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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Caine’

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.

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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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Another week, another installment in one man’s odyssey round every Vue multiplex within the M25. Yes, it’s New Cinema Review again, and this time it’s the Vue Islington, offering yet another scam new pricing option – ‘Vue Extreme’, with bigger screens, better sound, and so on. The effect of the giant screen, etc, was really lost on me as I found myself sitting about a quarter of a mile away from it. I was quite impressed by the fact that the theatre actually had an usher who occasionally popped up in an attempt to ush the teenagers going berserk in the aisles – though this was still really just putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. O tempora! O mores!

Once upon a time it was quite unusual for a film to get what is called a day-and-date release – this is when a film is simultaneously unleashed upon audiences around the world. Before theatres went digital, the cost of striking all those extra prints was prohibitive except in the case of the very biggest, and most prone to be pirated, films. To give an example, Attack of the Clones got a day-and-date release, but the first Spider-Man didn’t, arriving in the UK two weeks after its US launch: something almost unthinkable for a major summer blockbuster today.

Now You See Me is a movie which looks like it’s pitching for blockbuster status – a decent stab at an all-star cast, populist director, big set pieces – and yet it’s arriving in the UK six weeks after the States. Possibly this is just one of those things, but possibly not.

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It is, on the face of it, a curious movie anyway: the trailer makes clear this is going to be a polished, slick movie with a twisty-turny plot concerned with multiple levels of ‘reality’ and a degree of gamesmanship in its dealings with the audience. This, put together with certain story elements and the presence in the cast list of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, instantly made me certain that this was a major studio’s first attempt at a Christopher Nolan pastiche.

What suggested that the movie might prove memorable was the fact that the director selected to duplicate Nolan’s wizardry was Louis Leterrier. Now, I have enjoyed every Louis Leterrier film I have seen, and he is the man partly responsible for The Transporter, surely one of the landmark films of the 21st century so far. I love The Transporter, but I also love Inception, and it would be stretching a point to say that the two films share much of a sensibility.

So I turned up to Now You See Me expecting either a pleasant surprise or an uproarious calamity. It is the story of four magicians – an expert in close-up magic, a street hustler, an escapologist and a mentalist – who are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco (no, me neither), Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson. (To preserve a sense of mystery about the plot I will not reveal which of the quartet is required to appear in their opening scene wearing a clinging, glittery swimsuit.) Initially working individually, they are assembled by a shadowy figure who provides them with detailed instructions and blueprints to carry out a fiendishly complex plan.

The plan primarily involves doing naughty things with other people’s money: apparently robbing a Parisian bank during a live show in Vegas, for example. The FBI and Interpol take a dim view of this sort of thing and the job of figuring out how they did it is given to Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent. As the FBI is reluctant to suggest that the magicians actually robbed the bank using genuine magic, Ruffalo recruits ex-magician turned professional debunker Morgan Freeman to help him figure out how they did it – but the group’s backer, Michael Caine, does not want to see his investment ruined, especially with all the publicity they are attracting…

Now You See Me is predicated on one simple idea, which underpins the plot and whole philosophy of the film. This is that Magic Is A Good and Wonderful Thing In And Of Itself, and that – by extension – Magicians Are Innately Good And Wonderful People. As a result it is okay for them to rob banks, drive businessmen close to bankruptcy, and break into safes, as long as their victims are established as being Not Nice People. The script really does a number in terms of ensuring that the thieving conjurors come across as good guys, although there’s still the problem that one of their targets ends up going to prison, most likely for the rest of his life, his offence apparently being not much more than having a smug and annoying personality. Hmmm.

That said, the film looks good, it’s energetically directed by Leterrier, and the first half is filled with good set pieces and scenes where charismatic performers like Eisenberg, Caine, Harrelson, and Ruffalo get to trade some quite snappy dialogue. I rather enjoyed all this, and the appearance of Freeman’s character reassured me that this wasn’t going to be some dodgy thriller-fantasy fudge where the ‘magic’ would be left unexplained.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really hold true for the entire film – some fairly outrageous things go on with barely a sniff of explanation given. There’s a fight sequence between Ruffalo and one of the magicians which almost plays out like something from an episode of The Avengers – the guy seems to disappear into thin air, starts shooting sparks out of his fingers, and so on. It looks good but it’s still a bit nigglesome.

The same can be said for most of the second half of the film – Michael Caine’s character does his own vanishing act, and it all becomes increasingly vague and far-fetched in plot terms. It is all capped off by the sort of twist ending which has you shouting ‘What! That’s completely absurd!’ at the screen. I’m virtually certain the plot of this film doesn’t actually make sense in light of the climactic revelations – even if it does in strictly logical terms, it’s still massively implausible – but the idea of watching it again in order to check really doesn’t appeal at all.

Still, it’s by no means the memorable disaster I was half expecting. Looking back on it from the closing credits Now You See Me is probably not a very good film, but while I was watching it I did quite enjoy it – particularly the first half. It is not deep or clever by any means – but it is glitzy, silly, forgettable, crowd-pleasing fun. All in all, and with all due respect to recent events, this is less Christopher Nolan than it is the Nolan Sisters.

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Either strange cosmic forces of synchronicity are at work, or someone at my DVD rental package company is reading this blog: having recently complained (very mildly, I thought) about the random nature of our relationship, and the occasionally odd juxtapositions of successive movies, I have just been sent two Woody Allen movies in a row. If Manhattan, Zelig or Love and Death turns up next I think I will be justified in assuming that someone is having a laugh (if by some miracle my DVD-packer really is reading this, please send Tiptoes instead).

Anyway, the movie that came was Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s 1986 movie. My knowledge of this film was basically limited to remembering that Michael Caine won an Oscar for it, and various behind-the-scenes tidbits gleaned from his first autobiography – being dragged back to New York for reshoots, finding Allen’s domestic arrangements a bit bizarre, feeling uncomfortable about having to do an (I kid you not) fairly graphic sex scene (this didn’t make it into the movie), and so on. Actually watching it, however, I found the film to be very familiar, albeit in a retroactive sort of way.

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Allen’s then-partner and muse Mia Farrow plays Hannah, a fairly successful actress, married to Michael Caine’s financier. The movie concerns two years in her life and the lives of those around her, mainly (as the title of the movie would suggest) her two sisters, played by Dianne West and Barbara Hershey (before she became Judge Dredd’s boss – yes, I know I’ve done that joke previously).

Not a great deal happens to Hannah herself; she is depicted as the strong, mostly silent lynchpin of the family. However, Caine finds himself besotted with Hershey, who is already involved with a much older man (Max von Sydow – one of several tips-of-the-hat to Ingmar Bergman in the film), and they begin an affair. West is struggling in her own acting career and has a number of problems, mostly connected to her own insecurity. She frequently borrows money from Hannah to fund her latest attempt at a career change, embarks on troubled romances, and so on.

The film’s other major plot thread concerns Hannah’s ex-husband, played by Allen himself. He is a TV producer and lifelong hypochondriac who is suddenly and shockingly confronted with his own mortality, which leads him to completely reassess his life and priorities. Allen being the performer that he is, this is the most openly comedic element of the film, with the scenes of him contemplating becoming a Roman Catholic or Hare Krishna inevitably seeming comic.

Nevertheless, there’s an introspective, serious undertone going on here, which does carry across into the rest of the movie – and the confrontation-with-mortality angle seems to me to be illuminating too. For all that the title suggests that this is a film with a female perspective, it seems to me that it’s actually more about the male mid-life crisis (Allen had just turned 50 when he made it) – if it’s about women at all, then it concerns them in terms of their relationships with the men in their lives: Caine and Allen both have relationships with more than one of the sisters, one of the main elements of the West story is an unhappy love affair, and so on.

In the end I’m not quite sure what the film is actually trying to say: on the face of things, everyone ends up reasonably happy. Nevertheless you can certainly discern some of the misanthropy that’s become a feature of Allen’s more recent work here if you look for it – the most successful, sensible, and well-adjusted of the three main women is cheated on by her husband with one sister, and endlessly sponged-off by another.

It’s all well-played, though, and engagingly written, but the stories aren’t particularly affecting and for me it lacked the playfulness and inventive wit of some of Allen’s earlier films. What’s very noticeable about Hannah and Her Sisters in terms of its place in the Allen canon is that the structure and tone of the film is very similar to that of many of his more recent offerings: everyone is affluent and metropolitan, the film switches back and forth between the different personal and romantic entanglements of a small group of connected characters, and so on. Having already seen films like Whatever Works, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I instantly understood the kind of film this was going to be. It’s certainly fresher and more accomplished than any of those, but it shares many of their flaws – strong performances and formal quirkiness don’t really obscure the fact that this is a film with a limited perspective that isn’t really as profound as it perhaps thinks it is. And – it goes without saying for an Allen movie – a few more jokes wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. But then I always did prefer the Early, Funny ones.

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For the last week or so, and I expect this really is just a coincidence, I seem to have found myself firmly lodged in the Grotto of Duff Sequels, what with Bourne Legacy, Descent Part 2 and Expendables 2 all appearing in quick succession (although to be fair Expendables 2 is still better than the first one). I always try to look on the bright side and find the silver lining, and bearing this in mind I thought I was now acclimatised enough to Duff Sequels to take the plunge and confront what’s famously one of the Duffest Sequels of all time in another episode of Is It Really As Bad As All That? Ladies, gentlemen and others, I give you Joseph Sargent’s legendary 1987 offering, Jaws: The Revenge.

This is a film which has embedded itself in popular culture in a highly peculiar way. A much-loved stand-up comedy routine by the otherwise-obscure Richard Jeni dissects the awfulness of Jaws: The Revenge in some detail. Michael Caine (whose appearance in the movie is often used to criticise his ‘I’ll do anything’ 80s work ethic) is wont to declare that he has never seen the film, which he’s heard is awful, but he has seen the house the sizable paycheck bought him, which he knows was very nice. The ‘This time it’s personal’ tagline often used to ridicule improbable sequel ideas originated, so far as I can tell, with this very film. But what lies beneath all these barnacular anecdotes and memes? What’s the actual movie like?

Well, the story opens in snowy New England and the small town of Amity where the original was set. Roy Scheider’s character, Martin Brody, has cunningly died in order to get out of appearing (the film appears to indicate a shark gave him a heart attack), and the main character is his widow Ellen (Lorraine Gary). One of her sons is a marine biologist in the Bahamas, while the other has joined the local police (who have a huge picture of Roy Scheider on the wall just to ram home that this is still the same franchise). All is lovely and Christmassy until young Deputy Brody has to go out into the harbour and faff about with a buoy or something. Much to his surprise, a giant shark erupts from the waters and chomps off one of his arms before setting about sinking his boat. We cut back and forth from the travails of Deputy Brody to a choir singing carols on the shore, but this effect is curiously lacking in pathos: possibly because the impression given is that the cherubic singing is actually drowning out Deputy Brody’s plaintive cries.

Unfortunately, drowning is not an option for Deputy Brody himself, and most of him is gobbled up. Widow Brody is traumatised and jumps to the somewhat implausible conclusion that this was a personal attack on her family by a vengeful shark, following the events of the previous movies (though probably not Jaws 3D as that doesn’t appear to be in continuity with this one). Everyone tries to persuade Widow Brody to be more rational, but they are playing a losing game as – and this is the point at which Jaws: The Revenge casts loose from the anchor of reason and sets sail for the wildest oceans of Cinematic Crapulousness – the film indicates that she is right. How is this shark connected to the other ones? How has it acquired some kind of peculiar homing instinct for members of the Brody clan? Why, given that she’s convinced that she’s being stalked by – and let’s not put too fine a point on this – a fish, does she spend the rest of the film on small islands and boats, rather than somewhere safely landlocked in the middle of a continent?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Marine Biologist Brody (Lance Guest) turns up for the funeral bringing with him Boring Wife Brody and Irksome Kid Brody, and together they persuade Widow Brody to come and spend the festive season with them in the Bahamas, which at least means the scenery is more cheerful for the rest of the picture. Flying them to the island is waggish pilot Hoagie, who is played by Michael Caine.

(At this point I must digress and reveal that an Italian teenager approached me a short while ago and, very politely, asked, ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Michael Caine?’ Somewhat flattered, as Sir Michael was a handsome fellow in his youth, I replied ‘Not a lot of people know that’ (he didn’t get it) and waved him on his way. Only later did it occur to me that the lad probably hasn’t seen any Caine movies except the ones he’s made for Chris Nolan, which means I must look like Michael Caine from the age of 72 onwards. I really must try to get more sleep.)

Caine engages in a colossal struggle with the inconsequential banality of most of the script, bringing pretty much his full firepower to bear. The result is that Hoagie emerges as a relentlessly quirky and charismatic fellow surrounded by a gang of mannequins. Just to keep the thing limping along between shark attacks, once she arrives in the Bahamas, Widow Brody starts to think she’s been a bit silly thinking there’s a shark out there with a personal vendetta against her. However, at this point, the damn shark turns up again (it puts in its first proper appearance about thirty minutes in, floating past the camera in all its static, polymer-based pomp) and tries to eat Marine Biologist Brody and his boat. But he elects not to tell Widow Brody about this on the grounds it might upset her.

Things continue in a similar vein, with Marine Biologist Brody’s marine biology research somewhat impeded by the fact he can’t set foot in the water without an enormous rubber shark with a double bass turning up, until the shark mysteriously vanishes. Crikey! But it turns out that Boring Wife Brody has taken Irksome Kid Brody to the beach, little realising the peril they face. However, Irksome Kid Brody is too small a target and the cartilaginous assassin winds up eating a rather winsome lady in a bikini instead. Confirmed in her earlier suspicions, Widow Brody jumps on a passing yacht and heads out to sea. Is she planning to take the shark on mano-a-mano (so to speak)? Or is she planning to sacrifice herself to it? Or is she simply doing something utterly irrational simply because the plot demands it? Hmm, it’s so hard to say.

Speaking of doing utterly irrational things, Marine Biologist Brody and his buddy use Hoagie and his plane to chase after Widow Brody, only to find the vengeful fish closing in on her boat. Rather than saying ‘Hey, she’s on a boat, she’s safe, let’s just radio for help,’ they quite properly decide to crash their plane into the sea and swim over to the yacht to be with her. The shark is clearly miffed by this and makes an exception to its Brody-only diet to eat the plane. It has a go at eating Michael Caine, too: Caine greets the lunging predator with a hearty cry of ‘Ohhhhh shit!’, but whether this is actually a comment on the quality of the special effects is not clear.

Marine Biologist Brody’s buddy, a zany Rastafarian, selflessly throws himself down the shark’s throat while lodging some kind of anti-shark gizmo inside it. There is some bafflegab about the gizmo giving the shark seizures, but the main result seems to be the shark sticking its head out of the water and roaring like a dinosaur. While the shark is thus occupied, and perhaps also distracted by flashbacks from the original Jaws which appear for no obvious reason, Widow Brody impales the shark on the front of the yacht. Everyone goes home smiling and has a long talk with their agent.

It would be great to get an insight into the creative process behind Jaws: The Revenge, if only to learn exactly whose idea it was to base the plot around a shark with a personal vendetta. I suppose that with some effort one could come up with a worse idea, and the creative minds at the film studio The Asylum have indeed arguably made careers out of doing just that, but the key thing is that Asylum movies like 2-Headed Shark Attack are made with a hurr-hurr-hurr-isn’t-this-ironic sensibility – while Jaws: The Revenge is quite obviously taking itself seriously as a drama. But the premise of the film is so totally absurd that there is no value in this.

I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as a bad film, only a boring one – and, to be perfectly honest, for much of its running time Jaws: The Revenge is actually deeply tedious to watch. The rubber shark does not put in many appearances and this leaves the script with the problem of trying to find things for all the characters to do. This, to be honest, is where the problems with the central idea really start to have an effect. The premise of the film is completely illogical and as a result it’s very difficult for the characters to respond to it in a credible way. Even if the characters were to react to the idea of a shark with a hit list in a rational manner – by organising proper shark-hunting expeditions or simply going a really long way inland – it would either kill the story or completely transform what kind of film this was. It’s almost as if the film-makers were fully aware of what a ludicrous central concept the film has and are doing their best to avoid examining it in too much detail, even when the characters would naturally do just that.

And so, most of the time, the characters aren’t even talking about the shark, but their personal lives, their hopes for the future, their careers – or even just making inconsequential chit-chat. It is all quite horribly dull. Even Caine, for all his twinkly-eyed blokeyness, is more annoying than actually likable. The sheer banality of the dry land sections of Jaws: The Revenge makes them at least as irksome as the bits with unconvincing rubber shark models, but it’s very clear that the film has nothing more to offer to fill in the gaps between them. As exercises in sheer cack-handedness go, it takes some beating, and it’s made even more disagreeable by the decision to restage scenes from the original Jaws and also include sepia-toned flashbacks to it (suffice to say that, 12 years on and in reused footage, Roy Scheider still gets the best line in the movie).

Announcing that Jaws: The Revenge is a terrible film is not breaking bold new critical ground. However, most of the hatchet jobs on this film don’t really look much further than the incompetent special effects and the sheer, absurd stupidity of the central idea of the film. These are both fair game for criticism, but what seems to me to be just as interesting is the more subtly toxic effect that the main premise has on the quality of the drama throughout the movie – it seems to show that when your main idea is as incoherent and implausible as it is here, every other aspect of the drama and characterisation in the movie is going to suffer as a result, and that awkwardly trying to pretend your film is not silly means that you will end up not making a silly film, but a silly and boring one. Which is what Jaws: The Revenge is.

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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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