Friday, 31 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The difficulty with this film is that as soon as you try to rationalise its plot and its characters, it all falls apart. That is because this film is a fantasy. Too many reviews and discussions about this film fall because they fail to understand that Batman is fantasy. Having said that, it then requires us to make a leap from our reality to Batman's unreality if we are to make any sense of the film at all!

For the trilogy to complete its narrative arc it was necessary for Batman (Christian Bale) to be rehabilitated. How that is achieved is as complex as it is brutal. At nearly three hours long it is a credit to Nolan's direction that the film only drags two or three times. It is epic in many ways. The set design - the opening 'extraction', Manhattan below and above ground, 'The Pit' prison and the sfx are all visually stunning and fill the entirety of the screen. I had hoped to see it in IMAX but they finished screening it the day before! That would have been even more stunning visually.

The plot itself is straightforward but there are a number of sub-plots which are running which complicate the whole storyline and require a bit of mental jiggling to hold them separately as they weave in and out of the main story. This is archetypal goody versus baddy - straight out of the ethos of DC Comics. One thing that really struck me was Batman's repeated insistence on 'no guns and no killing' and how in the numerous fight scenes, some of which were overly brutal for my taste, you never saw any blood - just like the 1960's TV shows that were decorated with 'zap!' and 'pow!' etc.

The story begins eight years after the end of the previous film - The Dark Knight. Batman had taken the blame for the death of Harvey Dent at a time when the people of Gotham City needed a hero in which to believe and someone around whom they could rally in their quest to eradicate organised crime from the city. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) had used the momentum to pass the tough Dent Act and now the most dangerous 1000 prisoners were locked up in the city's toughest prison. Commissioner Gordon is wracked with guilt about letting Batman wrongly carry the can for Dent's death but is, as yet, unable to reconcile himself to coming clean. Batman - aka Bruce Wayne - has become even more of a recluse as he mourns what was and the loss of his love Rachel. It will obviously take something on a huge scale to turn this misery around.

In steps Bane (Tom Hardy) - a long term DC Comics bad guy - who is a man of a mountain and who places Gotham City and its inhabitants in jeopardy. The threat of Bane lures Batman back into the skies (after a remarkable physical rehabilitation) and he attempts to save Gotham City from extinction. The love interest is provided by Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and Marion (Marion Cotillard) but for me it was the performance of Alfred the Butler (Michael Caine) which steals the show for its warmth, depth of engagement and sheer humanity. I am not going to elaborate further on the plot, but if you want a fuller exposition check out IMDb. The way the film ends offers a lesson in how to deliver a perfect ending. It was good to see cameos from Liam Neeson and Tom Conti too and with Morgan Freeman reprising his role, it really is a very strong cast - but then a nearly 3 hour film needs that!

This film is intense in many ways - the drama and suspense are maintained in a way that invites tension to build, the characters are not as straightforward as they first appear, the weaving together of the sub-plots requires concentration. For me, it was where the the film picked up the unresolved themes of The Dark Knight where it truly excelled. Christopher Nolan's direction (and joint screenplay writing with his brother Jonathan) explore in depth the angst and moral machinations of the main characters. Themes of regret, loss, guilt and revenge are worked with and developed as the story unfolds. The script delights to balance on the knife-edge of grey areas in relation to a number of moral dilemmas facing the characters. Those on the side of 'right' hesitate and reflect before acting - even when two wrongs might appear to make a right. Those on the side of 'wrong' are driven by a lustful quest for power, control and revenge. For me this was Bale's best performance as Wayne/Batman.

This is a first class film which is fully deserving of its accolades (it wasn't over-hyped to begin with!). The story, acting and visuals are all very strong. It rounds off the trilogy in a satisfactory way being fully faithful to the characters and ethos of Batman but updating it to the 21st century. Nolan's stock will continue to rise and I look forward to his next offering. If this film had been 30 minutes shorter it would have scored a 9, so I'm going to give it 8.5/10. If you've not seen it - catch while you still can.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Where this film scores big is in the 'less is more' approach it adopts and in its use of stunning natural scenery which 'performs' so strongly that it should be listed as a member of the cast. It offers an insight into life under the Red Brigades of Mao's Cultural Revolution in China in the 1970's. However, this film is neither original in its plot or filled with memorable acting performances.

The story is essentially about three things: the power of ideas, the desire for humans to transcend through creativity and it's about love. The story begins in 1971 as we follow two young lads from families who have been labelled as liberal intellectuals making them counter-revolutionary. The lads have been sent from their city homes to Phoenix Mountain to be 're-educated'. The film is filled with clunky Maoist rhetoric, such as the village chief proclaiming "revolutionary peasants will never be corrupted by filthy bourgeois chicken"!

We are never told what the precise crimes the bourgeois families have committed and the two lads, Luo and Ma seem more than a little naive as they are confronted with the stark poverty of life in a remote village cut off from the rest of the world. Time and time again, the lads lie and befuddle the locals to save themselves from being hauled up in front of the local thought police.

As I said, this is a film first and foremost about the power of ideas. Under the Cultural Revolution all foreign literature was banned. One of the lads is a gifted violinist and plays a piece of Mozart which the village leader immediately interprets as being reactionary and bourgeois. The lad avoids confiscation of his violin by explaining that it is 'Mozart thinking of Mao' and so is allowed to keep his instrument.

The two boys are unable to cope with the harsh physical regime that life on Phoenix Mountain demands. Recognising this, the village leader sends them off to the local town to watch a North Korean film and to return to the village and retell the story. This they do with great embellishment and demonstrate the power of story to lift and transform from the here and now to somewhere different. This provides the metaphorical mechanism by which Maoist China can be escaped. 

Meanwhile the lads develop an interest in the granddaughter of the local tailor whose trade gives him an elevated status in the eyes of the peasants. The girl is the tailor's seamstress. As the lads develop a closeness to her, she responds to their quest for an experience to transcend the mundanity of peasant life. She listens endlessly to the lads retelling of Western classics that they have read and she is enthralled. The seamstress confesses to gazing up to the sky each time she hears a plane and wondering where the people are going and what kind of lives they lead.

Another reactionary bourgeois lad is rumoured to be hoarding a stash of foreign literature and with the seamstress' help they steal it. As the lads read the novels and poems to the illiterate seamstress, she becomes more and more drawn into their world of ideas and stories that offer the hope of escape.

The pacing of the plot is at times jerky and the film lurches towards its conclusion rather unsatisfactorily. However, whilst the outcome is in part predictable - given the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, I won't spoil it for you.

This film's delight lies in the way the story is told and the setting in which it is told. Both outweigh any other short-comings the film may have. It is gentle but has a strong message. It is well worth the investment of your time - it was a Golden Globe nominee and also an official Cannes selection. I'll give it 7.5/10.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

This film takes us back to the beginning and tells us (again) how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man. There is little that is new in this film. That will appeal to arachnid die-hards - especially as the two lead characters offer a more 'punchy' performance than Maguire and Dunst. The graphics and design are state-of-the-art which sets this film visually above the Maguire trilogy - the lighting in this one is particularly well done.

At the end of the day, the film is a simple super-hero movie. The story is straightforward and serves as a vehicle for the fledgeling Spider-Man to flex this legs and also as a warning against cross-species genetic engineering. Whilst the plot is straightforward it is delivered with an uneven pace and at times limps along whilst at others it almost moves too quickly. The script is similarly lumpy. As a hoodlum shouts after Parker - ''I've seen your face, I know who you are', Parker happens to glance up and see a poster promoting a wrestler in a mask which inspires him to go home, copy the design and hand sew himself his own mask. At the end of the film the last lines of dialogue are equally cumbersome and uncomfortably hold out the batten to taken up in the sequel!

As I said Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone play their characters well, ably supported by Rhys Ifans who plays the baddy and Martin Sheen (now with Sean Connery-style whistling teeth) and lovely Sally Field as his uncle and auntie who take him in when his parents mysteriously disappear. The scenes where the love interest develops between Parker and Gwen Stacy (Stone) are well handled and in less sympathetic hands might have led to her stringing him along for far longer than the poor boy could endure. It is handled with a believable and heart-warming sensitivity.

For me, where this film scores is the subject matter and attempted method of the baddy's efforts to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting New York. When the zeitgeist forces us to live in the shadow of fear of dirty bombs and bio-bombs being detonated in our metropolitan areas, this film makes real that threat as New Yorkers face being mutated into lizards! But we are saved by our heroine Gwen Stacy and her repentant father - and of course Spider-Man. There are a couple of nice touches such as when the construction industry comes to the injured Spier-Man's aid.

This was a nice film to watch with my son and daughter - a long time since that happened! I won't be rushing to add the disc to my library when it's released - but I am looking forward to seeing the new Batman film! I'll give this one 6/10.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Me and You and Everyone We Know

This film is as quirky as the picture above and as a consequence I imagine viewers will either love it or be left wondering why did I waste 90 minutes watching that! For those who like their Indie cinema to be two blocks ahead of everything else, then this debut feature written by and starring Miranda July will excite. For those who simply want to sit and allow a story to wash over them, this will disappoint.

The universal scope of the title is not really matched by the breadth of the film. In essence it is an honest and different attempt to explore the age-old chestnut of relationships, intimacy and sexual expression. This film manages to explore all three with a six year-old boy, some pubescent teens, thirty-somethings and also an older couple. The stories of the four generations are interwoven in both overt and hidden ways but the film is an ensemble piece that at times feels a bit claustrophobic as a result.

Richard is at the point of separating from his wife ahead of divorce. He has primary care of their two sons aged 6 and 14. He at one and the same time is both mesmerised and yet terrorised by the possibilities that life offers. At one stage he sets fire to his own hand - bizarre. He works as a salesperson in a shoe shop in an anonymous mall where he meets Christine. Neither are natural chat-up artists but both long for intimacy - not necessarily sexual. Christine's chasing after Richard forms the spine of the story.

Around that spine a number of characters of varying ages explore relationship, intimacy and sexual expression. Most alarmingly the 6 year-old gets into an on line chat room and cuts and pastes his way to some highly inappropriate conversation. He then ends up meeting his co-fantasist in a park on a bench! Two young teenage girls curious about sex and eager to outperform one another offer a 'Johnny ha ha' to the 14 year old. He subsequently befriends a 10 year-old girl next door who is busy buying appliances and linen for Hope Chest to form her dowry. Yes - it's all more than a bit weird. The fact that Christine is an avant-garde artist who makes movies out of other peoples holiday snaps and films her feet as she warbles monotonously into a microphone goes some way to setting the context.

I'm surprised that this film scores so highly on both IMDb (73%) and Rotten Tomatoes (83%) - but I guess it gets referred by word-of-mouth and so plugs into its niche effectively. I would honestly struggle to recommend this whole-heartedly. I hope I have given sufficient flavour so that folk can make up their own mind. This film has much that would prompt group discussion around relationships, attitudes to sex and the longing for intimacy that we all crave. It would allow plenty of discussion on ethical and moral issues that flow from these areas. I'm going to give it 6/10.