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Ten Films for Ten Days – Day Seven
The seventh film in my list of ten significant films used to be among my top ten, and although it has been supplanted by another from the same director, this one still holds great significance for me. In 2000 AD, when this was released theatrically, I went through some bad times in which I felt that the majority of people were against me and that an institution I believed in was going to the dogs. Therefore, Ridley Scott’s epic tale of a general who became a slave, who became a gladiator, who defied an emperor, struck a deep, resonant chord with me. I went to see Gladiator five times on its original release, that’s right, five. While I have seen other films as many or more times in the cinema, those were due to re-releases and special screenings (yes, The Dark Knight, I mean you). ‘Gladiator’ offered me hope, inspiration, catharsis and the other positive feelings that one gets from bloody hand-to-hand combat and the deep-set rot of a once noble empire.
The talent behind Gladiator have to an extent gone off the boil. Russell Crowe was a known figure but became a star and an Oscar winner with this film, while Ridley Scott came as close to an Oscar as seems likely. Their subsequent collaborations such as American Gangster and Body of Lies failed to bottle the lightning of Gladiator. That said, it is fair to say that Joaquin Phoenix has become a more respected presence as time has gone by, not least by seeking out interesting projects from Walk The Line to The Master to You Were Never Really Here. Writer John Logan recently did us all proud with the excellent TV series Penny Dreadful, and The Martian demonstrated that Scott still has some decent work left in him (the less said about The Counsellor and Alien: Covenant, the better). But Gladiator remains undimmed in its epic grandeur, an awesome spectacle that works on a pure visceral level and has moving emotional depth. Furthermore, the film makes interesting comments about the proper uses of power and even our own violent appetites. Are you not entertained? I certainly am.
Amidst the problems of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, one pinnacle of wisdom, class and super-powered kick-assery stood tall above everything else – Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman/Diana Prince. Despite this appearance and over 70 years of comic book history, the world’s most famous superheroine has waited until 2017 for a solo big screen appearance. Happily, Wonder Woman is worth the wait, as director Patty Jenkins delivers a dynamic, inventive and witty superhero adventure of duty, will, the pervasiveness of evil and the power of love. From the wraparound story in modern day Paris to childhood and training among the Amazons of Themyscira, Jenkins, Gadot and screenwriter Allan Heinberg draw the viewer into Diana’s world, sharing her joys, fears and discoveries.
Rather than following the dour example of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and BVS: DOJ, Wonder Woman is more reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger with its period setting and also Thor with its dramatisation of myth, and shares a sense of fun thus far lacking in the DC Extended Universe. Diana becomes aware of the wider world when American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) arrives with WWI German soldiers in hot pursuit. From here we embark on a ride to London and thence to the Western Front, a ride that is jaunty, gripping and at times powerfully moving. Jenkins strikes a fine balance between fish-out-of-water comedy, both for Steve among the Amazons and Diana among the British, grim moments featuring the impact of war on civilians and the ruthless aggression of General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and some truly magnificent action set pieces. These set pieces constitute major developments of the drama: the first exhibits the skill and power of the Amazons; the second demonstrates Diana coming into her own as a warrior and had me welling up with emotion; the third begins with a gritty physicality before escalating to truly epic proportions. A common criticism of superhero films is that the final act succumbs to CG overload, but in the case of Wonder Woman the onslaught of visual effects expresses narrative development and the characters’ discoveries.
This climactic sequence also features the film’s greatest strength: acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of evil. Throughout the film, Diana believes that it is her mission to destroy Ares, the god of war, because this will end the Great War, a belief that Steve and the rest of their notably diverse team find naïve. A central villain is common to superhero cinema and often the purpose of the narrative is to defeat him (or occasionally her), but the more challenging entries in the genre such as X-Men, The Dark Knight and Logan do not locate evil quite so easily. Diana’s journey of discovery is also that of the viewer in realising that this film is doing something a little different, and the joy of this difference alongside the electrifying action makes the film into something special.
Furthermore, Wonder Woman makes good on its gender politics. Diana is a superb character, defined not as a woman but as a warrior for justice. The film therefore manages to present that elusive thing called equality, where men and women unite for a common cause because they all care. Furthermore, the absurdities of patriarchy are highlighted, such as when Diana encounters the British high command in London and is dismayed by their lack of compassion, in stark contrast to the nobility of the Amazons. Some might find the romance between Steve and Diana clichéd and disappointing, but it is important to note that their relationship is part of a larger conceit of love that pervades the entire film, from the bonds among the Amazons to those between Steve’s fellow soldiers, and the compassion and empathy that drives Diana throughout. Superhero movies are often concerned with hope, but Wonder Woman goes further, Jenkins crafting a thrilling and moving tale of the compelling and invigorating power of love for all humanity.
Top Ten Directors – Part Three
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
Man of Steel – SPOILER WARNING
I recently posted on my top five of the year so far, and placed Man of Steel at number 4. This puts it ahead of Oblivion, After Earth, Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness as the finest blockbuster I’ve seen in 2013, a film I would describe as swell, and it is a film that swells. This might be a controversial choice, as Man of Steel has been met with very mixed reviews, some disappointed over its treatment of beloved comic book elements (which always happens with adaptations), others complaining that it is too dour and not enough fun, and the standard criticism of blockbusters that plot and character get left behind in the midst of all the destruction and special effects.
For me though, Man of Steel provided everything I want from a blockbuster and a superhero movie. There are others later this year, including The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World, but the standard set by Man of Steel (as well as Iron Man Three) is pretty high. I have never been as big a fan of Superman as I am of Batman and Spider-Man, because Superman can be too powerful to be relatable – if he is invulnerable, there is no drama. Man of Steel avoids this pitfall of the character, making Kal vulnerable, relatable and human. At the same time, director Zack Snyder delivers enthralling and enveloping action sequences that allow the viewer to experience the thrills and pains of super powers, which is a key ingredient in the superhero genre.
Movie of Swells
The trope of swelling recurs throughout Man of Steel, apparent from the very beginning as Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) gives birth, her screaming and panting swelling along with the music. As we subsequently learn, Kal is the first Kyptonian to have been born this way in generations, so his very existence is a swelling of resistance. Rebellion swells across the opening sequence on Krypton, as Jor El (Russell Crowe) faces the senior council and urges evacuation as the planet itself swells with tectonic forces. The swelling menace erupts as General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup, and the sequence culminates with the explosion of Krypton.
Swelling continues as the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) travels north in search of answers, and his memories demonstrate his swelling confusion and inner turmoil. Man of Steel’s flashbacks echo Batman Begins, with the young adult developing his hero persona through current events, like saving men aboard a burning oil rig, and those from his childhood, such as lifting a school bus out of a river. Finally, when Clark reaches a crashed Kryptonian scoutship and learns the truth of who he is, the swelling of his potential continues through a montage, once again reminiscent of writer/producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The suit that Kal El will wear, the history of Krypton, the philosophy that Jor delivers to him, are all intercut with Kal striding out of the ship, cape billowing behind him, until he stands in the sun and crouches, ready to take flight. His first flight comes one hour into the film (just like “I’m Batman!”), which has been swelling towards this point. When I saw Kal ascend, less like a speeding bullet and more reminiscent of a bolt of light, the hairs rose on my arms as I felt myself vicariously hurtling up with him. The greatest moments in movies are often those that transport us, and for that moment, I felt myself transported with him.
Not that the first flight goes too well, as Kal crashes into a mountain and takes some time getting used to his abilities. This is one of Man of Steel’s great strengths, showing the confusing effect of superpowers as well as their glory. Superpowers are often presented as exhilarating, such as Peter Parker’s discovery of his ability to climb walls and jump great distances in both Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man. Powers can also be presented as dangerous, as in the emergence of Jimmy Logan’s bone claws in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Rogue’s ability to suck energy in X-Men, or the first emergence of the Hulk in both Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. But these are presented as dangerous to the viewer, in the position of a bystander. In Man of Steel the frightening element of superpowers is presented from the perspective of the super being himself. An impressive instance of this appears in an early flashback, as Clark becomes disorientated and scared at school because he can see and hear too much. The scene begins with extreme close-ups of pencils, the edges of desks and other classroom clutter, culminating in his teacher and classmates appearing as moving skeletons. This visual and aural cacophony overwhelms the viewer much as it does Clark, who hides in a closet until his mother Martha (Diane Lane) can talk him out, soothing him with the recommendation to make the frighteningly large world smaller. He may have super powers, but they are no protection against fear.
Man of Steel works for me because it conveys consistently and convincingly the experience of super powers. As Kal grows in confidence, so do we follow his progress. Subsequent scenes of flight are both beautiful and compelling – the tagline for the original Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly”. Man of Steel, oddly, has no tagline, but it could easily be “You’ll believe a man can fly, and you with him”. Not only fly, but fight, as the final act, when Kal battles the forces of Zod, yanks the viewer right into the action. This sequence has been a major target for criticism, described as nothing but mindless action in the vein of Transformers, rendered in such a way that you cannot see what is going on, and with insufficient attention paid to the inevitable death toll of such extensive destruction.
I did not have these problems, as not only could I see everything that was going on, I also felt it, the kinetic force of Snyder’s camera, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack, had me sharing every swoop, collision and explosion. As mentioned above, a key ingredient for me in a successful superhero film is the cinematic expression of superpowers, and Man of Steel delivers both on the intimate scale in the flashbacks, and the epic grandeur of the almighty Kryptonian smackdown. In addition, the stakes of this climactic battle are abundantly clear, as Zod’s mission is to preserve the Kryptonian race, to the extent of terra-forming Earth into a new Krypton. The impact of this mission is illustrated in a dream Kal shares with Zod, in which Earth is re-shaped and Kal sinks into a pile of skulls, this grim horror serving as perfect motivation for the climax.
Man of Steel is not without problems. Shaky cam in the opening sequence is an unfortunate distraction because Krypton is a glorious creation that cannot be fully enjoyed. Also, while the climax is spectacular, it takes too long to get going, initial skirmishes between Kal and Zod’s forces proving to be false starts that become tiresome as they are clearly preludes. That said, these skirmishes do continue the film’s interest in power as disorientating, as Zod and his troops also have to adjust to seeing through their own hands. The alien element of Man of Steel is well-handled, but the early scraps fail to add drama, although it is effective to see Kal getting his ass kicked by trained soldiers.
Once the final battle really kicks off though, it is as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in a cinema this year, rising above Iron Man Three and Star Trek Into Darkness to name a couple (although at the time of writing I am yet to see Pacific Rim). Kal’s desperate attempt to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), his struggle to destroy the world engine and his eventual return of the Kryptonian ship to the Phantom Zone are all enveloping action sequences, the slightly grainy film quality and detail of the production design and effects creating an absorbing and enthralling cinematic experience.
Best of all is the final clash between Kal and Zod, as Zod fully embraces the power that Earth’s sun imbues him with, mocking Kal with his warrior background while ‘Superman’ was raised on a farm. A true clash of the titans, Kal and Zod’s titanic duel is literally out of this world, as the two hurl each other out of the atmosphere and collide with satellites (amusingly branded as Wayne Enterprises, perhaps foreshadowing a Justice League movie). But the culmination of their clash is a perfect encapsulation of inner and outer conflict, as Kal must kill Zod in order to save innocent bystanders. I had a debate over the importance of this killing, as it seems did the director, writer and producer. For Superman to kill was shocking, as I had never seen that before. Apparently there are comic book stories in which he has killed, but these are outside the accepted canon. Either way, that moment in Man of Steel was superb because it was genuinely shocking. I’ve barely read a Superman comic book, but the film and TV versions I have seen emphasise Superman’s moral compass and restraint. Therefore, seeing him kill someone was a huge surprise and clearly a massive emotional blow, demonstrated by his scream of anguish and collapse into Lois’ arms. We now know how far Kal-El can go, and to have him traumatised makes him all the more interesting.
It is probably no coincidence that the superhero genre has been so embraced in the aftermath of 9/11, and much like Spider-Man, The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the shadow of the infamous terrorist attacks hang over Man of Steel. The devastation of Metropolis is reminiscent of images of New York from 9/11, as buildings collapse and debris falls from the sky. Some have criticised the sanitisation of this destruction – surely thousands of people must have been killed – and while this is valid I think the criticism misses the point. In a crucial moment, Jenny Olsen (Rebecca Buller) is trapped under debris, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve Lombard (Michael Kelly) struggle to free her. They are themselves in danger, and indeed they would all have died had Kal not arrived in the nick of time, but the moments of Perry and Steve doing what they can to try and free Jenny is a wonderful illustration of ordinary heroism. Perhaps they have been inspired by Kal’s example, willing to surrender himself to Zod’s forces, or they were already brave and selfless, but whatever their motivation, it is a powerful moment, mixing the terror of the attack with a positive vision of humanity. It is post-9/11 romantic wish-fulfilment, to have a superman come to the rescue, and I find it satisfying because of the recognition and catharsis stimulated by this fulfilment.
I recently had a long debate over what superheroes are ‘doing’, beyond blowing stuff up and acquiring/achieving. I found the argument rather odd, because saving the world, in style, blowing stuff up and taking us along for the ride seems exactly what superheroes are there for. My fellow debater was being unfairly judgemental, I thought, as they seemed to have a sense that superheroes should do something more, but it was unclear exactly what that more would be. In the case of Man of Steel, I think the film is doing exactly what Jor El tells his son – that he will give the people of Earth something to aspire to. Superpowers are not necessarily a blessing, and they are not a prerequisite for doing good and helping others. The young Clark may have the strength to lift buses out of rivers, but one of the boys Clark saves offers his hand to help Clark up when bullies have knocked him down, but he has not struck back at them. Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) sacrifices his own life to save others, including telling Clark not to use his powers to save him. Perry and Steve must use their own strength and resourcefulness to try and save Jenny, and Lois proves her mettle in Zod’s ship with timely advice from Jor. Repeatedly in Man of Steel, heroism is shown to be a choice, not a destiny, and a choice that we can all make. Perhaps, in time, we can all join Kal El in the sun.
Review of 2012 Part Five – Great Expectations III: The Name’s, Well, You Know (Or Do You?)
The penultimate hugely anticipated film of 2012 was the 23rd instalment in the world’s longest running film series, reaching a triumphant 50th year of James Bond, 007. Skyfall carried not only the expectations of being a major blockbuster, and a franchise instalment, but it was also a landmark film which had to both honour what had come before and show the old dog had enough life for another 50 years.
There are several ways in which Skyfall met this challenge. One of the most celebrated aspects of the film was its director, Sam Mendes. The first Oscar winner to direct a James Bond film, Mendes brought a particular set of baggage with him. Most successful with intimate personal dramas such as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and Away We Go, Mendes’ forays into larger scale stories, such as Road to Perdition and Jarhead, were mediocre at best. Skyfall would be his first franchise film and his first action film. Despite Mendes’ prestige, the pedigree for a director like him was not promising, as Marc Foster is a director also known for more sedate fair than Bond, such as Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland. Quantum of Solace was generally regarded as a failure, and the pressure was on for the 23rd film to return to the quality established in Casino Royale.
This quality brought with it further expectations, as Daniel Craig was being spoken of as the best Bond, even before the release of Skyfall. After his lean, intense yet vulnerable turn gave Martin Campbell’s 2006 reboot something different, fresh and exciting, the failure of Quantum of Solace seemed something of an aberration. Surely something had gone wrong and a Bond film featuring Craig should somehow be better. I think Craig makes a very fine Bond, and the problems with Quantum of Solace mostly relate to the director. Foster fails to give the film any suspense, as scenes go from a standstill to a breakneck pace, not allowing for build-up. Foster’s skills are ill-suited to directing action sequences which, as I have written before, require tension that needs to be built up. To have everyone suddenly burst out of their chairs and running like mad is too sudden a transition to allow any tension.
As an example, the first post-title sequence of Casino Royale is efficiently built up as Bond and his fellow agent Carter (Joseph Millson) watch their target in Madagascar, then move in towards him which increases the tension. Then the scene accelerates into a chase with Bond heading after Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) through all manner of obstacles, the famous free-running through a construction site, fighting on top of a very high crane and culminating in a running gun battle through an embassy. This scene increases the stakes and in doing so raises the tension, whereas Bond chasing after Mitchell (Glenn Foster) in Quantum of Solace comes out of nowhere and, after the initial shock, the viewer is left disorientated and disengaged.
Mendes said in interviews that he was especially concerned about making the opening sequence memorable, as Bond has a distinguished history of opening sequences that grab the viewer’s attention. Skyfall pulls this off impressively, as we begin in Istanbul with Bond slowly pursuing a stolen hard drive, then missing a shadowy figure in the corridor. He meets with his fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and there is a brief car chase culminating in a marketplace, which is followed by a motorcycle chase over the city rooftops. From there the chase progresses onto a train, with Bond making use of a convenient earthmover and gets wounded, then the chase moves through the train itself and eventually on top of it, before Eve is ordered to “take the bloody shot!” This line is significant, as it is the culmination of this sequence that is intercut with a parallel scene in London in which M (Judi Dench) barks instructions. The intercutting between the chase and the supervision heightens the tension by raising the stakes, and the finale of the chase creates further anticipation for the rest of the film.
Even at this early stage, Skyfall is playing to the audience’s expectations, and throughout displays an acknowledgement of what the viewer wants to and also expects to see. No viewer would believe that Bond is actually killed at the start of the film, and Skyfall understands the audience’s position as Bond’s re-appearance is hardly a revelation. Rather, we get to enjoy Bond’s hedonistic retirement in a tropical paradise, and his shadowy re-introduction at M’s home. Skyfall acknowledges the viewer’s expectations – this is a Bond film so he will come back at his own instigation – but also exceeds the expectation through the inclusion of Bond “enjoying death”, as well as the continued lively relationship he shares with M.
This is but one of many expectations that are rewarded, exceeded, and acknowledged. Many moments in the film refer to Bond’s history, much as The World is Not Enough did with lines such as “I never joke about my work, 007” and the reappearance of gadgets from previous films. Similar gags appear in Skyfall, such as Bond receiving his new gun, a Walther PPK, just as he was issued with in Dr No. Similarly, in a moment that might as well have featured a wink direct to camera, Bond reveals his Aston Martin DB5, made famous in Goldfinger. No explanation is given for him having this remarkable vehicle, which possesses a few modifications, and this is part of the fun – the film and the viewer share a smirk at the inclusion of this piece of nostalgia. Even Bond’s early “death” echoes You Only Live Twice, the viewer well aware that Bond cannot be killed at the start of the film, if indeed at all.
However, Skyfall retreats from excessive technology, at least as relates to Bond himself. When issued with his gun, another smirk is shared between viewer and film as Q (Ben Wishaw) admonishes: “What did you expect? An exploding pen?” This is both contemporary and nostalgic, as over the years, Bond’s gadgets became increasingly outlandish, culminating in the invisible car of Die Another Day. Pierce Brosnan’s last outing as 007 serves as a watershed in the franchise’s history, with the reboot Casino Royale acting as a return to a more gritty, “realistic” spy thriller. Quantum of Solace continued the emphasis on physicality, and Skyfall develops this conceit further, continuing the trend for physicality and reliance upon one’s own wits and abilities. Computer hacking gives way to machine guns and helicopters, then to jerry-rigged mines and pistols, and eventually to knives and unarmed combat. A disdain for sophisticated technology is demonstrated in a repeated gag about the “latest in communications technology: a radio transmitter”. At key moments, both Bond and his nemesis Silva (Javier Bardem) make reference to radio transmission, as if slapping the face of the computer boffin Q and his ilk. When Q inadvertently plays into Silva’s hands through his expert hacking, Silva admonishes the younger man with the message “Not such a clever boy”, before all hell breaks loose.
Not that Silva is above using technology: his nefarious schemes necessitate a global reach that is facilitated through him being an expert hacker as well, allowing him to destabilise governments and attack MI6 headquarters. But whereas previous Bond villains established their bases in volcano craters (You Only Live Twice, Goldeneye), undersea complexes (The Spy Who Loved Me) and even space stations (Moonraker), Silva’s lair is eerily simple: an abandoned city on an isolated island in the South China Sea, a ghost town that reinforces the almost supernatural influence that Silva enacts over the world. The scene that introduces Silva is a master-class in minimalism, as the mise-en-scene is a crumbling building reminiscent of a church, filled with computer base units and a few screens. This serves as a contrast to the steel and glass MI6 headquarters, a symbol of power that Silva easily infiltrates through his technological skills. Visually, Silva’s introduction is stunning, as he emerges at the end of the long hall and steadily walks towards the camera in a continuous shot. This long take further exacerbates the viewer’s anticipation for Silva to reach the foreground, while his silken tones echo through the cavernous space, emphasising our awareness as well as Bond’s that this is Silva’s domain.
Silva himself is a remarkable and impressive feature of Skyfall. The most effective Bond villains have been those that serve as a dark reflection of Bond himself, such as Grant (Robert Shaw) in From Russia With Love and Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) in Goldeneye. With Silva the reflection is multi-faceted, as he is not only a (former) successful MI6 agent, who like Bond has officially “died”, his relationship with M is a twisted version of the one she has with Bond. As in No Country For Old Men, Bardem delivers a thoroughly chilling performance of a genuine psychopath (despite a bizarre haircut): quiet, poised but with an evident relish, like a cobra that will smile as it strikes. Also, he demonstrates a remarkable ability to get under Bond’s skin, as evidenced in the homoerotic encounter between the two as Silva unbuttons Bond’s shirt in a seductive manner.
Craig’s films have downplayed Bond’s seductive powers, which became tedious and even painful during the Moore years. None of the last three films have ended with Bond in the arms of a lady lovely, and in Skyfall there are only a couple of such scenes. This emphasises a different relationship that is central to the film, between Bond and M, as well as Silva. Serving as the dark reflection of Bond, Silva is also coded as the bad son to Bond’s good son. Bond’s bristly but ultimately devoted relationship with M provides the emotional core to Skyfall, personal dramas adding to the plot developments.
As mentioned earlier, MI6 contrasts with Silva’s dilapidated headquarters, but there are different locations used by MI6. After the grand offices on the Thames are attacked, they move underground into a back-up HQ built out of Churchill’s WWII bunker. Thus begins the film’s concern with “Britishness”. Curiously for the British Mendes, Skyfall was his first foray into presenting something British, and nationality remains prominent throughout Skyfall. A key trope of the Bond franchise is exotic locations, which do appear including Istanbul, Bond’s “retirement” in the tropics and part of his mission that takes him to Shanghai and Macau, and from there to Silva’s island. But afterwards, the film takes place entirely within Britain, and uses its locations to interesting effect. Churchill’s bunker brings with it connotations of Britain under fire, and a chase takes place through the London Underground and into Westminster, with Silva disguised as a British copper. The film’s final act involves going “back in time”, travelling into the highlands of Scotland to a stately home. Both for Bond and for the film as a whole, the final act is a return to the past and to homeground, defending Britain against invasion.
Other tropes of “Britishness” appear: M has a china bulldog, decorated with a Union Jack, that becomes a talisman for Bond despite his dislike of it; Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), initially presented as an interfering Whitehall bureaucrat, is revealed to have a military history serving in Northern Ireland; Bond’s mission to Macau carries postcolonial connotations, the British agent exploring a former colony. The past haunts Skyfall, both in its narrative and our understanding of it. The past of the franchise itself explicitly returns when Bond enters M’s office, which is identical to the office of years gone by, visited by Sean Connery since 1962. I always remembered the door with leather padding, and seeing it behind Daniel Craig was an interesting blend of the old and the new. Clearly the blend of elements in Skyfall worked, as it has now become the highest grossing film ever at the British box office.
The history of Bond was not the only reference I found in Skyfall. In my last post on Looper, I commented on the inter-textual connections found in Rian Johnson’s film, as a central element in science fiction. For all its elaborate technology, the Bond franchise is not science fiction, but it also reminded me of other films. The Jason Bourne trilogy is an apparent influence on the reboot of James Bond, with a grittier approach and Daniel Craig constituting a more realistic and vulnerable spy protagonist in the mould of Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin. Specifically, Skyfall’s opening chase through Istanbul is reminiscent of The Bourne Ultimatum’s frantic dash through Tangiers, including our hero riding a motorcycle up a flight of stairs. Bourne is not the only secret agent inspired by Bond and echoed in Skyfall, as a scene in which Bond moves through the London Underground, in constant communication with Q in a high-tech hub, is reminiscent of 24. When Silva is brought into custody, he taunts Bond and M much like the Joker does Commissioner Gordon and Batman in The Dark Knight, and like the Joker, Silva is both psychotic and physically deformed, as revealed when he extracts a prosthetic mouthpiece to reveal his true features in Skyfall’s most gruesome moment. Silva’s taunting of M also echoes The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps very deliberately. As in The Dark Knight and also The Avengers, Silva’s imprisonment is a ruse and all part of his master plan, a narrative trope that may well continue. John McClane has been described as a blue collar James Bond, and the final attack on Bond’s family home, Skyfall, features a highly organised assault team against a resourceful individual who uses his surroundings to his advantage, much like in Die Hard. To take it even further, Bond defends his home using homemade devices, not unlike Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone – not a comparison I ever thought I’d make!
One aspect of Skyfall troubles me: the reassertion of classic Bond tropes brings with it some disturbing gender politics. Since Goldeneye, the Bond franchise has taken some steps to distance itself from Bond being “a sexist misogynist dinosaur”, as M argued in Brosnan’s first outing. Tougher Bond girls have made appearances, such as Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) in Tomorrow Never Dies, Jinx (Halle Berry) in Die Another Day and Camille (Olga Kurylenko) in Quantum of Solace. Skyfall features Eve, who is Bond’s fellow agent in Istanbul and Macau, and with whom he appears to have a romantic liaison (though we’re spared the details). Eve is a competent field agent, but come the final scene, she is relegated to a secretary and revealed to be M’s eternal assistant, Moneypenny. This is another wink to the Bond fan, but also implies that secretary is the correct role for a woman. M’s fate implies this further, and the final occupant of the office seems a reassertion of patriarchy, as though the franchise has returned to where it belongs with men in the positions of power and agency. This is a disturbing element in a film aware of its legacy, especially in light of the potentially progressive amendments taken since 1995. Skyfall’s conclusion appears to suggest that the Bond franchise is not a place for women except in traditional roles.
Despite this disconcerting reassertion of patriarchy, I enjoyed Skyfall immensely. It was gripping and thrilling, well-plotted with detailed characters, exercised a knowing acknowledgement with the viewer to just the right extent, therefore avoiding being too clever-clever, and looked stunning. Some have described Skyfall as the best Bond ever, and while I think it is too early to say, it is certainly the most beautiful, as Roger Deakins’ digital cinematography looked deep and rich enough to swim in. Digital filming has been growing steadily in recent years, and Skyfall is a film that makes full use of its possibilities. There were points during the film when I wanted shots to linger on the myriad of colours captured in the frame, especially during a sequence in Shanghai. This sequence features one of the strangest fight scenes I have seen in a film, as Bond and his opponent move with a fluid grace within the shimmering beauty of the digital image. Alternately silhouetted and illuminated by shifting light patterns, the hand-to-hand combat becomes an almost dream-like dance, perhaps a microcosm of the dance of light and shadow that is cinema itself. This level of visual invention permeates the film, especially apparent in the climax, when the Scottish moors are illuminated by a deep red, casting an almost hellish yet still beautiful hue over the film’s finale.
Silva sends M a message that reads “Think on your sins”, and the themes of atonement and redemption reach fullest expression during the final sequence on the moors. Not only is the scene bathed in hellish red light, it also features Bond struggling with an opponent beneath the ice of a frozen loch, sinking deeper out of sight. Bond’s emergence from the water adds to the sense of a lone warrior battling the legions of hell, while in a church M awaits her fate. Her fate genuinely surprised and moved me, and I was left wondering whether M achieved redemption or damnation in the end. Much like Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Skyfall does not end triumphantly for our hero. It does conclude with Bond ready to get back to work, but it also possesses a profound ambiguity and sober ambivalence. For a Bond film to offer such ambiguity is genuinely surprising and impressive, enabling Skyfall to excel not only as a Bond film, but as a film in general, one of the most satisfying of 2012. I have previously written about expectations and how they influence our responses: with Skyfall I expected a good Bond film, but not a film that worked on so many levels and exceeded my expectations narratively, aesthetically and thematically. The blend of familiarity and innovation in Skyfall surpassed the (expected) pleasures of The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, providing one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I had in the past twelve months.
Bat Memories Part Two: The Dark Knight That Rises In Us All
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 Rises. Slavoj 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.