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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Nolan’

There is something odd in the English mentality that sometimes makes us more enthusiastic about celebrating our narrow squeaks and mitigated disasters than commemorating our genuine national triumphs. (I’m almost tempted to suggest this because genuine English national triumphs have been thin on the ground for some time now, but I feel besieged enough right now, thanks.) Perhaps it’s just our famous national sense of fair play that makes us want to stick up for the underdog. Especially when the underdog is us. At the moment there may be very particular reasons for this sort of thing – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The latest example of someone getting nostalgic about a pretty bad day is the new movie from Christopher Nolan. Having already treated us to Insomnia, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan’s new movie is entitled InDunkirk (in some territories – specifically the interior of my head, but I digress). Oh, all right, it may actually be called Dunkirk, but it’s set in and around the town of that name, at the back end of May 1940.

The story of Dunkirk has genuinely become a part of the British national myth, but I’m genuinely uncertain as to how well-known it is around the world. Nolan wisely takes no chances and opens the film with a set of captions filling in the story so far – with the Nazi war machine sweeping west across Europe, the British army and its allies find themselves surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk. With the enemy closing in, the need to get the men off the beaches and over the channel to England is becoming desperate. But how is the miracle to be accomplished?

Nolan’s movie focuses on a handful of different storylines, set on land, sea, and in the air. A young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the allied enclave, and desperately attempts to get onto one of the ships taking soldiers off the beach, as discipline begins to falter amongst the trapped men. The owner of one of the ‘little ships’ (Mark Rylance) sets off across the channel, determined to do his bit and save as many of his countrymen as he can. And a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to protect the ships taking off the army from the depredations of Luftwaffe dive-bombers.

As you can perhaps discern, this is not quite a traditionally epic war movie, built around a specific narrative. Instead it seems to be trying to offer up an almost impressionistic experience of what it felt like to go through the ordeal of the Dunkirk evacuation. The storyline of the movie is quite straightforward, and there is correspondingly little exposition, just a succession of set-pieces. Nolan is, characteristically, attempting to do something clever and tricksy with the film’s handling of space and time, but it takes quite a while for this to become completely clear.

It comes as no great surprise to find regular Nolan collaborators like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in the movie (apparently Michael Caine also contributes a vocal cameo), nor, really, distinguished thespians like Ken Branagh or Mark Rylance. It has to be said that these gentlemen are occupying the somewhat-coveted ‘With’ and ‘And’ section of the cast list, with many of the main roles played by younger, less famous actors such as Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan. Also making a fairly substantial appearance is the quadro-mammaried popstrel Harry Styles, who apparently used to be in some boy band or other. Styles is actually perfectly acceptable in this movie, which I fear is only going to encourage him to keep acting. You can’t have everything, I suppose. It is notable, I think, that Christopher Nolan has managed to make a major film with a cast almost exclusively composed of white men, without anyone kicking off about it – maybe he really does have magic powers. (It’s enough to gladden the heart of a thundering misogynist.)

While doing my research for this piece (quiet at the back – of course I do research), I discovered that Dunkirk is based on a script which Nolan wrote donkey’s years ago, long before his rise to prominence as a director. Apparently he put it on ice while he gathered enough experience making large-scale Hollywood blockbusters (can’t argue with a confident man, I guess), and in some ways it feels like something written in a different mode – it has some of the audacity of Nolan’s most celebrated work, but not really the narrative density or thematic strength which you associate with those films. He appears to be trying to make the film work more on a visceral level, but it is a qualified success at best in this regard.

And I have to say that, while it still feels unlikely that Nolan will ever make a film which is less than accomplished and engaging, I left this one without the same joyous sense of having had the possibilities of cinema confirmed for me that I felt after all the other Nolan films I’ve seen. Naturally, I seem to be in a tiny minority on this one (just for a change), as many professional film-watchers are announcing this is Christopher Nolan’s best film yet, and a sign of him finally realising his promise as a film-maker. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I do think it’s a bit suspicious that it’s Nolan’s first film in fifteen years that isn’t on some level a fantasy or an SF movie that has been hailed as marking his admission to the grown-up’s club. It seems you just can’t get respect making certain kinds of genre movie, even if they’re as exceptional as Inception or The Dark Knight.

Then again it may just be that this is one of those films which it is just unacceptable to give a negative review to, not just because of the director and cast, but because of the subject matter itself – slightly absurd though it sounds, giving the thumbs down to Dunkirk could be interpreted as disparaging one of the defining moments in the modern British narrative, along with everyone involved in those events. We are in the middle of a bunch of movies about the Second World War at the moment – recently we’ve had Churchill and Their Finest Hour, with yet another Churchill bio-pic (Darkest Hour) being trailed before Dunkirk itself. Is it just a coincidence that all these films about Britain heroically going it alone should be making an appearance at the moment? I’m sure Nolan is not setting out to make particular political points with Dunkirk, but I note that the film’s parting shot – a reminder that this muddled withdrawal of Britain from Europe was not a triumph, and should not be treated as one – is not one of the elements being lionised by its supporters in the media.

As I say, Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a bad film, and watching Dunkirk should prove a memorable experience for virtually anyone: it is full of striking images, heart-felt performances, moments that stay with you. By almost anyone’s standards it is a good, if somewhat unconventional war movie and historical drama. But I have to say that of all the Nolan movies that I’ve seen, it’s the one I can least imagine myself sitting down to watch again and again, even if that says more about his exceptional track-record than anything else.

 

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We have had a few weeks the like of which are such as to make one want to declare a moratorium on death itself. The emperor of maladies has taken a heavy toll, and we are all left saddened and diminished and perhaps a little more conscious of the dark.

One feels obliged to make some gesture of remembrance, but one is horribly spoilt for choice at the moment. I could revisit Galaxy Quest or Toxic Avenger IV with equal justification. But instead I am going to take another look at Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige, which is notable for what turned out to be one of the final acting roles for David Bowie.

the-prestige-2006

I would be lying if I said I was among the many people left feeling desolated by Bowie’s recent death, but I understand the magnitutde of his achievements and his presence in popular culture, not just as a musician but also as a film actor. Perhaps inevitably, the two seemed to feed into one another – Bowie’s most celebrated screen appearance, playing the alien visitor Thomas Newton in the film I should really be reviewing, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely owes a lot to the Ziggy Stardust persona he had created a few years earlier. Nolan himself said that no-one else could possibly have played Bowie’s role in this film, and from a certain point of view it is easy to understand why.

The Prestige is based on a novel by the underrated British writer Christopher Priest, and – not unusually for a Nolan production – it takes a while for its actual subject matter to become clear. The narrative is complex and oblique, with flashbacks within flashbacks, sections of apparently unreliable narration, and large quantities of smoke and mirrors. But this is only as it should be, for the film is about stage magic and its practitioners, and the differences between them and the makers of genuine wizardry.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Angier and Borden, two young men at the beginnings of careers as magicians in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. Angier is aristocratic and a born showman, but a somewhat indifferent student of the craft – the lower-born Borden is a brilliant instinctive magician, but lacks his rival’s charisma. Tragedy strikes when Angier’s wife dies in an accident on stage, an accident Borden may have been responsible for. And thus begins a terrible feud.

The rivals begin by sabotaging each others’ performances, until Borden premieres an incredible new illusion he calls the Transported Man. Angier’s determination to outdo his enemy leads him to incredible lengths in search of the secret of how the illusion is performed, and his obsession drives away those closest to him – his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and advisor (Michael Caine). Notes stolen from Borden lead him on a long journey to the heart of America, in search of the reclusive genius Nikola Tesla, whom Angier believes can build a machine that will end the conflict between the two men forever…

Tesla is, of course, played by Bowie, and – somewhat contrary to the great man’s reputation – a rather subdued and understated performance it is too. Nothing wrong with that, of course, for it’s entirely appropriate for the film. Quite how historically accurate a portrait of Tesla this is, is a good question – probably not very, if we’re honest. But Tesla’s role in the film is to be an enigma, an individual on the border between reality and myth, an irresistibly charismatic person who still is not really fully understood – and, as I say, it’s very understandable that Nolan should have wanted to secure David Bowie’s services for the role. It’s a small but crucial part, and one which is essential to the development of The Prestige‘s narrative.

I believe I read a review once which cried foul with regard to this film’s final act, suggesting that by introducing, in the form of Tesla’s miraculous machine, a strong element of SF or fantasy into what had previously been a relatively ‘straight’ drama, Nolan was in some way cheating, moving the goal posts. I can kind of see where this attitude is coming from – this is a film about real-world magic, after all, carefully constructed to show the audience all the facts they need to understand what’s going on, while making equally sure they’re not aware of this until after the end of the story. Introducing an arbitrary and fantastical plot device, as the film does, arguably renders all that work moot.

But on the other hand, the film seems to be entirely aware of this potential pitfall and works extremely hard to circumvent it: the revelation of the machine and just what it does is painstakingly foreshadowed from the very first second of the movie, and the facts are woven into the narrative of the film with the greatest skill. In its ability to construct a confoundingly clever puzzle-box narrative that only yields up all its secrets on the second or third viewing, The Prestige definitely anticipates Inception, although The Prestige may be even subtler and more devious.

It’s certainly an ambiguous film, too: while Angier, as the film goes on, increasingly comes to resemble the villain of the piece, he is never completely unsympathetic no matter what he does. In the same way, there is always a certain distance with Borden, too – this is someone capable of some very harsh actions. Nolan, as usual, secures a first-rate cast for these roles, although the cast list in general does provide evidence for the ‘superheroes are taking over Hollywood’ argument. It’s true that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have quite the same acting clout as Christian Bale, but he still gives one of his best performances here, while Michael Caine of course provides immaculate support. The female characters, if I’m honest, feel a little thin and underserved, but this is not the fault of Johansson or Rebecca Hall.

The Prestige is a film about identity and reality, and the extent to which these things are artificial and can be manipulated – several cast members play multiple versions of themselves, for instance. It suggests that people are delighted by the pretence of magic, but (rightfully) terrified by the real thing – that illusion is more often than not just a comfort. It’s a complex, dense film, full of deceptively subtle ideas, but one that couples them to a compelling story with some unforgettably shocking images and moments. For many years now, Christopher Nolan has seemed incapable of making a film which is anything less than deeply impressive, and while this is not one of his most famous or financially successful ones, it is still head and shoulders above most other movies. Bowie’s role may be small, but it is crucial to the film’s success – perhaps only something of a footnote to an acting career which was itself only a secondary enterprise, but still a very distinguished one.

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It is one of those special, cherishable, all-too-rare times: yes, there is a new Christopher Nolan movie out, in the form of Interstellar. What can one say about the remarkable talents of this man and the teams he assembles around him? Together, they seem entirely incapable of making a film which is less than challenging, surprising, thoughtful and supremely accomplished.

 

The third film in what absolutely no-one is calling Nolan’s In- themed series opens in an unspecified future where the Earth has become a worn-out wasteland, its bankrupt nations reduced to scraping what little food they can from choking, starving farmland. Humanity has lowered its gaze and its expectations, and one of those chafing against the situation is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA engineer reduced to trying to keep robot farming machines running.

Cooper’s gifted young daughter, Murphy, has been complaining of a strange presence in their home, which Cooper realises is some kind of gravitic anomaly – an anomaly which leads them to the world’s last launching facility. Here they encounter Brand (Michael Caine), who informs Cooper that the world’s condition is terminal – humanity is on the verge of extinction, unless they can find a new home. Some unknown cosmic force has created a gravity wormhole within the solar system, through which a mission can be despatched in search of a new home for the human race.

Though it means leaving his family behind, Cooper agrees to pilot the mission, travelling through the wormhole to a distant galaxy, in the company of Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a couple of other astronauts, and two endearingly bizarre robots. But can he bring himself to make the decisions which could save the human race, when the consequence could be that he will never see his children again?

Well, you always know roughly what you’re going to get from a Nolan film – awe-inspiring technical virtuosity, a stunning, whirling artifice of plot and theme, casual mastery of genre tropes, and a certain lofty grandeur in every department (plus, more often than not, Michael Caine in a supporting role). All of these things are present and correct in Interstellar, which is, if anything, Nolan’s homage to the classic SF films of years gone by: first and foremost 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also dealt with man’s place in the universe and included a mind-blowing trip across space and time, but also the original Solaris, amongst others.

Interstellar pushes further than these, which were predominantly mythic undertakings – it attempts to portray travel to the furthest reaches of the universe in a relatively accurate way (no pun intended), and the realities of astrophysics form some of the lynchpins of the plot. This is a film in which wormholes, collapsed stars, time dilation and five-dimensional space are all central features, and there are times when it feels as though the vaulting leaps in space and time required by the narrative are too much for even Christopher Nolan to pull off.

That said, he pulls off some magnificent coups, and not the least of these is to keep the human characters centre-stage despite the bewildering ideas and stunning visuals also populating the film. All the performances are strong (Jessica Chastain also appears in a key role), but – with the possible exception of Michael Caine – none of them really manage to touch the emotions: the chill which touches the heart of every Nolan film, its lack of real intimacy, is as present here as in any of them.

Then again, this isn’t entirely inappropriate, as Interstellar is partly about the immense size of the universe and its hostility to humans, and the effects the knowledge of this can have on explorers. Coupled to the mood of resignation in the Earthbound scenes, the result is a film which frequently feels incredibly bleak and oppressive, with an atmosphere which is almost funereal. That Nolan manages to turn this mood around by the conclusion is also an achievement.

That said, the film’s focus on the father-daughter relationship means that the one between McConaughey and Hathaway never really quite gets the space to breathe, let alone convince. The final revelation of what’s been happening throughout the film with the strange gravity anomalies is also very eminently guessable by even the least clued-in and genre-savvy viewer (or so I would expect). And the fact remains that high-minded, big-budget, thoughtful SF movies are much more likely to be savaged for getting above their station than more typical popcorn fodder – just look at what happened to Prometheus or A.I..

Well, hopefully I will be proved wrong and Interstellar will reap the same kinds of rewards and acclamation as Gravity, another film it somewhat resembles in places. (Although Interstellar resembles genre SF much more, and the big awards ceremonies never like genre movies.) Watching Interstellar, it feels like a love letter to classic SF films, to space exploration itself, and to so many of the instincts and drives that make people human at all. Pretty much an unmissable experience if you are at all interested in SF, space science, or the future.

 

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It is the Earth Year 2013, which by most people’s reckonings makes it 75 years since 1938: and so only an idiot would have bet against Warner Brothers, owners of DC Comics, bringing out a movie to celebrate the anniversary of the first publication of Superman. (I suppose one must be slightly surprised there isn’t another Batman movie on the cards for his 75th next year.) This is, by any reckoning, a prestige project and DC, quite wisely, appear to have surveyed recent adaptations of their properties and seen that by far the pick of the crop are Zach Snyder’s version of Watchmen and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies.

Man of Steel, consequently, is directed by Snyder and produced by Nolan (also involved is David Goyer, doyen of comic book movie scripting), and is refreshingly unencumbered by the need to reverence the quartet of Superman movies made by the Salkinds between 1978 and 1987. (I don’t want this to be an extended series of swipes at Superman Returns, which I reviewed back in 2006 anyway – but suffice to say it was bloated, dull, and too interested in paying homage to its predecessors. Though Brandon Routh was good in a tough role.)

man-of-steel-poster

Playing Superman this time around is British actor Henry Cavill (his nationality caused a bit of a fuss when he was cast, as I believe I mentioned), though we don’t get to meet him for a bit. The film-makers pick and choose which bits of the Superman legend to explore in detail and one of the areas they really go to town on is the last days of planet Krypton. Not only is Krypton falling to bits, but it is also wracked by civil war, with supreme head of the military General Zod (first name, one hopes, Neil) attempting a coup. (Zod is played by Michael Shannon.) With all this going on it is just as well that top Krypton boffin Jor-El is played by Russell Crowe, as this makes him a bit more of a bad-ass than any of his previous incarnations. (Crowe gets an impressive amount of screen-time for someone who technically dies in the first fifteen minutes of the movie.)

Once all the shooting and shouting and emoting between Jor-El and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer, whose supposed obscurity I was making wisecracks about only last week – hey ho) is over, it is pretty much business as usual as Superman origin retellings go. Our hero is launched off towards Earth while still a babe, while Krypton goes bang killing everyone apart from the occupants of its maximum security plot device (there’s such a thing as making a prison too secure).

From here the movie skips over most of Clark Kent’s infancy and boyhood in Kansas with his foster parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner), though we are treated to key flashbacks later on. As the story proper opens he is a lone drifter going from job to job, wondering who he is, trying to find his place in the world, and occasionally propping up the odd collapsing oil-rig should he find himself in the area. For his alien heritage means that he ‘can do things other people can’t’ (he has the gift for understatement too). Little does he realise his search for his own origins will attract the attention of others – possibly welcome attention, when it comes from ace reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), almost certainly not when it comes from hostile survivors from his own planet…

Well, this is a somewhat idiosyncratic take on the Superman legend, but on the whole a successful one. The story’s handling of some of the classic elements is slightly baffling, and the structuring of the plot occasionally feels a bit peculiar – for example, one of the main beats is the arrival on Earth of vastly powerful aliens who demand that Superman is handed over to them… which would surely have had more dramatic potential had the people of Earth actually known Superman was there (he’s still operating incognito at this point). Likewise, if this movie forms the basis of a franchise (the signs are good), it’s really going to pummel credibility for Superman to have any kind of secret identity as Clark Kent – not only does one key character already know, but it’s hardly difficult to work out given much of what goes on here.

Then again, this is a film which is fighting hard to avoid any of the traditional Superman tropes that people might be inclined to think of as twee or old-fashioned. The clue is in the fact that this movie is called Man of Steel, rather than some variation on Superman – it’s a looong way into the movie before our hero picks up that particular title. The pants-outside-the-trousers component of his uniform has likewise vanished, and he appears to be wearing some futuristic version of chain mail rather than the usual tights (this is somewhat ironic given how many Robin Hoods are amongst his forebears). In short, the film is trying very hard to be a serious, mature piece of work. It’s still a film about a flying man in a cape, so there’s a limit to how successful the film-makers can be with this approach, and I for one would have preferred to see them treat the story with a slightly lighter touch and insert a little more comedy – but I expect wall-to-wall CGI and brooding seriousness is what the focus groups wanted.

It’s certainly a fabulous-looking movie: the production design seemed to me to be stuck in a slightly post-Matrix groove, but it’s still convincing and coherent. And anyone who has been waiting decades to see a fully-CGI’d Superman really do his stuff should be very happy: the protracted scenes in which Superman and the US army do battle with Zod and his minions are as spectacular and destructive as spectacular and destructive can be – I was pleasantly reminded of Independence Day at quite a few points in the course of the movie.

If this means that the performers occasionally seem a little swamped by what’s going on around them, that’s one of the pitfalls of making this kind of film. Michael Shannon is still impressively ferocious as Zod, while Russell Crowe brings every bit of his considerable presence to the film. Henry Cavill probably struggles a bit simply because of the nature of the script: given the delineation between Superman and Clark Kent doesn’t really exist in this particular story, he doesn’t get the same chance to show his range that some previous Supermen have had. He is still very convincing as this most modern of icons.

Then again, this is a very modern Superman film, with a strong sense of its own identity, and very distinct from every other version of the character I can think of. Reports suggest that this is just the first step in an (understandable) attempt by DC to repeat the success of Marvel Studio’s series of films about their characters. Quite how subsequent films based on Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and so on, will slot in around this one I’m not entirely sure. On its own terms, though, this is a solid movie: I don’t quite see where future installments are going to go, and there are a few things about the plot of this one I’m not wild about (not least the way it is resolved) – but this is one of the strongest blockbusters of the year so far. And, in terms of its identity as a Superman film – I don’t think it’s by any means perfect, but neither can I think of any obvious ways in which it could be better. Impressive entertainment.

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There are keenly-anticipated films, and then there are films with a genuine buzz around them, and then there are films people are desperately excited to see. And then there’s The Dark Knight Rises.

The first breathlessly agitated articles about Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie started appearing nearly eighteen months ago – I should know, I wrote one of them myself. Even four months ago, respectable magazines were writing articles on the movie discussing the serious issue that some people were worried the antagonist’s dialogue might be completely unintelligible. Even in a perfect world, this film would still have received virtually blanket media coverage on its opening weekend.

This, of course, is usually a recipe for crushing disappointment, as many people who went to one of the midnight showings of Prometheus would happily tell you (and, judging from what I’ve seen, would do so at great length). Nevertheless, some kind of minor miracle has been achieved, because The Dark Knight Rises is… satisfying. I know that sounds like damnation by the faintest of praise, but it really isn’t. Thinking about this film the word I come back to time and time again is ‘satisfying’, and I think this is not something to be underestimated.

Ten years ago, a mysterious organisation calling itself the League of Shadows attempted to recruit vengeance-hungry orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to become one of its elite assassins. Wayne broke away from the League and transformed himself into the masked vigilante and defender of Gotham City, Batman, killing his former mentor.

Eight years ago, Batman’s attempts to save Gotham were critically imperilled when the city’s heroic DA was driven mad and went on a killing spree before ultimately dying. To protect the dead man’s reputation and his work, Batman framed himself for the man’s actions.

No one has seen Batman since that night, and Bruce Wayne has become a crippled, embittered recluse. But Gotham is, it seems, a much more hopeful city. Dark forces are gathering, however – morally-ambiguous jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is amongst the least of them, but quick to catch Wayne’s attention. Much, much more of a threat is the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), another former member of the League of Shadows, who’s in town pursuing a machiavellian scheme of his own. Even if Batman returns to confront Bane, does he still have the ability to defeat him? And is Bane simply just following orders in expectation of getting a paycheck…?

One can understand the reluctance of Christopher Nolan and his team to make this final return to the world of Batman, given their massive achievements with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and the less-than-stellar record of many third instalments in series. Just making a good movie would have been a significant success; making one as good as this is a stellar achievement.

The Dark Knight Rises has the same virtues as Nolan’s other movies: effortless technical grace and polish, a very intelligent script, strength in depth in the cast list, and the overall sense that while this may be a major studio production, that doesn’t mean the film has to assume the audience is composed entirely of morons. One has to commend DC for giving Nolan the latitude to make the film he wanted to make (completely free of the stereoscopic scourge, as well), even if this means letting him do some slightly surprising things to the characters and setting.

This is not to say that Nolan cuts loose entirely from the existing Batman mythology, as many characters from the previous movies return, and a number of iconic scenes from the most famous Batman comics are brought – here it comes again – very satisfyingly to the screen. Impressively, he even manages to largely rehabilitate Catwoman, following the number done upon her reputation by Pitof and Halle Berry – although Anne Hathaway doesn’t have quite the obvious intelligence or wit to completely nail the character.

The film’s powerhouse performance and most memorable creation is, however, Tom Hardy’s Bane. Following a possibly-dodgy start to his career playing the Picard clone in Nemesis, Hardy has been steadily popping up in recent films, always threatening to give a magnetic, movie-stealing performance. Here I would say that finally happens. Hardy’s physical presence is imposing, but his vocal performance is even more remarkable, giving the character an almost-Shakespearean delivery without making him feel corny or hammy. I’d say there’s quite a big difference between the comics Bane and Nolan and Hardy’s version, but if anything the film-makers have improved on the original this time.

(As to whether there are any surprise appearances in this film from other notable Batman villains, either from the earlier movies or new to this one – well, the film-makers have decided to keep quiet about this, which seems to me to be an eminently sensible plan and an example I will be following.)

I could spend quite a long time going through all the things which are great about this movie, even just the performances: Michael Caine as Alfred, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic young cop, Tom Conti in a cameo role I’d better not spoil. Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing stuff, if perhaps a bit too fortissimo in places: some of the dialogue gets a little drowned out. Nolan also feels much more comfortable integrating comic relief into the story, something which occasionally felt a bit awkward in the past.

One of the most striking elements of this film which I do feel deserves a fuller mention is the level of its social commentary. All of the Nolan Batman films have had interesting things to say about the difference between law and justice and the real consequences of someone like Batman operating, but there’s a long sequence towards the end of this film which seems to me to be saying very sharp and unusual things about current politics and economics. Throughout the film the people in the firing line are stockbrokers and bankers and businessmen, who are nevertheless not presented tremendously sympathetically. (This is clearly a film fully aware of the economic realities of life in 2012 and how this has shaped people’s attitudes.) Bane’s organisation basically presents itself as the militant wing of the Occupy movement, intent on bringing about some degree of social justice and redistribution of wealth – but, as this is Bane’s organisation, we know that they are in the wrong. Even the ‘morally flexible’ Catwoman realises this. And yet the film refuses to offer easy answers or pat solutions: it’s mature enough to suggest, as these films always have, that the world is a complex place which does not lend itself to such things.

Lots of stuff blows up, too, of course, orchestrated with Nolan’s customary verve. Perhaps the great achievement of this series has been the way in which it has blended intelligent themes and characterisation with the demands of a blockbuster superhero movie (I notice a cliche developing: the hunt for a clean, renewable energy source is a crucial plot point here, as it was in The Avengers, and a couple of movies prior to that – and, while we’re on the subject, watching The Dark Knight Rises back to back with The World is Not Enough might prove an illuminating experience in some respects).

I imagine one of the pleasures to be had when returning to this film will be to admire Nolan’s legerdemain in setting up the conclusion. All the elements are there, in plain view (sometimes jarringly so), and yet come the end of the film he manages to arrange them in a manner which is both ingenious, quite moving, and – yet again – very satisfying as a genuine end to the story (suffice to say, Batman does something he’s never done before). The real trick is that the film presents something which is very definitely a proper ending, but still makes you want to revisit this world and see what happens next to the characters: but it would be brave of a director to attempt to follow in Nolan’s footsteps so closely, and brave of DC to let them try.

However, however, however. The Dark Knight Rises is cleverly written, strongly acted, flawlessly realised and directed with indisputable virtuosity – but for all of this it is still quite a difficult film to honestly connect with – for all of its many satisfactions, the overall impression I got was of a vast, intricate, high-powered, precision-tooled machine: a phenomenal piece of engineering but quite hard to engage with emotionally for an extended period of time.

I suppose this has been true to some degree of all the Christopher Nolan films that I’ve seen – perhaps the sheer scope of his imagination and ambition prevents them from having a genuine human centre. Even so, Christopher Nolan is still arguably the most exciting director working in the world today, and if he finds a way to invest his movies with authentic heart a place amongst the all-time greats is his to be had. The Dark Knight Rises is proof enough of that – Nolan has made a terrific film on so many levels, and one which deserves to be remembered as that and that alone.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

And finally, just when you thought you could get through an entire column without one of those movies showing up… yes, it’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which has finally rumbled into public view trailing the kind of rapturous notices most producers would happily cut off a limb to receive – and I’m not inclined to disagree with the consensus on this occasion.

For those of you recently returned from a holiday on Neptune, this is another tale of goings-on in Gotham City. The crusade against crime launched by the Batman (an apparently laryngitic Christian Bale) and Lt Gordon (Gary Oldman) seems to be bearing fruit, in the form of the city’s new fiercely idealistic and dedicated District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – even if he is dating Batman’s old girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). However, the city is about to be plunged into a nightmare as Batman’s continuing harassment of the mob forces them to accept the assistance of a demented psychopathic genius calling himself the Joker…

Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker has, for obvious reasons, attracted a lot of attention – but one would hope that this would have been the case anyway, as he is utterly mesmerising. The Joker is hilarious and terrifying at the same time: he does a piece of business with a pencil that left the audience I saw this movie with trying to gasp, groan, and laugh at the same time, while later on there’s a scene where he wanders out of an exploding building in (comically unconvincing) drag that’s simply jawdropping in its audacity and confidence. This is the first screen version of the character who can credibly take on Batman in a physical confrontation, something Nolan fully exploits. Even more impressively, Ledger manages all this without seeming obviously hammy or over-the-top like some Nicholsons – sorry, I meant to say actors – who have played the part in the past. He’s aided by a script which allows the character a chance to actually develop in the course of the movie, progressing from a (relatively) simple insane killer to the more complex Joker of recent comics.

But, surprisingly, he isn’t allowed to dominate the film – although he does rather eclipse the movie’s other classic villains, who either make cameos (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow) or show up rather near the end. Eckhart gives an intelligent and plausible performance as Dent, and it’s a bit of a shame he doesn’t get more room to display all the facets of the character. The biggest miracle of all is that Christian Bale, who as Batman doesn’t get to properly use his voice or most of his face, isn’t reduced to an onlooking cipher as happened in the 90s Bat-movies, although his performance is necessarily understated. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman show up from the last movie as well, and give neat demonstrations of how to steal scenes from the younger actors.

The technical virtuosity of Christopher Nolan’s direction shouldn’t really have surprised me as much as it did, but this is probably simply because he gets Batman right in a way other directors have never managed. For example, rather than being merely a menacing icon waddling around in inch-thick rubber, here Batman is a convincingly agile and skilled martial artist. Nolan also opens the movie out to a global scale, giving his hero a brief but typically energetic encounter with the Hong Kong Triads on their home turf. There seemed to me to be a bit less reliance on Bat-gadgets than usual, too, with the obvious exception of the new Batpod – which looks undeniably cool but struck me as rather silly in both name and concept. Such is Nolan’s command of the medium that, for a few shocking minutes, he even had me believing that he’d been allowed to permanently and properly kill off one of the central Batman characters. The only real weakness in Nolan’s direction, in fact, is his slight awkwardness when it comes to comic relief: Caine and Freeman have no problems delivering their one-liners but elsewhere his editing is a bit too staccato.

This is a piddling little criticism considering the colossal level of crash-bang-wallop the movie delivers, especially when coupled to its interest in the deeper morality of the issues involved. This finds its most obvious articulation when the film repeatedly asks how a principled man can hope to counter one wholly without moral compass, and intersects rather neatly with a meditation on how one can repeatedly confront evil without becoming contaminated by it (one would have expected this Nietzschean line of thought to turn up in a Superman movie, but never mind). Implicit in the film is the notion that it’s the mere existence of Batman himself that has conjured all the maniacs he must battle into existence, and that all the death and destruction which occurs is ultimately his fault. On this level, The Dark Knight isn’t an especially cheerful movie: its view of human nature for most of its running time is so relentlessly bleak that when it does attempt to offer a ray of hope it almost doesn’t ring true.

So, yes: we have a new and very strong candidate for the title of best superhero movie ever (not that this isn’t much more than just a superhero movie). One is obliged to wonder just how on Earth Nolan and company can possibly top this one (not least because most of the classic Batman villains aren’t really usable for various reasons – my money’s on the Riddler showing up next time, though), but they’ve already repeatedly demonstrated that no-one else is better qualified to try. Highly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 19th June 2005: 

Hello again, everyone and welcome to another edition of the film review column that’s changing hats so often this week its in danger of getting friction burns to its scalp [when this was published I had just become editor of the zine in which the column appeared- A] . Though having said that, the issue of dual identities seems a weirdly apposite one in the light of this week’s movie being Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, latest installment in a franchise long famed for its hype, aesthetic rigour, and faintly silly episode titles.

This being a compehensive root-and-branch reboot (perhaps that should be ‘rebat’) of the series, it kicks off with the far-eastern adventures of troubled Gotham City billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as he struggles to come to terms with the murder of his parents many years earlier. Seeking to strike back at the forces of fear and corruption dragging Gotham down into a urban squalour and venality, he has managed to get himself slung into the Chinese chokey where he spends his days duffing up the other convicts seven at a time (rather distractingly, one of his cellmates is played by Mr Lee off the Ministry of Mayhem). However, he is approached by Ducard (Liam Neeson doing his mentor schtick again), an agent of the enigmatic master assassin Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who offers to train him to become a living weapon for justice, more than a man, a symbol to strike terror into the hearts of cowardly and superstitious criminals. But what is Ra’s al Ghul’s real agenda?

Back in Gotham, things go from bad to worse – gang boss Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) has aligned himself with loopy psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). In exchange for Crane allowing Falcone’s men to cop insanity pleas pretty much on demand, Falcone is supplying the doctor with drugs and manpower to pursue a mysterious and literally frightful scheme of his own. This alliance is rapidly threatened as the Gotham underworld comes under ferocious attack by a mysterious lone vigilante – a lone crusader calling himself Batman…

Well, following the near-total disaster of 1997’s Batman and Robin (a film which, let us not forget, virtually ended the A-list careers of Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone, and nearly did for George Clooney too), it’s taken Warner Brothers and DC a while to get their act together. I’m glad to say that it has been worth the wait, as this is a superior blockbuster. Everything from the previous films has been dumped (apart from the choice of Ra’s and the Scarecrow as the villains, which was apparently agreed for the proposed ‘Batman 5’ even before the last movie came out) and the result is a film that is neither torpedoed by hideous neon camp not smothered by its own art direction.

It also manages the neat trick of fitting in a huge amount of Bat-mythology without making this too obvious (Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One donates a huge amount, for example). I suspect this is mostly down to David Goyer’s hand in the script. Goyer is Hollywood’s first choice of screenwriter when it comes to superhero movies, though he’s more often seen working for Marvel these days. Anyway, Michael Caine plays Alfred Pennyworth, Gary Oldman plays Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman plays Lucius Fox, and even a fairly obscure villain like Zsasz gets a cough and a spit cameo. Present as new characters, and making rather less impression, are Katie Holmes as Bruce Wayne’s love interest (ever a thankless task, unless your name is Selina Kyle), and Rutger Hauer as a corporate sleazebag. The performances are, as you’d expect, uniformly strong and give the film a good bit of gravitas.

When it comes down to it, though, this is still a blockbuster at heart. It doesn’t take that many risks, nor veer too far from the mainstream. Nolan’s direction is slick and steady rather than spectacular, and the action sequences are rather variable – some of the fight scenes are a bit murky, but there’s a stupendous car chase involving the new Batmobile, basically a stealth bomber on wheels. The film is overlong at nearly two and a half hours, and the narrative is a touch bitty in the midsection. (There is a pretty good twist near the end though.) But it’s very enjoyable, putting some smart new twists on the famous legend, and the promise is there of great things to come in the sequels Nolan and Goyer are plainly already thinking of. A very good bet for an entertaining night out; Reed and co are going to have to be really fantastic to beat this.

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So, yet more news on the superhero blockbuster casting front, this time for Christopher Nolan and Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, which is due on our screens at the end of next year. Given that Nolan’s previously made The Dark Knight and Snyder the remarkable Watchmen adaptation, this was always a fairly-tasty sounding project, and now they’ve actually found their Superman their angle on the legend may start to become a little clearer.

The actor in question is British actor Henry Cavill, who is famous for… er, well, nothing, if we’re honest. I’d never even heard of him, wouldn’t have even recognised his face before the other day, though my painstaking researches (Wikipedia) have revealed he’s previously appeared in costume bonkbuster The Tudors, Hellraiser VIII (hmm, classy), and Tristan + Isolde, and that apparently he was the inspiration for the Edward character in Twilight. (I really must share my Twilight limerick with the wider world one day.)

Well, given their track records I have to trust that Nolan and Snyder know what they’re doing. Rather unexcitingly I adhere to the standard view that you really have to cast an unknown as Superman, especially when the alternative is someone like Nicolas Cage or Muhammad Ali – don’t sneer, for a few queasy minutes in the Seventies the producers of the original movie seriously considered it. Everyone knows by now what Superman really looks like. Nicolas Cage could never have been Superman, only Nicolas Cage in a Superman outfit. So from this point of view Cavill’s the man for the job.

I find some of the negative reaction to Cavill’s appointment quite interesting. Not all; much of it is along the lines of ‘they should have kept Brandon Routh (from 2006’s rather underwhelming Superman Returns) or Tom Welling (from the increasingly idiosyncratic TV version of the mythos, Smallville)’. (I wonder why Dean Cain isn’t being mentioned? Hmm.) This sort of complaint seems to me to stem from a rather fannish concern with the great golden idol of continuity, over actual creativity and imagination. Why would Nolan and Snyder want to associate their shiny new version with a previous, unsuccessful one? It would be like casting George Clooney in Batman Begins. And Welling would have brought with him limiting expectations of the new movie sticking to Smallville’s style and continuity.

The voices of discontent which actually interest me are the ones complaining on the grounds that Cavill is British, and thus inherently unsuitable to play the Man of Steel. I find this attitude rather startling, to be honest; I can’t imagine anyone complaining that the cast of 300 weren’t all Greek and Iranian or that the actors in Star Wars weren’t born in a galaxy far, far away. Neither do I recall much griping when a Welshman was cast as Batman or an Englishman as Spider-Man, and they’re very nearly equally iconic characters.

An artist’s impression (of something completely different). The artist in question is the inimitable John Byrne, of course.

But then someone made a comparison with an American being cast as the Doctor, and suddenly I could sort of see what they meant. In most of the darkest moments of American-produced attempts at Doctor Who, the key people involved remained wholly committed to having a British actor in the role. (The only exception being Paul Anderson’s late-Nineties attempt at a Who movie, for which he had his sights set on Denzel Washington.) This surely isn’t just parochialism about one of our own characters – James Bond has been played by Scottish, Australian, English, Welsh, and Irish actors without being irretrievably damaged, after all. Could it be because there’s something fundamentally British about the concept of the Doctor?

And in which case, is there something fundamentally American about the concept of Superman? There may be a case to answer here – Superman is, after all, an immigrant from a foreign culture, who assimilates rather well into American society, becomes a model citizen and makes good. There are elements of the American dream in there, which aren’t present in the Batman or Spider-Man legends.

On the other hand, the job is still acting, isn’t it? The American dream is at its core one of inclusiveness, so it seems odd to say only Americans can embody it. I’m still inclined to give Cavill a chance, though I can understand American folk getting disgruntled with characters from their folklore being portrayed by foreigners – Australian and British X-Men, an English Spider-Man, a Welsh Batman and an Australian Hulk, to give just a few examples.

And I’m not even sure the Doctor embodies a British or English national myth in the same way Superman does the American dream. The Doctor’s twice been played very successfully by Scottish actors, after all. What makes the Doctor so quintessentially English, given he didn’t even grow up there and has only chosen to live in the country for an extended period once? He’s such an inconstant and chimerical figure it’s difficult to say. Possibly it’s his roots in a British tradition of a certain kind of gentlemanly pulp hero.

Even so, if I’m going to give a British Superman a chance, I suppose that means I ought to give the idea of an American Doctor a fair hearing if it ever comes up. On some level it still makes me shudder, but I don’t quite know why. As things currently stand, though, it’s still just idle speculation. Thankfully.

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And so t’internet explodes as Christopher Nolan reveals who the bad guys will be in next year’s most anticipated film, The Dark Knight Rises (Chris, if you’re reading this – at least think about changing the name). Nolan is clearly a guy who relishes a challenge: not content with trying to better a film which was a deservedly massive popular and critical success, not content with trying to beat the final-chapter-of-a-trilogy jinx, he’s also decided to do so while attempting to rehabilitate characters who were fairly comprehensively slimed the last time they showed up on the big screen.
Ever since the opening weekend of The Dark Knight there has been avid (one might even say fervid) speculation as to who Batman’s opponents were going to be in the final film. The Riddler was a popular choice for a long time, although a fake leaked screenplay recently led some people to suspect Nolan was going for a bunch of rather more obscure characters – namely Professor Strange, Talia al’Ghul, Black Mask and Killer Croc. All of which turns out to be complete hoo-hah. The winners of the Who Gets To Be In This Movie contest are… (drum roll) Catwoman and Bane.

On one level it shouldn’t be any surprise that Catwoman (to be played by Anne Hathaway) has made it into the Nolan series, as she’s in the premier league of Batman characters – created by Bob Kane in 1940 for the first issue of Batman’s own book, she was in the TV show (my favourite was Julie Newmar, other opinions are equally valid), and Batman Returns, and supported 170+ issues of her own book. Basically, nearly everyone knows who she is, and she’s not completely weird – so she’s a good fit for one of Nolan’s street-level blockbusters. 

Try not to think about this sort of thing. Yes, I know it’s difficult.

On the other hand, two words: Halle Berry. When I first wrote on this topic my opinion was that Catwoman was ‘unusable’, simply because of the toxic legacy of the 2004 Catwoman movie, which your correspondent reviewed at the time using words like ‘ham-fisted’, ‘offensive’ and ‘depressing’ (and I cut it some slack compared to a lot of people). That said, the Berry movie will be comparatively ancient history by the time TDKR comes out and if Nolan thinks he can restore Catwoman’s credibility I’m happy to believe him.

Bane, on the other hand, is a relatively new and obscure character, first popping up in 1993 when he set about terrorising Gotham City, wearing down Batman both physically and psychologically, and then breaking his spine and putting him in a wheelchair (relax, readers, this is comics: he got better eventually). In the comics, Bane’s wont to wear a slightly garish costume that makes him look like a Mexican wrestler (you can bet that Tom Hardy won’t be so attired in the movie), but the character has a lot going for him – extremely physically formidable (albeit with a major steroid problem), tactically brilliant and deeply perceptive. If they get Bane right in the new movie the results could be very exciting.

 

 

At least it’s easier to stop yourself thinking about this sort of thing.

On the other hand, two words: Joel Schumacher. Although he wouldn’t thank me for reminding people of this, Bane’s already made it to the big screen, in the notorious piece of junk Batman and Robin (I still think it’s better than Batman Forever, but that’s just me). Bane’s demoted to the position of being Poison Ivy’s chief henchman in this film and is generally a grunting, shuffling travesty of his comics incarnation (though the costume is almost exactly the same). That said, being such a minor character, he escapes the worst of the indignities heaped upon all the leads and I expect most people won’t realise that Jeep Swanson in the Schumacher movie and Tom Hardy in TDKR are actually meant to be playing the same character. Unless they see something like this blog post. Damn. Move along, everyone, forget what you’ve just read…

Anyway, at least now people can stop their endless speculations as to who the bad guys will be, and start their endless speculations about costume choices and script elements. I’m rather more interested to see what Nolan does with Bane than Catwoman, to be honest, but either way the final movie should be compelling stuff – not that we didn’t know that already, of course.

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