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/

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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/

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock fantasia with sexy, charismatic performances by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ewan McGregor, and Christian Bale, a film that has gained a loyal and substantial cult following despite the poor reception it received upon its initial release. Boldly structured in the mold of Citizen Kane, it follows the attempts of a journalist to piece together the decade-old mystery surrounding a glam-rock superstar who unsuccessfully faked his own assassination before fading into obscurity. Interweaving scenes of the writer’s quest with flashbacks depicting the rise and fall of his enigmatic subject, Haynes’ film plays fast-and-loose (deliberately) with facts and fictionalizes significant real-life figures as it pays tribute to- and laments the fading of- the musical and cultural mini-era on which its focus lies. To this purpose, the film’s designers have crafted a dazzlingly surreal and authentic recreation of the English rock-and-roll scene in the early seventies, reconstructing the peculiar mix of tinsel, trash, and haute couture that defined the look of the period, as well as the darker, grittier eighties of the film’s parallel narrative. In particular, Sandy Powell’s superb costume designs succeed in capturing both the outrageous fashion of the rock-and-roll glitterati and the more subdued flavors worn by their less-glamorous followers and fans. The sparkling package is wrapped in the vivid cinematography of Maryse Alberti, which evokes the authentic photography of the day so completely there are times you swear you are looking at archival footage.

Inhabiting this time capsule world are several superb performers, each in the early stages of their highly successful respective careers. In the key role of Brian Slade is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who effectively embodies the ultimate glam rocker, channeling the spirit of David Bowie (on whom the character is heavily based, along with, to a smaller degree, Marc Bolan) and yet investing the performance with his own energy as well- cheeky yet vulnerable, jaded yet naïve, sexually charged yet romantic, he manifests the image of the androgynous bad boy while letting us see into the complex personality beneath it. He is matched by Ewan McGregor (as Slade’s collaborator and lover, Curt Wild- inspired in equal measure by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed), who likewise presents a convincing portrait of an archetypal glam figure- but a distinctly different one, rougher-edged yet ultimately, perhaps, deeper. The two performances complement each other like a dovetail joint, and both men are at their most impressive- and mesmerizing- when they are called upon to perform in the numerous musical sequences, pulling off the full rock star act with exuberant bravado and absolute confidence. In a less showy role- but no less superb- is Christian Bale, playing the journalist and former fan who is haunted by memories of his youthful involvement in the glam culture and of his personal connections to both the iconic stars in the history he is tracing; always a deeply compelling actor, Bale is effective throughout, but he is at his best as the rosy-cheeked youth of the flashbacks, riding the extremes of his adolescent emotions as he tentatively explores his own developing sexual and ideological identity and comes of age in a heady time of seemingly limitless possibilities. Toni Collette is both deliciously tawdry and surprisingly grounded as Slade’s wife Mandy, impressively evolving with the character in an arc that takes her from hippie muse to jaded has-been; and Eddie Izzard is appropriately loathsome as the oily manager who shepherds Slade into the world of rock-and-roll excess.

Despite the considerable strengths described above, however, Velvet Goldmine is not an unqualified success. Haynes is a gifted director, justly acclaimed for his ability to translate complex and esoteric themes into a compelling screen experience, but often criticized for failing to create a cohesive whole; his films often seem more interested in conjuring elemental forces than in using them to work toward a specific purpose. Of course, such a technique allows the audience to form their own personal conclusions; it’s an impressionistic style of filmmaking, and like other impressionistic art forms, it’s not to everyone’s taste. With this effort, his passion for the period and the attitudes it represented is very clear, and he succeeds admirably in approximating the glam milieu and bringing it to the screen. However, the formula he chooses to do so creates some problematic issues: the investigative drama which drives the plot seems a brilliant device for exploring this seminal period in contemporary pop culture, allowing him to explore the what made it such an appealing time for those who embraced its spirit and why its memory and influence linger today; however, the brooding, mournful tone of the mystery- as well as the deeply personal importance placed on discovering the answers by the film’s protagonist- suggest a weighty significance at the core of the nostalgic proceedings that somehow feels misplaced. To be sure, Haynes is presenting a document of a time in which a generation overflowed with the excitement of changing attitudes and the promise of freer personal expression, a time which was to morph all too soon into a glitzy, self-centered era in which shallow, self-destructive excess would take a heavy toll; the collective loss of innocence resulting from this social odyssey certainly spawned the kind of emotional wounds reflected by the characters in Velvet Goldmine, and the healing power of reconnecting with these cultural roots, of rediscovering the spirit that generated the whole process in the first place, is clearly a major part of the film’s intended effect. In these terms, Brian Slade provides the perfect metaphor: hungry for the freedom to be himself, whoever that may turn out to be, he soars into a fantasy world made real- only to eventually succumb to the lure of nihilistic hedonism, transforming his existence into an unsustainable nightmare from which he must eventually choose to escape or die. However, Slade is not an Everyman, not even a glorified one like Charles Foster Kane, and his experiences, though they may resemble a magnified version of those shared by many who participated in the glam sub-culture and the disco era which followed, ultimately seem more the consequence of individual character makeup than a reflection of some greater social phenomenon. More germane to the group experience, perhaps, is Bale’s journalist, burned by the broken promise of his youth and seeking a way to come to terms with the deep longings left unfulfilled; but the plot on which his redemption hinges, the conceit of uncovering the secrets of a former pop icon’s decline and fall, ultimately feels forced. After all, there is no mystery to be solved- the story to be told is so common as to be predictable- and in the end, there are no real answers to be found there, only an implausible plot twist and a phantom wound that will never stop itching. To make a resolution even less palpable, Haynes’ screenplay (from a story written by himself and James Lyons) wraps the plot about a man exploring an enigma in another, larger enigma: invoking the spirits of Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, he introduces a mysterious, possibly extra-terrestrial gem which secretly links the characters and their histories to a long procession of pop superstars, suggesting that the cycle of fame is some sort of mystical cosmic reflex which affects our social evolution, and even hinting at the deliberate manipulation of our pop culture by an unseen and arcane outside force. Another apt metaphor, and an interesting proposition- one which seems borrowed from the handbook of glam-era theatricality as represented by such flights of fancy as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, a source of much inspiration to the events portrayed in the film- but in this case, perhaps, a needless complication in an already over-complicated mix.

Speaking of Ziggy Stardust, it seems necessary to also remark that the heavy fictionalization of the figures represented- which amounts to the creation of a sort of alternate glam universe- has been a point of considerable controversy surrounding Velvet Goldmine. Taking well-known real-life icons and re-inventing them for dramatic purposes is an acceptable tactic that goes back, no doubt, to the very beginning of story-telling; however, Haynes has here blended real events so completely into the soup that the result could be very confusing to those unfamiliar with the true history of those involved. Though Brian Slade is not David Bowie, he certainly feels like it; indeed, Bowie himself, initially involved in the project, pulled his support and the rights to use his songs after discovering that the script incorporated elements from unauthorized biographies by his former wife and others. To make matters even more confusing, mixed in with the original musical selections composed for the film are older songs by such glam-era artists as Roxy Music, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls, among others, performed by the fictional singers as if they were themselves the originators. Though I’m not one to quibble about adherence to historical accuracy- after all, my favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia, and my love for Shakespeare is in no way affected by his fondness for rewriting history to suit his needs- in this case it seems appropriate to suggest that, before making any assumptions based on the recognizability of the figures on display in Velvet Goldmine, it would be wise to do some research and decipher who these characters really are (or, rather, really aren’t).

Nevertheless, Haynes’ film provides many pleasures: the aforementioned musical sequences, mounted with a gaudy theatrical flair that captures the glitter-rock essence to a tee, are the film’s best scenes, nostalgic yet freshly minted; and there are moments throughout that reach through the layers of conceit to grab at your heart-strings, electrifying touchstones that instantly transport you to the memory of some shared, universal experience- the yearning, impossible ache of a teen-aged Bale staring at homoerotic photos of his idols; the sharp humiliation of Collette’s Mandy Slade as she confronts her husband in the midst of his dehumanized, drugs-and-sex-saturated oblivion; the explosive, adrenaline-fueled vitality of McGregor’s first stage performance as Wild (in which, incidentally, he strips naked for his adoring audience). All in all, the exponential popularity of Velvet Goldmine is not surprising, nor is it undeserved: though it may leave us unsatisfied on some nameless level, and though it sometimes feels as though it takes itself far too seriously, its youthful exuberance and its visual perfection go a long way towards making up for its shortcomings; and even if it ultimately leads us to prefer and embrace the real-world history which it distorts for its desired effect, it seems fitting and desirable to find satisfaction in that which is real rather than in a glittery fantasy- and that, come to think of it, is perhaps the true message of Velvet Goldmine.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120879/