Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Going into The Dark Knight Rises, I had a number of concerns. For starters, its the follow-up to 2008's The Dark Knight, which is one of the greatest superhero films ever made (if you're interested, depending on the day, I would cite Spider-Man 2 as being better, but The Incredibles will always be tops in my heart). How do you follow up a villain as magnetically unhinged as the Joker, particularly a performance of a lifetime from the late Heath Ledger? TDKR is also follows director Christopher Nolan's Inception, in my opinion his best film to date. How will Nolan deliver on those heightened expectations? Most of all, TDKR is the conclusion of Nolan's Batman trilogy: can he succeed where so many others have failed and bring his story to satisfying conclusion despite impossible expectations?

The answer to those questions, respectively, are: you don't try to, he doesn't, and he almost sticks the landing.

TDKR picks up several years after the events of The Dark Knight. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is still racked with guilt about concealing the truth about the deceased Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, appearing only in photographs), the "hero Gotham needed, but not the one it deserved." The Batman has completely disappeared, and crime has reached all-time lows in the city. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a damaged recluse, in physical pain from a leg injury and emotional pain from the death of his beloved Rachel. However, he may soon need to come out of hiding: a conspiracy is afoot, seemingly led by the masked brute Bane (Tom Hardy) and involving both enigmatic thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a nuclear generator courtesy of an investment in Wayne Industries by Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). As Gotham is threatened, Wayne re-emerges, as does the Batman, with some help from ambitious young detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Like all of Nolan's films, the film opens with a remarkable set piece: a mid-air, plane-to-plane hijacking that is truly extraordinary to behold. Despite having a near-sterling reputation as one of the biggest blockbuster directors today, Nolan is somewhat underrated when it comes to his skill as an action director. The film's action sequences are air-tight and intricately executed. Unfortunately, the plot is not as solid. Bane's scheme and the revelations around it are ambitious on a macro level; however, the minor details don't always coalesce. Even though the film runs at over two-and-a-half hours, it still feels incomplete.

This isn't to say that the film isn't hugely entertaining. The entire cast puts forth great performances. Bale mopes about but still manages to come across as charming. Gordon-Levitt shines with idealism as someone who has long looked up to Batman, but must come to learn that fighting crime isn't always so black-and-white. Oldman and Michael Caine, as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, respectively, have long been the franchise's MVPs, and in this film they do some of their finest work, especially Caine. Hardy makes a foreboding villain as Bane, and, to touch on the point I made earlier, distinguishes himself as a totally different kind of villain: where the Joker was an agent of chaos, Bane is an agent of control, a man who has a very clear plan and intends to see it through come hell or high water. However, it's Hathaway who steals the movie with ease, cleverness, and sexuality that her Selina Kyle employs in her heists. Like Michelle Pfiffer before her in Batman Returns, she absolutely owns the role, playing everything close to the chest while remaining, as she describes herself, completely "adaptable."

Before I conclude this review, I want to briefly comment on the politics that many have been reading into the film. There's no doubt that Nolan does have a political message in this film, but, like his previous Batman films, I see it as neither left nor right-wing, but nonpartisan. The message here seems to be that we should be wary of who's bankrolling popular movements; for example, is the Tea Party movement an expression of how conservative America really feels about the Obama Administration, or is it a movement bankrolled and dictated by the Koch Brothers based on their interests. Similarly, who's running the Occupy movement: the American people or liberal interest groups? It is interesting food for thought, even if the film presents it a bit heavy-handedly.

The Dark Knight Rises, despite some misgivings, is still an terrifically enjoyable film. It may not hold up as well as The Dark Knight, nor will it be regarded as one of Christopher Nolan's finest films, but it is definitely an excellent entry in the superhero genre and a fine ending to the best superhero trilogy thus far. A-

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

And so begins Buster Keaton's 1924 film, Sherlock Jr. Keaton himself plays the hapless projector/would-be detective, and without fail hilarity ensues. There has been much debate among cinephiles in Keaton vs. Charlie Chaplin, but what makes Keaton so great, I think, is his hangdog demeanor and lovable daffiness: its a miracle his characters make it to the end of any of his films. In this film, the local sheik (Ward Crane) has stolen a watch from the father (Joe Keaton) of the girl (Kathryn McGuire) whom the projectionist is trying to woo. The projectionist decides to take on the case himself, but once he's framed, he's kicked out of the house and left to his other job, where he escapes into the world of film to become Sherlock Jr., the world's greatest detective.

The film plays with a lot of ideas on the escapism of the movies, allowing the projectionist to become a suave and brilliant (but still prone to mayhem) detective who can solve the case and win the girl. Throughout the film, we get to experience the wish-fulfillment that the movies provide for many of us, and Keaton's staging of the scenes in which he's explicitly commenting on this is spectacular. Take, for example, my choice for favorite shot (I'm actually going to cheat a bit here, with a series of shots instead of just one) (also: spoiler alert):

The projectionist, alone in his booth, awakens from his fantasy, only to see that life isn't always like the movies. However, the girl has already found the real culprit in the crime, and seeks out the projectionist in his booth, and as she apologizes to him, he looks to the screen for guidance...

Keaton frames both couples, allowing us to see how the projectionist's reality and fantasy have come together. In a sense, we get art imitating life, or, rather, life imitating art, as the projectionist takes his cues from the screen. Keaton seems to be asking: how do movies, or art in general, influence our daily lives? Do we, as an audience, take our cues from what we are watching, whether explicitly or subliminally? Its an argument that still continues to this day.

As the projectionist gives the girl a peck, rather than a passionate kiss, Keaton seems to comically suggest, "well, maybe..."

...even if we're not entirely certain whether that influence is necessarily positive or negative.

Other great shots:


I just love the composition of this shot, with Sherlock Jr. riding a driverless motorcycle while staring ahead at an oncoming train. Its a thing of beauty.

A nice little piece of cinematic illusion: that's the magic of the movies!

This has been a contribution to The Film Experience's Hit Me with Your Best Shot.