New Arrivals: The Dark Knight Rises

“Bruce, why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

At the dawn of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third and final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, something; actually, just about everything is rotten in the state of Gotham City eight years after the events of the previous movie. Even though it is a time of peace; crime is basically non-existent thanks to the Dent Act, named for the crusading DA who was murdered trying to complete his mission for justice, this peace is fraudulent. Dent was not a hero who was betrayed and murdered by Batman; he was warped by the Joker into an avenging demon, who tried to murder Jim Gordon’s son in his delusional quest for revenge following Rachel Dawes’ murder. The only two people who know, Gordon and Bruce Wayne, are in different states of disrepair. Gordon’s guilt over lying about Dent’s fate is eating away at his previously ironclad decency. Wayne (Christian Bale), both physically and financially crippled, has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, closing himself off in the rebuilt Wayne Manor, with only the ever loyal Alfred (Michael Caine) and his grief over the death of Rachel keeping him company. Batman, for all intents and  purposes, is dead and buried.

But a plethora of unfinished business is coming toward Gotham. A mysterious, masked figure with a legion of followers named Bane (Tom Hardy) is heading toward Gotham to punish the city for years of decadence. His crew dismantle the plane they were being transported in, with ominous messages about the “rising fire.”

The final chapter in a trilogy or series is always the hardest to pull off. All of the story strands introduced by the creator that are woven into the work’s singular mythology have to be given some kind of resolution that makes venturing into this story worth it in the first place. You also have to accomplish two other very difficult things: make the whole piece stand on it’s own as a closed-off and complete piece of storytelling and also have distinct pieces within them that establish all the variations on the specific themes the writer or director wanted to explore. Two of my favorite series: HBO’s “The Wire” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” both accomplished this: each season of “The Wire” and each Potter book had their own unique qualities, telling their own distinctive stories while at the same time adding to the overall narrative.

Considering the immense difficulties that go into creating a final installment of the series, is “The Dark Knight Rises” a success? The answer is absolutely. Is it perfect? No, the plot suffers from some holes and incoherence. It doesn’t scale the heights of “The Dark Knight” but “Rises” is a flawed but ultimately triumphant final chapter in what will be remembered as the gold standard for comic book series on screen.

“Rises'” storytelling doesn’t have the daredevil agility that DK had; it is more like a lumbering, all-encompassing beast of a movie. As a result, it is a little messy, especially in the first hour. Nolan’s Achilles heel as a writer is still his unwieldy integration of exposition, and this movie is no exception, as the plot elements become a tangled traffic jam. We find out that before Bruce went into seclusion he lost a huge chunk of money on a clean energy project involving a fusion bomb housed underneath Gotham City, and the company needs the support of entrepreneur Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to save itself from financial ruin. Meanwhile, a maid named Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has broken into Bruce’s personal safe to steal the pearls his mother wore when she died and Bruce’s fingerprints. This cunning thief is revealed to be the ambiguous Catwoman, who gives Bruce’s fingerprints to men who work for Bane in exchange for having her criminal record wiped clean. Meanwhile (all these meanwhiles really exemplify what’s wrong with this movie’s setup), a young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an earnest idealist working with Gordon, unaware of his secret, who believes in the good of humanity, and thinks Batman will soon return to the city when he is once again needed. All of these story strands are introduced one right after the other, so we don’t have time to get acquainted with them. It isn’t until Bruce decides to leave his seclusion to retrieve his fingerprints from Selena and find out more about the mysterious Bane that the film begins to stabilize and get down to business.

But becoming Batman again isn’t easy. He is still wanted for the murder of Harvey Dent and Bruce is no longer the crusader he once was; a broken man can’t be the hero of Gotham, which Alfred, who has grown weary of Bruce’s mission, is quick to remind him. This is the first display of the film’s resonant emotional core. The scene where Alfred tearfully confesses his fears and anger over Bruce’s state of being is one of the most powerful in the series, thanks to the soulful and heartbreaking performance by Michael Caine.

As Bruce tries to pick up the pieces and become who he was once again, Bane moves in on Gotham to finish the work the League of Shadows and Ra’s Al Ghul started: destroy the city’s economy and punish the rich for their decadence. He does this with a raid on the stock market, where he makes millions of trades that leave Wayne Enterprises and Bruce completely broke, and cut Gotham off from the rest of the world, turning it into a fascist Hell on Earth.

One of the strengths of “Rises,” and the series itself, is its contemporary resonance with the world we live in today. Some have compared Bane’s plan and Selena’s threats of bringing down those who “lived so large for so long” to the Occupy movement, but this isn’t the case. This movie was written and being filmed before that movement even started, and its origin goes back further than random protesters in New York City. Nolan cited Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” as an influence on this film, and it definitely shows, with its cavalcade of characters and unflinching look at what happens when revolution spills over into fascism. Hardy as Bane has an impossible task; to take up the mantle left by Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal of The Joker. While Hardy doesn’t scale those heights, he gives a menacing, scary and weirdly charismatic performance. With his massive body and a mask that covers most of his face that makes him sound like the PA announcer from Hell, Hardy channels Darth Vader and even Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” and uses his body language and his eyes to find the dark soul of this character. The Joker stood for anarchy and chaos; Bane stands for punishment and control. That contrast is what sets this movie apart in the series.

If Bane represents Dickens’ portrayal of a society taking itself back, then Bruce is this story’s Sidney Carton; trying and failing to restore  meaning to his life. Batman is more than just a costume; he is a symbol, but Bruce has forgotten how to transcend the cape and the cowl; as a result his is punished severely by Bane.

Even though the script has its flaws, Nolan’s ever-increasing gifts for creating terror and spectacle on screen are on full-blast. This film has a weary, worn-out feel to it, thanks to the stunning, gritty cinematography of Wally Pfister, and the ferocious score by Hans Zimmer. We are a long way away from the choppy editing and flat staging of “Batman Begins;” the set-pieces and fight scenes are thrillingly coherent, letting scenes play out with very few cuts, showing that Nolan has finally become the virtuoso of large-scale filmmaking he had the potential to be.

But the core of this film is with the soul of Bruce Wayne. This series has always been about the fallacy of heroes, how easily they can be destroyed if they lose sight of their mission. Wayne is a shell of himself, and Bane knows it; he wants him to see Gotham crumble before getting the sweet release of death. Bale’s haunted, bruised portrayal of Wayne anchors this movie both emotionally and thematically; when he finally remembers what he once was, and figures out how to “rise” above and become the protector of Gotham once again, the movie reaches its thundering climax, when every element of the Batman story Nolan wanted to tell collides and explodes across Gotham.

It helps that the peerless ensemble of actors assembled here have never been better. Oldman and Freeman are brilliant and Gordon and Fox. Gordon confronts his guilt and tears through the corruption that corroded him to become the pillar of virtue he always was, and Fox adds a reassuring calm, providing even more tools, like the BatJet, for Batman to use.

The newcomers are even better. Hathaway brings comic relief, moral confict and sexuality to Selena Kyle. Catwoman is supposed to be a wild card with a complicated relationship with Batman, and Hathaway, in her best performance since “Rachel Getting Married” is the definitive portrayal of the character. But the best performance in this movie comes from Gordon-Levitt. His trademark naturalism and low-key charm make John Blake a powerful, inspiring character. He is an orphan himself, like Batman, and he sees himself as a kindred spirit. He represents the possibility of hope in the film’s sometimes suffocating darkness. It is unfortunate that Cotillard’s character, in contrast, isn’t well-developed, and a late twist at the end doesn’t register enough to galvanize her role in the story.

But the film’s initial weaknesses are easy to forgive in the story’s colossal achievements. “Rises” closes out the trilogy on a major high because it brings the story full-circle; Batman is a symbol of justice that can never be corrupted. Heroism in the age of terror is more necessary than ever; this trilogy will be remembered for years to come because it bridges the gap between escapism and the all too real.

Grade: A-

Personal Pantheon: The Dark Knight – 2008

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

“The Dark Knight” has an opening scene, one of the greatest you’ll ever see, that is unusual for a superhero/comic book adaptation. The camera zooms in like a hawk on a glittering skyscraper in Gotham City. Two thugs shoot a zipline across the street to the roof of a local bank, with the intention of robbing it. The thieves, with their faces hidden by cheap clown masks, talk to each other about the mysterious leader of this robbery, calling himself The Joker; all they know is that he wears paint on his face and doesn’t take part in his own heists. The thieves start shooting each other as tasks in the robbery are completed. It’s a chilling, breathlessly staged plan that leaves a mob bank without its capital, a school bus in the lobby and a bank manager waxing nostalgically about the loss of honor and respect within the criminal underworld of Gotham, and he asks the last remaining thief what he believes in; he removes his mask, revealing the rotting teeth and slapdash clown-from-Hell veneer that defines one of the most iconic characters in modern movies.

“What doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger,” The Joker (the immortal Heath Ledger) says with that menacing, vaguely Midwestern whine of a voice.

In these opening moments of “The Dark Knight,” we realize we are miles away from Jack Nicholson’s theatrics in 1989’s “Batman,” and every other superhero movie, for that matter. “Batman Begins” revitalized Batman and was part of the wave of serious comic book movies that treated their subject matter more seriously. Instead of continuing down the traditional path that “Begins” still tread, Christopher Nolan, coming into the full flower of his filmmaking gifts, takes a blowtorch to genre conventions. Nobody who saw “Batman & Robin” thought a Batman story could be told as an electrifying crime drama with Shakespearean overtones. But that’s exactly what “Dark Knight” is. The film burrows deep into the mythos of the character of Batman, and Gotham City itself, to find the darkness and human frailty that has defined the legend for decades.

Gotham is beginning to dig itself out of the wreckage of corruption that ate away at its soul for so long. Criminals quake in fear at the mere thought of Batman (Christian Bale), who along with Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are moving in on crushing the criminal underworld, specifically the mob, once and for all. But there is trouble in this tentative paradise. Batman is still a wanted man; still considered a deranged vigilante, who has inspired a wave of pathetic imitators that are getting on Bruce Wayne’s nerves. He knows Batman can never be the true hero of Gotham, .

That job is left to the newly-elected DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), all confident swagger and square-jawed tenacity, who is just as committed to stopping crime as Batman and Gordon are. He bristles at Gordon’s naivete over the questionable qualifications of certain members of the Gotham PD Major Crimes Unit, and he is dating Bruce’s longtime friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, a major upgrade over Katie Holmes) but the three men form an uneasy alliance to bring about the death knell of organized crime in Gotham.  Bruce hopes that Harvey, the “white knight” of Gotham, will bring about the change that Batman hoped to inspire in the first place.

But The Joker, who has the mob’s funds under his control following the robbery, coerces them into teaming up with him and a Chinese businessman for half their share. His plan of action is simple: kill Batman.

This is the point where the Joker would unveil some convoluted, arbitrary plan to hold Gotham for ransom, repaint Bruce Wayne’s house, etc. But that’s one key strength in this movie’s depiction of the Joker: he doesn’t care about money, respect, or anything like that. He is devoid of any sort of subtext; he mocks the very notion of origin stories by telling two different ones regarding his scars. All he wants is to destroy society by shoving its limitations and twisted morals back into their faces.

Specifically the ones belonging to Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon and Batman. The Joker manages to stick a figurative knife into all of them by figuring out their weaknesses, and he spends the rest of the movie twisting them with anarchic glee. Gordon’s trusting nature turns into punishing naivete concerning his own police force. The Joker’s effect on Dent is the engine of the entire story; his pursuit of justice turns to madness and his transformation into Two-Face, whose actions could undo all the progress Gotham has made as a city.

Finally there is Batman. What the Joker exploits in Batman is his adherence to rules and order. Bruce tells Alfred (Michael Caine) that “Batman has no limits,” but this is a grave misjudgment of his own personal view of Batman. The fact that Batman doesn’t kill is an honorable trait; but Ra’s Al Ghul told him that his compassion would not save him from the true evils of the world; he was exactly right.  The Joker is anarchy, so anything representing rules and order crumbles in his wake. He thinks Joker is just another criminal but he isn’t. This underestimation, and lack of self-awareness regarding Batman, sets him along with Dent and Gordon into their own separate versions of Hell.

“Batman Begins” already established Nolan’s goal of taking Batman back to his roots as a detective first, superhero second, if not at all. “The Dark Knight” builds even more on this concept. It’s prequel was still a traditional superhero movie, but this couldn’t be further removed; this is a psychological crime drama. Nolan said Michael Mann’s cops-and-robbers masterpiece “Heat” was a huge influence, and this movie is worthy of that comparison. This is the movie where Nolan put all of his considerable skills together. He has Steven Spielberg’s sense of crowd-pleasing spectacle, Stanley Kubricks’ cerebral detachment, a fascination with moral inquiry and guilt akin to Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, Ridley Scott’s sense of scale and visual majesty and Michael Mann’s sleek portrayal of the machinations of criminality. All of these influences come together as Nolan fully hits his visionary stride. Wally Phister’s cinematography makes Gotham City gleam with decadence and a creeping darkness; this movie has a lot of dark blue, black and orange, setting its visual scheme apart from “Begins.” Nolan previously struggled with big action scenes, but he is more confident in his staging here; the fight scenes are much more coherent, and the big chase scene in the middle, with the Joker blasting RPG’s at the SWAT truck carrying Harvey Dent and having half of Downtown Gotham leveled in the process, is phenomenal.

But the true strength of this film is the complex, thematically rich storytelling in the script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. There is darkness infecting every facet of this movie. With the Joker’s anarchy wreaking havoc on everyone and everything, along with that character’s exploitation of the moral shortcomings of everyone involved, adds some troubling shades of gray to the comic book ethos. Nobody wins, no matter what happens. Not since Frances Ford Coppola found the sadness and human frailty of the mafia in “The Godfather” has a movie so elevated a genre to the levels of popular art. Not only does this work as a crime drama, this is a terrific ensemble piece. Every character gets to add something substantial to the story. Gyllenhaal gives Rachel an added dimension, showing her conflict over embracing the safety of Dent and the erratic danger of her best friend Bruce. It helps that she actually looks like a lawyer in this movie. Caine and Morgan Freeman as Lucius are also given conflicts to play off of. Alfred is worried that Bruce doesn’t fully understand what he is dealing with in the Joker, that criminals like him shouldn’t be misjudged or cast aside. The weight of supporting Bruce’s mission as Batman registers on Caine’s face, especially when he must decide what to do with a crucial letter given to him by Rachel. Freeman gives wisdom and grit to Lucius, especially when Bruce compromises the technology Lucius makes for him by using it to take away the privacy of Gotham’s citizens. Oldman’s portrayal of Gordon also deepens since we see the flaws that define the last good cop in Gotham. His trusting nature, his belief that good will always come out on top; but Oldman’s soulful performance cuts through the weaknesses to find a man that is just as tenacious as Batman can be.

But there are three key performances that drive this whole ship. Bale doesn’t get as much to do in this movie, but his work is subtle and powerful. He is like Michael Corleone in Godfather II in the way he is a man of power who must look down on wreckage that is his own making. One of the two men responsible for his partial undoing is Harvey Dent. A never-better Aaron Eckhart slowly breaks down the righteous armor underneath Dent, making his transformation from crusader to monster all the more devastating.

But the nexus of the storm that hits Gotham is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Much has been said about the final complete performance of Ledger, who died the January before the release. That’s because it it so staggering in its impact, so charismatic in its walking personification of darkness and anarchy, and so terrifying in its spontaneity. Even though he is on screen for very little of the 152-minute run time, his impact, on the tone of the movie and the tragedy that strikes every character is always present, and electrifies the movie. His Method-gone-haywire portrayal sets a standard for on-screen villainy that few may ever match. A new facet of Ledger’s abilities was unleashed, and it is so sad that we never got to find out how high Ledger could soar onscreen.

There is no fanboy service that drives all of the success of “The Dark Knight.” It is a great film because it realizes that human tragedy comes naturally to this universe, that a Batman movie could be action-packed and a piercing human drama at the same time. All it takes is a visionary filmmaker and a cast for the ages to bring that to fruition; to once again quote the Joker, “all it takes is a little push.”

Personal Pantheon: Batman Begins – 2005

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne, as a man I’m flesh and blood I can be ignored I can be destroyed but as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”

Since the beginning of the 21st century, no genre has undergone as radical a paradigm shift as superhero movies have. Think about what we had to represent the genre. Richard Donner’s “Superman” was the first modern one, but it didn’t fully transcend the trappings of its comic origins (it doesn’t help that the character of Superman is overrated…there I said it). After that series’ collapse, Tim Burton was given the opportunity to take the immortal Batman out of the campy rut the character was in since the heyday of Adam West. It was the first time we were given a glimpse of the Batman from the comics and graphic novels in a major movie, but it still was kind of silly, as if the creators were hesitant to fully break away from the “comic book” trap and explore the thematic heft Batman carries to the fullest extent. These impulses grew with each of the original four movies, until the cinematic hell of “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” were unleashed. Batman, the dark, tortured vigilante who was obsessed with restoring justice to a chaotic world, was reduced to a Halloween costume, dealing with pun-wielding cartoons for villains and…nippled suits.

But one movie started to change things for the better. It’s weird to think it, but Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” is one of the most influential movies of the last decade. Finally, a talented filmmaker was willing to take superheroes seriously, dealing with their issues and explore the themes of bigotry and isolation that the series was known for. Superhero movies had the chance to be great drama and action-filled extravaganzas if they wanted to. Five years later, Christopher Nolan, the maestro behind the neo-noir mindfuck that is “Memento” and the underrated “Insomnia,” was given the oppurtunity to bring Batman back to life on the big screen. Anyone who saw Nolan’s previous films, even his very first movie “Following” (which I HIGHLY recommend), knew that he was into characters who become obsessed with finding justice or closure for something, even if they become compromised themselves. While the latter part of that wouldn’t become apparent until “The Dark Knight,” it does prove that Nolan was the perfect person to find the haunted soul and tenacious vision that defined Bruce Wayne, and Batman, and “Batman Begins” is a stirring testament to that.

“Batman Begins” is an origin story. Yes, that is my informed deduction of the plot of a movie that has “Begins” in the title. Anyway, these are usually a mixed bag with comic book movies, which I think is due to the fact that some are more interesting and essential than others. Batman’s origin defines everything he does, especially in Nolan’s series. We meet Wayne when he is 8 years old, and he falls down a well in his backyard, which happens to be the home of hundreds of bats. He is traumatized by this experience, but his father, who is a philanthropist who devotes his life to helping Gotham City in every conceivable way, gives him some sage advice:

“Why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

But young Bruce falls even further in despair, when his parents are murdered behind the opera house during a botched mugging. He is consoled by a caring young cop named Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his family’s loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Bruce lets his guilt and rage fester within for years, until we meet him again as an adult college student (Christian Bale), who thinks murdering the thug who killed his parents will bring him some much-needed catharsis. But his lifelong friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), who is an assistant D.A., tells him that revenge and justice don’t mix. Bruce responds by throwing away his wealth and goes into a self-imposed exile in Asia, where he lives as a criminal in order to gain some understanding of their psychology. He is recruited by Ducard (Liam Neeson), to join the League of Shadows, an ancient order of warriors hellbent on bringing justice down like a sledgehammer on anything or anyone that opposes it. Ducard and the enigmatic Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) train him to use his fear, anger and guilt as a weapon, to channel those emotions into becoming a symbol of justice and reckoning: but one key detail leads to Bruce’s separation from the League: he refuses to kill, he thinks justice is about setting a standard for morality and staying above the criminals. Bruce returns to Gotham seven years later a changed man; he starts putting together the symbol of justice he was trained to be; something that would turn fear back on the criminals who recklessly wield it; a vigilante without jurisdiction, an incorruptible symbol.

Which is exactly what Gotham City, which is corrupt to its very bones, needs. Gordon, now a lieutenant, is the lone beacon of decency; he is surrounded by apathetic and corrupt cops who have given into the influence of mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Bruce, with the help of weapons expert Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), begins building his guise that would become the nightmare of every criminal in Gotham; Batman. Bruce chooses to become a bat because bats scare him, and he wants his adversaries to feel that fear. So he begins stalking the criminal underworld, dismantling the Falcone organization and giving some optimism to Gotham’s law enforcement.

That is a ton of set-up to wade through, but Nolan effortlessly finds the pathway through all of it to get to the heart of this story.  The first part of “Batman Begins” is told in a non-linear fashion; he cuts back and forth between Bruce’s childhood and his training with the League of Shadows. This adds some immediacy by forcing us to ask why this guy is doing what he does. Asking the audience to consider the motivations of Bruce by not laying them out chronologically forces us to analyze him more, making his character more compelling. Bale gives Bruce Wayne, who without the mask was an afterthought in previous adaptations, plenty of gravitas and depth with and without the mask. In a smart bit of writing and acting, Bruce throws people off the scent that he could be Batman by altering his voice when in costume and acting like a spoiled, self-centered playboy when he’s around Gotham’s elite. It makes perfect sense for the character and Bales sells all these personas effortlessly.

Batman is human. He makes mistakes; we see him getting hurt jumping off of rooftops, trying to forge an alliance with Gordon (Oldman, playing way against type, is excellent as always), and trying to lead a normal life and develop more of a relationship with Rachel (Holmes struggles with some cumbersome dialogue and isn’t believable as this character). As a result, “Batman Begins” is a very accessible movie, one that even those who are adverse to comic books (like me) can delve into without being crushed by the mythology. Except for Holmes (who isn’t terrible, just miscast) the entire cast is excellent; Caine is funny and sensitive as Alfred, Bruce’s only friend in the world and Murphy is very creepy as Dr. Crane, who is revealed to be the nefarious Scarecrow, who takes part in a plan to make the residents of Gotham go insane by poisoning the water supply.

What Nolan has done with the Batman ethos was to ground it in reality. When Bob Kane created the character in 1939, he didn’t envision him as a garish cartoon fighting even more cartoonish villains with a plethora of stupid gadgets. Batman is a detective, using his brain to fight and solve crime. This movie, even more so in its sequel, is a return to that characterization. His gadgets are simple; a hookshot, a beacon that summons bats, a Batmobile that looks like a tank and not a black phallic symbol. Batman is not a superhero; he is a representative of the oppressed, someone who can fight evil and take the consequences. Also, Batman and Gordon develop an important relationship, the only two beacons of light in the pit of despair that Gotham has become.

Gotham looked like a gothic playground in the previous movies, and not a real-life suffering metropolis. Shooting on location in Chicago and London, Nolan creates a dirty, rotting urban landscape; it is shot with a lot of dark browns and burnt oranges, with steam coming from the sewers (shades of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”). We see these people suffering, and why it is so important that Batman rise up and save them.

While Nolan succeeds in creating compelling characters and a rich, textured universe, he is like his hero; still working out the kinks. He had never directed an action movie before, and man does it show. As great as a lot of “Batman Begins” is, it horrendously edited at times. An early swordfight between Bale and Neeson is borderline incoherent. A mishmash of unnecessary cuts and odd camera placement; the camera shouldn’t be at Bale’s feet when he’s swinging a damn sword. Things improve as the film progresses with a fantastic car chase and the finale involving a train on course for the Wayne Enterprises skyscraper, but Nolan is still adjusting to working on such a large canvas.

“Batman Begins” is still a great movie because it restores what the previous movies destroyed: Batman’s sense of danger and more importantly, the character’s dignity. It continued the trend of comic book adaptations taking their world’s seriously; these movies aren’t just for fanboys; they can be enjoyed by anyone. It isn’t a smooth transition; but Nolan’s goal was to clean the slate and take Batman to the heights he is capable of. The foundation is in place.

Rise of the Film-Geek Fascists

This is getting stupid.

Not sad, not alarming (okay, maybe a little bit), but really fucking stupid.

What I’m referring to is this: sources say The Dark Knight Rises opens on Friday. There is a bottomless conclave of hype surrounding it, including how critics will react to it. A small screening was met with a standing ovation and some very ecstatic tweets last week, so everyone expected every film critic to fall in love with it and bow at the alter of Christopher Nolan like they did with The Dark Knight, four years ago. For the most part, that has happened. As of Monday night, the movie currently sits at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and several critics were genuinely blown away by it. But even the most positive reviewers pointed out flaws with the film, and a couple of critics, most notably Marshall Fine of Hollywood and Fine and Christy Lemire of the Associated Press, dared to give TDKR (gasp) negative reviews. Of course, you would expect Internet commenters, most specifically the ones who frequent Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, to accept the dissenting opinions and move on with their lives right?

Sure; if we were dealing with responsible, coherent adults. Instead, this legion of fanboys and trolls lost their minds over the fact that people would dare not bow down to the obvious awesomeness of The Dark Knight Rises. Does it matter that they haven’t seen it? Of course not! Some people feel it is necessary to throw basic cinematic analysis and accept the potential greatness of a major film, such as Dark Knight Rises, as a forgone conclusion, that its quality is sacrosanct and any heretical critics who have issues with it must be taken down in as many public forums as possible. Here are some of the measured, logical responses to the reviews posted by Fine and Lemire:

“[Lemire] is biased and ignorant. She only gives high scores to movies she likes.”

“[Lemire]  gives amazing spiderrman,savages,snow white,ted and other worse things fresh review but mocks dark knight rises..she is not geniune guys..she is a fame seeker who wants attention. I bet she is a bigger letdown in her real life then she thinks dark knight rises is..”

“I knew there’d be a contrarian troll or hipster [Fine] somewhere to taint the film’s perfect 100% fresh rating.”

“Fine needs to kill himself.”

These are actually some of the nicest comments. Fine and Lemire have both received death threats, and the fact that Lemire is a woman has created an even more horrifying, sexist fervor. Posts on IMDb have called her “unstable,” with liberal use of the C-word (which is not “cuckold”), and telling her to get back in the kitchen because women know nothing about movies, especially if they are comic book adaptations.

This behavior isn’t new, unfortunately. Similar remarks were made against critics who panned “The Avengers,” among numerous other high-profile films over the past five years or so. It goes without saying that this behavior is appalling. But the question is: why does it happen? Why have IMDb members become fanatical monsters who go on personal, vitriolic vendettas against anyone who likes different movies than they do?

I think one reason may be the widening of how much movies are covered in online news. This effect is twofold.  Every single piece of information released in connection to a major movie, The Dark Knight Rises especially, is treated as an event. We are bombarded with trailers, casting updates, production notes, concept art, pictures from the set, etc. We have all the information anyone could want without actually seeing the movie at our fingertips. I think, as a result, fans become more immersed in the movies they are excited for. They have so much information that they think they can develop a concrete opinion on whether a movie is good or not just by reading everything around it. It’s like judging the quality of a meal by looking at the recipe card.

The advent of countless open forums, such as IMDb, Facebook, and Twitter, has given people the opportunity to voice their opinions, positively or negatively, anywhere they want. As a result, people meet up with other people who feel the same way about movies that they do. If they are made by an established filmmaker, like Christopher Nolan, it is intensified. People who love movies directed by Nolan, Scorsese, Fincher, etc., amass in these spaces, and this overload of chatter creates a deification of directors. The legion behind Nolan is probably the largest. Look through the IMDb boards on any of his films and you can see countless boards filled with hateful comments condemning anyone who says anything that is contrary to the deluted mythos that has been established around him. Don’t like “Inception?” You’re an imbecile who couldn’t handle the mindfuck brilliance of Nolan’s vision. Think “Batman Begins” is better than Dark Knight? Not only are you an idiot, you’re an idiot who should spend any and all free time fucking his mother. In a way, online movie geeks, like the ones who attacked Lemire and Fine, have become movie fascists: any and all dissenting opinions will be met with hostility, name-calling, and the desire to not see that critic alive anymore.

To clarify, I’m not condeming the Internet for this trend. I love the Internet; there is no Aaron Sorkin finger-wagging here. I am condemning these trolls and hatemongers for ruining and having an appalling misunderstanding of one thing I’ve loved about movies my whole life: criticism and discussion (okay, that’s two things, whatever). Even worse than hateful comments, one hilarious trick people like to pull out is looking at how the critics at hand felt about other movies, and condemn them for liking movies that they don’t. For example, the fact that Lemire liked “Magic Mike” shows that she has no taste, and she is willing to give a film a higher grade because, since she is a woman, she must’ve only liked it because it featured scantily-clad men. People need to understand there are no rule saying if you like certain movies, you must dislike other movies. If a lot of people have a negative or positive opinion on a specific film, it still isn’t a fact, it is always, by definition, a shared opinion. Movies, like all forms of art, are subjective, and everyone is going to have a different reaction to them. For example, I hate “Gone With the Wind.” I really hate it. But a lot of people think it’s a masterpiece and that is perfectly fine. It’s  the fascism popping up again. Nobody is going to tremble at you calling out Lemire or Fine for liking “Ted” when you hated it, or worse, calling them trolls for Marvel Comics because they preferred The Avengers.

The lack of etiquette and proper discourse is also quite harmful. There is nothing better than listening to someone giving a detailed and fair defense or condemnation of a film, and then arguing with someone who disagrees. I spent my first three years at SUNY Oswego digging through the old archives on the At The Movies website. Watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and later Lemire herself and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky get into it over the merits, or lack their of, of a movie like “The Silence of the Lambs” or Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme.” It was great because there was actual knowledge behind the opinions, not just blind adulation of the creators of the work. It changed how I review, write about, and analyze movies for the better. I’m 23 years old, and I’m actually saddened by the fact that my generation is responsible for this dumbfounded view of movies.

Also, it is affecting my own excitement for The Dark Knight Rises. I honestly can’t remember being more excited for a movie in my lifetime. I love Christopher Nolan’s films, from the low-fi narrative shuffle of “Following” and “Memento” up to the dreamscape/heist delirium that was “Inception.” I feel like my love of his work is tainted by these people who want critics to die out of some twisted devotion to the works of Mr. Nolan. He is a great director, he isn’t God. People tend to forget that.

But perhaps the best plan of action is, to quote Bruce Springsteen, sit back easy and laugh, at the morons who don’t have a grasp of what loving movies is all about. I have to wait an extra week to see TDKR, and I hope it really is a great film. But that doesn’t invalidate what people who don’t like it have to say. It would be a boring world if everybody had the same opinion about every film. Art is suppose to get a rise, good or bad, out of the viewer. If we forget that basic fact, we forget the purpose of movies in the first place. Especially if it involves a movie that NONE OF THEM HAVE EVEN SEEN YET. If you want to act like a spoiled child on the Internet, go ahead, its your loss. Myself and countless others will be acting like the adults.

Catching Up With: Project X – 2012

It takes a lot to actually get me mad while watching a movie. Only a few, including “The Passion of the Christ” and the 2009 remake of “Last House on the Left” have left that much of a profound, infuriating impression on me. Usually bad movies just disappear like vapor to be replaced by ones that are worth remembering.

Then I saw “Project X.”

Here is a disclaimer: I get annoyed when film critics get pious. Usually critics who get all flustered over a movie’s allegedly compromised moral compass are overreacting (the controversy over Hit Girl in 2010’s wildly overrated”Kick-Ass” being a recent example). But sometimes, those criticisms are necessary. Movies are entertainment, so it takes a lot of illicit material to get to the level of possibly being “objectable.” Especially when a lot of great movies revolve around murderers. But it is a problem when movies blatantly glorify horrible behavior, which is one of many problems with “Project X.” Because even if you don’t mind underage kids destroying property, cruelly bullying their peers and destroying property all in the quest of “being cool,” then you may mind the fact that this movie is character-free, monotonous and painfully lacking in anything close to real laughs.

“Project X,” which was written by Matt Drake and Michael Bacall and directed by Nima Nourizadeh, is yet another example of the “found footage” trope, and focuses on three high school losers, Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper), and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), and their mysterious camera-wielding comrade Dax (Dax Flame). It’s Thomas’ 17th birthday, and Costa decides to plan the mother of all parties for him at his spacious house while his parents are away for the night. But since these three aren’t the least bit popular, nobody at their school even knows who they are, let alone wants to party with them. Also Thomas is hesitant to have such a massive celebration, since…the script needs him to be reluctant. But Costa (more on him later) convinces him otherwise, since “getting laid” is the most important thing in the history of the world, so they procure some alcohol and for some reason just about everyone in their county decides to attend this party, and the movie chronicles how it spun completely out of control.

That is the entire movie in a severely lacking nutshell. The lack of any kind of depth keeps this movie from moving past its found-footage gimmick. All we see for the next 80 minutes is people we are not invested in at all partying and acting like idiots. There are plenty of movies revolving around a single party that are interesting, but that’s because they have characters, with histories, problems and goals to carry us through. “Project X” couldn’t be bothered with things like stakes or character development.

That is due to the fact that Thomas, Costa and JB are not people; they’re types. Thomas is the shy, nerdy protagonist. That’s all we ever learn about him. JB is the obligatory “fat kid.” We get even less about him, because physical appearance is always more interesting than traits or goals or any of that boring stuff. That leaves us with Costa, who is set up as the movie’s wise-cracking, lecherous comic relief. The good news is, we do get a lot of time with Costa. The bad news? Costa is one of the most hateful, irritating and obnoxious characters I’ve ever encounted in any medium, let alone movies. He treats women like garbage (he thinks they like being referred to as “mommies”), he constantly bullies JB for being overweight, and considers people who don’t drink or act like idiots as “faggots.” He thinks being considered cool in high school and getting laid are the two most important things in life. If the movie realized how much of an asshole Costa it would’ve been tolerable, but “Project X” is so convinced that Costa is hilarious and that he is endearing is a catastrophic mis-calibration of a character. We all knew douchebags like Costa in high school. Who in God’s name would want to sit through an 85 minute movie about them?

In fact “Project X”‘s biggest problem is that the entire movie takes on the attitude of Costa; it is so convinced that the explosive party is the greatest thing ever, and goals in life, such as making your parents proud or going to college, are not nearly as important as making the people in your high school, who are just as superficial and immature as you are and 90 percent of whom you will never see again after graduation, think you’re cool and want to have sex with you. And all of the female things (I call them things, because none of the women in “Project X” are considered actual people) in the movie exist to take their clothes off, get drunk and do any hard drugs that are available. There are stretches of the movie where there is no dialogue, it’s just endless montages of loud music and people drinking and dancing. Watching other people partying isn’t entertainment; you wouldn’t pay to watch someone else ride a roller coaster would you?

But what truly makes “Project X” infuriating is its attitude towards the illicit behavior; it glorifies things that in the environment of 17-year-old high school students, are not hilarious; they speak toward problems with the whole generation. When a garden gnome is smashed open revealing hundreds of ecstasy pills, we see everyone at the party flocking to them like . There is nothing humorous about what are essentially children downing hard drugs like candy. these kids downing pills, alcohol and destroying any property they can get their hands on all in the name of “coolness.” These scenes feel like they were pulled from an HBO documentary, meant to shock and alarm; to find them in a comedy is (to me at least) troubling. The film also has a horrible mean streak, with its objectification of women and hateful attitude to anyone who is different in anyway. Bullying is an epidemic in middle and high schools, and the idea of a movie having one of it’s main characters, who is not meant to be a villain in any way, bully people so brazenly is downright galling and shameful. This movie is sorely lacking in the self-awareness necessary to make these elements work in this context.  It’s in these elements that one can see what “Project X” should’ve been: I think it would work perfectly as a dark comedy that satirizes the immaturity of high-schoolers while at the same time exposing the increased focus on the hedonism of this current generation of teenagers. But the people who made “Project X” probably couldn’t spell “satire” if you gave them all the letters except for “s.”

So as the destruction and mayhem culminates in a fiery climax and Thomas’ plans for college are jeopardized by his furious parents, is he upset and sorry for this party? No, because in the universe of this movie, college is for people who don’t care about being cool in high school. Pretty enlightening stuff.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. There is nothing wrong with watching “Project X” and not being rubbed the wrong way by the consequence-less drug abuse, injuries and destroying of property for no reason. This is all just subjective speculation. But that doesn’t excuse “Project X” for being cruel, misguided and painfully unfunny. That’s the biggest buzzkill of all.

Grade: F

New Arrivals: Prometheus

There are few things in the process of making and writing movies harder to implement and/or analyze than narrative ambiguity. Movies defined by philosophical musings or non-linear narratives have to decide how to present their secrets and secluded themes. Make things too obvious and you sacrifice narrative stakes and also insult your audience; make things to confounding and you…sacrifice narrative stakes and insult your audience, by limiting or completely removing the catharsis that can make a movie satisfying.

It is even harder when a movie has connections to an older, more beloved movie, one made by the same director to boot. 1979’s “Alien”  is a masterpiece of slow, unbearable dread; a haunted house movie in space that gave birth to one of cinema’s iconic monsters in the Xenomorph alien and launched the careers of star Sigourney Weaver and director Ridley Scott. When it was announced a couple of years ago that Scott was working on a project that may or may not be a prequel to “Alien,” a storm of intrigue brewed as a result. That film has become “Prometheus,” and the onslaught of trailers made a lot of people wonder how much of a connection to the “Alien” universe this new film would have.

First of all, “Prometheus” is a prequel to “Alien.” This is undisputable. But how does it do as a stand-alone movie, and not just another chapter in a franchise? “Prometheus” comes close to drowning in its own ambiguity and mythology, creates characters and plotlines that go nowhere, and its lofty ambitions are sometimes beyond the grasp of director Scott and co-writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of “Lost”). But despite the flaws in its vision, “Prometheus” can be downright electrifying; visually stunning, almost vibrating with otherworldly intensity, and for better or worse, tries to add some philosophical heft that summer movies, and the sci-fi genre, have been missing for many a moon.

After an eerie prologue involving a humanoid being drinking a strange substance and disintegrating into the ocean, we are introduced to Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), who are married and happen to both be scientists. While exploring some ancient caves in Scotland, they find drawings containing a star formation that has popped up in heiroglyphics around the world. This star formation exists in a far off solar system, and Shaw and Holloway lead an expedition funded by the mysterious Weyland Corporation (run by Guy Pearce under a mountain of old-age makeup) and take the good ship Prometheus, along with 15 other crew members, to this distant star system, hoping to find what may be the key to the origin of mankind.

On this journey, on which they all spend two years in hypersleep before reaching their destination, Shaw and Holloway are joined by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), a representative of the Weyland Corporation, Janek (Idris Elba), this ship’s gruff and charismatic captain, a bunch of red-shirt scientists that turn out to be cannon fodder, and David (Michael Fassbender), the enigmatic android with a slightly unsettling interest in humanity. The star map leads them to the moon LV-223, where they find caves filled with familiar markings, and more importantly, pods covered with a tar-like substance and monuments of beings that look just like humans. Shaw finds a severed, humanoid head and brings it back aboard the Prometheus. And for the rest of the movie, all hell breaks loose in a variety of gruesome and shocking ways.

It would be unfair to reveal what happens next. “Prometheus” is so defined by its own mystery that knowing them would dampen the experience of seeing the film. For the first hour of “Prometheus,” the film is a master class in mounting suspense. We’re left wondering what are those creatures that they find? What is up with the black, gooey substance, and the small worms that swim through it? And what is the deal with David? Can he be trusted? Does he have an alternative agenda that may endanger the rest of the ship?

That is a lot of mystery to cram into two hours. And for the first half at least, it works beautifully. We are just as curious about the meaning of these discoveries as the crew of the Prometheus, and that is thanks to Ridley Scott himself. Over the past decade his films have become very ham-fisted in his directorial approach; using liberal amounts of slow-motion and editing his films into mush like they all suffer from ADHD. There is none of that here. Scott’s directorial approach is very restrained, using long shots and slow, snakelike camerawork to give the movie an atmospheric, almost seductive pull. Scott’s best films, including “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and Matchstick Men” all put story first and trickery second. Scott has rediscovered his storytelling mojo. It helps the film is glorious to look at; the shots of the landscape on LV-223 are as beautiful as a Monet, the ship itself has an eerie, green glow. The fact that this movie is so amazing to look at makes some of its more frustrating aspects easier to deal with.

The acting does too. Elizabeth Shaw is a different kind of heroine than Ellen Ripley; she is more curious, less of a warrior-in-waiting than Ripley was. Shaw’s devout Christian beliefs are what lead her on this quest; she thinks solving the mystery of the star formation and the origins of the Earth may bring her closer to God. Rapace, Lisbeth Salander 1.0 herself, is put through one hell of a ringer in this film (there is a scene where she must perform surgery on herself that is one of the most unsettling things you may ever see), but she makes the path from exuberance to terror seamless and realistic. Her husband Charlie, as played by Marshall-Green is less interesting; in both the way the character is written and the performance; the movie doesn’t know what to do with his character. Same with Theron, who can do the “uptight bitch” shtick in her sleep at this point. Idris Elba (the immortal Stringer Bell from “The Wire”) brings humor and tenacity to Janek; but the rest of the crew are barely developed at all; they are just there to get ripped to shreds.

But the best part of the movie lies with David. Fassbender is brilliant, finding the right balance between David’s obviously robotic nature combined with a darker undercurrent and something approaching childlike wonder. He is obsessed with humanity; he models his personality and appearance on Peter O’Toole in the film “Lawrence of Arabia;” he watches the dreams of the crew while they’re in hypersleep; we come to empathize with part of David’s plight. He was given the gift of having an understanding of humanity, but his prime directive is to serve them and cast his curiosity aside.

But once the crew touches down on the planet, and digs around in the strange artifacts that they find, all this mystery becomes too much of a good thing. Every answer brings only more questions. “Prometheus” delivers on the suspense and some truly terrifying moments, but all the setup collides in a traffic jam, and the story becomes distractingly muddled. But the most frustrating thing about “Prometheus” is how much of this murkiness is intentional; does the film’s lack of obvious answers come from bad writing, or is the film withholding information on the beginnings of mankind to comment on how curiosity can lead to despair and hubris?

The answer will different depending on who you ask. I don’t know for sure what role the ambiguity plays, but I think “Prometheus” could really be, at its core, a movie about faith. Shaw and David are both on a quest for knowledge, although they want to know different things. David wants to know what makes humans tick, Shaw wants to know who built the ticking mechanism. We have not, and possibly never will, find a definitive answer to where we came from; but Shaw, and plenty of people in the real world, keep searching anyway because their faith burns so brightly that no roadblocks can diminish it, sometimes to their detriment. Do we as an audience have faith that answers will come, or do we give up and go look for easy explanations? Horrible things happen to Shaw, David and the people they care about, but their faith is never diminished, even though the answers are hazy at best. Maybe we as viewers have to decide whether or not to follow them down the rabbit hole.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and Lindelof and Spaihts are just trying to hide the holes in the story they concocted. With “Prometheus,” you have a decision to make; if you can ignore the ambiguities and expect the film to work as entertainment, “Prometheus” can be thrilling. If you want it to provide revelations withing its own story and its connective tissue to “Alien,” this movie may give you a headache. Either way, “Prometheus” is worth the ride. Perhaps hindsight will elevate this movie to the level of the genre’s masterpieces with mysteries of their own, like the aforementioned “Blade Runner” or “2001.” Or maybe it will only become a footnote; but Prometheus is still an enthralling, flawed vision; albeit one that is defined, and consumed by, to quote Tolkien, “riddles in the dark.”

Grade: B+