Jul 21 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

When we are talking about the sequel to a commercial and artistic masterpiece, by an almost universally acclaimed director, carried by a hype machine without parallel, is it surprising that a really good film can still be a bit disappointing? One does not just expect a tightly scripted story, impressive action sequences, compelling characters and a few twists and turns (all of which are lavishly supplied here). One perhaps expects an extra layer, a unifying idea, something that goes against the grain. I did not find it in The Dark Knight Rises. There is even a moment in the film when I felt the exact opposite: that I had seen this many times before. It was during a scene where Bruce Wayne rises to an impossible challenge, cheered on by a crowd and by Hans Zimmer‘s musical crescendo. But that moment is certainly not exemplary of the movie. For the most part, Christopher Nolan’s directing is still in a league of its own. And even though some of the recurring characters disappoint, there is more than enough fresh blood with Tom Hardy as supervillain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as police officer John Blake and especially Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, who adds some much needed levity and sensuality to the proceedings.

Perhaps the biggest asset of The Dark Knight Rises is its script. It is another tour de force by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan, based on a story co-written with David S. Goyer. It quite brilliantly uses the first half hour of the film to show us a Gotham eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, introducing or reacquainting us with all the characters, and connecting them to the various strains of the story. This is all done so effortlessly, you hardly notice that Nolan has quickly set up a structure which allows him to let the story unfold over the next two hours. He has even made room for a significant twist, an ending that is open to debate and – heaven help us – a doorway to a spin-off.

Christian Bale is dependable as he reprises his role as Bruce Wayne and Batman (consistently called ‘the Batman’ by everyone in the film). His familiar supporting cast of characters Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) “move around the screen with clear reluctance” (Carlos Boyero, El País). The same cannot be said of Tom Hardy, who embodies the physical menace that is Bane. Especially his haughty, disembodied voice – coming from behind a gruesome mask – haunts the scenes he is in. Like a voice from the skies, it passes its inescapable judgment. Another great addition to the ensemble is Selina Kyle, “played with sensuality, cynicism and style by Anne Hathaway” (Carlos Boyero, El País). In a twist of Nolanesque superhero realism, she is not referred to as Catwoman and what appear to be pointy ears are actually night vision goggles flipped up on her head. Nevertheless, there are clear parallels with earlier incarnations of the character, especially the brilliant schizophrenic played by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. The masked ball scene with its innuendo on costumes and disguises is an unmistakable echo of that 1992 film. The difference is that Hathaway’s version is more domesticated, less kinky than Pfeiffer’s, in keeping with Nolan’s preference to have his characters grounded in reality. There is still the dynamic of the fun, outgoing, morally ambiguous Selina who challenges the principles of the reclusive, grave Bruce. But unlike the doomed romance in Burton’s version, here we see two people who may have a real connection and understanding of each other.

In terms of story, Nolan and Goyer seem to have been inspired by the Occupy movement. Selina Kyle represents the moderate version, with her contempt for the rich and entitled. Bane’s ingenious master plan shows the darker side of the same reasoning, which culminates in vigilantism and public tribunals. During the second part of the movie, when Bane’s plan comes to fruition and Batman has gone missing, it comes down to Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake to keep hope afloat with some honest, old-fashioned police work. It is a refreshing variation in a genre where cops are usually just in the way or after the wrong guy.

The Dark Knight Rises is a great movie. The fatigue in some of the characters is more than compensated by the new additions. Its considerable running time does not feel too long thanks to the structure of the script and the twists towards the end. It has everything you could wish for in a summer blockbuster, and then some. But still, this is Christopher Nolan, completing the trilogy that may end up defining his career. And I did not see the brilliance, the originality, that thing that gets you talking. But perhaps I have come to expect too much.

Permanent link to this article: http://europeanlens.com/2012/07/21/the-dark-knight-rises/

Jun 17 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

“No one has ever seen this before,” the dwarf Beith – yes, there are dwarfs, but with a twist – says to the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) as Snow White (Kristen Stewart) reaches out to touch a mythical white deer with giant antlers who bows before her. We are in the Enchanted Forest and the dwarf’s words ring very true. Director Rupert Sanders executes his unique visual style with such confidence in this, his feature-film debut, that we are indeed seeing things we have never seen before in a Hollywood blockbuster. The serene, enchanting images that Sanders and cinematographer Greig Fraser present in glorious widescreen at times seem to stand on their own, without a function in pushing the story forward. And we don’t mind the languid pace of the first half of this film one bit, enchanted as we are by a directorial vision which at times evokes auteurs such as Lars von Trier. It is towards the end that the spell is broken when Kristen Stewart is asked to carry the climactic scenes in her role of warrior princess and the limits to her acting become apparent. But by then you are willing to forgive this movie its flaws.

When debuting screenwriter Evan Daugherty‘s spec script for Snow White and the Huntsman hit the market in the fall of 2010, it sparked somewhat of a bidding war between the studios. Understandable, since this revisionist take on the classic tale contains all the well-known ingredients – mirror, apple, dwarfs, kiss by a prince – but has fun playing with our expectations about when and how these pieces will fall into place. Daughtery (assisted by John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini) has also made this a parable about fear, beauty, loss and compensation. But these themes are not forced upon us. Rather, it is up to the viewer to decide how deep he or she wishes to dive into the Jungian and Freudian metaphors that can be read into some of the sequences.

Besides the visuals and the script, the main attraction here is Charlize Theron as the evil Queen Ravenna. Dressed in Colleen Atwood‘s costumes, she is a vision of overpowering beauty. But the backstory that Daugherty has provided in this version makes her someone you might even sympathize with. Theron can make you feel Ravenna’s loneliness, her vulnerability as well as her ruthlessness and inner ugliness. Kristen Stewart is fine as her adversary, the tender, innocent Snow White who nevertheless projects an inner force. Her faint smile is the perfect complement to the spectacular visuals of the Dark and Enchanted Forests (the latter evoking exactly the oohs and aahs in the audience that Sanders must have been aiming for). But when she comes face to face with Theron in the final confrontation – as a female Luke Skywalker facing the Emperor – it turns out she is no match. But who would be, really.

Permanent link to this article: http://europeanlens.com/2012/06/17/snow-white-and-the-huntsman/

Jun 03 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Before we are even five minutes into Moonrise Kingdom we have already seen most of the unmistakable trademarks of director Wes Anderson‘s style. There is a virtuoso long take that establishes the house where the Bishop family lives by means of a dolly shot taking us through the different rooms that have been art-directed to 1965 perfection. A piece of music seems to guide the scene (in this case: Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra). There are some whip pans, a snap zoom and an actress looks straight into the camera. You could attribute most of this to Anderson’s love of cinematic showmanship, except for that girl looking at us. Because Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) does it again right near the end of the film. It is an intriguing detail that seems to invite us into (and later bid us farewell from) her pop-up adventure book. And although some of the events of her story are actually quite tragic, this is “a film that does not seem able to face the cruelty of the world unless by reducing it to a scale model” (Jacques Mandelbaum, Le Monde).

Anderson tells the story (which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola) of Suzy and Sam (Jared Gilman), two 12-year-old kids who fall in love and run away together. Their sweet courtship is summarized in a montage of the letters they exchange, which forms one of the highlights of the film. The two young actors playing the pair fit right in with the ensemble that includes heavyweights such as Bill Murray and Bruce Willis. Their lack of acting experience dissolves in the staccato and deadpan way in which dialogue is delivered in a Wes Anderson movie.

With ingredients such as the authorities in pursuit of the kids (in the form of a troop of boy scouts led by Scout Master Edward Norton), Social Services (Tilda Swinton) trying to put the boy into an orphanage and a deadly storm brewing, this could easily have become a dramatic tale of star-crossed young love. But although there are fires and floods, and lightning strikes more than once, emotionally speaking there is not much more than a ripple. And therein lies my problem with the film.

In his sixth feature (not counting the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox), one begins to wonder about Mr. Anderson’s project. He is without a doubt “an amazing talent” (Jacques Mandelbaum, Le Monde), with a distinct and influential style. But where is he taking his gift? He does not seem willing to make the compromises necessary to work inside the studio system and tell the grander stories, as did other auteurs such as David Fincher and the Coen Brothers. Nor do his visuals evoke the emotions and opinions that do those of Terrence Malick. His movies are obsessively realized storybooks revealing “a constantly renewed struggle to both order and ward off the instability of a world where adults and children confuse their roles” (Jacques Mandelbaum, Le Monde). Anderson has certainly further perfected his style in Moonrise Kingdom, but without a compelling story or idea “his satirical and hallucinating tone is of an alarming dullness” (Carlos Boyero, El País). I wondered what he is trying to leave us with, other than an appreciation of his cinematic flair.

Permanent link to this article: http://europeanlens.com/2012/06/03/moonrise-kingdom/

Apr 28 2012

The Avengers

There is a scene in The Avengers that I’ll call the Galaga scene (when you’ve seen the film, you will know what I’m talking about). It takes place about halfway through the movie as the team has assembled aboard the Helicarrier, their flying headquarters. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) enters the bridge of the vessel and launches into a stand-up routine of sorts, mocking the self-importance of everything and everyone around him. It has the movie audience in stitches and for a moment you feel as if you are watching Austin Powers or Spaceballs and not the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. But a few minutes later, a tense confrontation with Loki (the movie’s villain, played by Tom Hiddleston) feels like anything but a laughing matter. Therein lies the genius of Joss Whedon, who not only directed the film but also singlehandedly wrote a script with “an impeccable structure that balances (…) the climaxes of action, and with dialogue sharpened by banter and a knowing wink. (…) Joss Whedon’s film accomplishes something heroic: to be in essence what the faithful wanted it to be without self-destructing in the process” (Jordi Costa, El País).

The Avengers is the payoff of all those end credit scenes starring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, in every Marvel superhero movie since Iron Man in 2008. Fury directs a shadowy government agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. and has been secretly assembling his team of Avengers. The time has now come to call them to action. Something to do with the powerful cosmic cube (which we also saw in Captain America: The First Avenger) and Loki of Asgard. Whedon has restrained himself from going too deep into the comic book mythology and keeps the plot easy to digest, even for those who haven’t kept up with the heroes’ solo outings. There is a hint of a philosophical message in the first half of the movie with Loki’s speech about subjugation being humanity’s natural state (taking place in Stuttgart of all places, complete with an Itzhak Perlman type violin solo), but that is completely lost in the banter and the noise that follows. Instead, what moves the plot along is the constant push and pull of this team. Whedon’s script cleverly takes the burden that is placed on his project as its subject matter: “As happens every time we put oversized egos in the same room (…) friction outweighs traction” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). Especially the confrontations between snarky Tony Stark, demigod Thor and upright citizen Captain America (“There is only one god and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”) is the source of spectacular hand-to-hand combat as well as some of the biggest laughs. But what we start to see is that they have something in common: every member of this team is in their own way an outsider. “They become aware of their eccentricity – that they will never belong to the world they have to save” (Fritz Göttler, Süddeutsche Zeitung).

The action sequences in The Avengers are nothing you haven’t seen before, but Whedon serves up a nice mix of melee and more epic confrontations. The latter are very CGI-heavy, which gives them an artificial feel but also allows for the movie’s best visual gags, involving The Hulk. “The long final confrontation would without a doubt be unbearable if Joss Whedon wouldn’t occasionally take a break, some time to remind us that all this is just entertainment for teenagers. He does so with an ingenuity that will not distract fans of mass destruction, while allowing others not to feel too nerdy” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). But can they please come up with a final boss that is not one of these giant, flying worms destroying high-rises? No, that’s nitpicking. Believe the hype. Whedon has delivered.

Permanent link to this article: http://europeanlens.com/2012/04/28/the-avengers/