Film review – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

19 July 2012
The Dark Knight Rises: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)

The most striking thing about the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is it looks like a real film. In an era when shooting a Hollywood blockbuster on actual film and not filming in 3D is a novelty, The Dark Knight Rises stands out for looking like something tangible as opposed to a hyperactive virtual world created on a computer. Even the elements of the film created with CGI have a photorealistic tactile quality to them; further validating Nolan’s decision to resist digital filmmaking. Not that Nolan isn’t a technical innovator as demonstrated by the film’s impressive scenes shot in IMAX and the visceral sound design where every bullet, grind of metal and kick to the head sounds like a mini symphony.

The Dark Knight Rises is a fine piece of cinema that successfully mixes outlandish comic book scenarios with a gritty realism that gives the proceedings an alarming plausibility. Curiously, it doesn’t deliver the adrenalin rush moments that were present throughout Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). It’s a much bigger film in scope with more at stake, bigger set pieces, grander themes and a far more complex narrative, but the results offer a different level of engagement than a mythical origins story or a showdown between two extreme personalities with more in common than one of them would like to think. The Dark Knight Rises is a tonally different film that successfully establishes a scenario of complete despair where much of the action seems futile. Within this bleak context the biggest spark of life is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (better known as Catwoman in the original comics) who is not only involved in the film’s most exciting fight sequences, but becomes an ethically dubious anti-hero in a film exploring complex ethical terrain.

Similar to The Amazing Spider-Man, this is a film where the superhero persona takes a background to the ‘real life’ persona of the protagonist. While Peter Parker learning to reconcile his identity as Spider-Man is a coming-of-age narrative, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) coming to terms with what Batman stands for becomes a story of the old guard making way for the next generation. Wayne begins the film as a physically and psychologically damaged man and spends a good deal of the film grappling with how useful Batman is to his own sense of self and to the community of Gotham City. Characters from the previous films and important new characters express a variety of opinions, contributing to the film’s intriguing exploration of individualism versus social cohesion and truth versus myth.

The political arena that unfolds offers an enticing range of arguments about how to interpret the downfall of Gotham City, which is overtly linked to various recent American crises such as domestic and international terrorism, the global financial crisis and the Occupy movement. On the one hand, The Dark Knight Rises could be read as a hysterical conservative vision of socialism. The film’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy) is identified early in the film as a super terrorist with quasi-fundamentalist religious zeal. His plans to obliterate the rule of law, undermine the financial sector and return Gotham to the people results in a nightmarish scenario that plays upon every fear perpetrated by plutocrats who feel that their powerbase may be threatened. Bane and his followers are a disturbing fusion of fundamentalist terrorism with a perverse version of a people’s revolution.

And yet, the film is not that simple. The oppressive collectivism that Bane offers is one of mob rule that exploits the simmering hatred and resentment that is the result of the Zero Tolerance approach to crime initiated by the late Harvey Dent. Furthermore, Dent has been given near sainthood status, his psychotic and homicidal behaviour suppressed in order to maintain his myth. He is presented as a visionary leader despite having ended up as the Gotham equivalent of a war criminal. When a population places unquestioning faith in the false prophet that is a charismatic leader guilty of vast sins, the resulting order will eventually be undermined. In The Dark Knight Rises Bane is the figure that does the undoing. He is not an external threat, but the product of a civilisation that is sick to the core.

Furthermore, this is not a film where a lone individual defends the population against a socialist-style enemy. Bruce Wayne does not act alone in The Dark Knight Rises and the intertwining storylines within the film exist to facilitate an ensemble of characters working together to fight back, using brains, brawn and the ideal of Batman. The most interesting character in the film is Selina Kyle who is able to undermine Wayne physically and intellectually, as well as challenge his life of material privilege in a world of inequality. While Hathaway’s Kyle possesses the same moral uncertainty that the character does in the comics she is still a sympathetic character in the film. Her anti-one percent attitude is represented as markedly different to Bane’s exploitive manipulation of a population’s discontent and pandering to criminality. If anything The Dark Knight Rises could be regarded as a warning for how radicals with dreams of puritanical world domination get what they want by manipulating the corporate and financial sectors, and hijacking technology.

The Dark Knight Rises is about an older generation accepting their mistakes and maintaining as much dignity as possible while facing the consequences. The ‘rise’ of the title becomes a literal plot point that also serves as a symbolic rebirth where Wayne re-enters a new world where the people deserve the truth instead of faith in symbols. If Batman Begins was an independence story about a city rejecting the rule of an exploitive criminal class and The Dark Knight was a war film about sacrificing liberty to combat an unimaginable threat, then The Dark Knight Rises is a film about the need to return to a more civilised time now that the war (or perceived war) is over. Otherwise, that civilisation will turn against itself and reproduce the destructive elements that it was once fighting against in the first place. The time of symbolism and individualism is over and the generation that identifies with such notions need to clean up any mess they have left behind and then move on. Gotham is No City for Old Costumed Vigilante Men as a new dawn approaches.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Inception (2010)

19 July 2010

Inception

Knowing the details of how Inception unravels will not ruin the film for you but going into it as a blank slate is still the most rewarding way to initially experience it. So it is enough to simply say that Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, an expert in extraction, which is the art of stealing secret information hidden in people’s subconscious. He and his team face their biggest challenge yet when they are tasked with inception – the seemingly impossible act of implanting thoughts into somebody else’s subconscious.

Inception: Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Mal (Marion Cotillard) and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Films depicting different levels of reality that projections of the mind can occupy are now reasonably familiar. The Matrix first introduced the concept to mainstream cinema audiences and this concept has since appeared in films as diverse as eXistenZ and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Inception owes something of a debt to all these films, plus Dark City, but it is still a boldly original work that takes the idea in a new direction. Director Christopher Nolan has worked with complex narrative structures before in Memento. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight demonstrated his stylishly cold spin on the film noir aesthetic in his portrayal of the hostile city. All these elements come together perfectly in Inception to make it Nolan’s masterpiece to date.

Part of what makes Inception so remarkable is that it has been made to appeal to the broadest audience possible. The film’s internal logic in the way it depicts how the subconscious operates is carefully thought-out and explained in terms of how different levels of the subconscious can have temporal and spatial effects on the others. These ideas end up facilitating the extraordinary lengthy action sequence that takes up the final act of the film. It is conceptually complex but written so well that you are never confused about what is happening. There is nothing wrong with cinema that leaves you puzzled, perplexed or confused but it is also extremely impressive to experience a film that is mind-bending in such a digestible way. At the same time, at no point does Inception feel dumbed-down or overly explanatory, which was the significant flaw in Nolan’s The Prestige. In 2010 both Toy Story 3 and now Inception have demonstrated that big studio films don’t have to be disposable products only aimed at short attention spans.

Inception: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Inception is cinema at its most rewarding. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals and the emotional rushes throughout the film. It contains a lot more characters of importance than in most films of this nature and yet they are all fully fleshed out and identifiable. Inception is the sort of film that future films will be compared to for its structure, writing, concepts and action. Cinema is rarely this engaging on so many levels and if you have any doubts then they will be gone by the final shot that cuts to the credits at the most perfect moment possible.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

Inception

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MIFF 2009 reviews – Bronson (2009), The 10 Conditions of Love (2009), Krabat (2008)

25 July 2009

Reviews of film screening during the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009) ✭✭✭✭
The 10 Conditions of Love (Jeff Daniels, 2009) ✭✭✭✭
Krabat (Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2008) ✭✭✭✩

Bronson

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Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy)

The British press once described Charles “Charlie” Bronson as the “most violent prisoner in Britain.” He has spent most of his life in prison and for most of that time he has been in solitary confinement. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn likes grim subject matter but audiences expecting the gritty social realism of his Pusher trilogy are going to be very surprised by Bronson, which is a macabre blend of horror and comedy, biographical information and complete fabrication, realism and Brechtian techniques. Bronson is presented as a showman whose acts of violence are his greatest source of self-expression and throughout the film Bronson appears on a stage addressing an unseen audience as if he is taking part in a bizarre one person pantomime. Bronson’s criminality and delusions of grandeur make Bronson comparable to Chopper but the satirical avant garde nature of Bronson also makes it very close in tone to A Clockwork Orange. Considering that Bronson’s sole response to everything he encounters is to simply commit violence, Refn and actor Tom Hardy, who plays Bronson, have done a remarkable job of making such a compelling, entertaining and disturbing film.

The 10 Conditions of Love

Rebiya Kadeer is a successful businesswoman, political activist and human rights advocate. She campaigns for the rights of the Uyghur people who live in Xinjiang, a supposedly autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. Known as East Turkistan by the Uyghur people, Xinjiang was annexed by China in 1949, similarly to how China later also annexed Tibet. As a Uyghur person herself, Kadeer has long campaigned about the ethnic, political, religious and economic persecution that her people have suffered. The documentary The 10 Conditions of Love tells Rebiya’s story and she is an extraordinary woman who has made some incredible personal sacrifices to bring the plight of the Uyghur people to the attention of the rest of the world. The 10 Conditions of Love is an eye-opening and moving tribute to her work, which is far from over. It’s a film that needs to be seen and if the recent demands by the Chinese government for it not to be shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival have generated more publicity for the film than it would have attracted otherwise, then this is a good thing.

Interview with The 10 Conditions of Love director Jeff Daniels from The Casting Couch 18 July 2009
http://www.cpod.org.au/download.php?id=1621

Krabat

The German fantasy Krabat is an 18th century tale of magic and morality in the vein of classic Brothers Grimm stories. Based on the 1971 German novel The Satanic Mill, which was based on tales dating back to the 17th century, Krabat is about a 14-year-old boy who joins a secret brotherhood of apprentices training in Black Magic. The boy, Krabat (played by David Kross from The Reader), is initially pleased to have apparently found his place in the world but soon discovers that his training comes with a terrible price. Krabat is a refreshingly highbrow fantasy film that doesn’t contain any extraneous exposition and explanation, uses its special effect sequences sparingly and is incredibly serious. The protagonists of the film may be predominantly teenage boys and young men but this is a film aimed at an adult audience. Nevertheless, there is something a little overtly cold and detached about Krabat that prevents you from becoming fully immersed in its dark and mysterious story.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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