Black Panther (2018)

black-panther-posterToday’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

Created in 1966 by Marvel founder Stan Lee and artist/author Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first black superhero in mainstream comics.  It’s took 50 years – and the rise of Marvel to the level of multi-media powerhouse – for him to make his big screen debut in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

Two years later, he has a movie of his own, and it’s a lot more than just another spin-off; it’s a watershed moment in the cultural narrative.

It’s not that its story is anything unexpected; on the surface, the film largely adheres to familiar formula.  T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is heir to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African nation which is secretly the world’s most technologically-advanced society.  Part of his role as ruler is to assume the mantle of Black Panther, a warrior-protector who defends the country with the help of superhuman powers bestowed through ancient tribal rituals.  His transition to the throne is challenged by Erik Killmonger (Michael P. Jordan), who seeks to use peaceful Wakanda’s superior resources to dominate the rest of the world.  It’s up to T’Challa and a handful of loyal supporters to defeat him and regain control over the country’s fate.

This hero-versus-villain scenario – though executed with the cleverness, style, and technical expertise that has become the well-established standard for these Marvel films – is typical fodder for blockbuster entertainment, which aims for thrills and not much more; but “Black Panther” has its eyes on a higher prize.

Thanks to the screenplay by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” is the vehicle for a wide-ranging array of cultural messaging.  This is no safe, middle-of-the-road adventure; Coogler and Cole have made a barely-concealed political allegory in which Wakanda becomes a stand-in for (among other things) America itself.  Struggling between its self-preservationist isolationism and its role in the global community, it becomes a nation divided; its leadership, plagued by past failures and uncertain of future direction, is usurped by an outsider with an extreme ideology who seeks to subdue or silence any opposition to his agenda; and its citizens must choose between patriotic duty or resistance against the ominous course set by the new regime.  Add to this the fact that the resistance is largely driven by smart, empowered females, and the parallels are hard to miss.

More significant than the Trumpian overtones, yet profoundly complementary to them, are the ways in which “Black Panther” embraces and celebrates black culture.  It’s reflected in every aspect of the film, from the colorful costume and scenic designs, which incorporate heritage and history into its imagination of an Afro-centric futurism, to the exploration of social themes that not only recur throughout but form the very basis of the story’s central conflict.  T’Challa’s struggle is not just with an arch-villain; it’s a conflict between opposing ideas of social justice.  Do we right the wrongs of the past with education and leadership, or do the subjugated strike down their oppressors and change the world by force?  This is, of course, a superhero fantasy, so it’s no spoiler to say that the movie doesn’t end with an all-out race war; still, it’s significant to note that “Black Panther” does not oversimplify these questions, and that it takes pains to present all sides of the discussion in a sympathetic light.

That all of this comes through so clearly is a testament to the talents of the movie’s creators and cast.  Director Coogler navigates his way through the dense trappings of the sci-fi setting without ever losing track of the story’s heart and soul – or its big ideas.  Boseman brings the charisma and fire he displayed in Black Panther’s “Civil War” debut, and he deepens the character with a vulnerability that makes him a hero even more to be admired.  Jordan’s turn as Killmonger gives us a complex, human antagonist who earns our empathy, instead of the kind of caricatured “bad guy” that would turn the movie into a one-sided parade of tropes.

The rest of the cast is no less important, and no less impressive.  Lupita Nyong’o, as Nakia, is no mere love interest, but a force to be reckoned with.  Danai Gurira, as Okoye, general of Panther’s bodyguard, is a fierce and imposing presence whose wisdom is every bit as formidable as her physical prowess.  Letitia Wright, as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and chief technical mastermind is impish and irreverent, providing a hip and youthful energy while establishing herself as a supremely capable and self-sufficient heroine in her own right.  This is a trio of proud, smart, compassionate women that could fully support a movie of their own.

Representing the older generation are Angela Bassett and Forest Whittaker, both regal and indomitable as T’Challa’s mother and advisor, respectively.  Martin Freeman reprises his “Civil War” role as CIA agent Ross, using his much-loved deadpan befuddlement to great effect; though essentially serving as a “token white” character, his likable persona serves as an important reminder that unity in the cause of justice is not defined by race.  Andy Serkis, the movie’s only other significant white actor, gives a gleefully colorful performance as the secondary villain, Ulysses Klaue.

All these stellar contributions blend together into the whole; no one element outshines any other, and “Black Panther” shines all the brighter for it.

As good as this film is, though, its importance does not lie in its quality.

The movie’s opening weekend ticket sales in North America outstripped anticipated figures; its global take for the weekend shattered myths about the overseas performance of movies featuring non-white actors.  It had the highest gross for a February opening in history, and the fifth highest of all time.  Black audiences turned up at theatres in droves, sometimes as part of school and church groups, often dressed in clothing celebrating their cultural heritage.  There has even been a campaign to register voters at theaters showing the film.

The impact of such a film – one that fills an oft-lamented gap for mainstream movies featuring people of color – should have been a no-brainer.  For a major studio release to be so unapologetically “black” is a major step forward that is long overdue.  To be sure, Marvel’s film comes in the wake of such surprise successes as “Moonlight” and “Get Out,” and feels connected to last summer’s “Wonder Woman,” which delivered a similar shock to the system, as well as Pixar’s Latino-themed “Coco.”

Even so, “Black Panther” feels like the crest of a wave.  The Hollywood industry, like any other business, is motivated by money; this movie has made a lot of that, already, and will certainly make much, much more.  The studios will receive that message, loud and clear, and if history is any indication, they will clamor to jump on the gravy train.

Hopefully, at long last, that will mean more movies about and by non-whites.

Whether or not it will also encourage a more inclusive atmosphere for other unrepresented groups – like Latino, Asian, or LGBT audiences – remains to be seen.

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Art School Confidential (2006)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Art School Confidential, the 2006 film by Terry Zwigoff based on Daniel Clowes’ underground comic of the same name.  The second collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes, it follows the efforts of an art college freshman to win the love of his dream girl by becoming a successful artist.  It shares many of the themes of their first joint effort, Ghost World, as well as its bleak world view and cynical take on humanity, and features an impressive array of talent in supporting roles.

The plot follows Jerome, a young man whose interest in art has more to do with his libido than his desire for self-expression.  Believing that success in the art world will allow him a limitless amount of female companionship; he enrolls as an art major in an urban college, where he has high hopes that his talent will quickly be acknowledged.  Instead, he finds himself just one of many frustrated hopefuls in a depressingly grim environment where the only topic more discussed than the uselessness of an art degree is the string of unsolved murders taking place near the campus.  Surrounded by peers who are self-absorbed, pretentious boors, and professors who are self-important, disaffected failures, more interested in their own stalled art careers than in nurturing the abilities of the students under their charge, he gradually realizes that success is more about playing the game than about talent.  To make matters worse, he is completely turned off by the dysfunctional girls in his dating pool, and he begins to despair that his fantasies of being a playboy artist will be crushed by the cold reality of adult life.  Things begin to look up when he meets a beautiful model who shows an interest in him, but after she is swayed by a handsome fellow student- whose work has gained more recognition than his own- his desperation drives him to concoct a deceitful plan which will put him on the fast track to success and win back the attention of his newfound dream girl.

On the surface, Art School Confidential feels like one of those eighties-era coming-of-age comedies directed by John Hughes, in which a geeky teen loser learns that being yourself is more important than being popular and ends up winning the boy or girl of their dreams by the final scene.  That description is not far off, but in this screenplay, penned by Clowes himself to ensure faithfulness to his own misanthropic vision, the formula is turned on its ear.  Jerome doesn’t want to be accepted as he is, he wants to be worshipped; and far from finding empowerment and self-actualization, he learns that being himself brings only further isolation and obscurity, and that if he wants his dreams to come true he will have to find a way to stoop lower than everyone else.  His story is shot through with the kind of social satire that hits uncomfortably close to home, threatening to undermine any preconceived ideas we might have about the underlying goodness of humanity; if there was ever any there, Clowes makes it clear that it has been thoroughly snuffed out by the degraded, ego-driven culture he shows us.  Like our protagonist, we look around desperately for kindred spirits, but the cast of characters offers us little solace; Jerome’s fellow students are a collection of affected misfits and pompous twits, and the adults are more or less an older- and more disillusioned- generation of the same breed.  Virtually every person in the film is motivated by their vanity, and everyone else around them is merely an object to be used in their quest for self-fulfillment.  This is true even of those few characters that seem sympathetic- including Jerome, who turns out to be more of an anti-hero than we surmise.  With such a disheartening perspective on the denizens of the art world- and, by extension, the rest of the human race- it’s hard to find any of the comedy very funny, at least in a laugh-out-loud way.  The film’s humor is dark, dry, and derisive; it is also arch and vaguely judgmental, casting a reproving eye on the professional and personal pursuits of all its characters and concluding that the bulk of human endeavor amounts to a desperate cry for attention.

For his part, director Zwigoff makes every effort to keep things light, at least visually.  He capitalizes on the movie’s teen-angst heritage with nods to the genre’s cliches, such as “getting-it-done” montages and character-based visual gags, and directs his actors with a clear focus on presenting its familiar types.  He obviously relishes the exploration of his quirky characters’ personalities, but he emphasizes the details of the plot enough to keep it moving effectively.  It’s also obvious that he shares Clowes’ ironic sensibilities, and he is careful not to undermine Art School Confidential by softening its snarky edge with sentimentality- although, with the help of his A-list cast of adult actors, he does manage to imply a more mature counter-perspective that includes at least a little mitigation of the seemingly soulless and shallow priorities exhibited by the inhabitants of his film’s inhospitably selfish universe.

For their part, the actors do their best to keep things real, without relying solely on the surface qualities of their stereotypical characters; overall, the cast manages to infuse a level of humanizing depth to the proceedings that keeps the movie from being an unrelentingly pessimistic existential polemic.  Despite their best efforts at honest playing- or perhaps, in many cases, because of it- there are few likable characters in Art School Confidential; the single most pleasant personality is exhibited by Joel Moore, as Jerome’s friend Bardo, whose portrayal of a proudly self-acknowledged failure is refreshingly free of barely-concealed self-promotional subtext- appropriately making this gregarious loser a comfortable island in a sea of  chilly attitudes.  Max Minghella is deceptively appealing as Jerome, until his quest for recognition turns him into a self-pitying cry-baby; and Sophia Myles, likewise, fools us into liking his would-be soulmate, Audrey. The good stuff, however, comes from the heavy-hitting support team of accomplished grown-ups; John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi all bring their skills to the table as they portray various representatives of the older-but-not-necessarily-wiser set, and the film leaps several notches up in quality when they are on the screen- which, sadly, is never for very long.

Art School Confidential is meant, of course, to be a comedic exposé of the pretentious, stagnated world of academic art, a subject ripe for vigorous satire.  The problem is that the humor seems to come from a rather mean-spirited place; Clowes and Zwigoff take a decidedly uncharitable view of almost every affectation and foible displayed by their characters, and at times their approach feels more like bullying ridicule than good-natured ribbing.  Their critical stance is certainly a valid one, but one can’t help feeling that the harsh perspective is a little too one-sided; after all, it’s easy to point fingers at the hypocrisy and artificiality we see around us, but it is perhaps more interesting to explore what lies underneath that surface.  Coming of age involves an awakening, a realization that the world is full of phonies and disappointments; but it also involves advancing past this stage to a more mature viewpoint, one with which we can discern the more subtle forces at work around us.  Art School Confidential strikes an attitude of smug contempt for its subject which smacks of sophomoric thinking, a pose which is ultimately no different than any of those assumed by the various characters it mercilessly skewers throughout.  It misses its mark not because of the darkness of its tone or its candid observations about the weakness of mankind- many fine films share these qualities, such as the work of director Todd Solondz, whose movies Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse are about as pessimistic as you can get but still engage and stimulate us with their depth and their humanity.  Rather, it fails because it lacks a certain maturity; instead of piercing insight, it offers blunt criticism, and in the end it leaves us knowing little and caring less about the inner workings of the world it portrays.  It’s a shame, because Art School Confidential has a lot of potential- both Zwigoff and Clowes are exceptionally talented, and one can’t help but feel that somehow, something was lost in the translation from page to screen.  There are times when the movie almost feels like it’s going to take off, and comedic moments that feel like they are about to make us laugh; but these are short-lived, and by the time we reach its somewhat predictable and not-very-satisfying climax, we have long since lost interest.  Fans of Clowes’ ironic-outsider flavor may find the movie easier to take than the rest of us, but those interested in discovering his work might be better-advised to go to the source rather than starting with this weak adaptation.  Still, the pairing of the author/artist and his filmmaking partner in crime seems a match made in heaven, and together they have managed to craft a very good film – but it’s called Ghost World, and the disappointment of Art School Confidential is probably all the more  bitter because they proved once before that they could get it right.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0364955/

 

 

 

From Hell (2001)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: From Hell, the 2001 screen adaptation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s award-winning serialized graphic novel exploring the real-life Jack the Ripper case through a fictionalized story about its investigation, starring Johnny Depp as the Scotland Yard Inspector in charge of the case.  As directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, it condenses the 500-plus page original to fit a running time of less than two hours, omitting much of the book’s rich, immersive material in the process, effectively transforming the piece from an informed- if dark- historical fantasia into a pop-art horror movie with pseudo-sociopolitical overtones.  Nevertheless, taken on its own merits, it’s a stylish and intelligent thriller, offering a fairly accurate (though highly speculative and sensationalistic) depiction of perhaps the most infamous true crime story of all time, as well as an excursion into the dark underbelly of Victorian London.

Adapted into screenplay form by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, From Hell blends fact and fiction as it unfolds its narrative, set mostly in London’s seedy Whitechapel District in the fall of 1888.  It’s a miserable, economically depressed slum, populated by rough laborers, criminals, and prostitutes- the latter of who are being savagely killed in a series of increasingly macabre and horrific murders.  In charge of the investigation is Frederick Abberline, an opium-addicted police inspector with a gift for psychic visions; his prescient insights into the case bring him to suspect an even darker and more insidious motive to the crimes than is suggested by their brutality, as well as leading to his personal involvement with one of the Ripper’s potential victims.  As he gets closer to the truth, he finds himself enmeshed in a dangerous web of secret intrigue, racing against time and facing powerful opposition in a desperate effort to prevent the monstrous killer from claiming more lives- including his own.  The plot unfolds against a backdrop of late 19th-Century English society, offering a bleak and politically-charged vision of a world in which disrupting the illusion of propriety is a greater crime than murder; the privileged elite exist outside and above the law, orchestrating and manipulating events from behind closed doors while the impoverished masses endure an unthinkably cruel and desperate existence with little hope of escape or betterment, and even those sympathetic to their plight are powerless to help them.

Moore and Campbell engaged in painstaking research in the creation of their graphic novel, meticulously incorporating the facts of the Jack the Ripper case into their multi-layered fictional retelling.  That effort is reflected in the film, though in a somewhat diluted form; on the page, the historical facts are presented side by side with the story, making for an immersive experience in which the reader can participate in the process of speculative myth-making, whereas for obvious reasons this cannot be duplicated onscreen without disrupting the visual (and emotional) flow.  In addition, the panoramic view of Victorian society offered by the original has been necessarily stripped down; though the filmmakers have clearly made an effort to provide as much of this background as possible, their running time dictates the removal of all but the most cogent information.  An unfortunate side effect of this streamlining is that key plot points, which might have been better masked in a more comprehensive script, become painfully obvious, making the film highly predictable to savvy viewers, particularly those familiar to the true events of the Ripper case.  It can be argued, however, that the film’s purpose is not to puzzle us with its mystery- which is well-known as an unsolved and probably unsolvable case- but to offer a social commentary by using its plot and its setting to parallel our modern world.

To this end, the Hughes Brothers sculpt their film to highlight the disparity between the upper strata of the Victorian population and the impoverished lower classes amongst whom the Ripper’s crimes take place.  The wealthy are isolated, arrogant, and dismissive of the concerns of the less fortunate, while the poor, in their struggle to survive, are greedy, opportunistic, and cruel.  It’s not a pretty picture of mankind, and there are few examples of middle class decency on display- only Abberline and his Shakespeare-quoting sergeant represent a compassionate view towards humanity, and even they are characterized by a mistrustful cynicism which reflects their exposure to the harsh realities of the age.  The nobility and their bureaucratic allies are portrayed as smug, self-appointed guardians of a status quo that favors their continuing prosperity, and many of them seem possessed of a sadistic streak, exhibiting an unmistakable delight in their infliction of suffering and the exercise of their power over the weak.  Each and every member of the ruling class is portrayed as contemptuous of the poor, even those who seem, on the surface, to be more enlightened, and the underprivileged commoners beneath them are shown to have suppressed any noble sentiments in favor of self-preservational hostility and practical amorality.  Providing illumination on this ugly portrait of mankind at its worst, the directors give us an unvarnished look at the wretched conditions of existence to which these masses are subject- the filth, the corruption, the continual struggle for inadequate food and shelter- and the opposing luxury with which their economic superiors surround themselves.

From a visual standpoint, the Hughes Brothers make their objective clear from their opening shot, which pans down slowly from an austere London skyline at dusk, offering glimpses of the various strata of society through their lighted windows until it reaches the dark and squalid streets of Whitechapel, where an assortment of dehumanizing activities are plainly on view.  The pair also take pains to recreate the dramatic visual atmosphere of the comic book format, reconstructing the composition of panels from the original and utilizing a color palette which conjures memories of the lurid English horror classics from the fifties and sixties- many of which share a similar setting and were clearly inspired by the lingering cultural memory of the Ripper’s reign of terror.  However, although these iconic forbears were noted for reveling in an almost gleeful depiction of blood and gore, From Hell is relatively short on explicit violence, though there are certainly enough glimpses of horrific acts and their aftermath to create the impression of having witnessed a bloodbath.  Similarly, despite its title (a reference to a letter sent by the real-life Ripper to taunt the police), the film is not a supernatural fright fest, though there is a not-so-subtle implication of a dark, possibly otherworldly force at work behind the killings; this is no tale of demons at large, wreaking havoc on a weak but innocent humanity, but an indictment of mankind at its basest and the depths to which it will sink in order to preserve its own selfish desires.  Ultimately, From Hell aims to derive its real horror from the implications of its clearly-stated premise- that the gruesome career of Jack the Ripper is but a prelude to the larger scale horrors that await in the coming century, the tip of an iceberg formed by the clandestine machinations of the world’s tightly-knit power elite.

This darkly cynical sociopolitical viewpoint is familiar to anyone familiar with Alan Moore, whose somewhat radical sensibilities are plainly displayed in such other of his works as Watchmen and V for Vendetta, as well as his contributions to the Batman series.  While his leanings certainly come across in this screen adaptation, however, their effectiveness is certainly limited by its narrower focus.  Where the published work is overwhelmingly centered on his postulated notion of the killings as a symptom of a far-reaching social imbalance, supported by an interwoven tapestry of peripheral events which underline and reinforce his theme, the screen version fails to bring home the significance of this element, treating it more as a necessary conceit of the plot than as the main purpose towards which that plot is geared.  Though the writers and directors have clearly understood their task, and made considerable effort to stress the relevance of Moore’s allegorical subtext in their realization of his piece, they are ultimately defeated by the need to provide a Hollywood-style, story-driven thriller; the cold-hearted patrician gentry and the need-driven proletarian rabble are present, but the broad strokes with which they are painted render them clichéd, stock figures of the Grand-Guignol horror genre from which the film takes its cue, and the numerous scenes of social injustice and economic inequality come off as obligatory, the kind of standard fare usually found in dramas set in this period- and often presented with more conviction than we see here.  Coupled with the aforementioned predictability of the plot, the familiarity of these elements help to make From Hell feel like something we’ve seen before.

Though the film doesn’t quite live up to its potential, the actors acquit themselves admirably.  Johnny Depp is shrewdly cast as Abberline, who in real life was described by his colleagues as a highly capable officer with the demeanor of a mild-mannered bank clerk, though here he is portrayed as a decidedly more unorthodox figure, somewhat dissolute and highly unorthodox in his methods; Depp provides a perfect access point for a modern viewer, bringing a highly contemporary persona into the proceedings and providing his customary intelligence and commitment to the role, and if he sometimes seems to be sleepwalking through the film, this adds an appropriate layer of detachment to a character who is, after all, a drug addict and a visionary.  Heather Graham also brings a modern feel to her performance, though in this case it feels a bit less appropriate- she plays a prostitute who lives on the streets, and her level of intelligence and sensitivity seems a bit anachronistic; this is true of the portrayal of all the streetwalkers in the film, but in Graham’s case, given the conceit of her highly fictionalized role, it’s an acceptable disparity, and she succeeds in being likable and sympathetic in the midst of a cast of unpleasant characters.  The two stars, however, are ultimately less memorable than the host of fine British character actors who fill the supporting roles.  Particularly noteworthy are veteran character actor Ian Holm as gentleman doctor who assists Abberline in the case by providing his medical knowledge, and who may in fact possess more information than he is willing to share; and the always delightful Robbie Coltrane as the gruff but good-natured sergeant who serves as Abberline’s loyal assistant and friend.  The remainder of the cast get little chance to flesh out their characters, most of which come off as little more than ciphers in service of the story, but for the most part, they perform their tasks with a relish which goes a long way towards making the world of the movie seem believable, if not particularly compelling.

Despite the fact that it falls short of its considerable potential, From Hell is not a bad movie; it succeeds on a number of levels, not the least of which is providing a fairly gripping two hours of suspenseful- if unsurprising- entertainment.  It takes an oft-seen scenario and presents it in a form that both pays homage to the style of its former, more traditional incarnations and refreshes it with a modern and distinctive flavor of its own.  If it fails to capture the full power and ambitious scope of its source material, that is perhaps no surprise; Moore and Campbell’s creation is a complex work of art that is inherently best served by the medium in which it was first presented, and it is doubtful that any film could capture it faithfully without falling short on some level.  Nevertheless, it is a brave attempt, and if nothing else, it certainly provides inspiration for viewers to seek out the graphic novel and experience its brilliance for themselves.  Beyond that, it is a well-made, if ultimately ordinary, thriller, blessed with a talented cast and an impressive visual style; and for those who have an interest in Jack the Ripper and the world in which he existed, it’s a must-see, and as long as you don’t expect to learn anything new about the case (and you don’t mind seeing a long-disproved theory being put forward once again), you’ll probably find it a worthy rendering of this legendary chapter in the annals of human brutality.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120681/

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which once again uses a realistic and politically charged approach in bringing the DC Comics hero to life, and puts him into a decisive battle which will determine the very fate of Gotham City.  Continuing in the dark and violent vein that characterized The Dark Knight, Nolan creates an apocalyptic finale for his exploration of the Batman universe, one designed to provoke and challenge even as it entertains; in the process he continues to develop the characters and relationships introduced in the previous chapters, as well as offering up new twists on other familiar figures making their appearances here for the first time.

In this new chapter (with the screenplay written again by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, based on a story developed by Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer), eight years have passed since the “murder” of D.A. Harvey Dent, whose supposed martyrdom in the fight against crime (a fabrication created to cover up the ignoble circumstances of his death) has resulted in legislation that has all but eliminated the criminal underworld of Gotham City.  During the intervening years, billionaire Bruce Wayne has become a mysterious recluse and his financial empire has fallen into disarray, while his alter-ego, Batman, has disappeared, having become a wanted fugitive after taking the blame for Dent’s death.  The city has grown soft and complacent, and economic imbalance has led to a new kind of cynicism in its population; but its greatest threat is building beneath its streets, as Bane, a powerful urban warlord with a mysterious past and a cataclysmic agenda, prepares to enact a master plan designed to plunge it into hellish torment as a prelude to its final annihilation.  Drawn from his seclusion, Wayne must resurrect his Batman persona in order to combat the new danger; but, like the city he protects, his long stagnation has weakened him and created new conflicts within, leaving him vulnerable to defeat by this titanic enemy.  In order to triumph, he must not only regain his former strength and his faith in himself, he must also place his trust in allies- some old and reliable, some new and untested- and be prepared to face the ultimate sacrifice.

Picking up the thematic threads left hanging at the end of The Dark Knight, the Nolans show us that the uneasy compromise of image over truth has provided a temporary victory in the battle against chaos- but the consequences of the choice have taken their toll on our champions of justice, and the complacency of peace has led to its own form of disorder.  A widening gap between wealth and poverty breeds anger among the citizens, while the prosperous civic authorities seem too interested in self-congratulation and self-promotion to pay attention to the signs of danger approaching from without and within; but nevertheless, despite this uncomfortably topical political situation, when disaster strikes it is the result of a long-forgotten threat which has been festering unnoticed all along.  Bane and his plot represent the shadows of the past, deferred but not defeated, a pattern of destruction that has risen repeatedly throughout history; Gotham’s blissfully false sense of security and its unheeded civil unrest have merely provided a smokescreen for the incursion.  The only chance for averting the impending doom lies in facing the truth, taking responsibility, and working together for a common good which outweighs all considerations of ideology or principle.  Contrary to the commentary of some who have seen The Dark Knight Rises as a conservative polemic against the “Occupy” movement (due to the fact that Bane disguises his takeover of Gotham and subsequent reign of terror as a “people’s revolution”), the film in fact hinges, like its predecessor, on the idea that blind pursuit of self-interest is the real root of the problem, and that it is only through a desire to help each other that we can reclaim the power to conquer the enemies that threaten all of us together; the arrogance of the wealthy and the anger of the poor are both used by Bane as the instruments of his rise to dominion, and his defeat can only be brought about by the protagonists’ willingness to sacrifice everything they hold dear for the sake of others.  It’s also worth taking note of another factor which contributes significantly to the threat to Gotham’s future- the seeking of revenge for old wrongs, and worse yet, revenge against an entire population for the actions of a single man.  This is a powerful reminder of a principle very much at work in the world today, and one which has perpetuated the cycle of bloodshed from the most ancient of times.  Further than that, the film suggests through the telling parallels it draws that by ignoring the lessons of the past we are doomed to re-enact a historical cycle that has brought down one civilization after another; in other words, if we don’t learn from history, we can only become history.  To paraphrase an echo from the film which began the trilogy, we fall in order to learn how to get back up; but once we are on our feet again, we must always remember how we fell in the first place- after all, as more than one important character realizes before the end of The Dark Knight Rises, a fresh start is no good at all if you’re not willing to change the way you do things.

Once more, in writing about Nolan’s Batman cycle, I find myself reveling in the complexities of its themes and making new realizations as I ponder how to express them here.  In the end, however, these films- each one of them, in their own distinctive way- speak for themselves.  With his final chapter, this gifted director has once again created a movie which stands firmly on its own merits, building an epic structure on its own individual themes, while maintaining and bringing to fruition the elements of the entire trilogy.  He does it in his characteristically detailed style, full of arresting visuals, fluid camera work, spectacular action sequences, and intimate moments of unexpected emotional power.  He gives full deference to the importance of character while simultaneously driving the complex plot at full speed, juggles themes within themes while devoting every moment of screen time to the progression of the story, and manages a sweeping social and political allegory in the midst of an explosive action fantasy.  There may be those who quibble about his motives, or who take exception to his re-interpretation of the iconic characters and conceits of the Batman premise, but such concerns are, quite frankly, moot in the scope of what he has accomplished here.  The Dark Knight Rises is the final proof, if more were needed, that Christopher Nolan has done what no other director has done before him: transcended the “comic book” genre to create an intelligent, mature and wholly sophisticated series of films that is worthy to stand with the great socially significant films of our time- more worthy, in fact, than most of the self-consciously highbrow self-styled “art” films that Hollywood tries to pass off around awards season.  For this (though he is not likely to win any of those awards himself- the stigma against this kind of fantasy content still seems too strong for that), he deserves all the accolades he has received so far, as well as the satisfaction of his phenomenal box office success.

Part of Nolan’s success with all of these films, of course, lies in the work of the people he has chosen to work with him, and the names in the credits that roll at the end of this one show more or less the same list of usual suspects.  Once again, the design team is headed by Nathan Crowley (this time co-credited with Kevin Kavanaugh as production designers), and once again they have provided us with new and exciting gadgets to go with the old favorites, as well as giving Gotham yet another new look- it’s still a spectacular city, but somehow not so new and shiny, a little worn down and lived-in, and with a dirtier, more East-Coast-urban feel to it.  The locations, as always, have something to do with this, with recognizable landmarks from New York, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles underlining the sense that this is truly meant to be a microcosmic world representing an entire culture; but the look of its skyline, clearly created with some impressive digital cutting-and-pasting, conveys the feeling of a place with a soul all its own.  Wally Pfister’s cinematography continues with the gritty-but-slick style of The Dark Knight while also echoing the sepia-infused tone of Batman Begins, a highly appropriate approach for a film that draws its life from both; he complements the worn-down look of the city with a style that evokes bleakness, particularly in the visually striking scenes of Gotham in winter which come late in the film.  Hans Zimmer, working solo this time, gives us another driving score, incorporating more vocal instrumentation than usual but still, for the most part, focusing on mood and subliminal effect than overtly recognizable melodic sounds.  In short, The Dark Knight Rises gives us more of the same outstanding, exemplary work that made the first two entries in this trilogy so effective.

The same holds true of its cast, comprised again of heavy-hitters; most of them are, of course, returnees to already-established roles, and without exception they live up to their previous work, bringing new flavors to their continued development of these familiar characters and closure to the arcs they began in the first film.  Christian Bale once again proves what a brilliant actor he is with his portrayal of Bruce Wayne; he gives us a new vision of this billionaire vigilante, grown physically and psychologically dissolute through his self-imposed isolation, but seemingly marked more by a sense of disorientation than by underlying bitterness over the events that have led to it.  He also gives his character, which has always fitted him like a tailor-made glove, a deeply personal feeling of emotional connection, building on the previous revelations of his psyche to create a complete picture of this man and the needs that drive him- showing us, ultimately, the good heart that lies beneath the darkness of his sometimes-morally-questionable actions.  We have never questioned it, of course, but he has- and his final evolution into a complete hero, with a clarity of purpose and a full understanding of his motivations, shines through in a way that makes him both admirable and infinitely likable.  It’s the first time I can honestly say I loved an onscreen “super” hero because of who he showed me he was and not because he was, well, a hero.  Michael Caine, as Alfred, has been quietly superb all along, lending his calm, assured dignity to the proceedings and serving as the key grounding influence for Bale’s Batman- but in this entry, he gets the chance to remind us all of why he has been one of the hardest-working actors in the business for fifty years.  His scenes are fewer, this time around, but they stick with you, and the dimension he has given this usually-perfunctory character pays off with some key moments that give the entire series its deepest emotional resonance, proving once more that it is the depth and honesty underlying these films that have elevated them to the level of higher art.  Gary Oldman shines once more as now-Commissioner Gordon, wearied by the chafing of his conscience over his part in the Dent cover-up, and bored by eight years of peacetime- but dedicated as always to his mission to protect Gotham and revived by the chance to jump into action once more.  Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is also wearier, but with characteristically subdued optimism he gives us a refreshing energy that reminds us it is possible to gracefully endure the changing of fortune without losing one’s belief in the future.  There are a few other returning faces, but many of them are likely to be surprises so I won’t go into them here; suffice it to say that they, along with the rest of the cast, provide uniformly superb contributions.

As for the new blood, obviously there are a few that deserve mention.  Topping that list is Anne Hathaway, portraying Selina Kyle, an audacious cat burgler whose gear and manner make it clear that she represents another iconic Batman personality- though the name “Catwoman” is never used.  She nails the character, with just the right blend of saucy seductiveness and dangerous unpredictability, matching Bale’s Bruce Wayne in a way that no previous female character has done- a significant point, and one which highlights the importance of her key role in the film, as well as the timing of her appearance in his life.  It would be improper to give anything away, but it’s safe to say that she- and Nolan- bring a number of surprises to the table in their re-interpretation of this feisty, feline female.  Tom Hardy, the English heartthrob who gained 30 lbs. to portray the hulking Bane, provides an awe-inspiring physical presence and clearly conveys the disarming intelligence of his character- the trilogy’s closest thing to a “super-villain.”  He manages to give the character depth and even a degree of sympathy with his performance- not just through his voice, but in his physicality and, most importantly, with his eyes, which are left visible by the cruelly sadomasochistic mask he wears in all but one key scene of the film.  Marion Cotillard brings an elegant nobility to the proceedings as Miranda Tate, a wealthy board member of Wayne Enterprises whose dedication to an environmentally-friendly project plays an important role in the developments of the plot, and leads to a relationship with Wayne that becomes closer than he expects.  Finally, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays John Blake, an earnest young policeman whose personal belief in Batman leads him to deduce Wayne’s true identity and helps provide the impetus for him to return to the fight against evil; it’s a character that could very easily be too-good-to-be-true, but thanks to Gordon-Levitt he is more than believable, a welcome addition to the collection of loosely-affiliated heroes that aid Batman in his quest for law and order.  A number of other actors make their first- and, presumably, last- appearance in Nolan’s vision of the Batman legend, including Matthew Modine as Gordon’s ambivalent second-in-command, and Willam Devane as the President of the United States; as with the old-timers, the new cast does a universally stellar job.

The Dark Knight Rises, though already one of the most successful movies of all time, has generated a great deal of controversy over its supposed political leanings, one way or the other, and for a violent tone which has sadly been thrown into stark relief by tragic real-life events.  There is no denying the important influence of movies over our real-world culture, and unquestionably, an artist has a responsibility to consider this in deciding the nature of the content they wish to present.  It must be remembered, however, that Nolan’s film is, first and foremost, an action/adventure-fantasy.  Though it may be laden with recognizably current political and social issues, and though it explores questions of morality and social responsibility, these things are ultimately merely the background for a story that depicts a realistic, contemporary world- a tale in which the ongoing conflicts of society are exploited by an outside evil who is an enemy to all sides.  Likewise, by its very nature, it’s a movie filled with the kind of disturbing images of mayhem and tragedy that have been blamed by many for the casual attitude towards violence in our collective contemporary psyche; but Batman is a modern myth, and like all myth it deals in symbolism drawn from everyday experience in order to convey its true purpose.  For all its scenes of brutal combat, exploding football stadiums, and collapsing bridges, The Dark Knight Rises carries a positive message that emphasizes the importance of compassion and the value of human life; it’s a principle repeated throughout the movie, and the intense battle action is a metaphor for the difficulty of the struggle required to preserve these things.  Those who see only the overt content of this film, or indeed of any film, are likely to get the opposite meaning of the one intended; and whichever side they represent in the ongoing debate, they, like the citizens of Gotham who ignore the real menace while they seek to place blame for their troubles and justify it with sweeping generalizations, would do well to look deeper than the surface- as would those who glorify the violence they see there without recognizing the consequences it is shown to breed.  After all, cinema, like all art, holds up a mirror to society, and what we see in it depends on how closely we are willing to look at ourselves.  In the world of The Dark Knight Rises, the ability to candidly face the reality of our problems is our only hope for saving our way of life from destruction; I strongly suspect that this is also a reflection of real life, and that unless we heed the warning that is implicit in Nolan’s film, we may find that out all too soon.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1345836/

The Dark Knight (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s massively successful 2008 sequel to his earlier Batman Begins, tracking the continuing progress of DC Comics’ iconic hero in his quest to free Gotham City from the grip of rampant crime and corruption and pitting him against a new breed of criminal- the costumed madman known only as the Joker.  Continuing his re-imagination of the comic-book premise as a crime drama grounded in realism, the director takes it even further this time around, creating a gritty, violent vision of urban warfare in which the line between right and wrong becomes blurred in a larger struggle between order and chaos.  The formula obviously struck a nerve; the film broke box office records and earned the kind of massive critical accolades usually reserved for more “serious” fare.

Working from a story developed by Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer, Nolan this time fashions a screenplay with his brother, Jonathan, in which billionaire Bruce Wayne, working in unofficial partnership with Police Lt. Gordon, has made headway in the campaign to weaken the control of organized crime over Gotham City.  With the rise of the city’s idealistic new D.A., Harvey Dent, he sees a chance to hand over his role as the city’s protector and at last embrace the comforts of a normal life; but a new threat arises in the form of the Joker, a disfigured psychopath in clownish makeup, who begins an escalating campaign of terror.  To combat this new adversary, Wayne and Gordon join forces with Dent, and the trio works in secret alliance to put a stop to his deadly game before Gotham deteriorates into a state of total anarchy.  The Nolans use their plot as a means to explore a wide variety of inter-connected themes, making the scope of The Dark Knight much wider and its moral landscape more ambiguous than its predecessor’s, and as a result they transform what is essentially a fantasy adventure into a complex parable about the ethical dilemmas of preserving order in the modern world.  Throughout the film, the intricately plotted storyline is threaded with dialogue and situations that clearly evoke the complicated morality of post-9/11 society; the age-old cops-and-robbers scenario has been co-opted by a battle between ideologies, in which those who would protect society come dangerously close to becoming an even greater threat to it themselves.  Indeed, the antagonist’s master plan is to subvert the established order by turning it against itself, exploiting the contradictions in its own rules and ethics to create an environment of fear and chaos in which he can, in the words of one character, “watch the world burn.”  In the course of the action, we are given a remarkably detailed portrait of Gotham City- which serves as a microcosm of American civilization- which includes a look at its politicians, its media figures, its businessmen, its criminals, its public servants, and its average citizens; the effect of the city’s peril on its population is presented as a mirror to our own society, and the drama enacted by the key figures of the story reflects our efforts to reconcile the moral conflicts inherent in dealing with our own terrorized world.  As the story moves relentlessly towards its climax, it raises questions about the implications of working outside the law for a greater good, the manipulation of public perception for political purposes, the ambiguous role of invasive technology in preserving communal security, the potential corruptibility of human nature, and the danger of becoming your enemy when you fight against him on his own terms.  Most significantly, it examines the role of choice in the struggle to define humanity; whether our actions are dictated by chance and motivated by self-interest, or whether we are ultimately responsible for the decisions we make, for good or for ill.

If it sounds like heavy, existential themes dominate The Dark Knight, that’s because they do; but that doesn’t mean it’s a film that favors philosophical debate over a good story.  Rather, the story is the debate.  Nolan uses his epic themes to propel the action, leading us through the conditional parameters until the core issue is revealed at the heart of his plot.  Batman and his allies, the self-sacrificing champions of order and justice, are pitted against the Joker, a self-serving personification of chaos and amorality.  At every step of the game, the Joker challenges his opponents’ dedication and their beliefs, forcing them into no-win situations in which they have no choice but to act against their own principles; convinced of their hypocrisy and their fallibility, and confident that he can- and will- break their spirit, he manipulates the scenario not only to prove his point, but to inflict torment for his own gratification.  It is this, perhaps, that Nolan suggests as the ultimate definition of evil- the pure selfishness that satisfies its own desires at the expense of others- and it is this basic quality that the Joker wishes to expose as the true nature of mankind.  Whether or not he is right is certainly not resolved by the end of the movie- after all, there is still another chapter to come- but Nolan’s skill at cinematic storytelling ensures that the arguments on both sides are illustrated with a sense of urgency and an emphasis on action.

In fact, the action is virtually non-stop.  Even when The Dark Knight concerns itself with quiet, more intimate matters, Nolan’s directorial choices give it a driving, restless feel- continuing the sense of momentum that he initiated in Batman Begins.  His camera is almost never still, with slow zooms and pans in almost every shot, and he pieces things together with quick edits, giving us just enough of an image to establish what we’re seeing and then sharply moving on.  He crams so much into the film this way that there are whole subplots which can go unnoticed without repeat viewings, and it allows him to provide an expansive view of the life of Gotham City into his 2 1/2 hour running time.  He confidently moves his tale through its escalating developments with a speed that keeps the viewer on edge, establishing key points without belaboring them, relying on the completeness of his screenplay- and the intelligence of his audience- to ensure clarity.  Likewise, he depends on the writing and the skill of his gifted actors to convey the important nuances of his characters that make the film so compelling, though he certainly takes the time to explore the dynamics of their relationships onscreen, rightly understanding the importance of this aspect in the overall scope of his vision.

Of course, however, as in any movie about a titanic struggle of heroes and villains, the primary focus is on thrilling action, and Nolan certainly delivers this in spades.  Continuing in the vein of Batman Begins, he chooses to construct his movie with a minimum of computer trickery, instead utilizing live action stunt work filmed in actual locations or on elaborate soundstage sets.  He fills his film with gripping set pieces, from the opening bank heist sequence- which rivals anything in the best of Hollywood’s caper films- to the climactic confused free-for-all in which Batman must fight a SWAT team to protect the Joker’s hapless hostages who have been disguised as his henchmen; in between are a breathtaking depiction of a nighttime kidnapping from Hong Kong’s tallest building and the movie’s action centerpiece- an extended urban roadway chase in which Batman rides his souped-up cycle to defend a police convoy from a semi-truck containing the heavily-armed Joker and his men.  Adding to the excitement is the fact that Nolan chose to shoot these sequences- as well as some of the smaller-scale scenes- in an IMAX format, although the effect of this is somewhat diminished by viewing on a small screen.

In service of his visual spectacle, Nolan’s production team provides an impressive display of their talents; most significantly, perhaps, cinematographer Wally Pfister, who gives the film a style that is simultaneously slick and grimy, and appropriately creates a significantly darker look than that of the earlier film.  The production designers, headed once more by Nathan Crowley, have revamped the technological aspects of Batman’s world- a redesigned, lightweight suit that makes the hero more agile, as well as the dazzlingly well-realized, aforementioned “batpod” that he rides into battle with his demented adversary, stand out as distinct advancements over the gadgetry in the previous chapter- and Gotham’s cityscape has been completely overhauled.  Gone is the deco-flavored mix of nostalgic and futuristic elements that marked the city of Batman Begins; here we find an utterly contemporary metropolis of steel, plastic and glass, a world-class capitol of industry and commerce with shining citadels and utilitarian infrastructure that is more directly representative of the typical modern urban environment of America.  Its familiarity adds another layer to the realism that is Nolan’s goal, and with this backdrop against which to play out his epic drama, the more implausible elements of the comic-book scenario are somehow more believable.  The score, once again the product of collaboration between Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, echoes the mood-oriented style of Batman Begins, but with even more of an emphasis on driving the pace with an undercurrent of rippling and restless rhythms, suggesting the chaos that threatens to envelop Gotham City.

Nolan’s modern re-invention of the Batman mythology, however, is most clearly and successfully exemplified by the one element of The Dark Knight that has- justifiably- received the most attention: the performance of Heath Ledger as the Joker.  The young actor delivers a stunning portrait of this well-known character, accomplishing the seemingly impossible feat of giving us something completely unexpected and unlike any interpretation we have seen before.  His psychotic clown is a million miles away from the fruity camp of Cesar Romero’s goofy TV persona, and totally unlike Jack Nicholson’s self-parodying turn in Tim Burton’s Batman film of two decades before.  Ledger makes the character a frightening, dangerous madman, clearly deranged but chillingly sharp and lucid; we are given no background for him, aside from the conflicting stories he tells himself within the film, but we can plainly see that whatever traumatic occurrence has led to the development of his deeply disturbed personality, it has left him utterly and completely devoid of humanity.  His makes it plain that his Joker lives for the thrill of the moment, taking great pleasure in pain- including his own, greeting each blow from his caped opponent with a rush of giddy adrenaline-laced delight.  His voice, his physicality, the coldness of his eyes, all combine to create an unforgettable portrait of menace, and for the first time in the history of comic-based films, he has given us an utterly believable super-villain.  The one completely human moment he exhibits comes late in the film, a reaction of genuine surprise over an unforeseen development which throws a wrench in the works of his master plan- it’s a subtle but dazzling moment which instantly casts into stark relief the sheer brilliance of everything we have seen from him before that.  Ledger’s tragic death before the film’s release may have contributed to the publicity surrounding his work here, but had he lived the performance would still have stood as a triumph, and was fully deserving of the multitude of awards and accolades it received posthumously for him.

This is not to take credit away from any of his co-stars.  Every member of Nolan’s cast gives a stellar effort, starting with Christian Bale, whose Batman is leaner and more haggard than in his previous appearance in the role, reflecting the maturity and the effects of the stress that have shaped him in the intervening years since Batman Begins.  He gives the character a wearier edge, exuding more confidence but also more contempt for his criminal prey; even his Bruce Wayne seems a little worn down from all the partying with supermodels and prima ballerinas his public image requires him to do.  Underneath it all, though, he clearly shows us the power of his dedication to the job he has appointed himself, and his refusal to yield to the Joker’s efforts to bring him down to a baser level is utterly convincing- particularly in light of the self-doubt he shows us in response to his costly failures- giving us the glimmer of hope we can cling to through the film’s dark finale.  Returning as his trusted servant and co-conspirator, Alfred, is the magnificent Michael Caine, who continues to provide a grounding center of wisdom and genuine class, and whose chemistry with Bale offers the film’s strongest example of deep, close human connection.  Maggie Gyllenhall replaces the absent Katie Holmes as Rachel, Bruce’s childhood friend and would-be sweetheart for whom he still carries a torch, and though it is somewhat jarring to see a different actress in the role, she provides a fine performance, making the character a strong, independent, and empowered woman, an equal partner in the battle against crime, rather than just another helpless female in need of rescue.  Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman continue to expand on their own brands of quiet heroism as Lt. Gordon and Lucius Fox, respectively; and, though his work was eclipsed by Ledger’s dazzling performance, Aaron Eckhart is equally superb, in his way, as Dent- who is both the film’s secondary hero and secondary villain, transforming from the dedicated “White Knight” whose unflinching integrity gives the city hope to the vengeful and deformed “Two-Face,” driven to madness by personal loss- and providing the perfect symbol for corrupt politics with his half-handsome, half-grotesque features.

The Dark Knight has been subject to much discussion and debate regarding its political messages; some have viewed it as an endorsement of hawkish, right-wing tactics in the war against terrorism, while some have declared it as an indictment of the dangers inherent in using such methods.  Like most art- certainly most good art- it is ultimately a blank slate, a mirror in which the viewer sees their own perspectives reflected back; it seems to me that Nolan presents his subject matter without political agenda, exploring the thematic issues that arise out of the situation, but making no judgments, preferring to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  What interests Nolan much more, perhaps, is the issue of basic human nature; and though his vision has the dark and cynical trappings of the noir style that has been a clear influence on his work, and though many have seen the film as a story of evil overwhelming good, at its heart is the message that, though some may waver or even fall, there is a desire inside us to do the right thing; as long as there are men who hold onto the standard of decency and set an example- even an illusory one- there is hope for us yet to conquer the forces of darkness that threaten our world, both from within and without.  That is an idea the filmmaker will explore further in the third (and supposedly final) installment of his Batman cycle; but, at least as this one rolls to an end, we can still believe in a champion that represents the best in us all, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a pretty optimistic note for such a “dark” movie to end on.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/

Batman Begins (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Batman Begins, the 2005 action fantasy feature with which director Christopher Nolan initiated his vision of the classic comic-book hero, embodied by actor Christian Bale, re-envisioning the character and his world in a darker, more realistic vein that influenced a number of other subsequent franchise re-boots and brought a new level of depth and sophistication to the genre.  Focusing on Batman’s origins, Nolan traces the story of billionaire Bruce Wayne from childhood, when he witnesses the senseless murder of his parents by a mugger, through his recruitment and training by a mysterious organization called the League of Shadows, to his eventual return to Gotham City and his efforts to fight its rampant crime and corruption using both the skills he has learned and the high-tech gadgetry made available to him by the limitless financial resources he has inherited.  As he faces a host of opponents, he must also confront the enemies inside himself, learning to conquer his own guilt, anger, and fear in order to emerge as the symbolic hero he is driven to become.

It’s a familiar premise, by now, and one which has fueled a variety of interpretations since it was first invented by DC Comics artist Bob Kane in 1939; originally presented with a serious tone,  by the 1960s cultural “sophistication” had become such that the character had deteriorated to the level of a campy and outright comedic TV series- a classic in its own way, to be sure, but a far cry from the darker complexity suggested by the original comic books themselves and loyally embraced by generations of their fans.  Though the character was later reclaimed from this goofy image by such now-renowned graphic novelists as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, his incarnations on the big screen maintained a decidedly cartoon-like sensibility.  When Nolan was approached to resuscitate the franchise on film, he decided to take an approach more in step with the traditions of the comic books themselves.  With co-writer David S. Goyer, he fashioned an adult-oriented screenplay, centering more on the exploration of the character himself than on his far-fetched exploits- and making those exploits seem less far-fetched by infusing them with a hearty dose of realism.  The standard conceits of the story are built from the ground up, explained with a fresh perspective that makes them seem plausible; everything from the hero’s dual identity and theatrical tactics to the “Bat-cave” and “Bat-mobile” (which are never referred to as such) are presented as logical and necessary extensions of his self-creation, formed from the building blocks of his unique personal situation and the psychological forces which drive him, instead of being taken as rote.  It’s an imaginative approach that breathes life into the given clichés of the material, making the well-known mythology of the character feel fresh and contemporary.  In addition, by paying more than just perfunctory attention to the dominant themes of the Batman mythos- the importance of a father figure, the thin line between hero and villain, the relationship between fear and power, the purifying role of ethical behavior in a corrupt and chaotic world- Nolan and Goyer manage to give their film at least as much weight as most mainstream films aimed at a mature audience- and more than many.

All of which is not to say that Nolan’s vision of Batman is in any way light on action.  On the contrary, he fills his film with exciting set pieces made all the more satisfying by the care he has taken in laying a solid foundation; the various technological tools are more impressive for having been de-mystified, and the personal drama woven into the action raises the stakes and solidifies our investment in the outcome.  Furthermore, the action is structured into the story in such a way that the narrative is never put on hold; instead of digressing into extended displays of flashy spectacle, the plot advances through these sequences, making certain that there isn’t an extraneous or gratuitous moment in the film’s 140 minutes.

Much of the success of Batman Begins obviously hinges on its cast.  Nolan, drawing inspiration from classic seventies-era blockbusters like Superman, peppers his movie with an all-star list of gifted players, designed not just to lend credibility to the project but to provide the depth and complexity necessary for his conception.  It is not just the central figure that is subject to the director’s humanizing treatment; the entire array of familiar characters is infused with the kind of detail that raises them from the level of stock cardboard cutouts to three-dimensional beings with a life of their own.  Clearly, the writing plays a major part in this process, but the performances are a crucial factor, and the actors rise to the challenge admirably.  Heading the list is beloved veteran Michael Caine, whose portrayal of trusted manservant Alfred Pennyworth transforms the character from a mere source of comic relief to a powerful force to be reckoned with; thanks to Caine’s justly renowned skills, this aged gentleman’s gentleman is also a man’s man, wise and compassionate, brave and capable, serving both as a much-needed surrogate father and an indispensable ally to the troubled billionaire playboy in his charge- but grounded firmly in a reality that prevents him from ever seeming too good to be true.  As the future Police Commissioner, Jim Gordon, Gary Oldman matches Caine’s understated style in the creation of a sympathetic, powerful character, far from the pompously oblivious buffoon so often seen in previous versions; representing the traditional values of honesty, humility and family, he is an Everyman who becomes an unlikely hero, a worthy and equal partner in Batman’s fight against the forces of evil.  Liam Neeson is dangerously cool as Ducard, the mysterious figure who first becomes Bruce Wayne’s mentor and then his adversary in the fight for justice; Morgan Freeman provides his usual air of approachable dignity and intelligence as Lucius Fox, the techno-genius behind Batman’s bag of tricks; and Cillian Murphy brings an eerie, off-kilter edge to the proceedings as a corrupt psychiatrist with a dual identity of his own.  Rounding things out are Tom Wilkinson, memorable as an arrogant mob boss who finds himself a pawn in a game more powerful than his own, and Katie Holmes, earnest and likable as Wayne’s childhood friend and potential love interest.

It is Christian Bale, however, that must make or break the film with his interpretation of its iconic central character; and make it he does, going well beyond the usual troubled hero persona associated with the role and giving us a layered, remarkably specific and deeply personalized incarnation.  He fully inhabits Bruce Wayne, giving us a clear window into the young billionaire’s psyche and charting his psychological journey as he grows from an angry, vengeful youth to a passionate champion of justice; we believe in his commitment to the ideal because he allows us to see where it comes from, and because he invests so much of himself in Wayne’s emotional landscape he makes it possible for us  to identify with him- a rarity in screen portrayals of this character, which usually make him an aloof, distant figure, hard to fathom and harder to relate to.   In addition, Bale plays Batman as a clear extension of Wayne, a heightened version of his real self rather than a differentiated personality; indeed, in this version, it is the persona of the shallow playboy that seems artificial, a sham perpetrated half-heartedly by a young man for whom worldly extravagances hold no appeal and whose true nature chafes at being confined in so trivial a role- all of which, of course, serves to make us like him even more.  The only unsatisfying element of Bale’s work here is his lack of chemistry with Holmes; their relationship exhibits little of the spark that might give it meaning beyond its obligatory presence in the plot, so that when the would-be emotional payoff finally comes it feels like an afterthought.  Nevertheless, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise wholly engaging performance.

This impressive line-up of A-listers inhabits a superbly realized vision of Gotham City, created by Nolan in collaboration with production designer Nathan Crowley, which draws heavily on visual influences from Ridley Scott’s classic, Blade Runner, incorporating the use of informed imagination in its depiction of the cityscape; featuring layered architectural styles that reflect the changing tastes of its long history and the mix of elegance and squalor that marks any major real-life metropolis, it’s a place that goes a long way towards establishing the realistic base from which Nolan draws his story.  Contrasting this claustrophobic urban atmosphere are the stately expanse of Wayne Manor and the breathtaking Himalayan landscape of the early scenes, all beautifully photographed by cinematographer Wally Phister, giving Batman Begins a distinctive look and feel that lingers in the mind’s eye.  It’s worth mentioning that Nolan chose to create the environment of his film largely through old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, using extensive footage of actual locations, soundstage mockups, and miniatures, and relying only minimally on computer graphic effects (mostly for animation of the elevated train sequences and construction of scenery using a composite of different locations layered together).  The action sequences were likewise completed with live action stunt work instead of computer-generated trickery, making the slick perfection of the film’s effects somehow even more dazzling.

The force that brings everything together, of course, is Nolan’s powerful and decisive direction.  He landed this project fresh on the heels of his surprise indie hit, Memento, and instead of choosing to helm yet another predictably generic franchise-based blockbuster, he decided to make the film his own, bringing into the mix such now-familiar trademark elements as his inventive, intricate plotting, his exploration of thought-provoking psychological and metaphysical themes, and his noir-influenced use of dark, morally ambiguous characters and situations- all of which fit the Batman milieu like a glove.  Aided by a moody, atmospheric score (jointly composed by Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newton Howard, who resist using the theme-driven formats typically found in films of this genre), he keeps the story driving forward with his heavy use of fast-paced editing and his intercutting of parallel threads, seamlessly interweaving themes and character development as he goes.  Keeping the momentum is key to Nolan’s purpose here: the film, after all, is called Batman Begins for a reason; though it has a completeness and a distinctive energy of its own, it is in fact a prologue, the first chapter of a saga that is meant to continue through a full cycle of films.  The director shrewdly provides sufficient thrills and closure to allow his film to stand on its own, but one can’t help feeling that he is holding back the use of his full arsenal to leave us wanting more.  As Batman Begins rolls to its conclusion, the final scenes feel more like a pause than a full stop, and the sequel-minded hints dropped within the final minutes only serve to feed an anticipation that Nolan has already been building from the very first frames.

As to that sequel, it will hardly be a spoiler for me to say that it was to become the single most successful movie of all time (at least until it was recently deposed by another comic-book film, The Avengers) and that its financial triumph was equally matched by its critical reception; but I’ll touch more on that subject later this week, in anticipation of the imminent release of the final installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  My purpose here is to revisit the first of these remarkable, genre-defying films, which, though it falls somewhat short in comparison with at least one of its future companion pieces, gives more than a sufficient hint of the audacious brilliance that is to come.  Batman Begins is polished and powerful, a movie that treats its source material with the respect and maturity it deserves and, at long last, frees the “comic-book movie” from the assumed stigma of being second-rate schlock, opening it to the possibility of being considered as worthy and important as any “serious” genre.  It’s the first movie in which a so-called superhero (though technically, of course, this particular hero possesses no super powers) is presented in a manner realistic enough to be believable, and even if its fantasy elements are strong enough to ultimately keep it from breaking completely free of its genre, it sets the stage for its creators to accomplish that landmark feat with their next effort.  All these considerations aside, however, it’s more than enough to say that Batman Begins is a pulse-quickening piece of entertainment, fully deserving of its own considerable success and worthy to stand alongside the best this increasingly popular genre has to offer.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/

Fritz the Cat (1972)

Today’s cinema adventure- Ralph Bakshi’s 1972 feature debut, his adaptation of R. Crumb’s underground comic, Fritz the Cat.  The first animated film to earn an “X” rating, it met with a lot of resistance and outrage from the mainstream, and Crumb hated it, disowned it, and tried to get his name taken off the credits- but it ended up being the most financially successful independent animated feature of all time.  Written and directed by Bakshi, the film follows Fritz as he takes a personal odyssey from a life of “hanging out” and looking for a good time through a drug-inspired pursuit of revolution- with plenty of shockingly permissive bad behavior along the way.  Voiced by Skip Hinnant (known for his work as part of the ensemble on the classic educational show, The Electric Company), Fritz is hardly a typical cartoon hero: far from cute, barely likeable, and nobody’s idea of a role model, he indulges in one ill-advised misadventure after another, motivated by selfish hedonism even when he is ostensibly acting for what he views as the greater good.  He serves as a sort of counter-cultural Candide, a naïve fool who fancies himself a sophisticate, and as such is at the mercy of a world more corrupt and complex than he imagines; in short, he is the kind of phony that the truly hip despise, and his journey of self-discovery in this worst-of-all-possible-worlds is a vehicle to expose social and political hypocrisy from every source, including (and especially) from our hero himself.  This ambitious agenda may have been beyond the scope of Crumb’s original work (he certainly thought is was), but for Bakshi, it was important for the film to make a statement, which it most certainly does- in between scenes of anthropomorphic animals having sex and taking drugs, that is.  Not that his intention was to shock: geared towards a drug-friendly youth culture, loaded with tons of juvenile sexual, political and racial humor, and mercilessly critical of both the radical left and the extremist right, the film is clearly aimed at an audience who shares his uncensored sensibilities.  At the time of its release, it was one of those films that generated protest and controversy from people who more than likely never saw it, and was cheerfully received by a target audience hungry for the kind of frank, turned-on content it offered.  Forty years later, most of its shock value and its topicality are long gone (one can see comparable content on any given episode of Family Guy today) and across the gap in time much of the film’s anarchic zeitgeist seems more than a little tiresome- as I suspect, to the more mature viewer, it did even then.  Still, as a piece of history, it is fascinating to watch: the animation, though primitive and almost quaint to modern eyes, was innovative and ground-breaking at the time; it presented adult subject matter and content never before seen in animation and completely changed the industry, breaking the stereotype of cartoons being only for children; and it vividly captures a particular social strata of 1960’s culture that is often ignored by popular memory.  I won’t say that you’ll enjoy it, but if you’re intrigued by looking through a window to a bygone era- and you’re open-minded and adventurous- you’ll be glad you watched it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068612/

Thor (2011) & Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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Today’s cinema adventure is a double feature: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, the two 2011 entries from Marvel that introduced audiences to seminal figures in the then-upcoming Avengers blockbuster, further establishing the groundwork begun in the successful Iron Man franchise and setting up key elements of the story arc which unites all the films.   In the first of the pair, Thor, heir to the throne of Asgard, is exiled by his angry father to the distant planet earth, precipitating a rebellion in his home world which threatens to wreak destructive havoc in both places; in the second, set during the second world war, scrawny weakling Steve Rogers is transformed by a secret government experiment into a super soldier who leads the battle against an insidious threat rising from within the ranks of the Nazi Reich.  The two films bookend each other nicely, thematically speaking: both feature heroes who rise to greatness, one by breaking through his own arrogance to find humility; and the other by holding on to his pure-hearted nature after being bestowed with super-human powers.  Both scenarios are familiar variations of the “Hero’s Journey” myth, and as such fit snugly into the comic book milieu from which the characters and their stories are drawn; and though the production teams for each film are, for the most part, comprised of different artists, under the guidance of Marvel and its mastermind, Stan Lee, both maintain a strong visual and thematic connection to the printed form of the source material.  Indeed, thanks to the heavy use of CG effects in creating the worlds of these films- which at times almost erases the line between animated and live action filmmaking- they seem like gigantic, moving comic books; the only thing missing is the presence of bubbles for the dialogue and thoughts of the characters.  This, of course, is precisely what the creators of these spectacles have intended; and on that level, they have succeeded in spades.  However, it is that candy-coated quality that handicaps both of these films, as well: in making the impossible come to life in such a clearly artificial setting, they distance us from the characters and the story, keeping us constantly reminded that what we are seeing has no real weight or consequence in our lives and preventing an emotional connection much in the way that Brechtian theatre-of-alienation tactics were designed to do; unfortunately, the purpose of that presentational technique was to provide a detachment that would allow an intellectual connection instead, and here, there is so little food for thought that the effect (for those not dazzled into submission by the visual trickery) is closer to boredom.  Between the two films, Thor fares somewhat better: though marginally more far-fetched in its content, the mythological connection provided by its use of Norse gods and goddesses as an integral part of the plot allows us, somehow, to more comfortably suspend our disbelief and buy into its premise of our world being caught up in a conflict of all-powerful titans.  Indeed, the storytelling aspect is strong enough- almost- to avoid being overwhelmed by the computer-rendered spectacle surrounding it, largely thanks to the direction of one-time Shakespearean golden-boy Kenneth Branagh, whose extensive experience with classical narratives makes him well-suited to the mythic themes in play.  Not so sure-handed at the helm is Joe Johnston, whose Captain America starts out well enough as it chronicles the eager young hero’s transformation, but then seems to move aimlessly through its progression of set pieces, content to rely on action and mood to keep us interested until it reaches the last one; rather than the unfolding of an archetypal tale, this second film feels instead like a piece of nostalgic fluff, a cliché-ridden WWII adventure souped-up with wish-fulfillment fantasy, trying painfully hard to avoid irony in its handling of the gee-whiz jingoism of its subject matter by masking it in nostalgia (mainly provided by the bathing of every scene in a golden-hued light in order to remind us that we are watching a story set in the 1940s).  This lack of real direction is exacerbated by the hollowness of the characters: whereas in Thor, the screenwriters (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne) invest time and attention to the development the characters and their relationships, in Captain America the scribes (Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely) have relied on the familiarity of the stock types that populate their film, establishing identity with glib one-liners and giving mere lip service to the bonds and rivalries that determine their loyalties; in both, the players are little more to us than obligatory ciphers required to fulfill a formula, but at least in Thor, they have real personality.  The cast lists of both movies are dotted with ringers: such heavy hitters as Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgârd and Natalie Portman (Thor) and Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Hugo Weaving (Captain America) all add prestige and interest to the proceedings, and manage- with varying degrees of success- to elevate the material to a level that at least gives the illusion of substance.  As for the titular heroes, Chris Hemsworth as Thor does an adequate job of enacting his transformation from entitled blowhard to compassionate champion, and Chris Evans as the Captain manages to capture the right blend of sincerity and aloofness; but, perhaps partly due to the inherent limitations of the characters, both actors ultimately comes off as little more than eye candy (not that this is a bad thing- part of the traditional appeal of this kind of escapist entertainment is the beefcake factor).  The production of both movies, as mentioned before, is breathtaking, presenting us with glossy, hyper-real visions of the Marvel Universe; united by cohesive production design (Bo Welch for Thor, Rick Heinrichs for Captain America), they continually wow us with movie magic that reminds us of how far we’ve come from the days of actors hanging on wires in front of projected skyscapes.  The musical scores, provided by Patrick Doyle (director Branagh’s long-time collaborator) on Thor and Alan Silvestri on Captain America, are appropriately stirring.  In fact, every technical aspect of both films is top-notch, Grade-A, best-of-Hollywood stuff; but ultimately, though Thor has its strengths, they both come up short in the long run, big on style and spectacle, but lacking in the kind of genuine depth that can make movies of this genre into a more meaningful experience.  There is certainly entertainment value here, but even that seems strangely lacking; both pieces feel more like prologues (which they are) than stand-on-their-own experiences, setting the stage for things to come and somehow failing to provide the satisfaction of real closure.  Of course, this is the nature of comic books- each segment ends in a cliff-hanger, ensuring that the reader will rush out to buy the next edition as soon as it is available.  Thankfully, in this case the next edition is The Avengers, which succeeds where these two predecessors have not- but that’s another review.

Thor http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/

Captain America: The First Avenger http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458339/

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The Avengers (2012)

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Today’s cinema adventure: The Avengers, the long-awaited 2012 action/fantasy feature from director Joss Whedon which unleashes the combined force of most of Marvel’s top superhero characters and has ensured, with its record-smashing box office returns, that the flourishing “comic book” genre is here to stay- at least for now.  The plot, of course, could have been lifted from any Cold-War-era sci-fi potboiler: when a god-like being from another world brings an army to conquer the earth, a secretive government organization assembles a band of disparate heroes to head off the invasion, forcing them to set aside their own differences- and face their own weaknesses- in order to unite against the common foe.  The details get a bit confusing, unless you are intricately familiar with the plot threads that have been unwinding through the various associated franchises leading up to this blockbuster, or unless you can follow the lightning-fast pseudo-technical jargon with which the various conceits are established; but none of that matters, because unlike many inferior attempts at making this sort of hyper-driven action spectacle, “The Avengers” hinges not on its ridiculous storyline- nor even on the mind-blowing, state-of-the-art special effects, though admittedly those provide a considerable amount of the fun- but on the characters which inhabit it.  The legion of “fan boys” at which this movie is targeted can rejoice that, after decades of clueless studio hacks trying to capitalize on the popularity of comic books without understanding or respecting the material, at long last the genre is in the hands of artists who have grown up with a reverence for it; gone are the days of bland, leotard-clad goofballs with no charisma spewing cheesy platitudes.  Here we are treated to a collection of heroes that we can truly believe in because we can relate to them: full of doubts, anger, trust issues and guilty consciences, they are nevertheless driven by hope to perform the duties thrust upon them; and there is never any question that they have the ability to face whatever the other-worldly would-be conquerors can throw at them, as long as they can overcome the obstacles they generate within their own flawed psyches.  By capturing this element, Whedon (who also wrote the screenplay, from a story by himself and Zak Penn) has captured the key to what makes these far-fetched, over-the-top stories so compelling: they are, in fact, mythology that has been re-invented in a form that appeals to a modern generation.  We see our own psycho-dramas acted out in symbolic form by these idealized versions of ourselves, and through their victories we see the possibility of our own.  To be sure, of course, it’s not the kind of doom-and-gloom mythology that takes us through the dark night of the soul, and it would be completely wrong to think that The Avengers aims at any emotional or spiritual resonance beyond an adolescent level; but still, no matter how many millions of dollars were spent on the CG eye candy, it would have all just been visual noise without that important, cathartic element.  The Avengers seeks to entertain, not to enlighten, but it’s a testament to the talent of its creative forces that it manages to do both.  Whedon has levied his success as a creator of niche-targeted cult entertainment into status as a mainstream artist to be reckoned with, and he directs with a sure hand and a clear vision, striking a perfect balance between action and intimacy and keeping the whole thing roaring along at a breathless pace that makes the two-hour-plus running time feel half as long.  He has considerable help from crack film composer Alan Silvestri, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and an army of designers and special effects artists under production designer James Chinlund; and, of course, the work of his cast is exemplary, with the always-delightful Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Scarlett Johansson standing out in particular.  Special mention must be made for the driving force behind it all: comic book legend Stan Lee (one of the Executive Producers of this and all the Marvel films, which are of course his babies), who has brought his remarkable work from the printed page to the big screen (in magnificent 3-D, no less) with meticulous attention to getting it right and a vision that invites comparison to, dare I say it, Walt Disney himself.  Before I am accused of gushing, I should point out that there are quibbles to be made here- the villain, Loki, is not exactly an imposing threat, for all his superhuman powers, and there are numerous points in the film when the perfunctory conflicts between the protagonists threaten to derail the driving pace- and I can’t say that The Avengers and the other films with which it forms a sort of super-franchise (pardon the pun) transcend the comic book genre, as Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman cycle has done.  Nevertheless, in a time when rising ticket prices make it less and less appealing to go to the theater rather than just wait a few weeks for the DVD/BluRay release, it’s a film that delivers what it promises and more; and that’s a feat at least as heroic as any of those accomplished by the superteam of its title.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0848228/

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