The Dark Knight Rises
Die Another Day: “Skyfall” and the Nolanization of James Bond
My contempt for the Bond formula has been extensively chronicled, especially my blame against Goldfinger for starting it all. It was thrilling, therefore, to see Casino Royale go in another direction, a very “back to basics” version of the franchise that was reminiscent of even earlier entries in the series, Dr. No and From Russia with Love. In those films, action, plot, and character were balanced precariously, yet perfectly. And in Casino Royale, that balance was brought back; Bond was suave without being a superhero, the political context was intact without being a punchline, and the stakes were high enough without a muddled plot.
Skyfall went somewhere else. It is unlike any other Bond film in the rest of the franchise. It literally is something else. And James Bond is someone else. At its core, it resembles 1995’s GoldenEye and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but I’d hesitate to call such a comparison disingenuous because the former is one of the best Bond films, and certainly Pierce Brosnan’s best entry, and The Dark Knight is one of the strongest superhero films in recent memory. It’s that tone of morbidity of the latter, and its re-envisioning of its character, which seems to inform how many perceived what some might call The Nolanization of James Bond. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Mea Culpa: My Favorite Films… That I Forgot
Making my list of my top favorite 101 films was fun. Sort of. As you can imagine, the hardest part was whittling down all of my favorite films (a list I update regularly and runs around 300 or so) down to that rather restrictive number. It was hard. And I cheated a lot by including trilogies, series, and even thematic double features (prostitutes anyone?). But I wanted to show the best of my favorites. And I managed to forget some ones that have been incredibly important to me as well as new films I’ve only recently watched but feel more than confident in putting on the list. It’s about half and half here in that respect. I was originally going post the top ten I’d left out, but then I decided not to decide something that definitive and restraining like that. So, ladies and gents, my list of THIRTEEN films I forgot to include on my Top 101 Films:
1. 3 Women (1977)| Directed by Robert Altman
The loose story of 3 Women came to director Robert Altman in a dream. This dreamlike quality is evident in the loose yet controlled lucid style. A very strange story of identity (that bears a little resemblance to another film on this list), Sissy Spaceck plays a young naïf who attaches herself to the talkative nurse she works with played by Shelley Duvall. Those are two of the three women of the title, the third being a mysterious and enigmatic mural painter. Altman’s surreal structure and dream like narrative is gorgeous and hypnotic. Full of mystery, longing emotion, and expert performances from Spececk and Duvall, 3 Women is a masterwork.
2. Across the Universe (2007) | Directed by Julie Taymore
I grew up listening to the Beatles music, but it was not until my freshman year that I went head on into the Beatles work. And although I had seen Across the Universe once or twice prior and enjoyed it, its impact never hit me until then. The film is unabashedly polarizing, both in its innovative use of the Beatles’ music (warning, cover haters) as well as its intoxicating imagery. Taking the Beatles songs and weaving them into a star crossed love story was, regardless of its execution, one of the most ingenious ideas ever. Considering that the Beatles, throughout their expansive, yet short career, wrote some of the greatest love songs ever as well as some of the most subversively politically relevant music, it was only a matter of time until someone used that and appropriated it as a story. Taking place perfectly within the time of the Beatles career (from the early to late 1960s), Julie Taymore takes the characters’ names from songs (Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, etc.), throws some in-jokes in the mix (“Where did she come from?” “She came in through the bathroom window.”), and some truly dizzying images and makes an audacious masterpiece. Some of the best Beatles covers ever are featured in this film. It’s an incredible love story using incredible music, and just enough to cause a ruckus in the film world. You say you want a revolution…
3. Amélie (2001) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amélie is a quaint, picturesque film about a young woman that likes to mettle in other people’s lives, with varying degrees of success. It’s like a French Emma. But director Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses his camera so elegantly, he creates a quirky, deeply saturated world full of emotion and joviality. Audrey Tatou is absolutely perfect as the meddling main character. She is able to portray the complexity of a woman who likes to live totally vicariously. I don’t think is really a spoiler, but, yes my friends, Amelie is given a chance at love. Were it not for some of the sex and language, the film is beautifully whimsical that it could easily be a modern fairy tale or a children’s book.
4. Antichrist (2009)| Directed by Lars von Trier
I already had three of Lars von Trier’s films on the list, and that was primarily the reason I did not include Antichrist. The viscerally harrowing and terrifyingly abstract psychological thriller was my first introduction into the career and filmography of the director some, including myself, like to call “Lars von Troll”. While Melancholia was made as a result of a post-depression mindset, Antichrist is the film in which he rolls out all of the stops. This is, some have said, his deadly deadpan and sarcastic answer to the world of modern psychology. Exploring gender dynamics and the art of psychosis on film in a perfect way, von Trier nods to Kubrick and Tarkovsky, creating some of the most startling and arresting images ever on the screen. The first half of the film is fairly “normal” (with the occasional interjection of the abstract), Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the depressed patient and Willem Dafoe plays the husband and psychiatrist. Von Trier’s observations about gender dynamics, psychology, emotion, etc. are astute and well articulated. And the in the second half, as the He and She head into the forest called Eden, everything goes crazy and the film goes off the rails. Don’t let the controversial scenes deter you; this film is far more complex and fascinating than its reductive “scissor” ad campaign leads one to believe. With von Trier, there’s no doubt that chaos will reign.
5. Grey Gardens (1976)/Grey Gardens (2009) |Directed by the Maysles, et. Al/Michael Sucsy
Even though Jackie Onasis’ weird relatives, Big and Little Edie Beale, seem, only by description, to be eligible for the next season of Hoarders, which the two have that no Hoarders episode ever could show is gumption and one hell of a life story. A bizarre riches to rags story, the documentary, primarily directed by the Maysles Brothers (the team behind Gimme Shelter), captures a superbly realized cinema verite of how the Beales lived. And how they lived was in squalor. At one point, they were going to be evicted from their previously lavish East Hampton home, but Jackie O came to the rescue and spruced things up a bit. And then it got dirty again. The character that both Big and Little Edie have in them is kind of astonishing. While in the documentary it isn’t made clear how people of such privilege could end up like this, the story doesn’t need to be filled because the audience is so fascinated with the subjects. Everyone who’s ever seen it remembers the very beginning, where feminist philosopher Little Edie gives her “best costume for today” monologue. It’s quite an outstanding look and how Little Edie copes and manages with the life she lives. The decrepit house, the weird relationship Little Edie has with one of the camera guys (beautifully intrusive), Big Edie’s singing and stories of Gould, etc. It’s a fascinating character study. HBO decided in 2009 to fill in some of the blanks and did so marvelously, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange at the ready. Recreating some of the documentary footage (which Cinema Verite would do later for An American Family, but far less successfully) and flashing back and forth between the time the doc was being film and their lives beforehand, the two leads settle in their roles gloriously. Barrymore sounds so much like Little Edie, I yelped. Certainly not better than the original documentary, the HBO film makes a wonderful supplement. Grey Gardens is real life character study at its finest.
6. In the Mood for Love (2000) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
I may have mentioned in my little write up for Wong Kar-Wai’s other masterpiece Chungking Express that I’ve learned from Asian cinema that Asians are awesome at wallowing in their own self pity. (I should know, as I am Asian and spend my Friday nights crying into a pint of ice cream watching things like Eternal Sunshine.) While this remains true in Kaw-Wai’s loose sequel to his debut Days of Being Wild, IN the Mood for Love presents a romantic yearning that is so powerful and moving that it every other expression in love seems so trite. In Hong Kong in the 1960s, two married people move into the same apartment complex. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the man and woman, and the two learn of a secret that will bind them forever. The proceeding events have a tender delicacy and portray a beautiful intimacy that is rarely portrayed on the screen so well. Sofia Coppola said that she was inspired by the film when she made Lost in Translation, and the themes from In the Mood for Love are evident. Wong Kar-Wai’s beautiful film is one of the most stunning portrayals of love ever on screen.
7. Mulholland Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s weird universe, form Twin Peaks to Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, is a labyrinth of lies, an enigmatic world of deceit, and a poisonous letter to conventionality. Mulholland Dr. is one of his most puzzling and thrilling films, featuring alternate realities, projections of self, concepts of identity and desire, all in the city of desire and dreams. Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece shows us a deadly Hollywood noir, with a woman seeking stardom (Naomi Watts), a woman with amnesia under the guise of Rita Hayworth (Laura Harring), a director who is losing control of his film, and other various strings of plot. Originally conceived as a television plot line, filled with open endings and unfinished arcs, Lynch added material then the pilot was rejected, giving some semblance of an ending. Well, for Lynch, that is. As to the different theories surrounding the meaning of the film, that is left to interpretation. Nevertheless, the labyrinth of surrealism is one of the most exhilarating rides through Hollywood you will ever take.
8. Ratatouille (2007) |Directed by Brad Bird
I saw Ratatouille in theaters when it was released in 2007. Walking out of the theater, my immediate reaction was akin to, “How the heck did they sell this to kids?” Although easier to market than something like Hugo, Ratatouille’s “cooking rat” seemed like a hard sell. Since when do kids care about cooking? They just kind of expect their food to appear magically, either via their mother or through a drive-through window. But Ratatouille’s endearing “anyone can do it as long as your heart is in it” storyline is sweet enough to melt the hearts of viewers, but not so saccharine that cynics will groan and/or vomit. As usual with Pixar, the strength in the film is its storytelling. It is not really a typical way to tell this kind of story, and the devices used are actually fairly unique. The voice acting from Patton Oswalt is full of life, and after the film, you’ll be left hungry for more. (Kudos to Peter O’Toole to giving life to the cunning and articulate “villain”: a critic.)
9. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Say what you will about the last film, but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a very impressive mainstream foray into the world of dark psychoanalytical character studies, gritty realism, ethics of vigilante justice, and post-9/11 buzz words. Inhabiting a very real world metropolis under the guise of Gotham City, Nolan’s noirish take on the caped crusader presents an interesting thesis to contemporary moviegoers expecting the usual blow-‘em’up action movie: “How does a society react when someone fighting for justice comes to our aid and then leaves? What does that society do in their absence? How much do we need them?” Although interpreted, and logically so, as a very political, almost pro-Patriot Act kind of film, the realistic world that the characters live in make the stories and the characters more relevant than they have ever been. And although the films are very flawed, the ideas they present are at least enough to spark some semblance of discourse. Christian Bale nobly plays billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man with his own demons, ones he fights through the manifestation of a vigilante bat. Nolan and his team started from scratch, reinterpreting the Batman’s origin in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, terrorism engulfs the city of Gotham through that of the Joker (a stellar and pretty much legendary Heath Ledger), in the form of total chaos. And when the Batman is blackballed by the public, they seek his return when another ideologically motivated terror thrives in Gotham in Bane (Tom Hardy) in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s fascinating look at society, character, and politics make his Dark Knight Trilogy a unique triumph in modern blockbuster cinema.
10. The Terminal (2003) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European man who lives in the international terminal of an airport. His country, well, doesn’t technically exist anymore because of a military coup. Stunted by there being no common language and fending off a mean Customs Head (the delightfully asshole-ish Stanley Tucci), Viktor Navarski must make the most of everything and nothing. He has no money, but the terminal has a wealth of stores. What does he do? He takes those airport carts that refund a quarter and put them back all together so he has enough to get a small meal. Until Tucci stops him. As he gets “used to” living without a real country, he makes some friends in the form of an Indian custodian, a Spanish food cart delivery man, a police officer, and a very flirty flight attendant whom he falls deeply in love with (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The simplicity of the film is its strength, and while it may be in many ways Spielberg’s trademark sap, the film is so light and breezy that it is hardly a bad thing. The Terminal is sweet and affecting and features one of Tom Hanks’ best performances.
11. Wings of Desire (1987) | Directed by WIm Wenders
My English teacher from sophomore and junior year said that Wings of Desire was his favorite film. I got it for him for Christmas, and then ordered myself a copy. I was expecting… talk of angel and love. Besides that, I had no idea what I was in for. And what I was “in for” was one of the most lyrical, ludic films about what it is to love and what it is to live I have ever seen. Wings of Desire follows an Angel who falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist and sacrifices his immortality to be with her. As an Angel, he can hear the thoughts, the wishes, the desires of everyone around him, but he yearns so much to be with the lonely soul and to feel something humans call love. Wim Wenders’ film works both as a symphony for Berlin (it was made shortly prior to the reunification of Germany) as well as a tapestry to love itself. It was loosely remade into City of Angels. Skip that and just desire for love with the original.
12. Little Children (2006) | Directed by Todd Field
Very few adaptations of novels ever include the same narrative structure as that of the source material. For instance, third person omniscient narration has, to my knowledge, never been in a film adaptation. (I could be wrong, correct me if I am.) It may be used in films from time to time, even in the form of novel writing or even screenplay writing, such as in Stranger Than Fiction or Adaptation, but not actually an adaptation of a specific novel. Little Children makes a little change to that. Little Children, directed by directed by Todd Field, based on the book by Tom Perrotta (who gave us Election, which was adapted by Alexander Payne), and with a screenplay by the two of them, Little Children is perhaps the most literary film to come in the last few decades (tied with aforementioned Stranger Than Fiction). It at times seems to be a darker, more nuanced American Beauty-esque film, but that just touches the surface. There is irony there, as the film explores the surface of idealized suburban life, but only slightly. It does it in a masterful way, allowing more time to look at the characters: a mother and faded feminist (Kate Winslet), a “prom King” father (Patrick Wilson), and a man who was recently released on sex offender charges (Oscar nominated Jackie Earle Haley). The various routines the married people have and what the sex offender wants are disrupted by various things: an affair, yearning for love form their respective spouses, and the small Boston neighborhood’s reaction to a sex offender arriving on their streets. All around the little children. Stunning performances accentuate the desperation these people have, and, somewhat regretfully, you may find yourself pitying people who may not deserve it at a first look. And all around the little children.
13. The Complete Metropolis (1927) | Directed by Fritz Lang
I bought the Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis ages ago, and I deliberately continued putting it off because the prospect of a two and a half hour silent sci-fi drama, a behemoth of inspiration and influence, was daunting. Fritz Lang’s epic is said to have inspired Blade Runner, Star Wars, and nearly every other science fiction film imaginable. But the magnitude of importance of the film is far larger than ghettoizing it to the sci-fi genre. Metropolis may be one of the single most important works of art ever created. Its dialog and situations evoke the current political atmosphere, its imagery is reminiscent not only of German Expressionism, but every other style ever used, and its characters are as complex as any human. The Complete Metropolis is THE film to watch this election year. Where else will you see the legendary quote, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!” The film went for decades missing nearly a half hour of footage that was cut when American producers butchered it for its US release. The footage was nowhere to be found until a 16mm duplicate negative was found in a warehouse, of all places, in Buenos Aires. The print was in lousy condition, but Kino cropped it fix the aspect ratio and cleaned it up without removing its filmic qualities. The Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis looks absolutely stunning all around, and the film is powerful, exciting, and dramatic. Its influence in society is undeniable, form the language of film to the semantics of politics. Metropolis is a towering achievement in art.
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!