Showing posts with label christopher nolan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label christopher nolan. Show all posts

Sunday, June 16, 2013

movie review: 'man of steel'

I like Superman more than Batman.

I'll give you a moment to go find your socks that just blew off, but let me also explain why, because it's key to certain elements of this review and why I don't think the rebooted Superman works all that well (spoilers, I'm not the biggest fan of Man of Steel, if you want the review in a sentence). This mostly has to do with certain misconceptions regarding the character and the mythos surrounding Superman, and I'm going to try and clear some of those up (yes, it's going to be one of those reviews).

To wit, when Siegel and Shuster created Superman, they were very much aware of the mythological parallels to the character such as Hercules and Moses, and they created him as a character who fought for social justice, an immigrant from another planet fighting for our world. It's also been theorized that Superman was considered a surrogate father figure, particularly to many of the young boys who read the comics in the 40s and 50s while their real fathers were engaged in the Second World War and the Korean War, not to mention the loss of Siegel's father in a robbery years earlier. Many, many writers who would follow them would take their own stabs and defining Superman, but in the end, a core distillation of Superman's role and values crystallized, as they did with Wonder Woman and Batman. 

Batman was the spirit of justice, Wonder Woman was the spirit of truth, and Superman was the symbol of hope.

I want you all to consider this for a moment. Superman is the symbol of hope, an alien from another planet, yet raised with our values and having a much stronger connection to Earth than he ever would the destroyed Krypton. He is a man who gains the most power not on his homeworld but on Earth, thanks to the yellow light rays of our sun. And yet he chooses not to represent himself as some ubermensch, some titan of power that rules us, but as a figure to which we all can look up. Many, many authors have played with the Christ symbolism in connection to Superman, and while I will argue there's definitely a grain of salt in that comparison, I don't think it quite encapsulates the other elements of his character - namely, his more human side. There's a degree of humility in Superman's choice of a secret identity - an unassuming reporter working for a newspaper, where he could inform the American public and ensure his travels could get him in places of danger that he could stop in his alter ego. His relationship with Lois Lane plays a big part in this story, both as a 'grounding' facet of his character and as a very real emotional link, showing his connection to us and our world.

Now, maybe it's just me, but that's potent material for writing a powerful story - but yet so many people don't see these elements in the character. Many tend to consider him a 'boring', 'stupid' character, overloaded with powers and strengths that make him invincible, and obviously a character without weakness can't have any notable threats. They don't understand why he doesn't just kill Lex Luthor or General Zod or why he doesn't enact the same brand of justice for which Batman is emblematic. Or, in a complete misunderstanding of the character, they point to things like this:

Yeah, it's a load of shit. As I stressed above, Superman is a person who has a much stronger and much more potent connection to his human roots than his Kryptonian ones. He was raised in Smallville, a little farm town in Kansas to be a good, compassionate, altruistic person (which is often where the 'stupid' adjective gets applied in the false equivalency where 'good'='dumb', which pisses me off to no end), and while he is aware his powers make him different from humanity, he does not think they place him above us. And from that, you can sketch out the best Superman stories, where it doesn't matter if he has incredible powers, but the ultimate futility of his task. He can't save everyone from everything, but he's going to try his damnedest anyway. He knows that people look to him as a symbol of hope, as someone whose values they want to emulate, and thus he must balance his very human desires with his chosen duty. He knows that people will look at him with fear and anger and jealousy and distrust, but he rises above that because he believes we all can be better.

It's no surprise kids fall in love with Superman. He's the adult who can fly and fight bad guys and shoot lasers out of his eyes, and he's going to do it no matter what and with a smile on his face once the bad guys are gone - in short, he's the idealized father figure for many of these kids. And yet the funny thing is that once those kids get past the teenager stage (where they all tend to embrace Batman over Superman because Superman 'isn't cool') and become adults, they tend to like Superman again, but for different reasons. They see him as the character who has to balance his love life and his job, who has to face impossible odds and somehow prevail, and who through all of it remains a good person. They don't care about his power set or his less-than-stellar gallery of villains - most can see past that and see someone deep down they want to emulate, an ideal to aspire towards.

That's potent stuff, there's real dramatic material there that has resonated time and time again, with the same archetypes stretching back through history. There's a reason Superman has persisted in the modern collective unconscious for as long as it has, perhaps putting the lie to Lois' first article in Superman Returns, 'Why The World Doesn't Need Superman'. And thus my interest was definitely piqued when I heard Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan were teaming up with a stellar cast to retell the Superman origin story yet again. And believe it or not, I immediately thought that while the choice of a director was solid (Zack Synder, despite all of the problems with him, has a gift for comic-book-esque shot composition and 'epic' scale if the script can support it), the problems might come from Nolan and his writing team. They understood Batman (mostly), but Superman's a tougher character to nail down and requires a bit more maturity and careful forethought. Could they pull it off?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

movie review: 'the dark knight rises'

It's hard to name a trilogy where the last entry is the best. 

The original Star Wars movies, The Godfather trilogy, the original X-Men trilogy, the Spider-Man trilogy, even the Lord of the Rings movies often suffer from the last movie just not being able to close the loop (I understand that my issues with Return of the King are primarily structural, but I'm sorry, The Two Towers is, in my opinion, a better film. And to some degree, I understand the problem. In the first movie, you establish everything. In the second movie, you ramp it up. In the third movie, you draw things to a close the best you can - and most filmmakers just can't. The expectations are the highest, you expect the best, the most epic things on screen - and often times, it just doesn't deliver.

So maybe, just maybe, it would have been better had The Dark Knight Rises never been made. That's a harsh indictment, but you couldn't realistically hope to top The Dark Knight. That's an implicit condemnation of The Dark Knight Rises, I know that, but considering how great, how much The Dark Knight crystallized the modern superhero blockbuster, it would be impossible to top it. With Heath Ledger giving the most powerful performance of his career, with that film ending the way it did, how can you follow that?

At some point, this had to have occurred to director Christopher Nolan, and you can tell that he tried - oh, did he try - to make this movie the biggest and most impactful of all three films. The conflict was bigger, the stakes were higher, the danger was greater... and I'm sorry, but it doesn't work.

Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises isn't terrible. It isn't the worst ending to a trilogy I've seen - the comparisons to Spider-Man 3 and The Godfather Part III are unfair - but the film just doesn't work, despite all of the efforts involved. I can't say that this movie is uniformly unworkable - there are shining moments of brilliance, I can't deny that - but ultimately The Dark Knight Rises, regardless of comparisons to its predecessors, is the worst of the trilogy and arguably a failure. I'm going to try to explain why without spoiling anything - and at some point, I'm going to drop all pretence, because I have to discuss the ending and the thematic payoffs, but you'll be warned when that happens.

Let me make this clear - The Dark Knight Rises has all of the pieces of that epic finale that it wants to be. The acting is universally solid across the board, and damn near amazing when it comes to some characters. Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman all reprise their roles and deliver excellently (although I'm not entirely pleased that Alfred's character seems to vanish for over half of the movie), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers the best performance of his career thus far as a beat cop named Blake. Hell, I'll even stick up for Tom Hardy doing the best he can with Bane, and Anne Hathaway trying to make Selina Kyle work. This is really an ensemble piece, and if they had just titled this film Gotham, I think it would have sounded a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises. It certainly fits the tone of the film a lot more (I'll come back to this).

In terms of directing and cinematography, this is a great looking film. The shot composition is excellent, the action is framed beautifully (although not quite as nicely as The Avengers, in my opinion), and the scenes that could look silly with a bad director look awesome as all hell here. And I'll be the first to say that the fight choreography here is the best of all three movies, and the special effects have never looked better. And Hans Zimmer's score is epic, sweeping, and does a lot of work to make this movie feel big and ponderous and meaningful.

The sad thing is that it had to do that work, because the script and plot of this film is an absolute disaster.

At this point, being familiar with Batman continuity outside of these movies allowed me to pinpoint the exact comics Christopher Nolan was drawing inspiration from - and this isn't exactly a bad thing, because one of those comics is one of the most well-written and crafted pieces of all time. That comic is The Dark Knight Returns, written by future nutcase Frank Miller, and along with Watchmen, was one of two comics released in the mid-80s that would be responsible for redefining the medium. And you know what? If Christopher Nolan had chosen just to use The Dark Knight Returns as his primary influence, it could have worked, and would have made for a very interesting political commentary (oh, the political elements are here, but I'll get into that after the spoiler point). But unfortunately, there are two other comics that Nolan draw influence from. The first is Knightfall, where Bane does the one thing that made his character famous in comic-book history rather than a footnote. The second was No-Man's Land, a rather bleak comic that did a lot to explore Gotham as a whole, and probably would have fit the tone Nolan was looking to examine.

If I'm being completely honest, all three of these comic lines could have been workable for The Dark Knight Rises - but Nolan chose to mash all three of them together and then fuse in a fresh plotline of his own, which renders the plot a twisted, tangled mess that has more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. And here's where Nolan's focus on realism proves to be his undoing, because if he wants the plot to be relatable and cerebral and 'above' the comic books he's drawing from, accessible to the mainstream, I'm not going to be as forgiving when it comes to the plot holes. I'm not going to spoil anything at this point, but let me say that Bruce Wayne could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he got in contact with the corporate lawyer for Wayne Enterprises - and for a man who is supposed to be a smart and well-connected as him, the fact that he doesn't is a real problem.

I'm getting close to discussing themes and elements of this movie that will require spoilers, so let me talk about a few other problems I can talk about without spoiling, the first being Selina Kyle. I will give Nolan some minor applause for finally passing the Bechdel test, but even despite Anne Hathaway trying to make her character work, Nolan's script doesn't have any idea what she's supposed to be. A third of the time she's out for herself, a third of the time she's speaking for the poor of Gotham, and the last third of the time she's an incredibly awkward insert-love-interest-here stand-in that even the movie seems to mock. 

At this point I have to talk about Nolan's 'hyper-masculine' philosophy with regards to film-making, and the portrayal of Selina Kyle is a great place to do it. Thanks to their convoluted plots, the generally bleak settings, and the stoic, heavy style of directing, many have commented that Nolan's cinematography and directing style could be considered emotionally cold or distant. This is namely because Nolan places human reason far above emotion - his Ideal Man is a titan of reason and logic, not swayed by his passions or his feelings. And while I can't deny I find this appealing, it also leads to a sexless portrayal of women in his films - or worse. The crowning moment for this was Inception, where Cobb's wife and her emotional breakdown dragged her into limbo, and Cobb's connections to her nearly result in his destruction as well, in a job that demands reason and logic within the human mind. It's a window of insight into Nolan that very soon explains a great deal of his portrayal of female characters in movies. Compared to a Tarantino or a Rodriquez or even a Zack Snyder, Nolan seems unconcerned with female sexuality in films, and actively works to de-emphasize it through cold, austere film-making. Let me make this clear: you will never see a sex scene in a Christopher Nolan film.

So it was baffling to me that he chose to include Selina Kyle - Catwoman, one of the most sexualized characters in comic book history - in The Dark Knight Rises. That is, until you realize that not only is Anne Hathaway never called Catwoman in the film, but her character is hardly a sexual being at all - at least until she's called upon to drop into the insert-love-interest-here spot. In fact, I'd have a hard time saying she's got a character at all - she's less of a person and more of a plot device, used to push Bruce and Batman towards the inevitable. She does a pretty decent job with what she has, but she's probably the most sexless Catwoman character I've seen on screen, and frankly, while it was expected from Nolan, I was hoping he's step out of his box. 

And speaking of the inevitable, I now have to talk about Bane - and unlike some, I think Bane actually works as an effective villain in this film. He's imposing as all hell, he's a potent physical presence, and it's probably the only way Bane's character could have been realistically done well in a Batman movie. But there are two problems with his character, and the first problem is the line delivery. Unlike some, I can overlook the strange voice - I've heard the comment that he sounds like Darth Vader crossed with Sean Connery, but it didn't both me. My problem was with the obvious dubbing - and dear God, it was obvious.  The overdubbing was too loud and it didn't flow well with the rest of the film - sure, it sounded ominous, but it really broke my suspension of disbelief when his voice was so much louder in the sound mix. The second problem is a little tougher to define - basically, the ending twist (that anybody who's read enough Batman comics will see coming, by the way) leaves Bane something of a shell of a character, ultimately lacking importance in the long run. He executes an incredibly complex scheme (which is full of holes, but it was still impressive) - but the twist strips any true payoff to the ending, and I was left with a real sense of disappointment. 

And now, to talk about themes and other plot problems, I have to spoil pretty much the whole movie. For those who are stopping here, I still think, despite the many, many flaws of this film, it's worth seeing. It's the weakest of the trilogy, though, and it's sure as hell not as good as The Avengers (albeit better than The Amazing Spider-Man). Spoilers after the jump.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

movie review: 'the dark knight' (RETRO REVIEW)

I remember the first time I saw The Dark Knight.

I remember the hours of waiting in line with my friends, where we talked, argued, played cards, and tried to coordinate with our friends who were arriving later. I remember getting some of the best seats in the theatre for the movie, and I remember the audience bursting into shocked applause at the end of the film, still working to take in what they had seen. 

Yes, The Dark Knight was that good. For me, it was something of a formative experience - I know for a fact that scenes in a few of my stories were shaped by those in that film. It was also the first film that appealed to my thinking on political issues - as I suspect it was intended. It also did wonders in defining the superhero blockbuster and was part of the sequence of fantastic films that came out in 2008, which was one of the best years for movie geeks since 1982. Both critics and audiences hailed it, and the choice by the Academy to extend the Best Picture category was driven primarily by the refusal to nominate this film. It wasn't just a formative film for me - it was a film that reshaped elements of the cinematic landscape. It catapulted Christopher Nolan to stardom, provided additional fuel for the revitalization of comics along with Iron Man (which would lead into The Avengers), and gave Heath Ledger the Academy's first posthumous Oscar-winning actor since 1976.

And to be completely honest, while I have seen The Dark Knight dozens of times since it was released in 2008, it's a little hard to talk about - mostly because for a contemporary superhero blockbuster, it has been one of the most intensely analyzed and discussed film in recent years. And it wasn't just film critics this time - Nolan's clear emphasis of themes and symbols have made the film accessible, so everyone could talk about it. My issue will be having anything new to say on the subject.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

movie review: 'batman begins' (RETRO REVIEW)

In two days, like a majority of comic book fans, movie buffs, and semi-professional movie critics, I'm going to go see The Dark Knight Rises. I've been working my ass off to keep things as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll be fully surprised when I go to see the movie, but I also know that's going to be mostly impossible in this day and age. I know the movie has received some amount of critical acclaim (although most critics have commented it isn't quite as good as The Dark Knight), I know Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy are playing villains, and I have a sneaking suspicion regarding the return of Ra's al-Ghul and the League of Shadows in some way, shape, or form (fingers crossed for Liam Neeson to show up).

With all of this in mind, I thought it might be productive (since there really aren't many albums that I can review at this point) for me to do a retroactive examination of the three Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films. Part of this is for me to catch up on canonical elements that I might have missed, but another part of this is to re-examine Nolan's filmmaking and thematic elements he's looking to consider in this series, and ultimately bring to a close in his film set to be released this Friday. 

So, without further ado, let's talk about Batman Begins.