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Posts Tagged ‘Gary Oldman’

As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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Another week, another film about the Second World War – on this occasion it is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a based-on-fact drama about the first days of Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister in 1940 (not to be confused with the bobbins Timur Bekmambetov alien invasion movie of the same name from a few years back). We seem to be in the midst of a bunch of these at the moment – last year, after all, there was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which concerned itself with almost exactly the same period of history, and a film about Winston Churchill directed by Jonathon Teplitzky, starring Brian Cox as Churchill himself, the name of which momentarily escapes me. Is there a particular reason for this particular spate of films on the same subject? Well, maybe: we shall come to that, probably.

I would imagine (or hope) that the events covered by Darkest Hour are already known to most people, in the UK at least. It is May 1940, and the position of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has become untenable following his role in attempting to appease Hitler the previous year. The obvious candidate to succeed him, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), is unacceptable to the Labour Party, who will be a part of the new government; the only man for them is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), widely considered a self-serving maverick whose main loyalty is to himself.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn) is duly persuaded to ask Churchill to form a government, and he of course agrees, having been angling for the job all his adult life. But it begins to look like a poisoned chalice, as the forces of Nazi Germany invade Belgium and the Netherlands, France begins to crumble, and the British army finds itself in full retreat towards the French coast, with no realistic prospect of escape…

Given the situation, and with the United States unwilling to involve itself in a European war, the wise old heads of the war cabinet are in no doubt as to what the situation requires: a negotiated peace, responding to the peace overtures which Hitler’s Italian allies are already making. To do otherwise would be to expose Britain to the most terrible danger. If Churchill refuses to listen, then he has to be removed from office and replaced by someone more pragmatic. Faced with opposition both at home and abroad, is he really justified in sticking to his principles?

There are, obviously, many things one can say about the less palatable aspects of Winston Churchill, and his many utterances which would (hopefully) be career-ending nowadays. This is a man who at various points in his life was a racist, a keen advocate of the use of chemical weapons and also a cheerleader for eugenics. Yet this is also a figure who seems to transcend easy categorisation: unreconstructed old brute he may have been, but his is the example that seems to prove that one man can shape the course of history – as the popular legend has it, it was Churchill alone who kept Britain defiant and fighting, standing alone against the Nazi tyranny, almost as an act of will.

The notion of plucky little Britain going it alone against the rest of the world has become somewhat more loaded in the last eighteen months of so, and I wonder if this isn’t to some degree responsible for the recent surge in movies about the British bulldog spirit (and so on). Personally I think these are dangerous parallels to draw, but everyone in this particular area is in the process of mythmaking no matter what they happen to believe, so I suppose it is inescapable.

Certainly, Darkest Hour sticks close to the popular legend for most of its length – Churchill can be a bit inappropriate at times, but is generally lovably so, and is (of course) purveyor of a nice line in scathing wit, and possessor of a mighty oratorical talent. No real surprises there, then.

What’s slightly more unexpected is Churchill’s resemblance to a famous actor-director from New Cross. Three and a half hours in make-up every morning leaves Gary Oldman looking astonishingly like Gary Oldman under heavy prosthetics, and the fact he honestly doesn’t look very much like Churchill is a bit distracting. He is on full throttle here, though, and while his turn seemed to me to be somewhat awkwardly pitched between an acting performance and an act of impersonation, he certainly keeps the film very watchable, which is just as well: he’s in the vast majority of scenes. He’s particularly good when it comes to the aspects of Churchill we’re less used to seeing – the film often focuses on his vulnerability, his self-doubt, and his occasional bouts of depression.

Not that the support isn’t good too: apart from Pickup and Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Churchill and is pretty good in what isn’t a terribly big part, and Lily James plays Churchill’s secretary – it does rather seem that James’ part owes its prominence to the need to have a major character who is both female and under forty, if only for the sake of the poster.

And for the most part the film tells the story rather well, working as both a wartime drama and a political thriller. It’s not quite so well told that you completely forget how it’s all going to turn out, but it does summon up the desperate atmosphere of the time very effectively, not to mention the various pressures on Churchill.

The real question, of course, is that of why Churchill was so implacable in his will to keep Britain fighting the Nazis when victory seemed impossible and a negotiated peace of some kind was a distinct possibility. Where did he find his conviction and resolve? Why did he hold this particular belief with quite such strength? This is the reason why we remember him as a national hero and key figure in British history, after all.

And, to be honest, Darkest Hour fluffs this most crucial issue. It does offer an explanation, but it’s one that reeks of the Hollywood script unit and doesn’t remotely ring true to history. Its proposition – that Churchill was simply embodying the will of the British people – feels rather too smug and convenient, to say nothing of the fact that the very phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become rather loaded and subject to misuse of late.

In the end, this is the problem with Darkest Hour: the film is well-directed and well staged, although some may find it a little dry and stagey (most of the action consists of middle-aged men arguing in cramped rooms), but it is ultimately telling a story that most people will already be at least partly familiar with. We all know what happened and when, but the real question is why events took the turn that they did. The film does not have a convincing answer to this question.

I mean, it’s not what you’d call a bad film, and the performances are very good – it is the kind of film that wins awards, simply because of the subject matter, and you can see why Oldman would take it on – you’re infinitely more likely to win an Oscar playing Churchill than you are Commissioner Gordon, after all. But it doesn’t have anything new to bring to its material, and doesn’t offer any real psychological insights into its subject. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing, but unlikely to go down in history as a classic by any means.

 

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What exactly is the appropriate response when you’re sitting down in anticipation of a thoroughly profane and blood-spattered movie, only to find yourself joined in the cinema by a couple who have brought their clearly much-too-young children with them? Should you speak to them? Tell the cinema staff what’s going on? Isn’t it the staff’s responsibility anyway? Is this a mistake? Have they gone to the wrong movie, or snuck in after buying tickets to something more innocuous?

This was the situation I found myself in during the opening moments of Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Thankfully, I was spared the trouble of, you know, getting off my backside and actually doing something, because a minion appeared and explained the situation to the family and they promptly decamped. Which was a good thing, because I’m not sure I could really have relaxed and enjoyed this film knowing there were minors present. Then again, it has made me wonder about the degree to which one should really relax and enjoy this movie at all.

Hmmm. The movie opens with disgraced Belarussian ex-tyrant Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, in it for the money) on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. However there is no hard evidence and witnesses keep turning up dead, so he looks like walking free. Only one man can give the testimony that will put him away – notorious hired killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson).

The job of getting Kincaid from Manchester (where he is in the clink) to the Netherlands is given to crack Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, currently cornering the market in ass-kicking babe roles), but there is a traitor in her organisation and Kincaid is nearly killed in an intense gun-battle on the streets of Coventry (just another day in Warwickshire, I guess). In order to get him to the court on time and in one piece, Roussel is obliged to call in Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), a disgraced freelance protection agent – this is slightly complicated by their own history together, and the fact he blames her for the fact he’s disgraced in the first place.

Nevertheless, Bryce and Kincaid set off for the ICC together, quite clearly destined not to get along, as they are polar opposites in virtually every way: the bodyguard is uptight and methodical, his charge relaxed and spontaneous. Dukhovich’s goons are hot on their heels, the authorities can’t be trusted, and Kincaid insists on stopping off in Amsterdam where his wife (Salma Hayek) is incarcerated. No wonder there is very strong language and bloody violence throughout…

Well, it’s extremely clear what kind of movie we’re in for, practically from the word go – an action comedy buddy movie, with the two leads trading heavily on their established screen personae. Ryan Reynolds delivers the usual slightly-narcissistic snarkiness, while Samuel L Jackson basically just does his Samuel L Jackson act – being effortlessly cool and funny, while shouting a lot about, um, melon farmers. Reliable comedic material there, I think you’ll agree, and you can probably imagine the substance of most of the movie. Scathing put-downs! Crackling by-play between the two stars! Hilarious comic chemistry! Truck bombs going off in major European cities! Women and children being cold-bloodedly executed!

…er, what? Well, yes – I think this is where a lot of people are going to find themselves having issues with The Hitman’s Bodyguard, because doing a knockabout action comedy where faceless goons are scythed down like wheat is one thing, but including major terrorist acts and the murder of young children is crossing a line, if you ask me. You simply can’t put that stuff in a comedy film without it seemingly incredibly tasteless. It doesn’t give your movie any more dramatic heft, it just makes all the jokes and so on feel immensely inappropriate. This is non-negotiable. (It doesn’t surprise me to learn that this started life as a straight drama which was rewritten as a comedy in very short order. At least one more rewrite was definitely required.)

And while we’re on the subject, it strikes me as rather off that the film implies that, as recently as 2012, Belarus was a dictatorship where ethnic cleansing was going on. Now, I know that by western standards, Belarus is not a shining example of a free democratic state, but I don’t see how presenting it in this way helps matters much. It treats Belarus like a made-up cartoon nation (Oldman is certainly playing a cartoon bad guy), rather than a real place where people live today. I had the pleasure of getting to know someone from Belarus quite recently, and I would be frankly embarrassed to watch this movie with them.

Ooh, listen to me, I’m on my moral high horse a lot today, aren’t I? I should say that if you can discount the disturbingly tasteless violence and highly dubious geopolitics, The Hitman’s Bodyguard does what you would hope for, in that the action sequences are slick and competent, and the comedy stuff also gets a very satisfactory number of laughs – the flashback to Jackson and Hayek’s first meeting is probably the high point, and it’s a shame that Hayek basically disappears for the final third of the movie. As I say, this was only really a couple more drafts away from being a highly entertaining, essentially inoffensive buddy comedy.

But as things stand, I don’t know. I mean, I enjoyed most of it, and don’t really regret watching it, but it did leave kind of a bad taste in my mouth, not least because at various points it makes a big deal out of issues of morality and guilt, stressing that the moral choices people make are important. Fine in theory, guys, but you made the moral choice of including bombs going off in crowded cities and children being shot dead in your freewheeling comedy film, so what are we supposed to conclude? I’m not sure The Hitman’s Bodyguard even counts as a guilty pleasure, but I’m very glad I wasn’t watching it in the company of some very young children.

 

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Not quite 13 years ago, Tim Burton released his reimagined version of Planet of the Apes. I watched it, thought I had some things to say about it that people might be interested in, and persuaded someone to put my opinion on their website.

626 more film reviews later, here we all are: the website is a different one, but everything else is pretty much the same, including on this occasion the film under consideration – Matt Reeve’s reimagined version of a certain franchise, in the form of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt did a sterling job of restarting the series three years ago in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and his replacement by Reeves (best known for the so-so Cloverfield and the underrated Let Me In) was taken by many as an ill omen. Which just goes to show that sometimes nobody knows anything.

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Maintaining unprecedentedly good continuity with the previous film, Dawn opens with virally-uplifted chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis) leading his colony of similar simians in the forests of northern California. The apes are enjoying a rather idyllic existence, and some of them are beginning to believe that the humans who once tormented them have done everyone a favour by dying out in the plague which was just getting underway at the end of the last installment.

There’d be no movie in that, of course, and a remnant of human survivors are indeed ensconced in what’s left of San Francisco, led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, who’s not in the film as much as you might expect). The humans are running desperately low on fuel and other resources, and Dreyfus despatches his lieutenant Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to look into the possibility of reactivating the hydroelectric generators attached to a dam in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the dam is squarely in ape territory.

Relations between apes and humans do not get off to a good start, but the best efforts of Caesar and Malcolm result in a wary truce between the two groups. However, the history of mutual suspicion and prejudice between man and ape means that open conflict may only be a matter of time…

The consensus last time round was that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, on some level, a superior rethinking of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (look, just to save wear on my keyboard, I’m going to start referring to these films by the first couple of words of their title, okay?). Logic therefore dictates that this sequel should be drawing on 1973’s Battle for… Doing a really good remake of Conquest is a neat trick but nothing particularly remarkable, as that was a movie with a strong central idea, undone by the exiguencies of running time and budget. Making a good version of Battle, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish, as that film is the closest thing to a complete waste of time this side of Helena Bonham Carter.

And yet that is arguably just what Reeves has managed to do. In terms of actual plotting, Battle and Dawn have about in much as common as Conquest and Rise (which is to say, not very much at all), but when it comes to theme and characterisation the two films are very much on the same page: a clash between human and ape communities, with entrenched zealots on both sides, and an oddly tragic moral awakening amongst the apes themselves. Indeed, I would even suggest it’s as if Reeves and the films’ writers have got their hands on a copy of Paul Dehn’s original unmade script for Battle, which concerned itself with the apes’ fall from grace and the overthrow of Caesar by less emollient forces.

These ideas are present in Dawn, too, along with a distinct focus on the ape characters rather than the humans. It’s a tribute to the astonishing work of the VFX team, not to mention Reeves’ own storytelling skills, that a story primarily set amongst a non-human community, with largely mute characters, is as compelling as it is. Reeves’ first storytelling coup is to create an opening sequence which is thoroughly engrossing despite not featuring a single word of spoken dialogue, and his second is to make the unexpected appearance of a common-or-garden human being feel like a viscerally jarring shock.

Tellingly, it’s only at this point that the apes begin speaking, and it seems to me that this ties into the underlying message of the film: prior to meeting the humans, it’s strongly implied that the apes have lived in peace and harmony for years, and there’s nothing to suggest that the same is not true of the humans. Yet, within days of their first encounter, bloody conflict has broken out between the two – perhaps inevitably. Humans and apes have more in common than either side wants to admit, and perhaps this explains why they seem almost predestined to fight each other to the death.

This is a bleak, dark, strange theme for a big studio SF movie, but exactly what you’d expect from a proper Apes movie, and the various action sequences are brilliantly realised. It doesn’t have quite the same degree of social commentary as the films in the original cycle, but then that’s the state of SF movies these days, I suppose. Dawn certainly feels very confident in its own identity: it contains nothing like the same number of references and in-jokes as Rise (although the score does sound very familiar at certain points).

And, accomplished as it is, this is a film with every right to a certain swagger. It works very well as both an action blockbuster and a dark, intelligent SF movie, and extremely well as a Planet of the Apes film. I am just forced to wonder where this revitalised series is going to go next: having run out of original-cycle films to reinterpret, the only options left are either more of the same, or to take a really radical step of some kind. I’ve no idea which way Reeves will take the series next: but at the moment everything on the planet of the apes is rosy, in a grim and twisted sort of way.

 

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I suppose I should be up front about this, and make it clear right at the start that Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 movie RoboCop is one of my personal favourites. It’s not flawless, but it comes very close, and for me it’s probably the best action SF movie to come out of Hollywood in the 1980s: better than Predator, better than Aliens – yes, better even than The Terminator. So, needless to say, my natural inclination was to give any remake the same kind of response a paid-up NRA member usually gives to burglars (perhaps this is where the expression ‘extreme prejudice’ comes from).

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In other words, I approached Jose Padilha’s new version of RoboCop with expectations about as close to zero as you could imagine. On paper the story looks very much the same: a powerful corporation, based in Detroit, is looking to expand its profit margins by selling military technology to hard-pressed police departments, but there is resistance to this. At the same time, dedicated cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gets on the wrong side of a particularly vicious criminal and finds himself crippled and mutilated.

But Murphy finds himself drawn into the corporation’s machinations – almost literally, one might say – as what is left of him is given a new lease of life in a hydraulically-powered, armour-plated, AI-equipped chassis, and put back on the streets to bring a whole new meaning to the expression ‘zero tolerance policing’…

So, like I say, I turned up to this new, 12 rated, no Paul Verhoeven, no Peter Weller RoboCop quite prepared to sling bricks at it for being a travesty of a classic. The opening scene, with Samuel L Jackson as a frothing right-wing media commentator, was not actively painful, which came as a pleasant surprise, and the film actually showed signs of wanting to honour the smart and subversive spirit of its predecessor. Then came an original sequence, with US Army war-robots stomping their way through the streets of Tehran blaring out ‘Peace be upon you’ through their megaphones – an image so unexpectedly audacious and darkly funny that it quite disarmed me. (The use of a few snatches of Basil Poledouris’s wonderful original score was also a welcome surprise.)

The film never quite manages to consistently hit this same tone, but on the other hand I suspect that’s not its main objective. The emphasis of this version is rather different – it’s less about violent excess and vicious satire, and much more about the personal story of Murphy himself. The key difference to the narrative this time around is that Murphy retains his original identity and memory throughout, rather than emerging from his transformation initially as an emotionless automaton and only later recovering his sense of self. This allows Kinnaman to give much more of a conventional acting performance throughout, and a pretty commendable one it is too, but at the same time it somehow robs the story of much of its pathos and depth.

Hey ho. One thing this movie is not short of is fine actors doing the best they can with the material with which they are issued: Abbie Cornish plays Mrs Murphy, who has a beefed up role in this version, while the various brains behind the RoboCop programme are portrayed by Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle and Jackie Earl Haley. The plot has been streamlined, which may actually constitute an improvement on one of my few issues with the original, and while its not as consistently funny as its forebear there are some very good moments: I particularly enjoyed a gleeful swipe at a certain bombastic, overblown, toy-related franchise. (For what it’s worth, I’m not wild about the new black and glossy RoboCop design, but that’s just me.)

The 1987 RoboCop did a superb job at deconstructing the materialism of that decade – human flesh literally becomes property, after all – and if the 2014 film may not have captured the zeitgeist with quite the same adroitness, it certainly attempts to acknowledge issues such as the bias of the US media and the ethical issues involved with the use of drones and other battlefield robots. It may not have anything terribly deep to say, but even the thought is more than I’d honestly expected.

The new RoboCop is not a truly great movie, but neither is it a disaster nor even an especially bad one. It’s solid piece of SF action film-making with a strong sense of exactly what it wants to be and a sensible approach to being it. I was extremely pleasantly surprised (though I suppose you should bear in mind that I approached it with the lowest possible expectations, after all). If we are living in a world in which unnecessary remakes are, in fact, necessary, then this is about as good an unnecessary remake as one could realistically hope for.

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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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If the natural choice of reading of James Bond would be GQ magazine (immaculate tailoring, conspicuous consumption, tasteful objectification of women), and Jason Bourne much more likely to be a Lonely Planet fan, then what would be the preferred literature of John le Carre’s famous hero, George Smiley? Judging from Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I imagine it would either be The Bumper Book of Cryptic Crosswords or an office supply catalogue.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that this is not really a conventional thriller, highly accomplished though it is in every department. I did wonder whether it was a late-released summer movie or a movie angling for awards that had got itself released unusually early: the latter is definitely the case. No car chases or fisticuffs to speak of in this one, with the closest thing to an action sequence being when someone tries to pinch something from a library without being spotted (it still manages to be an incredibly tense scene).

The plot is ferociously convoluted, though not, I would say, impenetrably so. Set in the murky world of early Seventies espionage, the movie opens with a British mission to eastern Europe going bad, leading to the forced retirement of top man Control (John Hurt) and his lieutenant Smiley (Gary Oldman). But the following year, word reaches the government that Control’s suspicions of a traitor working for the Russians at the highest level may in fact be true. Smiley is recalled to service to undertake a clandestine operation against his former colleagues and uncover the mole, whoever it may be…

To go any further would be slightly futile and possibly require diagrams. That said, while I had to pay attention throughout, I never felt lost within what’s a fairly labyrinthine narrative. Alfredson keeps the story carefully under control and clearly signposts his flashbacks to avoid baffling the audience too much. As good as the storytelling in this film is, though, the atmosphere the director creates is equally impressive – a seedy, smoky, dingy world of musty offices and peeling wallpaper. Everything seems to be either grey or yellow-brown, including most of the main characters: an oppressive world.

Oldman’s performance sets much of the tone, being – given some of his past work – startlingly restrained. Smiley is a passive, inscrutable figure, hugely economical in both speech and action, worlds apart from most other fictional intelligence operatives (at one point he embarks upon a crucial stealth operation and his preparations consist of taking off his shoes and sucking a breath-mint). While ruthless and implacable in pursuit of his quarry, he’s also a very human and vulnerable figure, cuckolded by his wife and – it’s implied – haunted by past failures.

On one level this movie is really a study in masculine frustration and despair, brought to life by a very strong cast – Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong (the fifth film of his I’ve seen this year alone – does the man not sleep?), and many others. One gets the impression that all of these men have forgotten why they’re playing the spy game at all: the rules of the game have become all-important, and the paranoia and distrust they generate have created a corrosive atmosphere where no-one can really be happy. They are all, to some degree, defined by their foibles – Smiley has his troubles with his wife, another is secretly and miserably gay, while another character confesses to terrible deeds carried out simply to ensure he was remembered for something, and so on.

As you’d expect, the result is a film which is low on laughs (though a welcome reappearance by Kathy Burke as a female analyst provides a couple) but still subtly gripping. There aren’t really any big set pieces such as you’d find in a more conventional thriller, but there are plenty of memorable scenes (a few nasty moments, too, if you’re thinking of taking an elderly relative). To be perfectly honest, given the distinction of the cast, not everyone gets quite the material you might expect, but this is just about the only criticism I can make. It’s not the kind of film from which you emerge with a spring in your step and a big grin on your face, but it’s still of the highest standard. Talk of how it will perform in next year’s awards season is premature, but I would be very surprised if it didn’t make a strong showing on shortlists all over the world – and deservedly so.

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