destroyed. Stay tuned for a few more reviews to round off the year, when trailers are getting trailers things are getting interesting….
Oh, this is amusing. Someone takes on a holy grail and the fanboys wail;
For what it’s worth the dude has some points and it is educated, stringent analysis, but the sequence as a whole remains strong and when rules are broken they can be more affecting and unconsciously memorable. A lot of people have ‘issues’ with Nolan’s editing rhythms and his technique, I disliked some of the construction of the combat sequences in Inception and some parts of Batman Begins are nigh on impenetrable, but I’ll credit Nolan and his editor with enough professionalism to suggest that some of this might be intentional – it’s his style. Still, an interesting watch – more here.
Let the caliginous nerding commence;
Well, not much to say as there ain’t much new in there, lets just hope it stalks into screens before that whole pesky end of civilisation Mayan prophecy occurs eh? It has quite obviously been thrown together to capitalise on the trapped audience viewing the biggest Warner Brothers picture of the year, I’m sure we’ll get a full trailer at Christmas ahead of Sherlock 2. (Shudders)
I think it’s doing rather well isn’t it? Hot on the heels of some of the best and unanimously praiseworthy reviews I’ve ever seen for a Hollywood blockbuster I caught an afternoon screening of ‘The Dark Knight‘ in my local cinema as I’m an impatient git – I have plans to go and see it with a friend in Leicester Square tomorrow afternoon and can’t wait to see it again. Hey, what can I say, I’ve been quivering in anticipation at seeing this ever since the finale of the superb first ‘re-boot’ of the character after Schmaker effectively drove a stake through the heart of the franchise back in 1997. We’re certainly on another winning streak like the start of the year with the ‘The Dark Knight‘ making a third terrific film in a row and (EDIT)
probably easily the best superhero film I’ve seen. And I’ve seen ‘em all, even the execrable ‘Ghost Rider‘ and ‘Fantastic Four‘ atrocities.
The narrative picks up in Gotham City shortly after the conclusion to ‘Batman Begins’ with the vigilante now facing a hostile press and populace who disagree with his cavalier attitude to the law. District Atrorney Harvey Dent (a dependable Aaron Eckhert) is conducting a major offensive against the cities organised crime syndicate with startling success. Against this backdrop a terrifying new criminal mastermind emerges in the films exhilarating opening heist (supposedly designed as a homage to the legendary robbery in ‘Heat‘ which also influenced this) who unleashes a wave of terror and carnage on the residents of Gotham with homicidal mayhem targeted at the law enforcement institutions, taking particular interest of course with our hero who Christian Bale portrays again with his consummate, intense skill. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return as Alfred and Lucious Fox, two of the few characters who support and understand Bruce Waynes crusade with the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing the insipid Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Bruce’s potential love interest.
The film is not perfect, I found some of the early plotting rushed along with the films texture in terms of what it is trying to signify being incomprehensible – I mean that literally as there are some speeches and voiceover particularly in the last movement where I simply couldn’t hear the dialogue clearly. To that end I partially agree with this assertion (Minor Spoilers) that the film does jump around quite confusingly which can be distracting and it does have significant plot gaps – all this is overwhelmed however from what Nolan and his team have got right which can be summed up in two words – The Joker.
Ledgers performance really is the core of this film and he electrifies you every moment he is on the screen. He portrays that sense of anarchy, of homicidal derangement that a lapsed comic book fan like yours truly has so long waited to see since the medium grew up with the work of Moore, Morrison and Miller back in the late eighties. His schemes are ingeniously constructed and illuminate not only his embrace of chaos and hatred of the world but also his exceptional cunning and purpose. For me he’s got it all note perfect, the voice, the walk, the intonation, the total sanguinary lunacy. Oscars? He certainly deserves it but I couldn’t give a damn, what’s more rewarding for me is the portrayal of that almost mythical battle between these two figures that has been explored for almost seventy years in the comic, the graphic novel, on the big and small screen. In one scene the Joker with a knowing smirk states ‘You complete me’ to Batman which I think is a nod to the hard core fans and indicates some of the complexity that Nolan is attempting to achieve under the surface of a big action movie. Major, MAJOR spoliers during an insightful interview with the screenwriters here.
Overall though the film is also just a great fun rollercoaster with some superbly executed set pieces, some cool fight sequences and big ass explosions that we all look for in these ‘event’ movies. It was refreshing to see Batman actually doing some detecting, some investigative stuff which is something I’ve always felt was lacking in all the other screen incarnations that I’ve seen. After all he is not a superhero with any special powers, just a absurdly rich screwed up chap with access to some nifty gadgets and equipment. As Stephen King said in his forward to the 400th issue of Batman he always preferred the character to Superman or any of the other heroes as Bats would use his ingenuity and intellect to get to the missile before it’s launched, to prevent the nefarious schemes of his opponents before they come to fruition.
Here are my favourite scenes from ‘Batman Begins’ to whet your appetite (the way the music swells up at the end of the last clip made my hair stand up when I saw it at the cinema) which hopefully should get you out to your local cineplex. As ‘Batman Begins’ had a feel for partial source material ‘Batman: Year One‘, ‘The Dark Knight’ exhibits strong echoes of ‘The Killing Joke‘ which for me remains the single greatest Batman/Joker story I’ve read although Moore has always dismissed it as an inferior work. It’s also quite amusing that such an American icon as Batman has been subverted by a group of ‘Brits’ in the form of director, screenwriter, lead and supporting roles. I do hope Nolan and his crew return for a third installment to round off a exceptional trilogy of mainstream entertainment which has put a big old nerdboy oafish grin on my face.
EDIT – Well, after a second viewing in the far more enjoyable surroundings of the Odeon Leicester Square I have to revise my opinion – my god this is a brilliant, brilliant film that delivers on so many levels. The sound and audience was much better including a smattering of applause at the finale (a rare beast these days) and genuine gasps of shock and wonder at many of the films memorable moments. I don’t know what I was on yesterday but my criticisms have faded somewhat with those aforementioned lapses in logic actually evaporating although it does hold some very, very minor plot holes. Make no doubt, this is an instant classic and is not only the apotheosis of the so called ‘comic book’ genre but simply one of the best crime films I have seen, the fact that it hinges on a comic book conceit is irrelevant to its quality, to its depth of design and execution. Second time round it was as riveting as before and I picked up many more of the subtexts and themes. Go and see on the biggest screen possible. Now.