Posts Tagged ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
5. Looper. As Rian Johnson’s online commentary for the movie makes clear, this is the ultimate rarity: a labor of love, developed over the course of a decade, that is immediately accessible and exciting, and which knows how to tell a complicated story in quick, economical strokes. The montage that follows one character’s life over three decades may be the year’s single most bravura sequence, and although Johnson isn’t quite as good at shooting action as he is at conceiving a twisty plot, that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise remarkably assured and singular movie. In a year in which Prometheus and John Carter confused effects with storytelling, this was a small masterpiece of grounded science fiction, and should stand as an example for many filmmakers to come.
4. Flight. In some ways, this was the movie that made me most hopeful for the future of Hollywood. It isn’t an independent film or the work of a visionary auteur: rather, it’s a solid mainstream picture, based on an ambitious original screenplay, with a major star and superb director willing to tackle thorny, uncomfortable issues of character and ethical choice. Above all, it’s a slick, entertaining movie for adults that puts technology at the service of a story that comes across as old-fashioned in its belief in narrative, performance, and big moral themes. The fact that it was brought in on a modest budget and enjoyed considerable popular and critical acclaim only underlines that this is the kind of movie that studios can, and should, be making all the time.
3. The Master. At this point, Paul Thomas Anderson has evolved into a director of such peculiar, hermetic intensity that it would almost be more surprising if he delivered a movie that wasn’t so elliptical, mysterious, and deeply strange. Yet for all its apparent shapelessness, it delivers more scenes, moments, and images that linger in my memory than any other movie I’ve seen all year, as rendered by Mihai Malăimare, Jr.’s gorgeous cinematography, which was scandalously denied an Oscar nomination. Anchoring it all is the ravaged presence of Joaquin Phoenix, who gives what I emphatically believe is the year’s best performance: secretive, violent, and tender, with an Easter Island face that speaks more eloquently than any dialogue ever could.
2. Life of Pi. The year’s most technically astounding movie is bound to be diminished on the small screen, but its achievement goes far beyond the most lifelike special effects I’ve ever seen. As a director, Ang Lee is both hungry for new challenges and capable of doing almost anything, and he indulges in a great deal of delicious trickery—changing the aspect ratio, playing with the visual possibilities that 3D affords—without losing sight of the story’s underlying humanity. The ending is heartbreaking and inevitable, and cuts deeper than it seems at first glance: this isn’t just a love letter to the possibilities of digital filmmaking, but a meditation on the meaning and morality of storytelling itself.
1. The Dark Knight Rises. Take this, if you will, as the testimony of an avowed Christopher Nolan fanboy, but even after the inevitable backlash and nitpicking—which I don’t think is altogether warranted—I still think that this is the movie of the year. Much of its power is inseparable from the beauties of the IMAX format, which Nolan and his collaborators employ as it has never been used before, to tell the epic story of an entire city on a massive scale. Even on Blu-ray, however, its pleasures remain considerable: Bane’s voice still rumbles menacingly, and it has a more shapely, satisfying story than any of its predecessors, to the point where I’d argue that it’s a stronger picture than The Dark Knight—which makes it the best comic book movie ever made. And at a moment when superheroes seem to outnumber ordinary mortals at the multiplex, it’s an achievement that I suspect will only look better with time.
Jordan Goldberg: In closing, what would you guys say you’ve learned through this experience?
Christopher Nolan: I’ve learned to get more reaction shots. [All laugh.] I’ve learned you can never have too many reaction shots to something extraordinary. Just on a technical level. In order to portray an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world, you have to really invest in the reality of the ordinary and in the reactions of people to him. That, to me, was what was fun about taking on this character because it hadn’t been done before. He is such an extraordinary figure, but if you can believe in the world he’s in, you can really enjoy that extraordinariness and that theatricality.
Warning: Massive spoilers follow for The Dark Knight Rises.
At last, after building up to a showdown between a battered Batman and the terrifying Bane for more than two hours, The Dark Knight Rises treats us to what ought to be a genuinely startling revelation, in which Miranda Tate, Bruce Wayne’s lover and apparent ally, is revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, the daughter of his nemesis Ra’s Al Ghul, and the true mastermind of the plot against Gotham. This kind of twist is far from original, of course, but it’s expertly handled, and it benefits from the casting of the very appealing Marion Cotillard, of whom one couldn’t possibly think anything bad. (It also involves an elegant piece of misdirection, with a flashback that can be read two ways, as one might expect from the director of Memento and The Prestige.) Unfortunately, as I mentioned on Monday, I can only imagine how the scene must play to someone who didn’t know what was coming—because more than a year earlier, I had been assured by casting reports that Cotillard was playing Talia Al Ghul. And although the full story behind the rumor is somewhat more complicated, it still represents an inexplicable lapse at a time when studios have fiercely guarded the secrets of other movies, often to no real purpose.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how the Talia Al Ghul rumors began to unfold. As early as January of last year, an article in the Hollywood Reporter noted that actresses ranging from Eva Green to Gemma Atherton (and even a few who weren’t former Bond girls) were being considered for a pair of female roles in the sequel to The Dark Knight, and it explicitly stated: “Sources say one character is Talia, the daughter of villain Ra’s Al Ghul.” The following month, in the same publication, Marion Cotillard’s name was mentioned for the first time, and the article noted that her role “is suspected to be that of Thalia [sic] al Ghul.” When the official casting announcement was released, however, Cotillard’s character was given as Miranda Tate, which didn’t stop rampant speculation that this might be Talia under another name. And in May, Cotillard even gave an interview, which reads very amusingly in retrospect, in which she blatantly lied to the Hollywood Reporter about her character’s true intentions: “She’s a good guy.” But does she stay that way? “Yes,” she insists.
In other words, it looks like Warner Bros. did attempt to walk back the Talia Al Ghul rumors after they became widespread, and for that, I suppose, they deserve some credit. For someone like me, though, it was too little, too late: as far as I was concerned, this character was Talia Al Ghul, and ironically, the studio’s initial secrecy only allowed the rumor to take hold. Reading over the original casting reports, it’s tempting to wonder what happened. Was the Talia Al Ghul story simply a piece of wild fan speculation—similar to the ones that had Philip Seymour Hoffman cast as the Penguin, Naomi Watts as Vicki Vale, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Alberto Falcone—that actually turned out to be true? Or was it a real tip from a studio insider that was subsequently disavowed? The “sources” cited in that first Hollywood Reporter story make me suspect that it was, in fact, the latter, which means that someone at the studio legitimately blew one of the few interesting surprises in any recent Hollywood movie. And I don’t think I would have taken the rumors at face value if they hadn’t been reported with such apparent authority.
So what’s a movie lover to do? Clearly, this was an exceptional case, in which just knowing the name of an existing character conveyed enough information to significantly undermine the experience of watching the film itself. And the studio did a commendable job of concealing a similar revelation about the character played by Gordon-Levitt—although this particular spoiler is now cheerfully offered by Google Autocomplete. But if you spend any time online, it’s impossible to avoid these sorts of casting rumors entirely. I don’t often visit movie rumor sites, and get most of my news from the A.V. Club, but in this case, I still ended up knowing more than I wanted to know. The bottom line, I guess, is that we should be skeptical of a studio’s motives for concealing or leaking information: secrecy, or the lack thereof, is just a marketing tool, which means that crucial plot points can be revealed without consideration for the audience, while other movies are cloaked in an atmosphere of great intrigue for no reason whatsoever. In short, we shouldn’t trust anyone. Bruce Wayne probably wishes he’d done the same.
Let’s talk about scale. For much of the past decade, the major movie studios have waged a losing battle to keep audiences in theaters, while competing with the vast array of more convenient entertainment options available at home. Hollywood’s traditional response to the threat of new media has always been to offer greater spectacle, these days in the form of IMAX or 3D, with an additional surcharge, of course. But as the new formats bring us closer to the action, computerized effects push us further away. No matter how beautifully rendered a digital landscape may be, it’s still strangely airless and sterile, with a sense that we’re being given a view of more megapixels, not a window on the world. Even so immersive a film as Avatar ultimately keeps us at arm’s length: Pandora is a universe unto itself, yes, but it still sits comfortably on a hard drive at Weta. And for all their size and expense, most recent attempts to create this kind of immersion, from John Carter to The Avengers, fail to understand the truth about spectacle: large-scale formats are most exciting when they give us a vision of a real, tangible, photographed world.
This is why The Dark Knight Rises is such a landmark. Christopher Nolan, who cited the films of David Lean as an influence in Batman Begins, understands that the real appeal of the great Hollywood epics in VistaVision and Cinerama was the startling clarity and scope of the world they presented. It’s the kind of thing that can only be achieved on location, with practical effects, real stunts, aerial photography, and a cast of thousands. The Dark Knight Rises is packed with digital effects, but we’re never aware of them. Instead, we’re in the presence of a director luxuriating in the huge panoramic effects that IMAX affords—with image, with music, with sound—when trained on the right material on real city streets. As a result, it feels big in a way that no other movie has in a long time. Brad Bird achieved some of the same effect in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, but while Bird invited us to marvel at his surfaces, Nolan wants us to plunge us into a world he’s created, and he uses the medium as it was meant to be used: to tell a rich, dense story about an entire city.
Even more than The Dark Knight, this final installment makes it clear that Nolan’s twin obsessions with epic filmmaking and narrative complexity aren’t two different impulses, but opposite sides of the same coin: the massive IMAX screen, which surrounds us with images of staggering detail, is the visual equivalent of what Nolan is trying to do with the stories he tells. One thinks of The Last Judgment, of Bruegel, of Bosch. And his narrative skills have only improved with time. The Dark Knight had a great script, but it occasionally seemed to strain under the weight of its ideas, until it came off as two hugely eventful movies packed into one. The new movie doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, but it’s also more confident and assured: we’re sucked in at once and held rapt for two hours and forty minutes. And Nolan seems to have gotten over his ambivalence about the character of Batman himself. He’s always been shy about the Batsuit, which served as a kinky reminder of the story’s comic book origins, but here, he keeps Bruce Wayne vulnerable and unmasked for as long as possible, until he becomes more of a hero than ever before.
This is, in short, something close to a masterpiece—not just a worthy conclusion to the best series of comic book movies ever made, but the year’s first really great studio film. And yet I do have one big complaint. I’ve spoken before about Hollywood’s weird obsession with secrets, in which it refuses to disclose simple information about a movie for no other reason than a fetish over secrecy for its own sake, when in fact the film itself has no interesting surprises. (See: Prometheus and Super 8.) The same impulse often applies to casting rumors. For The Dark Knight Rises, the studio adamantly refused to confirm who Anne Hathaway would be playing, despite it being fairly obvious, and did the same with the characters played by Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yet even at the earliest point in the film’s production, it was made very clear that a certain character was going to be appearing in the film—thus ruining the movie’s one big surprise. In short, Hollywood has no idea what a secret is: it routinely hides information to no purpose, but then, when it really counts for once, it reveals it in a way that utterly destroys the filmmaker’s intentions. And there’s no other living director whose intentions deserve greater respect and admiration.
The release of the final trailer for The Dark Knight Rises gives me as good an excuse as any to talk once more about the work of Christopher Nolan, who, as I’ve said before, is the contemporary director who fills me with the most awe. Nolan has spent the past ten years pushing narrative complexity on the screenplay level as far as it will go while also mastering every aspect of large-scale blockbuster filmmaking, and along the way, he’s made some of the most commercially successful films of the decade while retaining a sensibility that remains uniquely his own. In particular, he returns repeatedly to issues of storytelling, and especially to the theme of how artists, for all their intelligence and preparation, can find themselves lost in their own labyrinths. Many works of art are ultimately about the process of their own creation, of course, but to a greater extent than usual, Nolan has subtly given us a portrait of the director himself—meticulous, resourceful, but also strangely ambivalent toward the use of his own considerable talents.
Yesterday, I referred to my notes toward a novel as urgent communications between my past and future selves, “a la Memento,” but it was only after typing that sentence that I realized how accurate it really is. Leonard Shelby, the amnesiac played by Guy Pearce, is really a surrogate for the screenwriter: he’s thrust into the middle of a story, without any context, and has to piece together not just what comes next, but what happened before. His notes, his visual aids, and especially the magnificent chart he hangs on his motel room wall are variations of the tools that a writer uses to keep himself oriented in during a complex project—including, notably, Memento itself. It isn’t hard to imagine Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the original story on which the screenplay is based, using similar charts to keep track of their insanely intricate narrative, with a protagonist who finally turns his own body into a sort of corkboard, only to end up stranded in his own delusions.
This theme is explored repeatedly in Nolan’s subsequent films—notably The Prestige, in which the script’s endless talk about magic and sleight of hand is really a way of preparing us for the trick the movie is trying to play on the audience—but it reaches its fullest form in Inception. If Memento is a portrait of the independent screenwriter, lonely, paranoid, and surrounded by fragments of his own stories, Inception is an allegory for blockbuster moviemaking, with a central figure clearly based on the director himself. Many viewers have noted the rather startling visual similarity between Nolan and his hero, and it’s easy to assign roles to each of the major characters: Cobb is the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the art director, all working toward the same goal as that of the movie itself—to transport the viewer into a reality where the strangest things seem inevitable. While Nolan has claimed that such an allegory wasn’t intentional, Inception couldn’t have been conceived, at least not in its current form, by a man who hadn’t made several huge movies. And at the end, we’re given the sense that the artist himself has been caught in a web of his own design.
In this light, Nolan’s Batman movies start to seem like his least personal work, which is probably true, but his sensibility comes through here as well. Batman Begins has an art director’s fascination with how things are really made—like Batman’s cowl, assembled from parts from China and Singapore—and The Dark Knight takes the figure of the director as antihero to its limit. The more we watch it, the more Nolan seems to uneasily identify, not with Batman, but with the Joker, the organized, methodical, nearly omniscient toymaker who can only express himself through violence. If the wintry, elegiac tone of our early glimpses of The Dark Knight Rises is any indication, Nolan seems ready to move beyond this, much as Francis Coppola—also fond of directorial metaphors in his work—came to both to identify with Michael Corleone and to dislike the vision of the world he had expressed in The Godfather. And if Nolan evolves in similar ways, it implies that the most interesting phase of his career is yet to come.