Christopher Nolan has always had a problem with his inner thoughts drowning out his ability to make compelling cinema, and the companionship of David S. Goyer in the writer’s chair has never been rectifying. Case in point: The Dark Knight Rises is a belabored mass of hang-ups, side-treks, false starts, hasty endings, and ignoble intentions. On the latter, the film’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy) – who turns Gotham’s poor against its wealthy so that he can profit in the end – is a troubling figure of social dejection and husky sooth-saying radicalism, and he is, without a doubt, a symbol for the false intentions of working class leaders, or Nolan supposes. If the superhero genre is a card-carrying caretaker for traditionalist individualism, libertarian democracy, and the American Way, The Dark Knight Rises is the flag-waving stalwart with a mouth for the status quo. It makes no bones about its fear that the working class is a raving groupthink machine defined only by its inability to restrain itself, lying around in wait for an opportunity to search and destroy and just hurting for an anarchist fight. Continue reading
Edited May 2016
Seven years after the rubble has cleared, The Dark Knight feels like a fundamentally different, more elemental film than it did when it arrived in theaters as a sacrosanct mass of loose ends about the fate of the superhero genre and the death of a man who would go on to win an Oscar. Christopher Nolan has released three films in the ensuing years, his cryptic, somewhat belabored style has imposed itself a little more unambiguously onto the viewing public, and The Dark Knight feels like a legitimate product instead of simply a nebulous idea of how to save the comic book adaptation. It also feels, mercifully, like a work that exists on a human plane, and not some sort of holier-than-thou untouchable object, as it has frequently been touted to be by the fan-people of the world.
Admittedly, a sharp, incisive, pointed product when all is said and done, and if The Dark Knight doesn’t conclude the very idea of cinema, its veritable craft is pushed right up to the surface and wholly ready for the tasting. And it’s not all Heath Ledger for that matter, although his maelstrom-of-chaos performance as the evil Ferris wheel of social dislocation named the Joker approaches us more as “villainy” than a specific villain. His performance is also, importantly, a marker for the true essence of The Dark Knight, and the crux of its move away from pure naturalism. We have thankfully moved from the idea that a film being more “realistic” is necessarily a compliment, rather than simply a fact of existence or a feature, and The Dark Knight is at its best when it exists as a parable of the modern age, or a fable, rather than a work of realism. Little about Ledger seems frightening in a naturalist way, because the film doesn’t aim for naturalism; it has much more frightening ideas about the thickets of human nature that can’t be captured in an ascetic commitment to pure realism. Continue reading
`The comic book movie in 2005 was entrapped in its own split-decision bifurcation. On one hand, the likes of Elektra and Fantastic Four were omnipresent holdovers from the 1990s and markers of a genre strangling itself into childish submission. On the other, Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City sought to experiment with the comic book form as an avenue for pure cinema, and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence was caught taking the medium of cinema to task with the violence of the human condition. Both were attempts to push the comic book medium to new depths, but both also tacitly exposed the limits of the superhero genre by eschewing the likes of Spider-Man or Superman for stories that, at their structural elements, had very little to do with the tradition of the comic book. Just as the comic book had grown up and left some of its inner core back in the minds of teenagers, so too was comic book cinema moving away from the fluff and the puff and toward something a little more brutalized and tragic. Continue reading
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, being both a welcome surprise and a disappointment. A surprise because, ultimately, it is good, and in some ways more than good, and a disappointment because the ways in which it is good are essentially carbon-copies of its predecessor. Still, they are improved carbon-copies, and if we are in the business of deciding whether Catching Fire is better than The Hunger Games, it would be a great quest to find a way in which it is not.
Certainly, director Francis Lawrence is a notable improvement over Gary Ross, and although he doesn’t create the best version of this tale, he understands how to treat a scorched-earth with a tempo that seems poetic and evocative rather than simply solemn and stoic. It is no Malick film, although the filmmakers would probably want you to think otherwise, but there is a definite sense that Lawrence understands how to link shots together with an eye for the distressing dejection of a corrupt world without ever sinking into outright miserablism. It also helps that he is a distinctly superior action director to Gary Ross, but we will get to that when the film does, namely, near the end. Continue reading
Cowboys & Aliens
There is a version of Cowboys & Aliens that exists in the mind of Steven Spielberg (who serves as producer here) that bears his visual wit, his economic ingenuity, and his zippy romanticism for the long-lost regions of the childhood imagination. A childhood imagination that positively flies as high in the sky as a rocket ship when it hears the wonderfully matter-of-fact title “Cowboys & Aliens”, a shouldn’t-be dream-come-true exploitation film out of the ’80s that happened to manifest as a big-budget Frankenstein’s monster of disparate parts in the modern era. This hypothetical version has weight and buoyancy, snark and ballast, and a yippy camaraderie and film-fried joy to please and have fun with itself for, say, 100 minutes, so as to not over-stay its welcome. This hypothetical version is scrappy and spoiling for a fight but never dour and never gloomy, and certainly, its children-playing-in-the-sand sense of draped-on imagination knows no limits. Continue reading
The Hunger Games is not a bad film, although it must be said that it is a decidedly superficial one. Which isn’t a bad thing, per-se. When Phillip Messina’s production design does wonders to sell the contrast between the dusted-earth Appalachia of District 12 and the pop-fiction of the Capitol district (locations which you can probably derive a function for without specific information from me), the film is a veritable hoot anyway. When the superficial is this good – take Judianna Makovsky’s loopy but dementedly blissful David-Bowie-at-the-circus costume design, for one – it can be easy to overlook how insubstantial all of it is.
Not to mention, this adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult fiction book boasts a startlingly cinematic realization of its main heroine in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, now a household name but just three short years ago merely the girl from Winter’s Bone. A film of note, as Lawrence was clearly cast on the back of that eye-opening slice of Southern Gothic, being that she here plays a largely identical wise-beyond-her-years teenager transposed to the fictional but not too fictional world of Panem. After displaying her chops wandering with an unnatural forcefulness and determination through the perilous limbo of the Southern mountaintops of Winter’s Bone, she wears the monumentally Appalachian name of Katniss Everdeen here with all the nervous anxiety and dogged persistence it calls for. Continue reading
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the novel, is naughty. Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton film, is just nasty. An expatriated perversion of Lewis Carroll if ever there was one, it is the culmination of Tim Burton’s decade-long trek to shoot in the back any of the good will he earned doing more with film history than any mainstream American director during the 1990s.
Burton spent the better part of his early career falling in love with film and selling his love to the public on a silver platter. In their own ways, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, and Mars Attacks are infected with pure cinema, and they do everything in their power to show it, warts and all. Alice in Wonderland is all warts, not remotely invested in anything that makes its source material tick and not even passingly committed to finding a genuine visual and filmic translation of a literary text of madness, insecurity, and stream-of-consciousness insanity.