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.
Following up on the 2009 surprise hit The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky has offered us another film about people who destroy themselves for our entertainment – this time in the rarefied world of ballet. Tiny Natalie Portman is plucked from the chorus of the fictional but prestigious New York City Ballet for the dream role of the Swan in a hot new production. It’s the chance of a lifetime but her fragile psychology shows through in her performance even though her dancing is technically perfect. Maestro Vincent Cassel tries to reconstruct her – as you would a first year drama school student – while domineering stage mother Barbara Hershey is pushing back in the other direction. Something has to break and it does.
Black Swan is exceptionally well made, beautiful and challenging to watch – and Portman’s performance is nothing short of amazing – but films that aspire to greatness need to be about something more than, you know, what they’re about and once I’d decoded was going on I couldn’t see enough under the surface to justify the hype.
Of all directors currently working in the Hollywood mainstream Michael Mann is arguably the greatest stylist. No one at the multiplex has more control of the pure aesthetics of filmmaking, from colour balance and composition through editing and sound, Mann’s films (from Thief in 1981 to the misguided reworking of Miami Vice in 2006) have had a European visual sensibility while remaining heavily embedded in the seamy world of crime and punishment.
Now Mann has turned back the clock and made a period crime film, set during the last great depression. Based on the true story of the legendary bank robber John Dillinger, whose gang cut a swathe across the Midwest in 1933 and 1934, Mann’s Public Enemies is a stylish and superbly crafted tale of a doomed hero pursued by a dogged lawman. Dillinger is portrayed by Johnny Depp with his usual swagger and his nemesis is the now sadly ubiquitous Christian Bale.
’Tis the season to reboot tired franchises and this week we get an explosive new look at James Cameron’s beloved Terminator. Set only nine years in the future (when open-air battlefield heart transplants will be de rigeur during la guerre), the Judgement Day of T2 has destroyed most of the West Coast of the USA and only a hardy band of ill-equipped rebels are keeping the monstrous Skynet at bay.
John Connor, prophesied future saviour of the human race, is a only a soldier in the rebel army but his regular radio broadcasts bring hope to the scattered, ragtag freedom-fighters. In a battle to rescue some human prisoners his entire squad is killed – but he does manage to release the mysterious Marcus Wright (Aussie boofhead Sam Worthington) who may hold the key to the defeat of the machines.
Back in 1986 Frank Miller single-handedly reinvented the Batman franchise in book form with “The Dark Knight Returns”, a four-part mini-series which saw an ageing Bruce Wayne come out of retirement one last time to fight the scourge of lawlessness that beset his beloved Gotham City. Fans have waited in vain for that story (dark, cynical, epic and powerful) to arrive on the silver screen but Christopher Nolan’s current version of the hero (introduced in Batman Begins in 2005) is still heading in the right direction, even to the extent of cribbing Miller’s title for this second episode.
In The Dark Knight we join the action not long after the end of the previous film. The forces of Gotham City law enforcement (with the help of the masked vigilante and a few unfortunate copy cats in hockey pads) are squeezing the city’s organised crime syndicates and cleaning up the city. Only psychopathic freakazoid The Joker (Heath Ledger) seems to be able to act with impunity and he offers the Mob a deal: he’ll dispatch the flying bat in exchange for half their business.
Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still hankers after beautiful Asst DA Rachel Dawes (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) who promised they could be together if he could ever give up his double-life. The arrival on the scene of handsome and principled District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as legitimate crime-fighter (a “white knight”) might just give him a way out, only Dent is also in love with Rachel. Meanwhile, The Joker’s plot to destroy Batman strikes closer and closer to home.
Despite being more than 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, The Dark Knight is a successful attempt to balance the thrills and spills of a modern day blockbuster with something a little more psychologically demanding. Nolan has claimed that there is very little digital effects work in the film and that he tried to shoot as much of the action as real as possible and it pays off – there must have been some digital in there but (apart from Dent’s astonishing and grotesque transformation into Two-Face) I couldn’t pick any.
It is disappointing that Nolan’s vision of Gotham City from the first film seems to have faded. Instead of the hyper-modern city in disrepair we got last time, now it looks like plain old modern day New York crossed with Chicago crossed with Toronto, and I guess that was one of the sacrifices made in the decision to ditch digital but the city itself is well short on atmosphere.
Bale, as ever, leaves this reviewer cold, but the supporting players are all fine actors in great form (particularly Michael Caine as Alfred, the former Special Forces butler). Ledger is tremendous and provides hints of the kind of liberating work he might have been capable of had he lived, although talk of a posthumous Oscar seems excessive. After all, since Cesar Romero in the 60s The Joker has been a license to ham and this version specifically is supposed to be all show and no depth.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 july, 2008. Sorry, I am so behind with posting. I’ll try and get this week’s edition up before the end of the weekend.
Notes on screening conditions: The Dark Knight screened at a surprisingly busy Monday morning session at Readings. And when I say “surprisingly busy” I mean over 100 people. At 11.00am!
The past 12 months have offered us two Westerns that are as good as any of the last 30 years: The Assassination of Jesse James and James Mangold’s homage to the classic 3:10 to Yuma which opened in Wellington last week.
Yuma is a story (by Elmore Leonard) with great bones: poor, honest, rancher Christian Bale is suffering because of the drought and for $200 takes on the desperate task of escorting captured outlaw Russell Crowe to Contention City, where he will catch the eponymous train to the gallows.
But Crowe’s gang are on the way to liberate him and Bale’s support is dwindling to nothing. The tension rises as the clock ticks towards three o’clock.