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Top Ten Directors – Part Three

Nolan

Following my review of Interstellar, I thought it time to discuss another of my top ten directors. Christopher Nolan has had an impressive ascension through the hallowed halls of Hollywood, attaining a position similar to those of previous directors I have written on, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. All of these filmmakers are able to make distinctive, personal films within the institution of Hollywood, films that bear their unmistakable stamp.

Interstellar poster

Nolan’s progress has been remarkable – in fifteen years and with only nine films to his credit, he is now a marketable brand. This is evident in the publicity campaign for Interstellar: posters and trailers emphasise that the film is FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, relying upon the director’s name rather than that of the stars as is more common practice. This is surprising considering the bankability of the principal actors of Interstellar – while their names appear on posters, they are not mentioned in trailers and there is no mention that these are Academy Award Winner Matthew McConaughey, Academy Award Winner Anne Hathaway, Academy Award Nominee Jessica Chastain and Academy Award Winner Michael Caine. Publicity for other recent films featuring these actors has emphasised them, but in the case of Interstellar, the director is used as the major selling point.

This emphasis upon Nolan has grown over his career – publicity for Insomnia mentions that the film is from THE ACCLAIMED BRITISH DIRECTOR OF MEMENTO. Similarly, publicity for The Prestige describes the film as being FROM THE DIRECTOR OF BATMAN BEGINS AND MEMENTO.

Prestige_poster

Both these films, however, were largely sold on their stars, while Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are simply promoted as Batman films. Following the success of The Dark Knight and Inception, however, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar declare the director; these films are FROM CHRISTOPHER NOLAN. What then, does this publicity refer to?

inception_poster01

The Nolan brand is one of major releases of ever-increasing size, and with particular emphasis upon complexity – in short, brainy blockbusters. If the Spielberg brand is one of sentimentality then Nolan’s is intellectual – here is the filmmaker who makes you feel intelligent (if you can make head or tail of his films). While this is unfair to Spielberg, whose films are often as complex as they are sentimental, Nolan’s films consistently display interests in time and identity, and utilise elaborate editing patterns that confuse and delight in equal measure. This has led some reviewers to describe the director as chilly and unemotional, more interested in calculation than feeling. This seems strange when considered in light of the consistent interest in loss and grief that runs through Nolan’s oeuvre. Consider the grief that drives Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and perverts Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, as well as Cobb’s haunting guilt in Inception and the tragic self-perpetuation of Memento, not to mention the parent-child relationship that runs through Interstellar. Nolan’s films are driven by the emotional torment of their protagonists, and the various narrative and stylistic tricks all serve this central conceit, taking the viewer into the emotional state of the characters through a dazzling mastery of the cinematic medium.

Memento-Poster

For all the scale and grandeur of Nolan’s blockbusters since Batman Begins, it is Memento that I pick both as my favourite Nolan film and the best introduction to his oeuvre. This is not to say that Nolan has lost his way or his interests and concerns have been swamped by bloated budgets and studio demands, but Memento’s deceptive complexity rewards repeat viewings and endless discussion (having taught this film several times on a film-philosophy course, I have repeatedly found this to be the case). Memento’s chronological rearrangements express the subjectivity of memory and knowledge, and the lack of certainty over what is presented at face value, while the presence of tattoos highlights the (unreliable) use of embodiment to fix oneself in the world. The ethics of revenge and personal goals are questioned and answered, and those answers are then questioned afresh. And the emotional core mentioned above provides the film with a deeply tragic dimension that leaves the viewer unsettled, both sympathetic and uncomfortable towards the protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce). This ambivalence has continued throughout Nolan’s work, and while Memento may not be the most ambitious work in his oeuvre, it remains an enthralling and compelling introduction to the work of this distinctive and singular director.

Memento (2000)

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Disappointing Instalments

Spoiler Warning

I recently had a conversation with a friend about recent films that we had different responses to, Kick-Ass 2 (Jeff Wadlow, 2013) and The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). I found both of these disappointing and my friend thought they were alright. In the case of Kick-Ass 2, my fellow conversant knew that it would not surprise or shock them like the first, and that the only way it could have done would be to change the style of the film. Therefore, the film was enjoyable as an extension to the first, but nothing more. The absence of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) was felt, and my friend commented that the story did not have enough suspense, unlike Matthew Vaughn’s original.

Hit Girl

Both of us agreed that Hit Girl/Mindy McCready (Chloe Grace Moretz) was the best thing in Kick-Ass 2, so for me, it was disappointing that she was underused and spending time becoming a ‘regular girl’, only for her to abandon that and re-embrace Hit Girl. It is a common trope in superhero narratives that heroes renounce their super identities (see Superman II [Richard Lester, 1980], Spider-Man 2 [Sam Raimi, 2004], The Dark Knight Rises [Christopher Nolan, 2012]), but it tends to be more traumatic and a crisis of identity. Had Kick-Ass 2 focused on that element, it would have been more effective, even as an identity crisis within high school. High school is fertile ground for dramas about identity and finding oneself, so a high school action comedy about Hit Girl would have a lot of potential.

Justice4evr

Unfortunately, with Mindy/Hit Girl side-lined, Kick-Ass 2 lacks not only suspense but emphasis, wavering between Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass and his ongoing ambition, as well as Colonel Stars and Stripes’ (Jim Carrey) Justice Forever band, and the increasing villainy of Chris D’Amico/The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). The film therefore lacks focus and a coherent theme, essentially trying to play off the original’s feature of having superheroes swear and get badly hurt. But in Kick-Ass, that was a point rather than a gimmick. In Kick-Ass 2, it’s just a gimmick. There are some good sequences, including the final battle and indeed most scenes involving Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), and I liked the suggestion of a romance between Mindy and Dave, but overall, the film felt lightweight and uncertain of its meaning.

It used to be the case that sequels were never as good as the originals. Superhero films especially buck that trend, with Spider-Man 2, Blade II (Guillermo Del Toro, 2002), X-2 (Bryan Singer, 2003), The Dark Knight, maybe even Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (Tim Story, 2007) improving what came before. Sadly, it seems that Kick-Ass 2 is what we used to expect from sequels.

the-wolverine-poster

The Wolverine is another matter. The X-Men franchise has been very patchy, at its best striking a balance between personal dramas, thrilling action and wider ramifications. The wider ramifications was the major missing feature from The Wolverine, as it is the most intimate and personal film of the franchise thus far. Director James Mangold has a talent for intimate, down-to-earth drama, whether that be the biopic melodrama of Walk The Line (2005) or the terse psychological thrills of Identity (2003). The Wolverine demonstrates that he can still deliver the necessary action spectacle (although perhaps that should be credited more to second unit director, editor and the special effects team), but despite the bullet train sequence and the final battle with Silver Samurai, The Wolverine is remarkably unremarkable, because there seems to be little reason for what is going on. It is essentially the further adventures of Logan, revisiting an old friend, making new ones including a requisite new romance, and I was left thinking ‘So what?’ The spectral presence of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was unconvincing, and the most moving moment was Logan’s early communion with a wounded bear. It could have been refreshing to see Logan more vulnerable, like those mentioned above it is an instance of the superhero losing their powers, but the trope of him having to adapt to being hurt was not given enough variety, swiftly becoming repetitive.

Viper

To make matters worse, the villain of The Wolverine was very uninteresting, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) little more than a mutant riff on the vicious beauty, which was done far more interestingly with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn/Jennifer Lawrence) and Emma Frost (January Jones) in previous installments. Perhaps if she had been in a position to fight Logan herself, like Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) in X-2, it might have been interesting, but instead she is far from a worthy adversary. The final clash between Wolverine and Silver Samurai was flashy but felt more like an obligation than an organic development, while the sudden reappearance of the bone claws was overly convenient.

Overall, The Wolverine felt lightweight, nothing attached to what was going on. For me, the X-Men films have been most enjoyable when the stakes are high, which they have been previously:

X-Men – the irradiation of the world leaders

X-2 – the death of all mutants and, subsequently, the death of all humans

X-Men: The Last Stand – the ‘cure’ for mutation

X-Men Origins: Wolverine – more personal, but still a campaign against mutant-kind

X-Men: First Class – the Cuban missile crisis and World War Three

The Wolverine – dying man wants to live forever and will steal Logan’s ability to heal so that he becomezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

XMEN FIRST CLASS

The stakes of The Wolverine are too low and, therefore, the film lacks drama. Ironically, the biggest problem with The Wolverine is the best thing in it – the mid-credits sequences featuring Professor X and Magneto. I had read that Patrick Stewart was going to cameo, but I was not expecting Ian McKellen to show up as well. In addition, the foreshadowing of Trask Industries is another nice detail, demonstrating economic storytelling and raising expectations. I eagerly anticipate X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014), combining the elements established in earlier instalments into something both new and familiar. But when the best thing in a film is a scene with no connection to what went on before, then the film as a whole is clearly doing something wrong.

Magneto

Awards Predictions Part Two: Oscar Predictions

Oscar Nom

Historically, the Golden Globes serve as a prediction for the Oscars.  Based upon the Golden Globe nominations, I have particular predictions for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s nominees, especially in the category of Achievement in Directing.  I predict that the AMPAS will nominate five out of the following for this particular honour.

Ben Affleck for Argo

Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty

Tom Hooper for Les Misérables

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

Steven Spielberg for Lincoln

Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained

Tarantino and Hooper are the maybes, the remaining four I think are solid bets; I doubt anyone else will appear (except possibly Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master).  I also anticipate that Daniel Day-Lewis and Hugh Jackman will be up for Best Actor, for Lincoln and Les Misérables respectively, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master will juggle Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor between them at the BAFTAs and Oscars.  The latter category will probably also feature Alan Arkin for Argo, Leonardo DiCaprio for Django Unchained and Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln.  I expect Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone) will remain prominent among Best Actress nominees, as well as Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Naomi Watts (The Impossible), and is any Best Actress contenders list complete without Meryl Streep (Hope Springs)?  Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), Amy Adams (The Master) and Sally Field (Lincoln) will most likely be up for Best Supporting Actress.

I expect Brave and Frankenweenie to be up for Animated Feature, and perhaps the other three Golden Globe nominees (Hotel TransylvaniaRise of the GuardiansWreck-It Ralph) but perhaps not, as Paranorman stands a chance as well.  Amour and A Royal Affair, as well as Rust and Bone, are likely to be nominated for Foreign Language Film.

My personal favourite of 2012, Skyfall, is not likely to get much awards attention, but I can see Roger Deakins being nominated for Cinematography.  Deakins did tremendous work with the digital photography of Skyfall, and I would very much like to see him nominated (for the 10th time).  Similarly, I can also imagine Wally Pfister, who won Best Cinematography for Inception in 2010, being nominated for The Dark Knight Rises.  As Pfister is now directing a film in his own right, Transcendence, this could be his last nomination in this category, and I can see it happening.

The Best Picture category is the most open of all, as the number of nominees can be anything between five and ten.  I think it unlikely that the ten films nominated at the Golden Globes will be up for Best Picture at the Oscars, because the AMPAS does not have the separate categories and is notoriously sniffy about comedies.  Moonrise Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook have a chance of being nominated, as do The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild, but the very strong contenders are ArgoDjango UnchainedLife of PiLincolnZero Dark Thirty and Les Misérables.  I anticipate these will all be up for Best Picture.  Amour could well be in there as well, although I think an animated film among the Best Picture nominees is unlikely.  As a (very) wildcard, the AFI did name The Dark Knight Rises as one of its films of the year…

Please check back once the Oscar nominees are announced on 10th January for consideration of likely winners!

Top Twelve of 2012

2012

On the twelfth day of Christmas

The movies gave to me

Twelve engineers

PROMETHEUS

Eleven Grey wolves

The Grey

Ten Joes a-killing

Killer Joe

Nine Lives of Pi

life_of_pi_5

Eight Raiders Raiding

The Raid

Seven District tributes

The-Hunger-Games

Six Unexpected Journeys

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Five Looping Loopers

Looper

Four Argo film crews

Argo

Three Assembled Avengers

Avengers

Two Dark Knights Rising

Rises

And a Skyfall from 00-Heaven.

Skyfall Image

That’s my musical version of presenting my top twelve films of 2012, and the reason I decided on a top twelve rather than a top ten.  Not that 2012 featured so many astounding cinema experiences that I could not pick less than twelve – originally there were ten.  But then I decided to put them into musical form, which necessitated an extra two.  Ranking them was surprisingly difficult, and the factor I used to ascertain their positions was surprise.  What surprised me, what met expectations, and what exceeded expectations were the deciding factors in deciding my favourites.

As I’ve written previously, expectation plays a large part in my engagement with a film, largely because I get involved in the hype and let it influence me – the cinematic experience is not only the time spent in the auditorium, but the anticipation that builds up through news, trailers, reviews and reactions of other viewers.  My most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, and when I saw it I was far from disappointed.  But Christopher Nolan’s EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND (sic) only met my expectations, it did not exceed them.  It has divided opinion, although there seem to be fewer who thought it “sucks” than those who found it “awesome”.  Similarly, while it was great to be back in Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there was an unshakeable sense of déjà vu which meant the film lacked freshness, unlike Avengers Assemble which united familiar figures in a new situation.  Skyfall also divided opinion, as many thought it was superb but there were (apparently) instances of people walking out, which is baffling to me.  I probably had a prejudice about Skyfall because it is a Bond film, and there is only so much I expect from the series.  Happily, Skyfall gave me so much more than its franchise led me to expect, working as a great film in its own right.

When it comes to ascertaining what makes a film good, different people have different standards.  For many, a crucial factor is character consistency and/or sympathy.  For others, flashy action and special effects are important.  Ultimately, there will never be universal agreement on what constitutes high cinematic quality, there will always be differences of opinion, and thank goodness for that because it would be very dull if we all liked and disliked the same things.

Fundamentally, I want high technical quality, such as detailed production design (Prometheus), expressive cinematography (Life of Pi), effective editing (Avengers Assemble, Argo) and direction that pulls all these elements together (The Dark Knight Rises).  I also want conviction to subject, as few things frustrate me more than a film that raises a topic and then abandons it (The Iron Lady), so a film that sticks to its guns (The Grey) and has the conviction to deliver on what it sets out to do (Killer Joe) is a good one to me.  Exploration of themes such as responsibility (Looper) and loyalty (Skyfall) also work, again so long as there is conviction throughout the filmic text.  Detailed fictional worlds, especially science fiction (The Hunger Games) and fantasy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) work very well on me, and I like something visceral that draws me into the diegetic world and to make me feel what’s going on (The Raid).  The films on this list gave me what I wanted, and the best gave me more than I expected.

I often ask people to explain their opinions and their explanations indicate the standards which they use for assessment.  My standards probably seem strange and idiosyncratic, but they enable me to organise the list below.

 

Top Films of 2012

1. Skyfall

Classic features meet contemporary panache in the year’s most surprising and satisfying film.  Nobody did it better.

2. The Dark Knight Rises

An operatic conclusion to an epic saga.  Sublime technical features express weighty themes in a compelling story.

3. Avengers Assemble

A marvellous assembly of sparkling characters, high stakes, wit, brio and inventive action.

4. Argo

A superb combination of satire, history, political commentary and nerve-shredding suspense.

5. Looper

An atmospheric crime thriller that uses its time travel premise to effectively explore issues of responsibility and culpability.

6. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A warm yet thrilling return to Middle Earth.

7. The Hunger Games

A grim vision of the future with powerful comments on voyeuristic pleasure.

8. The Raid

The most intense action movie in years.

9. Life of Pi

Beautiful, spiritual and metafictional glory.

10. Killer Joe

A jet black comedy which displays fearless conviction to its macabre tale.

11. The Grey

An enthralling, existential tale of survival.

12. Prometheus

Questions of faith and science collide with suspense and shocks.

 

Honourable mentions

The Muppets

A delightfully affectionate reboot of reinvigorated old favourites.

The Woman in Black

A genuinely chilling ghost story.

War Horse

Slightly undercut by its episodic structure but still an emotional journey with moments of real power.

The Descendants

A humorous and touching tale of a family struggling to cope with loss and betrayal, with great use of its Hawaiian backdrop.

The Cabin in the Woods

Smart, funny and scary meta-snuff film about why horror movies happen.

 

Turkeys of the Year

1. The Iron Lady

A mess of under-developed ideas that squanders every opportunity for compelling drama.

2. Safe House

A potentially gripping thriller undone by distracting cinematography.

Review of 2012 Part Seven: 3D or Not 3D, That is the Question – Part I

Dredd

 

3D provokes a lot of debate, more so than other changes in cinema format.  Digital takes over from film and few notice.  IMAX films and cinemas become more common and there is little complaint.  48 frames per second arrives and we ask “What does that mean?”  3D however is a cause of constant debate, as some praise the format, others criticise it, and others shrug and say “So what?”  Critics and filmmakers have objected to the format, saying it adds nothing and no one really likes it.

I’ve gone through all three of these reactions.  When Avatar came out in 2009, I was hugely excited and thought the 3D element of that film was a wonderful, integral part of its meaning.  Since then I was pleased with other 3D films, especially Hugo and, to a lesser extent, Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn, Prometheus and some of the retro-fitted offerings like Thor and John Carter.  Then 3D became just another feature and while it was OK to see it, it did not seem that important.  When The Avengers came out, I opted for 2D simply because the timing was more convenient.  The Amazing Spider-Man was, sadly, far from amazing in three dimensions, and I recalled Sam Raimi’s 2D Spider-Man films being far more dynamic than Marc Webb’s.

This year though, 3D started to hurt in that most important of places, the wallet.  Cinema tickets are expensive enough, but 3D can add more than £2 on top of the original price.  Furthermore, cinema prices in general increased towards the end of the year, and the increase in 2D prices may be to aid the expansion of 3D, so even those of us who don’t see 3D are paying for it.  To be annoyed by this is understandable, and as a result, I haven’t seen a 3D film since The Amazing Spider-Man, as I don’t think it’s worth the money.  This meant I missed out on some releases, the most notable among them Dredd, or Dredd 3D as it was advertised.  With the majority of screenings being in 3D, I could not find a 2D screening at a suitable time, and not being prepared to pay extra for 3D, missed the film altogether.  I would not be surprised if this was a common experience, and other cinema-goers may have avoided or neglected Dredd 3D specifically because of the third dimension, either due to price or just a preference for 2D.  It is notable that Dredd was a box office flop, kyboshing fans’ hopes for a sequel.

What makes a predominantly 3D cinema release especially contradictory is that any distributor needs one eye on the home release.  While 3D Blu-Rays and televisions do exist, the majority of home purchase will still be in 2D, so the 3D is largely wasted.  Cynically, this may have been the plan of distributors Lionsgate: Dredd’s predominantly 3D theatrical release was intended to maximise ticket sales, and served as a promotion for the DVD release.  Distributors make far more from DVD sales than box office take, so the poor theatrical takings of Dredd may not be a concern as DVD sales will cover the loss.  Like earlier releases The Shawshank Redemption, Donnie Darko and Hard Rain, Dredd may enjoy a second life on home release, but crucially this is (primarily) without the third dimension.  Is the primarily 3D release to blame for Dredd’s box office failure?  Perhaps.  It could equally be credited to the restrictive certificate, 18 in the UK and R in the US, so family audiences who flocked to The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises did not see it.  Or perhaps those who saw The Raid thought it unlikely the similarly premised Dredd would measure up, and indeed comparisons between the two generally put Gareth Evans’ surprise hit ahead of Pete Travis’ comic book adaptation.  It is perhaps worth noting that two of the year’s highest box earners, The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall, were only screened in 2D, although the year’s highest earner, The Avengers, had 3D and 2D screenings, so who knows?

Review of 2012 Part Three – Great Expectations I: Marketing Malarkey

Great Expectations

2012 proved a year of great expectations in several ways – to commemorate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the BBC as well as BBC Films, not to mention Baroque Theatre Company, produced adaptations of Great Expectations.  I saw none of them, nor have I ever read the book, but there were a number of films released in 2012 that came loaded with expectations of various sorts.

Cast your mind back and you may recall The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy.  I posted on this back in April, saying that I had wanted to avoid all prior knowledge.  I failed quite spectacularly in this regard, encountering reviews as well as an interview with star Jennifer Lawrence.  Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the visceral thrill and the ominous portents of The Hunger Games, which succeeded in presenting a very grim portrait of the future and some thrilling yet disturbing action sequences.  I was very impressed with The Hunger Games and have subsequently read the novel, which surpassed the film in some areas but not others.  The most common response to adaptations is “The book is better than the film”, which is nonsense because films and books work differently and to compare them qualitatively is like saying a boat is better than a car.  While both are vehicles, a boat is used for different purposes than a car, and while a book and a film are both media texts, they are consumed in different.

That said, the dystopia of The Hunger Games was more convincingly portrayed through Collins’ terse, urgent prose, which steadily built up the world of the book through Katniss Everdeen’s reminiscences and descriptions.  Director Gary Ross’ excessive use of shaky cam was jarring and prevented a sense of oppression or a panopticon, but his decision to feature some action away from Katniss (Lawrence) did enable the social criticism of reality television to be made more strongly.  The response of established fans of The Hunger Games was naturally influenced by their feelings towards the book, with some appreciating the adaptation and others disappointed that it did not meet their expectations (there’s that word again).  Later in the year, the release of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part Two similarly fanned the flames of fan furore.  I haven’t seen it, so no comment on the film itself (for that, see here), but The Hunger Games and Twilight serve as interesting examples of the expectations that surround adaptations.

Shortly after The Hunger Games came Marvel’s The Avengers, or Marvel’s Avengers Assemble if you’re in Britain.  Joss Whedon’s superhero ensemble was the culmination of a remarkable feat of franchise filmmaking, beginning in 2008 with Iron Man and developing through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger.  As a result of those earlier films, expectations for The Avengers were very high – the combination of these four superheroes plus the supervillain and three additional heroes, not to mention the steady campaign of teasers, trailers and excerpts, raised anticipation to a high level.  I was more than satisfied with what came about: The Avengers fulfilled my expectations as a glorious, fun-filled, power flinging, well-balanced, gripping and compelling, not to mention funny, blockbuster.  It broke multiple records and has become the third highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

When I think back on The Avengers, which I saw twice at the cinema, my memories are very positive and I look forward to the Special Edition Blu-Ray which includes Whedon’s director’s commentary, since the current UK Blu-Ray does not include this special feature from the US release (not that I’m complaining; oh wait, yes, I am).  And yet, even though I loved the film and expect it to be in my Top Ten of 2012, something about it continues to niggle me.  I realise that it was a matter of having my expectations met.  I am well aware that unreasonably high expectations can frequently lead to disappointment, so I am careful to keep my expectations reasonable.  The Avengers fulfilled my expectations, but did not surpass them.  So it wasn’t disappointing per se, but nor was it exceptional.

Next up was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-vaunted return to science fiction and a sort-of prequel to Alien.  Furthermore, it was to be Scott’s first use of stereoscopic photography and the marketing campaign was even more detailed than that of The Avengers, with trailers, teasers, an entire commercial section on Channel 4 during Homeland and various viral videos.  The viral campaign helped to create a wider universe within which Prometheus is set, continuing the expansion of the Alien franchise’s world that has progressed since 1979.  The marketing also served to create very high expectations for the film itself, and probably went too far.  A large proportion of the response to Prometheus has been negative, with critics and audiences alike deriding its plot holes, indistinguishable characters and inconsistencies with the previous films.  The rather cynical home release has done the film and its distributors financial favours but little else – if you want the seven hours worth of extra features, you need to buy the highly priced 3D Blu-Ray.  Yes, I will be doing that, even though I don’t have a 3D TV.

Personally, I liked Prometheus very much.  It was gripping, atmospheric, scary and thought-provoking.  It also provided a useful example for identifying what I like in movies and why I have fairly wide taste.  But I also think it was over-hyped and left me wanting more.  It is very likely there will be further instalments as it features a clear set-up for a sequel, but Prometheus itself has numerous flaws and did not live up to the expectations it created.

Perhaps the most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s “EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND”, according to the trailer.  This was the film that, for me, carried the greatest potential for disappointment.  Superhero trilogies, including Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men, have a record of 1. Good; 2. Better; 3. Worse.  So far, the Batman trilogy had started well and then gotten better, so there was concern that The Dark Knight Rises might follow the pattern and be worse.  Furthermore, The Dark Knight had been such an exceptional movie, perhaps the most impressive superhero film ever partly by being more than a superhero film.  For a threequel to top that seemed unlikely.  To make matters worse, Nolan had hardly rested on his laurels, following up The Dark Knight with the remarkable Inception, and setting his sights even higher for The Dark Knight Rises which was touted as epic and grand.  Nolan is the most significant Hollywood director of the 21st century, so it was reasonable to hope but perhaps not to expect that he would surpass himself.  Advertising again raised expectations even higher, with teasers, trailers, excerpts and viral marketing escalating anticipation to fever pitch.  The result was not only a very healthy box office take, but some rather bizarre screening options – 6am at the cinema, anybody?

Was The Dark Knight Rises everything I wanted it to be?  Yes.  Was it everything I expected it to be?  Yes.  And did I expect it to blow my socks off and leave me flabbergasted at its extraordinary power?  No.  I knew it was unrealistic to expect as big a surprise as The Dark Knight, so I didn’t.  I anticipated that the trilogy closer would be at least something of a comedown, despite its epic build-up, and I was right.  One review of The Dark Knight argued that if Heath Ledger were removed from the film, you would be left with a fairly standard action movie.  I disagree on this – Heath Ledger is not the only exceptional thing about The Dark Knight, but he is outstanding, both in terms of his performance and the way the Joker is written.  The Dark Knight Rises is The Dark Knight without the earlier film’s central element of anarchy, personified in but not limited to the Joker.  It is this theme which makes The Dark Knight special, a serious exploration of the anarchy inherent in costumed heroics and villainy.  The Dark Knight Rises is more conventional with Bane’s baroque schemes and, ultimately, a clash between “good” and “evil”, rather than an in-depth meditative study which pushes The Dark Knight into serious, philosophical art.  The Dark Knight Rises is by no means bad, but its ultimate purpose is to close the trilogy, and it accomplishes this with aplomb.  I expected a spectacular finale to the trilogy and I got it.  I didn’t expect any more, and I didn’t get any more.  It would therefore be unfair to call The Dark Knight Rises disappointing, but it would still have been nice to be surprised.

All of these films were marketed to within an inch of their lives, and in each case the hype may have damaged the films’ reception.  It would be unfair to criticise the films’ distributors for this hype, as studies have shown that good marketing is key to the box office success of major films, whereas bad marketing can lead to flops like Fight Club and this year’s John Carter.  Box office success is not an indicator of public enjoyment – more than $1 billion gross for The Avengers does not mean all those cinema-goers enjoyed the film – but the bottom line is movies are put into cinemas to earn money, and marketing helps that happen.  Marketing works by raising expectations, yet paradoxically it can have a negative affect on audience enjoyment as we may expect too much.  I think the seasoned movie-goer understands the effect of marketing, but that does not mean we are immune to it.  The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises had firmly established themselves in public consciousness weeks if not months before their release, and it was a rare cinema patron who saw these films with no preconceptions.  Quite often, these preconceptions can have a negative effect on our response to the film itself, but if we manage our expectations we can make them realistic, and therefore avoid disappointment.  I am carefully managing my expectations for Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Hobbit

Bat Memories Part Two: The Dark Knight That Rises In Us All

Bats2SPOILER WARNING!

A little late, I complete my ruminations on the cinematic excursions of the Caped Crusader, with consideration of how Christopher Nolan and his collaborators re-constituted Batman after the quality vacuum that was Batman & Robin, as well as offering my thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises.

When I read that the reboot of the Batman franchise was to be directed by the man behind Memento and Insomnia, I was pleased because those films impressed me (indeed, Memento clarified that my favourite type of film is a good thriller and I haven’t gone wrong with that approach yet).  Just how impressive Batman Begins turned out to be took me (as well as others) quite by surprise.  Not only did Nolan (along with brother/co-writer Jonathan, as well as David S. Goyer, DoP Wally Pfister and producer/wife Emma Thomas) deliver a detailed, consistent and plausible reboot and reinterpretation of the Batman mythos, they also created the best superhero movie made up until that point.  The superhero sub-genre had been growing since Blade in 1998, got better with X-Men in 2000 and really exploded with Spider-Man in 2002.  Blade II, X-2, Daredevil, Hulk and Spider-Man 2 followed in quick succession, so when Batman Begins arrived in 2005 (along with Fantastic Four), the superhero stage was already crowded.

What Batman Begins managed to do was delve deep into the psychology of a superhero figure, and strike a balance between character interplay and thematic exploration with spectacular action.  Not that others had not done this as well – Spider-Man 2 and X-2 especially have plenty of action and plenty of character – but Batman Begins actually made the action sequences the least interesting parts of the film.  Which is not to say they were bad: the explosive escape from the League of Shadows’ lair; Batman’s first appearance at the docks; the attack on Wayne Manor; Batman’s rescue of Rachel Dawes and the finale in the Narrows and aboard Gotham’s elevated train are all masterfully handled set pieces.  In a year when Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was more Run of the Mill, and Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith went too far into CGI flamboyance, it was most refreshing to see a relatively new director stake such a claim in the blockbuster field.  Yet despite the impressive set pieces, the inter-personal dramas between Bruce and Alfred, Jim Gordon, Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow, as well as the careful development of the Batman persona, make Batman Begins a remarkable investigation into identity, in relation to one’s own ideology, family background and social position, not to mention a varied exploration of the theme of fear.  No other superhero film managed to accomplish so much and so efficiently.

With the superhero genre effectively deconstructed and reconstructed, Nolan could go to strange new places with the sequel, which is why The Dark Knight feels like something different and special.  It is a superhero film only by virtue of having names, costumes and a few gadgets; otherwise, it is effectively a straight crime thriller.  Except it is also more than that, as crime thrillers seldom have a criminal as malevolent and uncontrollable as the Joker.  The Joker truly is the trump card in The Dark Knight, as discussions of motivations and objectives go out the window: as Alfred tells Bruce (and as we were warned in the teaser trailer), “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  Nolan shows us the world burn in The Dark Knight – rather than Batman being a resource for law and order, Gotham becomes more violent and chaotic than ever.  Much of the Joker’s power has been credited to Heath Ledger’s incendiary performance, but both as a character and an element within the plot the Joker serves to elevate the film into a thought-provoking philosophical discussion on chaos and order.  The most dramatic sequences are, again, dialogue scenes such as the confrontation between Batman and the Joker in a police interview room, which infamously turns into a torture sequence, as well as the final stand-off between Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent.  That these sequences stand out despite the tremendous opening bank robbery, the gripping battle between massive truck and Batmobile/Pod, and the high rise assaults in Hong Kong and Gotham, is testament to Nolan’s mastery of the cinematic craft, blending high octane thrills with serious themes and characters that can explore these themes in uncompromising ways.  More than the best superhero film ever, The Dark Knight is a true genre-blender, merging elements of crime and political thrillers into a potent and compelling cocktail.

It would be fair to say that my reaction at the end of The Dark Knight Rises was one of relief: relief that it managed to live up to expectations.  It did not supersede them – I think after the extraordinary nature of The Dark Knight, the expectation that it would be topped was unreasonably high.  However, being aware of this, my hope was simply not to be disappointed, so I was relieved not to be.  Earlier this year, my local world of ciné were nice enough to screen Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in a single programme, so I got to see both on the big screen again before The Dark Knight Rises.  Therefore I was well prepared to compare Christopher Nolan’s trilogy climax to his previous instalments.

The Dark Knight Rises succeeds as a trilogy closer because it builds upon yet does not deviate from what came before.  We have much of the same: Alfred being regretful, Bruce being committed, Lucius being supportive, Gordon being fretful, and we have much that is new: Selina being deceitful, Bane menacing, Blake simultaneously idealistic and realistic, and Miranda being vengeful.  I also expected Nolan’s remarkable ability to deliver superb action sequences, yet make these sequences the tip of the iceberg, two characters talking being even more dramatic than attack vehicles shooting at each other.  Combining the two is effective as well: Bane and Batman taunting each other while they fight helps to draw the viewer in, feel the emotional as well as physical blows.  Speaking of emotional blows, it was on the second viewing that I actually welled up during Alfred’s final speech, as he grieved for the Waynes and told Bruce’s parents how sorry he was that he failed to protect their son.  Clearly, the film was powerful.

A key part of this power, like the previous installments, are the ideas that feature so heavily (but not heavy-handedly) in The Dark Knight RisesSlavoj Zizek gives a very interesting discussion on the politics of the film, concluding that it is in some ways impressive and in others ham-fisted.  Other reviews comment on the film’s engagement with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the potentially disturbing politics the film suggests.  For me, a great element of the trilogy as a whole and its finale in particular, is the presentation and engagement with a debate over a type of heroism that is surprisingly egalitarian.

In my last post, I discussed the failures of the previous Batman movies to deliver a truly compelling take on the Dark Knight.  I think a key reason was a specific failure to explore the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne in much depth.  Crucially, this was what Nolan indicated he would be doing with his reboot of the franchise, so that was another reason I had high hopes for this re-interpretation.

When first conceiving of his vigilante persona in Batman Begins, Bruce describes an incorruptible symbol.  Alfred tells Bruce in The Dark Knight what the “point” of Batman is: “He can be the outcast, no one else can”.  For Nolan/Bale’s Batman, that is indeed the point of Batman, he can be and do what no one else can.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce explains to John Blake and Jim Gordon that Batman is a demonstration that anyone can be a hero.  I think this may be the reason Batman has always resonated with me, and why my work on the character thus far has focused upon discussions of heroism.  Nolan’s trilogy is distinguished from the previous interpretations of the Dark Knight through its emphasis on “realistic” feats and devices rather than more outlandish events in such franchises as Spider-Man (Raimi and Webb) and The Avengers.  Critics have pointed out the implausibility of such features as the Bat, Bruce’s trip from wherever the prison was back to Gotham without passport or money, and Selina Kyle’s heels, but nonetheless the films still take place in a world far-removed from genetic mutations into lizard creatures and devices that open portals to distant parts of the galaxy.  However, being closer to our reality extends beyond the gadgets and the vehicles.

In my previous post, I argued that Batman Forever impresses me the most of the earlier Batman films, because we have an internal and external struggle for Bruce Wayne.  This dramatic tension is played out on a far wider scale across Nolan’s Dark Knight Legend, as we focus upon Bruce’s attempts to deal with his past, present and future.  Batman is a form of therapy, but ultimately lacks catharsis: he can make a start of helping the people of Gotham, but when it all goes horribly wrong in The Dark Knight, he gets stuck, as Alfred identifies, he never moved on.  Yet by the end of The Dark Knight Rises, he has moved on, “rising” out of the pit of depression that made him a recluse by the start of the film.

Bruce’s rise is only one of a number of appearances of the trope of rising in the film.  Once imprisoned by Bane, Bruce literally rises out of the hole in which he is imprisoned, as did the previous inmate of the prison, whom both viewer and protagonist believe to be Bane, but turns out to be Talia/Miranda. The components of Bruce’s lair rise out of the water in the Batcave, a walkway rising under Alfred’s feet as he approaches his master/charge.  In his final act of sacrifice, Batman rises out of Gotham in order to carry the bomb out of harm’s way.  This final rise is also Bruce’s way of moving on, as he effectively “kills” Batman.  The film’s finale might have benefitted from the ambiguity of not seeing the reverse shot of Alfred’s POV in Florence, when he sees Bruce and Selina, free of Gotham, but I choose to believe it is what he sees, allowing us the viewers to share in the catharsis of all three characters: all have risen from the darkness, the anguish and the pain that we have spent three movies sharing with them.  How fitting that we share their rise as well.

Metaphorically, not only does Bruce rise out of isolation, but Batman rises from the state of pariah, and Gotham must rise above the state of martial law imposed upon it by Bane.  Selina rises from cat burglar to freedom fighter, James Gordon rises from the depressed and injured state that he has fallen into, while John Blake rises from the rank of uniformed cop to something more distinguished.  Indeed, the final shot of the film both presents and expresses rising, as it is filled by the platforms of the Batcave, rising with Robin Blake (the new Dark Knight?) upon them, literal and metaphorical rising encapsulated in a shot that both ends this legend, yet allows us to imagine what more could happen.

This, perhaps, is the final point of Batman: we can all be heroes in one way or another.  We need not put on costumes or fight crime, but “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.”  So perhaps that is the message we can take from The Dark Knight Legend – whomsoever, in whatever circumstances, helps out fellow people, is a hero.  That is the power of the Dark Knight Legend, taking the idea of heroism seriously, both as a dramatic device, and as an in-depth thematic exploration.  To that height, Nolan rose, and certainly delivered me the Batman I always wanted.