This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Even though they may seem to be of the same species, the same kind, even the same ingredients, there is a world of difference between bright, almost jovial look of an M&M and the dark, distinctly grittier and bolder taste of a square of chocolate with the flecks and dustings of cocoa throughout its center. They both taste good, and even though they are essentially the same thing, they are so fundamentally different that they serve different purposes. M&Ms are for fun. They’re pretty looking, not very serious, and appreciation is rooted in fun and good humor. That square of cocoa, however, is bolder, leaving a certain tingle on your tongue, the cocoa dust either causing you to run for a glass of water or making you salivate even more. It is, honestly and blatantly, more serious in nature. Is it possible to enjoy both? Certainly. But they are different nonetheless.
The same can be said of Tim Burton’s approach to bring Batman to the screen and Christopher Nolan’s vision. Burton’s candy coated, expressionistic techniques are fun and closer to the older comics. Nolan’s gritty psychoanalytic revisionist take is bolder and more real. They both have their merits, however. Burton’s two films, BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS, were major successes, as were Nolan’s two films BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. Their content, thematic approaches and style, however, differ in dramatic ways, each one suiting a particular mindset.
Tim Burton is well known for his distinct visual style, one that is very reminiscent of expressionism. His sets, props, even characters rarely resemble what they are modeled after and instead are heightened to a point of disbelief. It works for his Gothicism that has been imbued in his work from the beginning, even with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. With his first Batman film, BATMAN, filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, and his Gothic/Expressionist style would once again take the center stage. His Gotham City resembles less the metropolis of New York or Chicago, but the Metropolis found in Fritz Lang’s titular silent sci-fi masterpiece. His buildings and his architecture are dark, tilted, almost seedy and crooked in nature. The sets that inhabit the Gotham City in both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS almost seem to be the manifestation of the crooked villainy within Gotham. Even Burton’s cinematography, which occasionally takes on the tilted and jarring angles of Carol Reed’s iconic noir THE THIRD MAN, oozes an expressionistic style, in a way that realism is pushed onto the back burner in favor of something more exciting and fun. Burton’s color scheme, however, remains as dark as Batman’s cowl. Greys and blacks permeate the entire film, again recalling that of film noir.
Despite its noir-ish stylings, the tone of the film is light hearted, clashing against the dark expressionism that Burton utilizes. It’s cartoonish. Both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS present a tone and style that is deliberately a juxtaposition of the dark villainy and the cartoonish fun that was a part of the Batman comic in the 1960s. It almost seems like a contradiction on Burton’s part to have something as dark, even sadomasochistic as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman slink into frame in a very dominatrix-esque suit and then hiss comically at Batman. But that contradiction and clash of tone and style is exactly what Burton seems to be going for. His two films seem to be more of an accurate representation of the comics, thus recalling flair for snappy dialogue and action sequences that seem like they were paneled from cut to cut.
Burton’s presentation of the characters is just as cartoonish as the tone of his films. Less Gothic in nature than SWEENEY TODD, but less comical in style than BEETLEJUICE, Burton balances both, tight wire walking between silliness/action of the comics and the drama/darkness of Burton’s traditional style. The two manage to compensate for one another, neither element outweighing the other for too long. Between Batman and his rogues, though, they maintain the same unbelievable twistedness of some of the early incarnations. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is campy, and it seems that the Joker is definitely aware of how campy he is. Perhaps his self-awareness (the only character in both films that seems to be that self-aware) is another part that makes Nicholson’s Joker so insane. Nicholson’s Joker emblemizes the campiness of Burton’s films, as well as the dark expressionistic tones. He’s campy like Cesar Romero, but he’s dark and insane like Dr. Caligari. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is the epitome of the weirdness that seems to have always been a part of Batman’s rogue gallery. He seems to be a fairly traditional villain with a fairly traditional motive. What he does have that the others do not is his look. You would never expect a penguin to be so nasty and conniving. And Selena Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman, is the archetypal femme fatale that brings the series’ film noir connections full circle. She is at once profoundly irresistible and utterly repellent. She’s Barbara Stanwyck in polyester.
Batman himself, and the playboy Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Keaton, seem like late era Sean Connery as James Bond, but with more sensitivity. He is handsome, wisecracking, and Kim Basinger can’t resist him. What Burton does not do, however, is make his Batman hefty or over emotional. Rather than make the audience strain, Michael Keaton’s Batman is a relatively simple guy. There’s less of an internal conflict regarding the secret identity in Burton’s Batman, with more concentration on Batman defeating the bad guys. And fun is exactly what the audience has.
What Burton’s films do is tap into the character, not bothering to establish an origin story, or even giving the character much weight, in a very lighthearted way. Burton is able to manifest the darkness of the series without it being overbearing. His films are theatrical representation of the comics.
But, as most heroes do, Batman evolved in order to best reflect the social anxieties. James Bond did it. Iron Man did it. Every hero does. And yes, Joel Schumacher’s films were arguably campier than the 1960’s TV series, but jump to 2005 and you get an entirely new breed of Batman. In a post-9/11 world, a campy and light approach to the character won’t cut it. Not only does the tone of the series change, not only do the motivations change, and not only does the entire presentation of the universe and the people that inhabit it change, but Bruce Wayne himself gets a revisionist makeover, seemingly starting from scratch in BATMAN BEGINS and continuing in THE DARK KNIGHT.
Christopher Nolan is a man who likes his protagonists enough to give them a reason to live. In FOLLOWING, MEMENTO, and INSOMNIA, his leads all deal with heady internal conflicts that make his films darker and enrapture the audience even further. For Batman and Bruce Wayne, he and David S. Goyer, established an origin story that is stronger than most origin stories that have appeared on the screen. Concise though it is not, it is a morbid, psychoanalytic approach to the character. This is an approach that gives the hero palpable, realistic fears and motivations for Bruce Wayne to become the Dark Knight of Gotham City. More than before, the dialogue carries the same punch that the action has, and the action has the same emotional weight as the dialogue. The characters matter as much as the tone. Christian Bale portrays Bruce Wayne and Batman with grit and vulnerability. He’s still pithy, but not clownish. He’s sexy and eligible, and he’s also a badass. And he is able to perfectly convey the layers within the character, all in one scene, all in one moment.
Nolan’s Batman Trilogy may take place in Gotham City, but this Gotham is the real world where danger is very real and possible. The mobsters that live in the seedy underbelly are kind of like the guys in GOODFELLAS, as opposed to the romanticism of the other mobsters in the Batman universe, which might be more comparable to THE GODFATHER. Its Chicago/New York look, again, presents a new kind of realism. This kind of realism is even applicable to the police station and the way that the government is set up in this universe. Before long, you forget that you’re in Gotham City.
The realism that Nolan gives the series is best represented by the villains that exist in it. The mobsters are ready to embezzle and whack people off, of course. But, first up, you have the Scarecrow (aka Dr. Crane, played by Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). The former is a psychotic doctor who employs various drugs to kick his victim’s phobias in to a point where it incapacitates them; the latter was at one point Bruce Wayne’s martial arts mentor. Both villains represent something that Wayne/Batman must overcome. The Scarecrow is the manifestation of all of Wayne’s fears (including bats, in this revisionist history) and Ghul, the overcoming of the past. Nolan manages to apply the microscope to nearly every facet of his films, and whatever character or piece of the universe is analyzes, it all relates back to Batman himself. The way that both the Scarecrow and Ghul are able to exploit Batman and make them extremely vulnerable make both villains unique to the film franchise. In THE DARK KNIGHT, a fallen political hero takes the form of Harvey Dent, who becomes Two Face. He plays loss and revenge with a coin, by chance. This symbolic answer to the public’s perception of vigilantism is striking.
Let us not forget the biggest bad guy of them all: the Joker. Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal brings a sense of insanity, fear and socio-political awareness that accentuates the realism in the series. Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker, who has no reason to create chaos other than for chaos’ sake, is the answer to domestic terrorism in the United States. Yes, villains, including the Joker in Burton’s films, have threatened the people of Gotham City, and the various pieces of architecture, but in Nolan’s Batman, these attacks feel more personal and more frightening. The Joker’s obsessive need to constantly counterpose everything that Batman stands for, even in a way where he shakes Batman’s footing and confidence as a hero, makes the portrayal one of the best in cinematic history. Ledger’s Joker is like Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE plus Charles Manson multiplied by Nicholson’s self-awareness. What the Joker offers, besides a very yin and yang symbiotic relationship between him and Batman, is a veridical threat. Their relevance to contemporary, post-9/11 society is all the more obvious with the inclusion of the Joker. He is the perfect nightmare.
What I often find surprising about Nolan’s Batman films is that Nolan is able to handle an enormous scale incredibly well. More used to his calculated, character driven small films like MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE, he is able to handle large set pieces, explosions, and the like in the Batman films like a pro. He is able to convey the adrenaline rush of any big budget director, but with a coherency and style that is often lost in the process of other blockbusters (ahem, Mr. Bay). It’s a spectacle, both visually and emotionally.
Christopher Nolan appropriates Batman’s timelessness in a very specific frame of thought, making the impending and inevitable violence and fear more real. He gives the characters depth; he gives his protagonist fears and desires. Taking inspiration from many a different comic, including ones by Frank Miller, Nolan’s revisionist take on Batman is new and powerful. Nolan makes Batman less a character from comics and more a human being.
Burton’s films have just as much merit, with their fun visual style and general lighter tone. Their exploration of a Gothic and expressionist visual style counterpose with that lighter tone. Most representative of the comics that existed prior to darker graphic novels, both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS have their place in the franchise as a nostalgia filled, retro joyride. Nolan’s films will remain just as memorable for their unique approach for character drama. The films are dark because the atmosphere that they were created in is dark. BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT and, soon, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, will become indelible in both Batman and cinematic history, just as Burton’s before them. Though the two auteur’s approaches are fundamentally different in tone, style, setting, and presentation, you have to admit: it’s just two dances with the same devil in the pale moonlight.
Despite practically growing up on musicals, a) I never got to see Les Misérables live and b) the televised/filmed productions of the seminal musical have never really struck me as deeply as, say, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Company, Chicago, Cabaret, etc. Les Misérables is great, I am certainly not denying that, but it never cracked my list of “favorites”. That said, I am truly a sucker for some of the music, “On My Own” probably being my favorite. The 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” Concert is quite lovely to behold, and thus, hearing of an actual film adaptation of the musical intrigued me. The original story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, had been adapted to the screen a handful of times (including one with Liam Neeson), but Tom Hooper’s period spectacle would mark the first time the musical would make it to the big screen. And, because I love musicals, I was excited. Instead of getting in line for the tickets, I should have gotten in line for the guillotines.
Les Misérables tells the sad, sad tale of a bunch of people prior and during the French Student Rebellion (June 1832), and not the French Revolution (1789-1799). Included in this group of the afflicted is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent over a decade in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; Javert (Russell Crowe), the dutiful officer; and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the poor single mother who goes to certain extremes in order to allocate money to send to the couple taking care of her daughter, Cosette (later played by Amanda Seyfried). As Jean Valjean moves up in the world under a pseudonym, the presiding officer holds a grudge and the animosity between the two ends up involving pretty much everyone else somehow or another.
The implications of a theatrical adaptation of a stage show, whether it is an actual play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rabbit Hole, etc.) or a musical (Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd) is to not merely paste the songs in a film like setting, but to fill in some of the holes by utilizing everything that film as a medium has to offer. Expand on character relationships, elaborate on character goals and motivations; effectively explain plot holes or context. With a musical (and its source material) that is so often incorrectly assumed to be about the French Revolution, you would think that the film adaptation would give the perfect opportunity to give more context to the time and setting of the darn thing. Alas, no. Tom Hooper, who can do period detail very well (see: Elizabeth I and John Adams from HBO), instead seems to concentrate on just seemingly cutting and pasting the singing of the stage show to a well-dressed back lot. Without that context or background, the stakes are not nearly as high and the audience, including myself, has less of a reason to care about a) the characters involved and b) the situations they are stuck in. There is no primer as to the Student Rebellion and the most we are offered are a couple lyrics sung by a dirty, if cherubic blond kid in a thick Manchester accent. He sings about the lack of change and the remaining bourgeoisie reign, but so what? That alone isn’t enough to make me care. Give me higher stakes and give me more reason. A couple lines from “ABC Café” are hardly reason enough to make us care about a Student Rebellion (who, by the way, seem too well dressed to really seem like they care about the upper class).
Part of the problem is the streamlining of the material. On stage, you have more time because you have an intermission, and those going to a musical have, generally, educated themselves enough to get the gist of things. If not, then the book or the lyrics do some of the heavy work for you. There is not as much an issue in terms of time and linearity because of the sparseness of sets and locations, but in a film, you must deal with time as a concept. Which means that as Valjean contemplates his existential identity crisis in “Who Am I?/The Trial”, in the space of three cuts, he goes from his little house to riding on horseback to the courthouse. Those three cuts take less than three seconds altogether. There is no actual travel, unless you count the split second, blink and you miss it ride on horseback. This is not limited to that one scene, but several scenes. The love story in the second half of the film looks entirely moronic because there isn’t enough time to develop Cosette and Marius’ attraction to one another. Star crossed love is romantic when the characters are allowed to revel in what they have just experienced, however brief it may be; but when it is reduced to literally ten seconds and no less than ten reverse, point of view shots, the rest of the stakes for love are dwarfed and just look stupid. In an attempt to quicken things up and make an already deathly long and poorly paced film seem shorter, some plot points are either dropped or obscured by and buried under the “let’s get through all the songs first”.
This, I suppose, is in itself a mixed bag. You have seen the ad more time than Sascha Baren Cohen’s ratty Thenardier has stolen gold pieces, and it has been something the Les Misérables have been pushing really hard: the live singing. Marketed as “the first time it’s ever been done before” is not actually true. The 1995 television adaptation of Gypsy (starring Bette Midler) featured live singing; Susan Stroman’s ill-fated screen adaptation of the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers had live singing; and Julie Taymor’s experimental Beatles musical Across the Universe had “live singing 80% of the time” (this according to the director’s commentary on the DVD). Les Misérables only stands apart from the first two in that the live singing isn’t so much singing (not in the performing way that most musicals employ) as it is giving life to the songs. When it’s done well in the film, it can be truly visceral and moving (Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks, for instance, nail you in the soul). When it does not work, it just seems sort of sad. While it is no surprise that Hathaway stuns with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the songs that seemed to work best were those that featured most of the company. “At the End of the Day”, “Lovely Ladies”, “One More Day”, and “Red and Black” all had verve and life to them, which several of the other solo/character focused songs did not.
Which brings me to this – Newsflash, I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice. I never have. He is a lovely actor, and his voice is technically fine. But, that’s what I don’t like about it. Jackman, as much soul as he tries to put into “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” seems to be so focused on technique and placed in a situation where he has to move and where the vocals will come out imperfect, he loses the essence of the tune. It sounds professional, sure, but the wealth of vibrato works against him in a way. Russell Crowe, for all of his unpolished singing abilities, in a way, surpasses Jackman vocally because you can hear the tune. The gravelly, maybe somewhat nasally quality gives more life to the character than Crowe actually provides when he is acting. (Much like Gerard Butler in Phantom, but worse.) It probably was not the best idea to hire Crowe, due to the complexity of the music and the range it requires.
With that laborious focus on singing and period detail by Hooper (whom I still, probably unfairly, resent for winning Best Director of The King’s Speech), the story, as I said, gets left behind. Which makes it feel like the intentions were to just see the famous people performing the songs one after the other. There are maybe 10 lines of dialogue total in the film, which, for most mainstream audiences, is not anywhere near enough. Again, with the medium of film, you have the opportunity to a) make a musical more accessible to other audiences and b) expound on story, characters, etc. There was zero attempt to do this; just song after song after song. It’s not this cycle that is inherently the problem; it’s the missed opportunity to make the story more enjoyable.
Aside from singing and famous people, some very strange focus (hah) was put on the film’s cinematography. Mostly, my time was spent scoffing in the theater, writing furiously on my notepad. If you’ve heard anyone complain about the camerawork, listen to them: it is pretty much the most abhorrent work I’ve seen this year. (As random as Killing Them Softly was, at least it was nice to look at and properly framed.) There should be a meme that says “FRAME A DAMN SCENE RIGHT, HOOPER!” I’m pretty sure his logic went as follows: “Okay, you go over there and act and I’m going to have my camera right up in your face. And then I’m going to turn it on a 135-degree angle.” While I’m sure the logic behind this was to provide an intimacy in the performance that the stage inherently cannot give, it does not explain why so many of his frames were off balance. That just looks like some of the half-assed pictures some of the slackers in my photography class take, except more expensive. Also, one can certainly utilize more than one camera angle to achieve intimacy. A musical, shot in all close-ups! There’s a reason why Fred Astaire was never shot in close up: so you could still get the essence of his performance.
When Hooper is not placing cameras six inches away from his actors’ faces, he is editing like he stepped into the editing room while on cocaine. I seriously wondered while I was sitting in the film if the people from Glee were editing the film. What few nice moments and nice frames there are on screen are snatched from us with a splice. This, again, affects linearity, but the constant CUT, CUT, CUT is so uninspired and useless. It works as an antithesis to the artistic desire to achieve more intimacy in the performances. The camera work itself does not work. Shakier than some of my own camera work on my short films, there seems to be no evidence of any SteadiCam used. Just tripods and someone seemingly drunk walking around with a camera. This is not supposed to be a poor man’s Dogme 95 inspired musical! You are no Anthony Dod Mantle! The action scenes don’t work either. If there isn’t a random Dutch angle (which, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no reason to be in there), there’s a fly, swoop, and a lot of cutting involved. I guess Michael Bay would be proud.
The film’s two saving graces are Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. I would like to think that Hathaway ignored Hooper’s direction altogether and that her transcendent portrayal of Fantine, however short it is (not a spoiler because of the source material), was pure instinct. She gives power, emotion, and passion to a film where there is none. Her heart shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the film’s highlight. It’s close enough to get every look of Fantine’s but far away enough so that there is distance. It’s not the camera that should destroy the distance between audience member and character; it’s the character themselves and their power. And Hathaway succeeds in spades (a little reminiscent, it has been said, of Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Samantha Barks, a newbie to the film world, has portrayed the gloomy, heartbroken Eponine before on stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables. Despite that, she still brings something entirely new and fresh to the film, her performance of “On My Own” absolutely splendid. I suppose, if you’re going to spend your money on the film, do it for these two girls, one of whom I wouldn’t be too mad should she win the Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne, whom I didn’t know could sing, is actually quite good as well, but the film’s inability to really dig deeper into his character and his motivations leave a lot to be desired and mar the experience.
Les Misérables is a trifle; a film that could have easily avoided its problems by reeling back its eagerness and giving the story a chance. The singing might be cool, but what’s a song without a story behind it? Les Misérables is also probably the first film whose cinematography made me actively angry in the theater. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are the film’s saviors. So, while you sit in the theater for what was, for me, a nearly unbearable two and a half hours, I’m going to sing these words:
“I had a dream this film would be,
So different from this Hell I’m watching,
So different now from what it seemed.
Now Hooper’s killed the dream I dreamed.”
Sitting in the dark in the theater, at midnight no less, I checked my watch before the film began. My expectations were low. So low, you’d have to fall down that well in the Mines of Moria to find them. It isn’t that I don’t like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. On the contrary, my love for the films and the books is exactly why I was worried about Peter Jackson’s latest Middle-Earth effort The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The split into three films worried me. The underwhelming look of the trailers worried me. The mere fact that I was returning to a universe I so loved in and of itself was a worry for me. I was more excited for the lobster ravioli I was to have for dinner before the film. But, as they say, lower your expectations and you shall be amazed! Or, at least, pleasantly surprised. I looked back at my watch, the lights went down, and I braced myself for the worst.
The Hobbit was the children’s tale that would then become sort of a blueprint for JRR Tolkien’s epic, massive, magisterial The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the One Ring that would become the focal point for it all. But, as aforementioned, The Hobbitwas an adventure, something that, at its essence, did not give way to great complication or all that much complexity (well, unless you’re one of two things: an English Lit major or a Film Critic). Bilbo Baggins is a bit of a nebbish, a hobbit who likes his calm. He is called upon by Gandalf the Grey Wizard to go on an adventure with a set of dwarves. Their goal is to defeat Smaug, the dragon bathing in the dwarves’ gold in the Misty Mountains. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part of the trilogy, doesn’t get us that far.
Structurally, it is nearly identical to The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson’s first LOTR film. Almost beat for beat, from the mythological exposition of the prologue, to the unwillingness of Bilbo to go on an adventure, to the travel itself and even some of the locations. This familiarity works, in some ways, in the film’s favor. Journeying back to a world one is so familiar with but with new characters and a new story is, admittedly, a rather jarring experience. It will be, assuredly, the same thing viewers will feel whenever those new Star Wars movies come out. The structure, though, seems to inherently ease the transition and reconciliation between “old world, new story” (even though The Hobbit is technically a “prequel”).
The familiarity of its structure, however, does not save everything. Much like The Fellowship of the Ring, and in some ways even worse, The Hobbit takes its time getting to certain things. It drags, man. It really drags in certain parts. Despite the film being fifteen or seventeen minutes shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings, many scenes of exposition actually make the film feel much longer than any of the original trilogy. It is here where The Hobbit fails most for me. I have seen the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy enough times that I have no idea what the theatrical cuts look like. They offer a complete, full, and whole experience, and, while The Two Towers is guilty of having some awful pacing problems, I enjoy watching the extended edits immensely. However, the pacing issues with The Hobbit get so bad that I remain uninterested in seeing an extended edition of the film. It already feels extended. Part of it is the padding from the other stories that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens have taken from the appendices of the books. A fun drinking game would be taking a shot every time you noticed something added in.
One of the major differences in terms of the look and production of the film is the balls to the wall utilization of CGI. Gone are the practical makeup effects and the somewhat silly transitions. Au revior, real orcs! Ta-ta, Uruk-Hai! It’s 2012, dontcha know! It’s the digital age! While many of the locations are actually locations (yay New Zealand!), some of it has been transformed more drastically than one expected. One of the beauties of The Lord of the Rings was how real it felt. That sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s true. The Shire is intact, but a part of me felt disappointed in this respect. Middle-Earth, at one point, felt like somewhere tangible and real. With some overuse of CGI, you, of course, have your cinematography. The Lord of the Rings had some wonderful sweeping camera movements. The Hobbit has them in spades. I suppose the best way to describe the technology and production of the Hobbit is this: The Hobbit takes some of the techniques that The Lord of the Rings used, and then uses them while on crack and LSD. Some of it is too much.
You’ve gotten this far into my review and all I’ve sounded is really negative. I’m sorry.
Despite its sometimes horrendous pacing issues and its obnoxious, unrestrained camera work, The Hobbit can be a gorgeous spectacle to behold. Its action and set pieces are thrilling. When the action gets going, it really gets going. Many of the battle sequences take your breath away, and the intense sound and cinematography work in these scenes’ favors. It is in these moments you remember the joy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I did not see the film in HFR (48fps), but I did see it in IMAX 3D. While the 3D is not inherent to enjoying the film, it is actually quite nice in some parts. There is a lot of depth to be had with a film on such a grand scale.
Martin Freeman (BBC’s The Office, Sherlock) slips into the role of Bilbo Baggins effortlessly, which, honestly, surprised me. And, true to the character in the book, he plays Bilbo kind of like a nervous wreck. He plays Bilbo like Woody Allen. (Which leads me to say that Woody Allen should totally cast Martin Freeman in one of his films.) It allows the character to be amiable, cute, kind of endearing. What may be good, however, is that this nebbish quality of Bilbo’s doesn’t seem forced. It seems completely natural.
The single best part of the film, though, is the return of that cannibalistic, obsessive monster: Gollum, Andy Serkis one again making an iconic performance. Gollum has always been one of the best aspects of the Tolkien films, Serkis embodying hate, greed, and self-loathing unlike any other actor, and his performance here is just as good. (In a perfect world, the man would have gotten an Oscar nod. But noooo.) The Riddles in the Dark scene, imbued with wit and solemnness, is bar none the greatest scene in the film.
Returning to Middle-Earth was weird, sure, but getting back into the swing of things, especially with its near identical narrative structure to The Fellowship of the Ring, seems fairly easy. There are major lulls and the pacing can be awful, but with Martin Freeman, some flourishes from Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, some thrilling action, and Andy Serkis returning as Gollum, I’m ready to return to Middle-Earth!
I believe in “Intelligent Design”, which is to say I am somewhat a proponent of the Auteur Theory. (Holla, Andrew Sarris!) And when one becomes a semi-proponent of such a theory, they are often inclined to fall in love with the director as much as the work itself. Even if it’s only after one film, if one is so enamored by the precise style, the instantly recognize camera movements, even the name itself, Lord knows said cinephile will be in line for the next film by whatever director they’ve fallen in love with. Such was the case with Andrew Dominik, whose incredible film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford left me intoxicated. But what happens when that director, well, shall we say, seems to lose his mind in a bizarre mash-up of unclear ideas, hack-y visuality, and heavy handedness? Uh, well, you seem to get Dominik’s extremely disappointing Killing Them Softly, or, as I thought of it, I Have No Idea What I Want to Say or How to Say It.
In Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which is based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, follows a hit man (Brad Pitt), as he follows a couple of people who turned over a card game and made it look like another guy did it (said fellow played by Ray Liotta, which makes one wonder where he’s been all these years). Meanwhile, as Pitt’s hit man talks with various people in bars and cars about the approach, the reason, and the morality of the hits, the two fellows who committed the crime, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelssohn), try, seemingly half heartedly, to avoid the new price on their heads.
I do not believe I have ever watched a film that was so incredibly heavy handed and yet had no idea what it was saying or how to say it. Prior to the official release of the film in the United States, back when it prancing around Cannes and competing for the Palme d’Or, Dominik and his team, whoever they are, decided on a fairly overt Americana theme. This Americana theme, which was not, however, very present in the trailers for the film, seems to try to set up some sort of thematic arc or thesis for the film, but, just as the film itself, it seems to be only vaguely related to the film. Throughout the film, there is a constant presence of some political figure on a TV or disembodied voice on the radio, whether it is McCain, Obama, or even W. Bush, talking about the economy. So, here lies the first problem: Less of a lesson or exercise in self reflexivity, Dominick goes for the heavy handedness outside of the direct dialogue (with the exception of certain scenes and certain pieces of dialogue), and feeds it to the audience in a very strange way. He feeds us his badly constructed lesson like a third party. A part of me would have preferred a Godardian lesson through the characters (knock on wood) as opposed to a fairly lazy attempt at chastising the American people. But, as often as these little sound bites from various political speeches featured on CNN and C-SPAN are there, and as often as they use buzz words like “Economy!” and “Fiscal” and “Community!” and “People!”, Dominik doesn’t really say anything about this. There are vague hints about why he’s trying to say something, with the hit man once or twice tip-toeing towards pontification about America being “a business” and the state of the country, but like an essay without an outline or any real thesis, the heavy handedness just seems loud, obnoxious, and vague. In a way, Killing Them Softly is like Andrew Dominik’s economically aimed, loosely neo-noir version of Dogville (whose thesis is far more clear cut, and yet excellently articulated cinematically). There’s some sort of attempt at juxtaposition in the film, with the gritty and slummy landscape of the gangsters (?) and the immaculate, expensive setting for the hit men. But, again, that try at visual cues does not translate well or effectively. There’s a hint of libertarianism, which left me sitting in the theater wondering, “Did Ayn Rand’s ghost possess Dominik or something?”
I was hoping that if the story was lackluster and all over the place, that at least the visual style would be interesting. And I guess you could call it interesting. Interesting in that it is a train wreck. While The Assassination of Jesse James’ style was refined, gorgeous, and purposefully shot (by Roger Deakins, no less), Killing Them Softly’s cinematography felt like the bastard child of J.J. Abrams, Julian Schnabel, and Guy Ritchie. Granted, some of the scenes do look good, but there is, by no means at all, any kind of consistency to the images on the screen. Nothing seems coherently placed together, its editing just as lackluster. Yes, the slow motion scene where Brad Pitt shoots someone looks pretty great (reminiscent of some of the finer scenes in Guy Ritchie’s adrenaline pumped reboot of Sherlock Holmes), but… why? With Russell’s heroin addict, some of his scenes are straight out of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And, OH THE LENS FLARE! It’s ironic that so many of the scenes should be dictated less by any real action or purpose or even character and more by music and sound, because a short film I recently made (which you can watch here) had just that as its thesis: editing has changed, and when used poorly, can send a film into jeopardy. There’s no purpose to this visual style. There’s no reason. There’s no perspective. It’s just messy. The incoherent mess of a political allegory paired with the hodgepodge visual style… gosh, that’s two strikes.
Stylistically, regarding the plot, we hit another bump in the road. A lot of it, I assume intentionally, feels like a neo-noir. But that tonality of the film shifts, fluctuates, and doesn’t know what to do with itself. There’s a switch to something grittier, which under normal circumstances would not be inherently bad. The switch seems to be nodding to films like GoodFellas (which is sort of ironic), where the realism of the violence takes the center stage, disillusioning the audience of the romanticism they became familiar with two decades prior with The Godfather. That would be fine, you know, if it stayed that way. There’s another shift to something talkier, less noir and more “I don’t know what style I’m working with, so this is like an interstitial”. There’s some dark comedy in there for, like, two scenes. If the film had been sliced and diced into a series of vignettes, each short dedicated to its own kind of style and tone, maybe the film would work. But, as is, we get something confused. Excited, probably, but unable to know its own pace and something easily confused.
My last hope would be performances. Richard Jenkins, as a man (named Driver, for the record) who has long conversations with Pitt’s hit man, is good. Brad Pitt is fine. James Gandolfini is not very good. Ray Liotta is pretty good. Scoot McNairy is the only one who gives an enthralling performance, primarily within the first 15 minutes of the film. But no one really seems to bring their A-game. Pitt’s hit man, with his “inconsistent” moral views (he kills people, and yet criticizes the United States) make his character more pseudo-enigmatic rather than one of true depth. There’s no real good study of any of the characters, when this kind of film from this kind of director would definitely call for it. Its script, as well, is all over the place, with big chunks of dialogue and monologue fairly unnecessary and doing nothing to a) illustrate the character in a more detailed way or b) articulate and elaborate on whatever thesis it may or may not have. But, hey, Brad Pitt looks good in sunglasses.
Killing Them Softly is a confused film: stylistically, thematically, and in a narrative sense as well. With little rhyme or reason for many of the creative decisions made, little attempt to give meaty and interesting characters, and a severe allegory that inexplicably doesn’t have any idea how to articulate its thesis well, what is their left to say? What is there left to comment? I haven’t seen Chopper, but Dominik doesn’t really establish a precise and clear voice like he did with Jesse James. It looks like Dominik, maybe trying his hand at post-modernism, spent less time killing them softly and more time killing his audience haphazardly.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teenager who is fairly introverted will go through a lengthy awkward phase when transitioning from middle school to high school, and thus must be in want of some friends. From personal experience, the transition is hardly easy, but for Charlie in the novel and film adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it was even worse. Written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999, I fell in love with the young adult novel, told in a delicate epistolary form, in my freshman year of high school and a friend told me the protagonist reminded her of me. Its author went on to write the screenplay and direct the feature film adaptation, and what he presents is a satisfying adaptation that is nuanced enough to make a difference in the plethora of teen films, changing the story a little bit. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a different teen film because of its refreshing approach to the pains of adolescence.
Perks tells the story of a young man who enters his freshman year of high school and has, well, a lot to deal with. Charlie (Logan Lerman) has spent some time in a mental institution after his best friend committed suicide, and his introverted nature makes the transition far harder. He stands by the side and observes. He “doesn’t think anybody noticed” him. The focus here is not finding him the perfect girlfriend, but finding him a perfect band of misfits; people who will be there for him. Because, unlike the myriad of films in the teen canon, high school is not all about finding the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend: it’s about finding the people who help you find who you are. Perks, as trite as it can be, presents this very aspect of learning well.
As someone who was deeply attached to the novel, I, of course, was hesitant as to the film adaptation’s treatment of the material, both from a standpoint in terms of accuracy as well as to framework and content. So, I was naturally surprised to learn that the man behind the novel wrote and directed the film. If he’s happy with this, then it will be his vision. But rather than spend my time comparing the book and the film constantly, I’ll only go over a few things and their translation onto the screen.
Part of the uniqueness of the book, I suppose, is its epistolary format, with Charlie writing to someone we never meet. This is retained to some extent as the initial framework, but, more importantly, the narration is not a constant. This gives the film a slightly more objective look than the book, but completely. Much of the film’s events and experiences are still presented subjectively, one particular scene almost reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
One of the highlights of the films is its occasional subtlety. Although the film may at times feel heavy handed, which may partly be responsible due to both the general “genre” the film falls in as well as the current atmosphere amongst teenagers. The novel handled certain questionable and dramatic subject matter and content very well, and its translation to the screen often thrives fluidly. The issues that Charlie has dealt with, as well as the subject of Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his sexuality, are handled almost in an elegant manner. Charlie’s problems are never dressed so directly that they seem redundant, and Patrick is never overtly mentioned as gay. Both character are as they are.
That said, some of the subtlety, as brisk and well allocated as it may be, over compensates for itself in certain moments. Character development is sometimes sacrificed at trying to either be subtle or completely avoid subjects. Thus, for novel loyalists, certain scenes involving Charlie and Patrick are mentioned one moment, but never exactly elaborated upon. It is almost as if the thought was incomplete. These mistakes seem somewhat infantile, almost as much as some of the heavy handedness of certain scenes, but I suppose they are forgivable for a first time director.
The choices made, though, manage to be wise. The cinematography in the film, in particular, is one of the small beauties of the film. Soft focus and soft lighting make the film look almost misty and romantic, and fits at moments because the image will become as misty as your eyes. This small beauty of the film manages to accentuate much of the emotion in the film, perhaps setting it apart from many teen films. There is, therefore, equal balance and focus on the look of the film (which is distinctly 1990s) and the story of the film.
That said, the way the film portrays its story is, for the most part, successful. Aside from the strides of too much subtlety or too much heavy handedness (You have to admit that Chbosky’s dialogue hasn’t exactly aged well), the film nicely takes a different route regarding adolescent angst. There is far more reliance on Charlie being able to find a support system in the form of honest to God, true friends. His romantic fixation on Sam (Emma Watson) or with anyone else is not nearly as important as his ability to make friends with people.
The performances are one of the best things the film has to offer, with Lerman, Watson, and Miller giving extraordinary performances. Lerman presents himself as awkward and self-conscious without giving way to becoming Michael Cera or Jesse Eisenberg. There’s a beautiful vulnerability and lucidity that Lerman gives that makes him Charlie. More than I could have imagined (I was a skeptic early on), Lerman renders one of the best performances in this kind of film, looking like a more sympathetic Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. And in a lot of ways, the best parts of the film owe a lot to Francois Truffaut’s angsty masterpiece. It may be the 400 Blows for “my generation” (as much as I hate using that phrase). Emma Watson continues to expand her repertoire as Sam, also providing a lovely vulnerability. (A note on her accent: It’s convincing and merely sounds like she’s been living in the United States for a few years.) Everyone is lauding Miller for his role, and, sure, he was great. I was not as mesmerized as everyone else (I was more satisfied with Lerman’s performance), but Miller was undoubtedly good.
Stephen Chbosky’s successful young adult novel translates to the screen as a successful teen film. Its uniqueness in approach, concentrating on the protagonist’s issues with acquiring a support system, and does so well enough that it deserves to sit next to any John Hughes film on the teen canon. Its refined look and subtlety make it, in some respects, a Truffaut-esque film (perhaps similar to the also lovely, if underseen Submarine). What Perks does best is simply be itself, much like its characters. Subtle and sweeping, Perks observes the innocuous anomalies in teen life without to succumbing to too much trite material. To be completely reductive and a little corny, somewhat like the film, Perks works.