I made the mistake of watching The Dark Knight Rises twice last week. The first time was entertaining enough, I suppose. The opening set-piece — in which a CIA renditions plane is hijacked in mid-air by it’s own cargo — is brilliantly conceived but pointless, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is a breath of fresh air and the ending (unspoiled here) works extremely hard to tie up the many loose ends and satisfy even the meanest critic.
But second time up, the problems come into even clearer focus. The confused ideology (a fusion of zeitgeisty “Occupy Gotham” wealth redistribution and pro-vigilante “mean streets will always need cleaning” status quo protectionism), endless tiresome exposition of both plot and theme and the huge holes in its own internal logic, all serve to dissipate the impact of the impressive visuals.
This Batman film is ostensibly the third in a trilogy but the story strands from the earlier two films don’t sit easily together and the look of each film is so different they can’t possibly have been conceived at the same time. It’s eight years after Batman defeated the Joker (in last film The Dark Knight ) and took the fall for the crimes of mad DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart reprising his role in still photographs only). Since then the Caped Crusader has been retired and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has been licking his wounds in seclusion back at stately Wayne Manor.
The arrival of a terrifying super-villain — an enormous bodybuilder in a breathing mask that amplifies his odd accent while at the same time feeding its wearer’s addiction to snake venom — means that the complacent people of Gotham have to call on their masked protector once again. But is he up for it? And is he up to it?
Director Christopher Nolan’s actual filmmaking chops don’t seem up to it either. The editing is clunky — often cutting on the off-beat or just as a character is clearly about to say something — and the scene transitions have no flow. There’s a shoddiness in the construction that a Soderbergh or a Fincher, for example, would never allow.
If James Cameron — another craftsman — treats filmmaking as engineering (a meticulously collected and finely honed collection of intricately machined parts designed to work seamlessly and silently together) then Nolan is more like an architect: a builder of grand facades making big statements that can be seen for miles. It’s only on closer inspection that you realise that there aren’t enough toilets on each floor and that the afternoon sun is so blinding that you can’t get any work done.
If portentuous latex isn’t your thing, there are other options. The best is a little gem called Cloudburst, returning from the recent Out Takes festival. An ageing lesbian couple (Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker) are threatened with separation when Fricker’s character becomes too frail to look after herself. They Thelma & Louise it up to Canada to get married, picking up a handsome hitch-hiker on the way, and the resulting road trip is charming and vulgar in equal measure. I hope it sticks around for a while for more people to discover it.
Isabella Rossellini and William Hurt are another older couple trying to rekindle their passion for life — and each other — in Julie Gavras’s slow moving Late Bloomers. Based on the screening I attended, this film is destined for success among that same demographic, as the laughter was laced with recognition and the long periods where nothing much happens allowed plenty of room to discuss what was going on. Which we know the oldies love to do…
Easily overlooked, but worth investigating if mountain biking is your thing, Trail Notes is a well made local documentary about the scene around the Whakarewarewa Forest Park and the growing popularity of the trails there. Featuring recreational riders as well as elite sportspeople, the highlight is probably the guys on periodic detention cutting yet another path through the bush — several have actually taken up the sport as a result of their work.
Biggest disappointment of the week is Kathleen Gallagher’s Sky Whisperers, the third in a series of uplifting eco-documentaries. I’m an admirer of the first two (Water Whisperers and Earth Whisperers) but this instalment doesn’t work to anywhere near the same degree. It’s partly a cinematic problem. Air quality and pollution doesn’t lend itself to strong visuals so we’re forced to sit through endless shots of clouds rolling across the sky. The subjects aren’t as compelling either. We’re even asked to take Ken Ring, the utterly discredited earthquake predictor, seriously and there’s one woman who describes herself — trust me — as a “biodynamic astronomer”.
Finally, one I missed a week or so ago — King of Devil’s Island, the true story of a brutal Swedish boy’s home in the early part of last century. Stellan Skarsgård shines as the headmaster of a reform school that pushes its young charges so far that eventually they rise up and rebel. Not too cheery but definitely worth a look for some fine acting and some snowy landscapes.
The Dark Knight Rises segment was printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 25 July, 2012. The rest is exclusive to F&S.