Zod of Carnage: Man of Steel
In my last review, for Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that I am occasionally guilty of having such loathing for a director, or someone of that ilk, that I will go into their film with a closed mind. Mind you, that doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in a while. Surprisingly, I went into Man of Steel, the new Superman reboot, with a fairly open mind. Or rather, an apathetic and ambivalent one. Despite being directed by another one of my least favorite people, Zack Snyder, responsible for such putrid work as Sucker Punch and 300, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Or I didn’t really care one way or the other. Granted, by the one trailer I had watched months ago, the one touting Christopher Nolan’s involvement, I expected something thoughtful. Not necessarily because of Nolan’s part in the making of the film, but more because it has been the latest trend of rebooting superheroes to be more grim, contemplative, existential, etc. Therefore, it shocked me that my fairly neutral expectations were thrashed and destroyed, as if Superman himself had torn them apart. And not in a good way.
As with all reboots of the last decade or so, Man of Steel frames itself as an origin story, attempting to delve into Krypton, the origin of both Superman and Clark Kent, and Superman’s father situation. Thus, the plot results in Kent’s quiet, yet noticeable presence on earth, saving people left, right and center, and General Zod’s desire to capture the ever present Superman. General Zod was at one point the head of Krypton’s army, for the record. Meanwhile, Lois Lane is saved by a mysterious someone and is determined to track down the origin of her savior.
Man of Steel, perhaps at its core, feels like a poorly written lead in to what could be something far better. Like the bad TV movie that works as a prequel to the “fair to serviceable to maybe even good” TV series. Think Star Wars: The Clone Wars, that terrible 3D animated movie that ended up giving way to a pretty great animated television series. Well, at least we can hope. So much of the film feels like setup and so little of it feels like plot or anything worth really caring about. This, I feel, is screenwriter David S. Goyer’s fault, as well as co-story writer (but not screenwriter) Christopher Nolan’s fault. While watching the film, I could not believe that Nolan had anything to do with the story of Man of Steel, so I assumed that Goyer, who worked on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, had written the screenplay alone (which he did, and it really shows). That Nolan was certainly a part of the story process causes me internal tension; I really like his Dark Knight Trilogy and I think it is, for the most part, a well told, well executed contemporary appropriation of the character. For some reason, that translation was not as smooth for Superman. In terms of Goyer’s screenwriting, the stakes, though they are allegedly high, never feel it. I had a very hard time caring about what was going on, not because I am not a Superman enthusiast, but because there seemed to be very little actual plot. Although one should be able to sum up a plot in a few sentences, it’s actually quite hard to do with Man of Steel. Not because a lot is going on, but because you have to wrack your brain to remember if anything important happened anyways. Uh, was there a McGuffin? I don’t remember. And why was Zod doing this again? Huh?
Again, it was disheartening to see Nolan having a story credit, because it meant that he had to share some of the blame for how poor the story was. Goyer alone can take credit for the lousy dialogue, the bad exposition, and the fact that even simple ideas to the characters within context either don’t make sense or are not applied or appropriated in a logical way. (Remember that “terraforming” line? That dumb mistake could have easily been remedied by just having another character ask that question.)
As much as I admire ambition, ambition in and of itself does not a good movie make, and Man of Steel is no exception. Again, like Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel takes a slightly “throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks” way of attempting thematic exploration. It comes off even worse than The Dark Knight Rises, not only in the way that too many things are thrown at the wall, creating a lack of thematic cohesiveness, but that none of them stick. You have ideas about Superman’s deep loyalty to his parents, but then it’s never explored. Superman’s’ loyalty to mankind? Not explored. The freedom of choice in an individual’s future? Not explored. Adoption and what that does to one’s childhood/personal life? Not explored, only briefly, insensitively hinted at. (Speaking as an adopted child, I was kind of offended at this.) Carnage in the real world and its real world repercussions? Not explored at all.
This last one puzzled me. It does not surprise me at all that the film should employ 9/11 imagery; that’s what these new, brooding superhero movies do in order to make them contextually relevant. But the film doesn’t actually make the environment within the film anymore contemporary than Richard Donner’s 1978 film with Christopher Reeve. Yes, both Smallville and Metropolis are clearly in the modern world. There’s modern technology. And there’s even product placement. (I’m currently waiting for an ad telling me to buy the Nikon D3S, the camera that Lois Lane uses! And then gets smashed!) But none of the surroundings do so much as to make that texture of the setting like a real, modern place. The closest it comes to ever achieving that is an ominous message from General Zod that is sent via television: it’s static-y, the tracking is off, and a couple people whip out their smart phones. But what does that say about the people of this universe? Pretty much nothing. What Nolan was able to do with his Dark Knight Trilogy was to make Gotham City an “anywhere metropolitan area” that doubled as one that was distinctly set in a pretty specific time bracket, with its politics, technology, villainy, and, yes, its hero. But the Dark Knight was also able to transcend time and, while taking on the role of a rather Right Wing iconography, make his hero relevant regardless of setting. Man of Steel fails to do that. He is stuck in a limbo. Looking at just the setting, you wouldn’t really be able to distinguish it from any other time. This seems to be less of a comment of the “Good Ol’ American Way” (which would be kind of Superman-like), the jingoistic notion that the United States is some sort of rural area that remains nameless, and more just lack of texture and substance. Its 9/11 imagery, through the loudness of its sonic qualities and its blatant compositions, is the only thing that is “contextually relevant” in the film, but none of the rest of the film actually justifies this or backs it up. Instead, we’re left with a gross, unsettling image of destruction, and a whole lot of irresolution and lack of closure. The question is: is that the fault of Goyer or is it Snyder?
I don’t care for Zack Snyder. I don’t care for his cinematography. I don’t care for his pseudo-feminist ideas. I don’t care for the fact that he needs to use slow motion in everything. I don’t particularly care for the fact that he had to drain his best film of political subtext. I think he’s serviceable, but he is certainly not someone I would watch for pleasure. Sort of like Tarsem Singh in a way, he’s a visualist, enchanted by the image so much that he sometimes (or kind of often) forgets that the image must contain context and meaning that adds to the whole. His compositions are sometimes very nice, very entrancing, but they’re good in small, maybe music video sized portions. A two and a half hour film? Not so much. That said, Snyder’s direction for the film wasn’t inherently horrific, but neither was it particularly good. The trailer (which, I know, is an arbitrary bar to compare to) presented Man of Steel with the cinematography and “tone poem-ness” of Terrence Malick, and, to be quite honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if that was the direction he would have gone in: everyone loves copying Malick. But, Snyder didn’t go the Malick route; he went the “I don’t own a SteadiCam, so I’m going to walk around and occasionally compose somewhat nice screen grabs, but never create a fulfilling or terribly consistent aesthetic” route. Even the action sequences, which are deliriously edited, lack the necessary cohesion that it takes to make a great action film. Snyder’s work here is neither breathtaking nor abhorrent and instead settles into the forgettable, which is a disappointment. Even the grotesque videogame aesthetic of Sucker Punch was at least memorable, even if it wasn’t very “good”.
The purpose of a reboot is ostensibly to garner a wider audience while retaining the built in fan base. That may mean that you have to build from the ground up, but with the brooding, thoughtful superhero films of late, from Iron Man 3 to The Dark Knight, character construction and illustration are at the top of importance. It is such a disappointment, therefore, that the characters seem so flat throughout the film. Henry Cavill may be distractingly handsome, a man so masculine that not even his new super suit can contain his chest hair, but he lacks the real charisma and pathos that this kind of reboot calls for. That may be asking a lot, but Cavill, at times, plays Clark Kent like a hotter, but more wooden Christopher Reeve. What made Reeve’s performance interesting, regardless of the camp tone of the film, was that his was able to very easily transition from the affability of Kent, the vulnerability of Kal-El, and the decisive power of Superman. When Cavill is able to do any of these things or ever bring his own to the character, it isn’t with the same assurance or confidence. It seems almost self-conscious. It feels like he knows he’s playing Superman, making him question his instincts. (Cavill is also distractingly handsome, but I think I already mentioned that.)
Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner play Superman’s fathers; the former is Jor-El, Superman’s biological father, and the latter is Jonathan Kent, his adopted father. Despite their presence in the film, the paternal relationships of Superman are actually poorly executed. There’s less of a give and take between Clark and his dad and more of a series of flashbacks (very poorly integrated into the narrative, making the structure rather confusing and, again, inconsistent) of Mr. Kent lecturing his son about how he has to hide his powers and whatnot. It doesn’t get much deeper, which makes the relationship feel much shallower than it should. Meanwhile, Russell Crowe is fine, if not memorable, as Mr. Exposition Man. It is from him that we get the most backstory, which kind of makes his place beyond the first half hour of the film rather unnecessary. Instead, they build his “consciousness” into the story. Sort of like Old Ben Kenobi.
Which brings us to the villain, General Zod. A week later and I still don’t remember what exactly his deal was. (Just kidding.) In actuality, there just wasn’t enough plot for me to care what his deal was. Zod was neither sympathetic enough to grant the audience an emotion turnaround, not villainous enough to make his truly despicable. Instead, Michael Shannon, who shines in Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire gives us an over the top performance that seems better fit to the 1970s film than the attempted grittiness of this new one. It isn’t funny, exactly, but you can see the crumbs on the side of Shannon’s face from the scene he just chewed.
The real problem here is the women in the film, in that they do nothing and/or are reduced to bimbos. Even sweet Amy Adams is given nothing to work with for Lois Lane. I may not know a lot about the Superman universe, but what I do know is that Lois Lane is a tough character. She has a masculine vibe about her which she “needs” as a journalist. She’s driven and determined and not really subservient. She’s even won a Pulitzer, as Adams proudly proclaims. But Adams is given so little to do in the film, besides playing the beleaguered journalist looking for the man who saved her. She doesn’t seem like the hardcore, motivated character that Lois Lane is supposed to be. She receives a lot of help from men, and her character ends up lacking depth. The rest of the females are either helped by men, ask questions that people in their position should know, or make funny, but very vapid comments. The rest of the cast, from Christopher Meloni to Laurence Fishburne, also suffer from this lack of depth, if not from the casual sexism of the script.
So, while the film might be well animated, it is also very loud, maybe unnecessarily so. Such forced loudness caused me fatigue and boredom. I’m not sure which is worse. But sound for sound’s sake does not, again, add sonic texture to the setting or the story. It’s just loudness.
Its ostensible goal is somewhat achieved: there’s a new Superman movie and it will bring in new audiences. But its loftier goals of something thoughtful, interesting, and full of depth are never attained. Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer even fail to make Superman contextually relevant, instead making the film kind of faceless, save for the gross use of post-9/11 imagery. What we have here is something loud and brassy, and if that’s what people want, that’s fine. But the attempts something higher than that, the only thing that comes of it is complete carnage.
Two Dances with the Same Devil: Tim Burton vs. Christopher Nolan
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.
Middle-Earth of the Road: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
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!
Skyfall Into Place: Skyfall
Like many past traditionalists, I was initially skeptical of how Daniel Craig would be as James Bond when he took the role in 2006 just before Casino Royale would blow my mind. Actually, I was probably unfairly vehement. Having grown up watching Connery, Moore, Brosnan, et al., the very different nature of Craig’s demeanor, not only how he looked, was off putting. However, I have since come to realize that Craig’s acceptance of the role is one the best things that ever happened with the franchise. Fifty years, twenty-three films, and enough martinis to make any sane liver quiver, Bond returns once again in Skyfall, and he is never more potent and more relevant than now. As a long time Bond fan, I can definitely say that Skyfall is not only one of the best Bond films ever made, but one of the best films of the year.
After a mission that goes wrong and results in 007’s death, a mysterious cyber terrorist begins taunting MI6 by posting the names of undercover agents on the web. With the whole of the English government on the watch, Bond resurrects himself from the dead, so to speak, to find the man behind the threats and, in doing so, must travel back into the past to acknowledge things about himself he hasn’t wanted to for year.
The nice thing about the Bond films is that every so often they will feel the need to prove their relevance, regardless if we asked them to or not. Bond is, essentially, a “relic of the Cold War” as his prickly boss M (Judi Dench, then and now) once described him in 1995’s GoldenEye We, even the Americans, still needed a cartoonish action hero to believe in in From Russia with Love; we still liked having that security in The Living Daylights, and we definitely were aware that whatever peace had been reached after the Cold War might not last forever, acknowledged in GoldenEye. Aside from those films, and maybe another couple in there, Bond’s evolution and acknowledgement of the world around him has been minimal at best; that is, until Casino Royale. With Martin Campbell’s gritty and real action epic, Bond was pretty much created from scratch to fit a very post-9/11 world. Why do that? Why not just continue making random action film after random action film? Because, thankfully, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson realized it was time for a change. Maybe they took a nod from Nolan’s Batman Begins, but they knew that this was a new world with new dangers not like the ones from before. And they needed a character who would fit that.
That is the beauty of the character, one could suppose: he is, if anything, flexible. Even if he and his films didn’t always acknowledge whatever context was needed, you knew perfectly well that he could if he wanted to. With a character like Bond that has no strict canon, even in the novels, save for a few details, this flexibility seems inherent and necessary. Not only does reinvention from scratch help with context, one can play around with origin stories, which Casino Royale showed could be done successfully. You could make your character three-freaking-dimensions, even if it meant getting the occasional accusation that your Bond was more Bourne than, well, Bond. (Accusations are silly, and I like to blame it on Marc Forster. Actually, I like to pretend that mediocre mess Quantum of Solace never actually happened.) And that flexibility and acknowledgement of change brings us to the twenty-third Bond film: Skyfall.
Skyfall does both of these things: it acknowledges the context of a very contemporary and very real universe and it continues to dabble into Bond’s past and origin, without ruining the so-called canon. And not only does it do these things well, it does these things so well, that Bond’s 50 year screen history seems comparably young yet obviously there.
Casino Royale hinted and alluded to the post-9/11 thing a little bit, especially when M refers to the stocks crashing, but the rest of it was primarily built subtly around the style of the film. Skyfall aims to be more overt about the changes, and this, surprisingly, works in the film’s favor. There is, shall we say without spoiling, a very analog versus digital argument in the film that thematically travels in the three Craig films, and is in this one put to an end, I suppose. There is a complete and total admittance that this is a new world; there are terrorists that we fear with technologies we can hardly fathom; that we do need a hero. And that’s what James Bond is for, right?
To my recollection, there are only really two Bond films that have gone at any lengths to explore the protagonist’s past, the two being GoldenEye, in which Bond’s former partner 006 (played by always-going-to-die Sean Bean) returns from the dead and tries to steal money via satellite and Casino Royale, where, as you know, we start from scratch. The interesting aspect of Craig taking on the role of Bond is that there seems to be a new part of the canon being made. As aforementioned, the previous Bond films never paid much attention to continuity and they didn’t have to. This might actually be changing slightly, as least in terms of back story. We get, for the first time, a look waaaay back into Bond’s past. Think origin story, sort of. In Skyfall, we get a peak and Bond’s psyche and self-destructive nature; how hard he is willing to push himself; and how is indeed willing to serve Queen and Country, the Queen being M.
Skyfall is, in a way, one of the weirdest James Bond films primarily because it has one hell of an arsenal of cast and crew. While it has had Judi Dench as M since 1995, she was never really fully utilized until now. She has a role in the film; an important one. Through M, we are allowed to explore what kind of person Bond is and what he is willing to sacrifice. Yes, here, Dench is stunning, real, and raw, and M, for the first time in the franchise, is more than just “the boss”. Ralph Fiennes joins the cast as a government person named Mallory. He fits in with the cast quite well, almost immediately able to pick up the pace when it comes to repartee with Bond. We have Naomi Harris as Eve, both talented, agile, and stunningly gorgeous. We have Berenice Marlohe, whom, I suppose, while certainly adding something to the film, might be Skyfall’s one “weak spot”, though hardly marring the experience. She’s good, no doubt, adding to the Asian atmosphere and certainly introducing Bond to something key, but perhaps inessential in several ways. We have Ben Whishaw as the new, young, snappy Q. Whishaw is actually quite adept at creating a new persona for his new Q while being able to, again, glide into that traditional verbal jousting. Aaaaand, of course, you have your Big Three: Bardem, Mendes, and Deakins.
Javier Bardem should, no doubt, go into the hall of fame for making awful hairstyles into iconic traits of some of the nastiest villains on screen. YES, you heard me, I’m including Bardem’s Silva in that superlative! Maybe it’s Bardem’s theatricality (sans scene chewery), maybe it’s the weird blonde hair, maybe it’s the connection to Bond’s past, but Silva is, name notwithstanding, the most memorable Bond villain to come around in ages. He has, in the (comparably) short time span of 2 hours and 45 minutes, earned a place in the Rogues Hall of Fame, next to Dr. No, Goldfinger, Blofeld, Alec Trevelyan, and Le Chiffre (or maybe I remember him because he’s played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelson?). There is something very wrong and very twisted about Silva that seems so much more damaging than most Bond villains. Maybe a little Freudian on the part of excellent screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan, but Bardem’s new villain is one of the most menacing and, dare I say it, one of the most memorable since Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The last “good” director, as in reputable, they got to direct a Bond film was, arguably, Michael Apted in 1999 for The World is Not Enough. Apted is well known for directing the Up documentary series (in which a number of kids from different socio-economic backgrounds are followed and caught up with every seven years; there’s, like, 8 films in the series), but his entry in the Bond franchise is, sadly, known as one of the weakest. This time, we get the Oscar winner of American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road (which is the most depressing film I think I’ve ever seen, in case you were wondering). Does the high caliber of the director make a difference? Here, it looks like it does. AND WHAT A DIFFERENCE. When the film could have had a lot of dull moments (like the ones really anal people complained about in Casino Royale), Mendes makes these moments barely a lull in the story and, instead, a way to further character examination. The film is arguably one the most perfectly paced in the franchise, with nary a dull moment. It balances the high drama and character study with the thrilling action without much fault. Oh, yeah, the film is one of the most thrilling action films of the year, with set pieces worthy of any Bond film. Mendes’ mark on the Bond series will be indelible.
Which, I suppose, leads me to Deakins. Roger Deakins is very well known for working with the Coen Brothers on films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink, etc. So, getting him to do cinematography for a Bond film is, quite honestly, one of the best decisions ever made. Skyfall is one damn fine looking Bond film: the best looking Bond film of the franchise. Without taking away from the story or even the atmosphere of it being a Bond film, the film looks stunning. Golds, blues, and impeccable lighting fill the film throughout, making you wonder, “Damn, why hasn’t Bond looked this good before?”
The last thing to address is brief: it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Bond franchise, and much like the fortieth anniversary, which coincided with the release of Die Another Day, there are some clever allusions in the film (much cleverer and much more subtle than the aforementioned film). There’s the DB5 from Goldfinger, there’s an allusion to an exploding pen, etc. But while the first two acts of the film is filled with these little references, they all serve a greater purpose: to acknowledge that there is kind of a history and then to, essentially, make way for a new one. I posit that one of the cleverest decisions made on the crew’s part was to include the innocuous anomalies to the franchise and then discard of them towards the end as we “enter Bond’s psyche” and look into his past. That, I think, was done to really show that the character of James Bond, Agent 007 has truly evolved from just a dapper dandy playing baccarat or poker to a human being facing the world’s new demons at the same time he’s facing his own.
Skyfall isn’t just a great Bond film; it’s a great film period, and one of the best of the year. Exploring new facets of Bond and M, acknowledging the context of the world and universe the film takes place in, and truly allowing the character evolve is all the things this film does right. There’s stunning direction, a bravura performance each from Craig, Bardem, and Dench, and the film looks incredible (see it in IMAX!). If this is the direction Bond is heading towards in future films, count me in. The film left me shaken and stirred. And, most importantly, it reminded me that it’s true: when it comes to saving the world, nobody does it better.
To Rise from Darkness: The Dark Knight Rises
I guess I might as well be honest while I am here: I miss indie-minded Christopher Nolan. I miss that stylized simplicity of Following, the complexity of simplicity of The Prestige, the non-linear emotional/cerebral rollercoaster of Memento, and the guilt laden suspense of Insomnia. That is not to say I don’t like his Batman films; in fact, I love them. All that independent, creative, and mind bending sensibility is definitely imbued in his Batman trilogy (to some extent, with a sledgehammer), but you can tell that both he, as well as some of his audience, cannot wait until he makes another small, non-humongous budgeted film. It is his desire to give his stories and characters layers that makes his Batman films so interesting. The fear and desire in Batman Begins and the internal conflict of vigilantism in The Dark Knight (with other political subtext, of course) are what make the films so compelling. Nolan’s grand finale to his Bat-Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is no different in its intentions, but, as I said, you can tell he’s ready to revisit his roots. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is incredible, but, perhaps to the fault of high expectations that could never be met, I left the theater a little let down.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, the third film in the trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne having turned into a rich recluse, the kind that the public would be quick to make a snark allusion to Howard Hughes. However, he comes out of hiding when Gotham City faces a new threat in the form of the hulking monster that is Bane. Bane is ready to destroy the entire city, blowing it to smithereens. And while there are plenty of explosive action sequences, the focus here, as usual, is on the story and the characters. Sort of.
While Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both handled large action scenes and even larger, more powerful scenes of drama and suspense, The Dark Knight Rises seems to have trouble reconciling the two. You either get scenes of great emotion and contemplation followed by a somewhat lackluster action sequence, or you get something rather trite and heavy handed followed by “action poetry”. Is it the running time or is it something else? It takes a while for the film to focus properly, balancing the two perfectly, allowing both drama and action to occur very closely together and balance well. But the film seems hesitant to make up its mind about not what to focus on but how to do it. You have a stunning prologue in a similar fashion to The Dark Knight’s Kubrick inspired first six minutes, and then for the next half hour, it seems, it’s all Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred discussing how much Gotham, and Wayne himself, needs “the Batman”.
While the trouble in focus is a problem, the presence of the weighty internal conflict is welcome. As heavy handed as it may be, the fact that it is there at all and the fact that Nolan gives us a protagonist, an iconic one at that, whom we can explore psychoanalytically is one of the blessings of the trilogy’s existence. If anything, it’s the realism and the psychoanalytic approach that make the films (greatly aided by Bale’s awesome performance), not the huge set pieces. Michael Caine also does quite well as the loyal and conflicted Alfred, trying desperately to motivate Bruce Wayne to do the right thing, which does not always necessarily mean become the Batman. Here, it’s all about the battle between hope and lost faith. But, what Bale does here, once again, is show that Batman is human and that every facet of desire and motivation is real. Bale’s realism and humanity in playing the character is stunning and one of the best things about this film in particular.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we are introduced to a new villain: Bane, a character who, in the past, was a steroid pumped demon, usually working under or with another villain. Here, embodied by Tom Hardy, he is like Bronson on steroids. Er, well, more steroids. The point being, he is more human than he has been in other iterations, yet still monstrous. As far symbolic representations go, you can draw comparisons between the maniacal and chaotic Joker and driven and deliberate Bane. The Joker likes to create chaos for the sake of chaos, both as a means of pure joy and pleasure as well as a way to turn Gotham’s finest into Gotham’s most twisted and evil. He is real world terrorism without motivation that the public can understand. The destruction he creates is as enigmatic and flamboyant as he is. Bane, however, has a very specific goal. His objective is socially oriented (which may or may not recall strains of the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement), so that he can bring Gotham down from within. He is the terrorism with a driven ideology, and one for all to hear. However, as good as Tom Hardy is, simply because Heath Ledgers performance has been forever embedded into our minds, his villain is not as good. Maybe because Bane has a definite objective, he seems less interesting than a villain without reason. Maybe mystery is sometimes the best thing for a villain. Regardless, even if he is not the best, Hardy plays him to the hilt, and the deep, electronically manipulated voice is effective once you get used to it.
The police have a larger role in the film, with two characters taking the leads: Commissioner Gordon, riddled with guilt about Batman’s exile from society, and newbie John Blake, a dedicated cop with a broken past. It really is nice to see Gary Oldman have a larger role here. Much the same way that Jude Law has done with Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Gary Oldman brings intelligence and pathos to a character for whom layers did not exist in the films prior to Nolan’s. Oldman is skilled and plays Gordon fantastically. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was in Inception, plays Blake with sensitivity and intelligence, though his character is often relegated to acting like a junior detective. However, once his character begins to take control, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is all the better and more interesting. He is able to side step some of the cheesiness that seems to be inherent in the script regarding his character’s past, but not so much that the audience would not be able to identify with him. In short, both actors do extremely well.
The women of Nolan’s Batman trilogy have faltered, mostly because there has only been one, and she did not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. The women of Batman’s world never really have, with few exceptions. Selina Kyle, however, is one of those exceptions. Played with verve, class, wit, and sex appeal by Anne Hathaway, Catwoman manages to be a rather compelling character in this finale. Given no real origin story, only alluded to as someone trying escape her past with a clean slate, the mystery surrounding he character, and the vulnerability that Hathaway is able to portray (without being too sappy or cliché) makes Catwoman even sexier. Her new suit is sleek, yet simple and minimal, as opposed to the dominatrix outfit Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns. Once again, the tension between Batman and Catwoman is palpable. You could cut the sexual tension with a bat ranger. Anne Hathaway surprised me because, as much as I adore her, I was honestly not sure if she would be able to pull off playing Catwoman. She did pull it off, and very well. Marion Cotillard, who worked with Nolan on Inception, joins the cast as well, also vying for Bruce Wayne’s heart. Cotillard does fine, if not spectacularly. She’s enticing, but her character, Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist, does not seem to be the kind of man that Bruce Wayne would legitimately fall for. She does not seem to fit with Wayne. Sure, she “stands” for something, but she never gives the impression that she would go out and do whatever it took to do what needs to be done, in the way that Rachel Dawes did, especially the way Maggie Gyllenhaal played her in The Dark Knight. For there to be a convincing love interest, he or she must be other’s equal, and Tate is not, even if the woman who plays her is one of the finest actresses around.
One of the film’s biggest flaws, aside its slightly plodding story and pace, is its setting. In the previous films, Gotham City, no matter how much it may have resembled Chicago or New York, always had a sense of anonymity about it. Gotham is supposed to be Any Metropolis, USA. Here, we are given New York City, plain and obvious. From sightings of specific bridges (Brooklyn, for instance) to Saks Fifth Avenue, the anonymity disappears from the setting and, in those moments, the films steps out of the limbo between Batman’s universe and reality and just sits in reality. It is extremely jarring to see locations that are supposed to exist generically and realize that not only do you recognize them, that you have probably been there. Here, Nolan’s focus again seems unbalanced. With the inclusion of a new, fun vehicle called the Bat, we are once again ripped form one realm and shoved into another. The Bat is like the Tumbler, but it flies. This, to me, seems silly. It reminded me of the invisible Aston Martin V12 Vanquish from the James Bond film Die Another Day, and they both don’t work for the same reason: for characters that are so rooted in reality (for their respective interpretations and approaches), the use of such a gadget seems counterintuitive. Obviously, things in the film would never happen, but even the carnage and destruction that goes on feels real because that is how Nolan has approached the films. All of a sudden adding what is essentially a flying Batmobile is a strange move. Here, in both cases, the biggest problem of the film is demonstrated, in that it does not know when to be real, when to be fantastical, or when to balance the two.
The Batman films have molded and conformed thematically to whatever the contemporary social and political atmosphere is. Here, we plainly see strains of various recent social movements, and again, it is the focus that trips up the pacing and the story. Nolan handles the socio-political material better than anyone else would have, but as clear as the extremism is in the film, it sometimes gets caught up in itself. Strains of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement stand out the most, with dialogue form characters that read out the conceits as obviously as the final speech in The Dark Knight. As soon as the lesson in political science is put on the back burner, but still present yet subtle, the representations that the characters become and their motivations stand for seem smoother and more easily digestible than some of the ham fisted and overt ideas.
The action, though, seems of a different flavor that one is used to. It still remains fairly coherent in its editing and execution style, but you get the sense that, once again, there’s difficulty in reconciling the action epic of Michael Bay proportions and the thrilling, almost poetic action to counterpose the emotional weight of the story. The final forty-five minutes, however, are very satisfying to watch on the big screen. Especially, in IMAX.
The film also seems to be more stylistically different than those from the rest of the series, but its ties to the universe make it so that the film would not be able to stand on its own very well. That is not inherently bad, but while the other two films can be their own entity, it is harder to compartmentalize and separate The Dark Knight Rises from its counterparts. The film, though, does nice tie some things together, and it ends up being a fairly satisfying ending.
As “disappointed” as I was, I will still contend to the fact that it is a pretty splendid film. Maybe it isn’t the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be, but with the sky high expectations, can you blame it? While the film is flawed in several ways, it is a pretty incredible and fantastic way to end a superb film trilogy. Though the film has trouble with its pacing and its ability to focus, its strengths in acting and pieces of its storytelling outweigh its weaknesses. Similarly, in the film, the light is able to makes its way through the darkness in Gotham, if barely.
Also, check out my essay comparing Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s approaches the Batman at VeryAware.com!