Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Diatribes

"On a more superficial level, I have to ask the question: how many good third movies in a franchise can people name?" 
~Christopher Nolan
The Dark Knight Rises is not a great film. It is not a great Batman film, nor is it a great summer blockbuster. It is not a bad film, by any stretch, nor even a mediocre film; we may generously even call it "good" if we allow the whole to amount to more than the sum quality of its parts. But shrouded in the shadow of what I might with only minor hesitation call the two greatest superhero films of all time, the latter of which is probably the masterwork of Nolan's career to date, TDKR cannot help but be a disappointment. 

Where to begin? Perhaps it is best to take the worst of the pain from the outset: TDKR is in many ways a sloppy, haphazard, and bloated film from a director (Nolan the Elder, Christopher) and screenwriter (Nolan the Younger, Jonathan) I have often praised for attention to the finer details of the craft and a general coherence of vision, both of which are sorely lacking on display here. The first half of the film in particular is the worst kind of drudgery, reminiscent of nothing more than the Wachowski brothers in its endless, self-important exposition full of sound and fury but signifying nothing; it aches to watch J. Nolan striving for such profundity with every line, hoping desperately to achieve aphorism of grand philosophical portent and instead landing upon grandiosity. TDKR desperately, crudely longs to be Wagnerian but achieves only the Shatnerian; I can think of no closer analog to the failure than that of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and the two films share more in common both structurally and thematically than I am comfortable examining, but I will momentarily force myself to do so anyhow.

At their worst moments here the Nolans achieve near-Schumacher levels of absurdity. The clumsiness is often staggering to the point of camp: when Bane's (Tom Hardy) pet physicist began tinkering with Wayne's Unobtainium Reactor and a single jump-cut later declared "This is now a four megaton NUCLEAR BOMB!" I along with half the theater burst into unrestrained, un-welcomed laughter that would time and again re-emerge at each bout of similarly contrived nonsense. TDKR is no more intellectually insulting than your average Big Summer Movie, but these sorts of hokey hijinks have less place in the moral or physical universe of Nolan's Batman than they do in a Roger Moore Bond film. If Tom Hardy's mustache had been accessible through his oxygen mask as Bane he would certainly have twirled it with impunity, but alas that he is forced to limit himself to faux-Victorian posturing complete with the two-handed "Moriarty Grip" on his upper jacket lining at all times, from which I half expected him to pull a snuff box and monocle at any moment. At Hardy's most restrained he is reasonably intimidating as a faithfully intellectual Frankenstein's monster, but it is impossible to take him seriously when he is tossing quips like "Ask for the devil and he shall appear," "BEHOLD your liberation," and "I AM GOTHAM'S RECKONING!" along with literally dozens of other such Miltonian bon mots on a practically per-line basis, none of which serve to make him even fractionally as frightening as Ledger's Joker at his most banal. Alfred Pennyworth is the next worst offender, and even the incomparable Michael Caine is incapable of convincing us of the sincerity behind his ludicrously over-scripted lectures and lamentations this time around. Beyond that, the less said about Selina Kyle's (Anne Hathaway's) purring pontifications, the better, though the script does at least afford her Catwoman a few crowning moments of confidence in her cracks. 

TDKR's script is overloaded near to the breaking with enough textbook examples of Telling over Showing to give a high school creative writing teacher an aneurism. I've already heard it argued that the interminable exposition is justified by the expansive number of characters dealt with in the narrative, but that argument fails to hold much water when one considers how much more effectively that same challenge was overcome in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight through establishing imagery and just generally more effective filmmaking, which seems to have been a secondary concern for Nolan this time around the block. The film also fails against its predecessors on a more thematic level in its thoroughly confused philosophy and general disregard for consequences and characters. The more that is revealed of Bane's scheme and motivations, the less they make any coherent sense, especially where a particularly jarring "revelation" is concerned in the final act.

In making TDKR as blatant an Important Message film as it was clearly intended to be, the Nolans manage to subvert the very essence of The Dark Knight's core motifs, taking the basic hope in humanity offered in the Joker's ideological defeat by the conscience of everyday citizens and turning it on its head in a Randian anti-populist diatribe that shows those same Gothamites reduced to mindless mobs in service of Bane's amusement, absent any legitimate behavioral justification beyond the demands of the plot and Nolan's overwhelming desire to evoke Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. It's as bad an example of world-building as it is incongruous with the film's own established moral universe, and that message commitment to a set piece over the concerns of the film's soul muddles Bruce Wayne/Batman's (Christian Bale) own character arc to the point of incomprehension, however hard the screenplay tries to substitute unearned epiphanies for genuine development (going so far in breaking the rules of the world as to introduce crucial plot information otherwise unknown to Wayne through what is immediately established as a hallucination). This kind of writing is as lackadaisical as it is lazy, and the knowledge that J. Nolan is capable of so much better only makes it all the more devastating in its actualization.

I have been harder on the film than it deserves in focusing so intently on its flaws; granted, they are legion, far more abundant than I have outlined here, but for all of them TDKR still retains enough craft to commend it. Its sequences of action, though much sparser and of smaller consequence than their operatic accompaniment tricks us into believing, are as visceral and entertaining as any in the trilogy, and Nolan must still be commended for his commitment to practical – and powerful – effects over typical Hollywood CGI saturation. Most of the actors do quality work given the shortcomings of the script – need I even speak of Gary Oldman's unwavering dedication? –  and if the editing is shoddy it at least serves to showcase their commitment even in the film's excesses. Zimmer does nothing new or interesting with his musical reprisals, but his spartan score is as functionally effective as ever, even if I do wish Nolan had relied less on its shrill, throbbing strings to establish the stakes of the climax.

Though TDKR – loud and proud in its portents as it is – closes with a literal bang, it resonates as scarcely more than a cinematic whimper. Those of us with adoration for its progenitors owe it some measure of respect as a not-disastrous end to the trilogy, I suppose, but I suspect non-fans with less stake in its success will ultimately get more enjoyment from the serviceable final product than those of us with an emotional investment in its endeavors.

Grade: B- (and it feels generous; I am overriding my gut reaction in bumping it above a C letter level)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Of Recent Random Ramblings

Welcome to this edition of the Micro-Review Roundup, which for the most part comprises aggregate expansions of recent ramblings on my Twitter feed. And yes, I've been on a bit of a Horror kick recently, for anyone who somehow had any question on that. I suppose it's just that time of the month... which I of course mean the recent full moon phase.

Film: Ted
Seth MacFarlane, 2012

An overly long and relatively restrained Family Guy episode with enough laughs in the first act to make the latter slog worthwhile. As always, could benefit from significantly more dark absurdism and significantly fewer 80s pop cultural references (though the balance of non-sequitur sequences is just about right this time). With a revamped second half, some much-needed editing, and more directorial experience from MacFarlane, this could have had the makings of a more notable comedy gem, but in its present form it's fairly disposable network TV fare scarcely worth comparing to animated raunch comedy classics like South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut or even the mixed success of The Simpsons Movie.
Grade: C

Film: Hellraiser
Clive Barker, 1987

A minor classic of Lovecraftian body horror equal parts the love child of Stephen King and David Cronenberg. Thoughtfully disturbing in its visceral dissection (pun intended, and forgive me for it) of human psychosexuality and the extremities of carnal desire, occasionally marred by some shaky cinematography and loose editing. Still as unsettling today as it ever was, and easily one of the greatest genre works of the 80s (not that its competition was particularly stellar).
As a bonus, also boasts the most frightening appearance of Plastic Jesus in cinematic history.
Grade: B

Film: Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Tony Randel (Heavy creative oversight from Clive Barker), 1998

That rarest of creatures, a Horror sequel worthy of its predecessor's dark legacy. Struggles with initially glacial pacing and some ill-conceived re-imaginings of Hellraiser's characters and creatures, but atones for those shortcomings with stronger cast performances, an unnerving new villain, and a uniquely memorable vision of hell. Where Hellraiser may torment your waking imagination, Hellbound is the fel stuff that will haunt your dreams. Bonus points for its practically overnight production and release within a year of its progenitor, all managed on a functionally microscopic budget.
Grade: B-

Film: Bram Stoker's Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992

By far the most faithful adaptation to Bram Stoker's original work, at least where tone is concerned, Coppola's Dracula remains relevant as perhaps the most wholeheartedly authentic visual realization of the Gothic genre to date. The film is a tour de force of lavish sensuality, oozing more style in every operatic scene than all the gallons of blood spilled in its breathtakingly brief 128 minutes running time. The cast is just as committed to the raw theatricality on view here, Gary Oldman entering the annals of vampiric legend as an utterly convincing incarnation of a passionate and tragically accursed Dracula, Anthony Hopkins devouring the scenery with all Van Helsing's eccentric excitability, and Tom Waits lurching about as the most entertainingly unhinged Renfield yet seen on screen. Keanu Reeves is the sole chink in the film's illustriously decorated armor, delivering in place of acting not only a constant mugging that would put the comic reaction shots of Hammer to shame, but also perfecting the most exquisitely tortured approximation of an English accent in living memory.
"LOVE NEVER DIES," promises the appropriately lush theatrical poster, and neither shall a film as lovingly devoted to its vision as this Gothic masterpiece.
Grade: A-

Film: Night of the Living Dead
George Romero, 1968

The Ur-Zombie grandfather of them all, still just as unsettling in its high-concept exploitation even after fifty years of imitators. Brutish, nasty, and short, Romero's original remains as effective as it is primarily for its single-minded devotion to the desecration of all that is sacred in human society, playing both on the cultural fears of the Cold War and our more timeless aversions to death, decay, predation, destruction of identity, incest, cannibalism, and virtually every other primal fear or unthinkable taboo to haunt our psyches across the boundaries of community. A community which is so violated here as to leave generations pondering our own hypothetical reactions to such a loss of basic humanity.
Ever tense in its craft and composition, well-acted across the board (particularly by the now iconic Duane Jones), and marred only by its nonexistent effects budget and rampant misogyny (even for its time, judging by a few  historic critical reactions), Night of the Living Dead remains the purest codification of its genre, surpassed in overall quality only by the tiniest handful of its successors, if ever at all.
"They're coming for you, Barbara. They're coming to get you, Barbara!"
Grade: A-

Film: The Exorcist
William Friedkin, 1973
(And no, I will not be commenting on any of the differences in editions except to say that, as someone familiar with each, the cuts are not distinct enough that I would consider them worth contrasting in so small a space.)

On recently revisiting Friedkin's The Exorcist and Kubrick's The Shining after aeons, my initial reaction of re-appraisal was to note that, while both are near masterpieces of cinematic art, but both are minor failures as horror films. The Exorcist is tense, no doubt, paced with near perfection in the mounting terror not of the demon but of Chris MacNeil's (Ellyn Burstyn) increasingly helpless concern for her daughter's soul. I would hardly be the first to note that Pazuzu is not a particularly threatening villain from a secular perspective – certainly not compared to his Cenobite siblings or even the Paranormal possessor – but the horror at play is still somewhat effective empathically, again through the cypher of Burstyn's preeminent portrayal of a parent's deepest fears.
Though light on frights no one could claim The Exorcist is slim on style, and unlike the plethora of progeny it spawned it is just as profoundly substantial, both as well-crafted cinema and as a study of familial psychology. I care much less than I once did for the vague spiritual struggles of the auxiliary Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and his Catholic cohorts, too often recounted as the foci of the film, but their priestly presence certainly lends the climax its memorable dramatic weight. Nor can enough be said of Regan/Pazuzu's brilliantly executed joint performance by Linda Blair and Mercedes McCambridge.
Grade: B+

Film: The Shining
Stanley Kubrick, 1980

Few times have I desired to love a film as much as I would like to love Kubrick's celebrated classic The Shining, but alas that I must be content to respect it. The Shining is a beautiful film no doubt, an exercise in compositional perfection out of which I could probably pick more favorite shots than any dozen other such films combined. From the jaw-dropping grandeur of its opening mountain credits to the skin-crawling spectacle of the flooding elevators to the unforgettable focal clash of the baby-blue Grady girls with the sickly-hued halls, The Shining is a display of Kubrick's mise-en-scène at its absolute most effective.
Such a pity, then, that it suffers more from Kubrick's clinical detachment than any of his other works to that date. So abstract is Kubrick in his surreal approach to setting that he leaves behind both his actors and the characters they are so desperately (over)working to present. Jack Nicholson's iconic turn as Jack Torrance is unforgettable, yes, but as entertaining as it is to watch the King of Crazy go axe-frenzy out of cabin fever, his performance is too ridiculous to find frightening on any serious level. Shelley Duvall's Wendy too is a mess of mewling hysterics, and the only moment of any palpable tension between the two – as well as the only truly terrifying moment in the film – is found when Jack is mercifully off-screen and Wendy discovers the horrible truth of his manuscript (which, of course, the viewer had surmised a near two-hour's time earlier in Nicholson's mad mugging).
As gorgeous as is Kubrick's imagery and as indelible is Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkin's baroque score, The Shining is less successful as a sum narrative than as a collection of spectacularly effective imagery. And who knows, given that we're dealing with Kubrick here that may just have been the artistic intent all along.
Grade: A-

Song: What Makes You Beautiful
One Direction, 2012

So catchy it should be criminal, but the lovable kind of criminal like Robin Hood or the Artful Dodger, "What Makes You Beautiful" is an adorable chart debut by X Factor finalists One Direction and probably the least offensive ear worm of the year to date. WBYB is a pristine example of everything there is to like about boy bands – yes, even they have their redeeming qualities – what with its uplifting, heart-baring lyrics, its flawless rhythmic structure (for which, it has been noted, a great deal is owed to Pink), and an infinitely hummable bridge practically guaranteed to send all nearby victims bursting into the chorus whether willingly or unwillingly.
Yes, in terms of depth it's still the musical equivalent of a two-foot wading pool, but I challenge anyone to make it through a full listening without cracking a smile, or at least the hint of an acquiescent grin.
Grade: B+

Song: Good Feeling
"Flo Rida" (With emphasis on the quotes), 2011

Yes, this one is more than a little late, but I feel justified in reviewing it given that it's still topping charts and that no one seems to be calling this clown on his tripe. Content to prove himself the most shameless hack in the music industry, Flo Rida once again samples a refrain from an old classic (in this case Etta James's "Something's Got a Hold On Me" already resampled as Avicii's "Levels"), surrounds it with the most disposable flavors of rap on the radio, and calls it a day. Sure, the end product still retains some residual quality, but rather than support the cretin who led an entire generation to believe he was responsible for "You Spin Me 'Round," why not spare your own dignity and give this trash a pass in favor of a more honest club remix of the original Etta James?
Grade: C+ (Though artistic integrity here would merit an F for plagiarism, were we to carry the classroom metaphor.) 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Great Disposability

By now there's really no point in discussing whether The Amazing Spider-Man was "necessary" or not; "necessary" has never been and will never be a core consideration of Hollywood studio execs, except insofar as it is necessary they continue to make huge piles of money from their property investments – and Spider-Man is nothing if not a lucrative property. There's no arguing against the fact that the new Spidey is redundant, of course, but if that were an unforgivable fault we should have to discard every major superhero tentpole film of the past decade not directed by Christopher Nolan. Let's not pretend, for instance, that CGI technology has not advanced in leaps and bounds since 2002, a time when even the most ardent accolades of Raimi's work were willing to admit that Spidey's visual incarnation rather more resembled a transplanted cartoon than a tangible character, particularly in the embarrassing street fight sequences.

That said, I come to bury The Amazing Spider-Man, not to praise it. Raimi's was and is the definitive version of the friendly neighborhood web-slinger, capturing every ounce of Lee and Kirby's larger-than-life sense of super-powered fun and "gee whiz!" comic pizazz. Certainly, it had it flaws, none the least of which was a perpetually torpid Tobey Maguire who could never quite make believable the transition from pitiable Parker to spectacular Spider-Man, but as a blockbuster based on a beloved American myth it was as complete a package as anyone could have asked for, fan or no, and the fact that at least one of its sequels was every bit as compelling an addition to the genre is of no small note by Hollywood standards of property decay.

The Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, is every bit as turgid as Spider-Man was frenetic, and as bloated in its own self-importance as its predecessor was lackadaisical. Of course, to compare the premier studio work of a novice independent film and music video director like Marc Webb (thrown here into an exceptionally cynical production even by Hollywood reckoning) with the loving craft of a B-movie veteran like Sam Raimi is to invite such contrasts, and I suppose we all knew from the first trailer exactly what we were getting here. TASM is a mess, plain and simple, a textbook example of exactly how not to successfully transcribe a comic to the silver screen, from its painfully familiar opening scenes of Peter's childhood and parental separation (especially now that aping Nolan's Batman saga has become the modus operandi for the genre) to its interminable origin sequences that insist upon gorging a solid half of the film's running time with heavy-handed character development for a character with whom everyone watching the film is already intimately familiar. Granted, Andrew Garfield is better and more rounded in the role than Tobey "walking-lopsided-grin" Maguire ever was, but even his nuanced work is so hampered by the insipid screenplay and shoddy editing as to render him ridiculous in moments that should have been poignant (the entire theater erupted in laughter at his reaction to a certain inevitable family death) and creepy when the camera was clearly going for cute (how many lingering shots of lecherous grins do we really need per love scene anyway?). Emma Stone fares a little better as a Gwen Stacy literally written for her talents, though at times her character seems shoehorned into the narrative by the demands of the inevitable saga-to-be.

After ten minutes of this, trust me when I say
 the "erotic medical treatment moment" is way more awkward than it sounds on paper.

In that regard, she's not the only victim. I've already used the adjective "bloated" to summarize the movie's major issues, and I can think of no better term to invoke again in comparing it to the disastrous third entry of Raimi's original trilogy. Criminally stupid dialogue aside, TASM's script is stuffed beyond capacity with sideplots within sideplots within sideplots, all packed between pell-mell introductory cuts of characters intended for recycling at a later date while largely ignoring the superhero aspect of what is, ostensibly anyway, a superhero film. Parker finally does don the darker-and-grittier suit, but only after a short eternity of tedium culminating in a so-bad-it's-hilarious moment of epiphany that, in ripping off both its predecessor and Batman Begins simultaneously, exemplifies exactly how much TASM is not either of those films and has no hope of being anything comparable. By then it's too little, too late anyway, and we are treated to but a few brief moments of costumed crime-fighting that manage to make a blazing car cliffhanger sequence tedious before being thrust into the showdown with Rhys Ifans's Dr. Connor/Lizard "homage" to both the Jekyll/Hyde story and Defoe's infinitely superior schizophrenic turn as the Green Goblin.

TASM feels like every second of its 136-minute running time, offering reprieve only in a few moments of satisfying arachnobatics and a glut of unintentionally humorous one-liners punctuated by some seriously dedicated mugging. I've already forgotten every note of James Horner's soundtrack (which I'd wager he probably has too), and I have nothing to say about the cinematography except that the team would have done better to have gone for broke with the camera work and filmed all the web-slinging scenes with tracking over-the-shoulder shots; it would have at least carried more of that Cloverfield-esque theme park appeal, because Lord knows TASM has nothing to say for itself as a film qua film.

About the only other thing I can say in its favor is that it avoids recycling Ben Parker's "With great power comes great responsibility" speech, instead substituting a remedial philosophy course summation of Kant's Categorical Imperative peppered with a heavy pinch of Peter Singer's ethics of duty, as peculiar an espousal of morality in a mainstream American movie as I can ever recall having heard. And even that manages to sound pretty insipid in context. The film ends with the now-compulsory mid-credit "bonus" sequence, and the questions this one raises are nowhere half so important as the one on everyone's mind right now: is The Amazing Spider-Man worse than Spider-Man 3? Apples and oranges, I tell you. Granted, a worm-ridden apple and an underripe orange, but at the end of the day I wouldn't recommend eating either unless you're on the brink of starvation. And even then you're likely to get sick off it.

Grade: C-