Inception, Wild Grass, I Am Love @ InRO

Over at In Review Online, I dug myself into a bit of a hole with tough reviewing choices, picking a trifecta of beguiling, complex, and strange works that each demand multiple viewings.

It took two screenings to come to grips with Inception, but the film remains a fascinating and dynamic piece of Hollywood filmmaking that in terms of ambition, probably won’t be matched all year. On the Art Film front, I entered Alain Resnais’ enigmatic dream world in Wild Grass and Luca Guadagnino’s luminous emotional architecture in I Am Love, both difficult visions in their own right.

– Also at InRO, check out this piece about upcoming mainstream and film festival films (2010) in a feature called “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming.” I wrote the blurbs on Malick’s Tree of Life, the Coens’ True Grit, Eastwood’s Hereafter, Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, Carpenter’s The Ward, and Chung’s Lucky Life. It’s a nice cheat sheet for you cinephiles anticipating the rest of the year.

Best of the 2000’s: Discussion # 1

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– The following is the first of ten planned online discussions between myself and The Filmist regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.  After a short, casual introduction, we begin…

Topics: The Dark Knight and Blood Sunday

MATCH CUTS: I’ve seen The Dark Knight at least four times now, and I still have reservations about it. I’m curious why you think it made such an impact on people? It seems to delve into moral complexity, but at the same time establish a safety net of super hero conventions, with the exception of The Joker.

FILMIST: Well, I think it affected the movie-going public and the critics because it “transcends it’s genre,” while still remaining a distinct part of it. Much like, say, The Searchers is still clearly in line with John Ford’s previous Westerns while at the same time being it’s own work with it’s own set of layers. This kind of this is particularly rare with comic book films, which are almost the definition of cookie-cutter…And, I think it acknowledges those conventions to a point, and plays with them – like Rachel’s death, or Harvey’s sudden scarring. Scenes that kind of pull the rug out from under us, purposefully.

MC: I agree that it attempts to complicate both the familiar structure of the comic book film and the notion of heroism. But some of its layers are so much stronger than others. Ledger overwhelms the film in ways I still am unable to comprehend. He’ a force of nature that keeps upending the story. It’s as if everyone else, including the characters, are in just as much awe as the audience.

F: I think that’s intentional, really – and one of the reasons I like to view the film apart from it’s predecessor, which I’m not very fond of. He’s like a penny put stuck onto the train tracks.

MC: That’s interesting. You referenced Batman Begins in your piece and I was surprised you found it overwrought. I love the first film. It has a purity of purpose, a clarity and arc that the second film lacks. But I think Nolan is doing this on purpose. The Dark Knight is obviously an epic, whereas the first film is a character study on a more personal level.

F: The main reason I’m no particular fan of it is because of David Goyer – I do agree that structurally, it’s very well done. But here and there, the dialogue becomes floppy and overly expository – which wouldn’t really be a large problem, except that it’s a constant, throughout the film. And, while those kinds of things are still there in The Dark Knight, their presence is more minimal.

MC: My main issue with the film is Nolan’s impatience with scenes in the first hour. I’ve written on this a few times at the site. I called it “Narrative Bursts” in one piece, where short scenes pop up in rapid fire succession, never allowing for the actors or pacing to breath. It’s as if Nolan is attempting to set up a universe that’s too big, incorporating everything, compacting storylines and relationships down to a few minutes. What do you make of this style of pacing?

F: I think that the pacing is intentionally rapid-fire within that first hour or so – I think the only one who might possibly suffer from it is Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, although we do learn far more about him later on. Actually, I think one of my favorite scenes from the film is the one near the beginning that follows Alfred as he finds Bruce Wayne missing from his Penthouse. In contrast to what’s come before, the pace slows down here pretty measurably.

MC:  I’ve never been able to reconcile these moments. For me, the film begins and ends with Ledger, who stands alone looking down at a world so consumed with self pity and salvation that they never see the forest for the trees. Ledger’s Joker seems to be the only three dimensional character of the bunch, and we know the least about him. His ambiguity is a welcome change of pace, a far cry from the more transparent characters in the film, Dawes, Bruce, even Dent is pretty clear cut. But even with these reservations, I can’t deny the film’s importance.

F: I just love the film’s treatment of Dent’s arc – we see faint, unexpected glimmers on this All-American lawyer near the beginning, until finally we’re made aware of something deeper simmering underneath when he threatens that schizophrenic with the gun in the alley, and into his madness in the hospital. Which is another thing I wanted to write about in my entry for the film – those moments where the film’s sound cuts out, replaced by ambient waves, as the action on-screen becomes quietly frenetic. In this case, Dent waking up and his realization as to what’s happened…
Oh, yes. The film’s had a huge impact – although, it did lead to Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, so we can fault it for that.

MC: So what are your thoughts on Bloody Sunday?

F: As an Irishman, it really poked at my heart-strings. I particularly enjoyed Greengrass’ framing of the film in faux Newsreel footage – and, it’s interesting to contrast this with his more traditional films, like The Bourne Supremacy.

MC: I remembering seeing Bloody Sunday the first day it came out in Santa Barbara, when I was still in University, and it floored me, absolutely devastated me, and I think more so than any other film using this documentary approach, it denied the full articulation of the event, only catching glimpses, and this destroyed me. I guess I love it when a film lets my imagination fill in the blanks. If you look at all the films I’ve mentioned as favorites, they all share this in common.

F: Oh, indeed. That was one of the things I so enjoyed about it, as well – how we hear the first shots that sent everything rolling, but we don’t know where the sounds came from. And then, later on, we can see the marchers trying to hold back their own gunmen.

MC: History seems to be an evolving monster of inaccuracies, miscommunications, moments of indecision and guilt, and Greengrass captures the tragedy of this thought process.

F: I love that there’s a clear bias about the film, but at the same time, Greengrass doesn’t restrain himself from presenting the marchers as almost equally as frenzied as everything else in the film.

MC: The last scene in the film, where (James) Nesbitt’s character gives another press conference, definitely proves the theme of the film, radicalizing all of Ireland against the British, but also the escalation by the IRA, the ideology infecting the youth, is equally destructive. It’s a fascinating realization of the contradictions inherent in a traumatic situation like this one.

F: Yes, indeed. It actually reminded me a little of the ending of Animal Farm, for some reason. And, on a personal level, this interested me, because my father’s mentioned quite a few times that he’s sent large amounts of money to the IRA. Also, I think it’s funny that Greengrass took a more dramatic approach to his next rendition of real events, United 93, when this more verite aesthetic carried over so well for the subject matter – I think it could have had the same effect for that film, although I don’t know how well it would’ve worked, given that we’ve less concrete information about what went on inside that plane than the events provided in Bloody Sunday.

MC: Yeah, the dramatic rendering of United 93 seems to adhere more to the conventional, not as ambiguous, although equally as powerful. You could talk endlessly about how those films overlap. But Bloody Sunday allows you to get close to the characters, whereas United 93 sees them as emblems of 9/11 as a whole. Bloody Sunday feels untainted, a perfect understanding that history cannot be reproduced, just reinvented.

F: You know, I’ve never been able to understand the criticisms thrown at the film by the Irish critics at the time, that the film is too focused (too focused) on the leaders and the ideologues rather than those who’d decided to follow them. If anything, I think it’s an interesting perspective to view the film from – from the top-down.

MC:  But you do get a sense of the common man in the film, like the young man who’s dating the protestant girl, then gets dragged into the conflict by his buddies. You definitely get a feeling for the collective loss with his story. I don’t understand those criticisms either.

F: Well, I think it’s telling that a lot of those criticisms seemed to come from the guys who worked on Sunday,which was an Irish television movie about the events – it’s pretty traditional docu-drama TV movie stuff, but they were remarkably loud about how much better their film was than Bloody Sunday, which was strange. I’ve only seen the film twice, but it’s its critical reception that interested me the most, as you can tell.

MC: It got universal acclaim in the States, yet it seems to have faded from memory here. None of the top critics are mentioning it for the end of the decade lists. I still thinks it’s an essential piece of historiography. Timeless really.

F: That is strange – kind of a sudden drop off, when you think about it.

MC: I guess that’s why we do what we do. To defend the films we feel passionate about.

– Next week we’ll tackle the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the equally hefty The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Suffocating Narrative Bursts in The Dark Knight

Watching Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight again (on Blu ray no less) has made it clear why this is no masterpiece, or even one of my favorites from an otherwise drab 2008. My main problem lies with but not exclusively to the first half of the film where Nolan frantically attempts to build the foundation of a changing Gotham City with an endless array of short scenes that overlap onto each other. No individual scene is given time to develop or breath. Martin Scorsese creates a similar narrative pattern in The Departed, but bases his breakneck speed on character, while Nolan’s version is entirely based on moving the plot forward, with exception of The Joker’s anarchic monologues. During these moments, The Dark Knight lacks depth and life, instead setting in with a pattern that nearly suffocates the film under loads of exposition.

If it weren’t for Heath Ledger’s dynamic presence, The Dark Knight would have certainly crumbled under it’s own girth. Nolan finally jumps into gear with the Bat Pod scene nearly 75 minutes into the film’s 2 1/2 hour running time, however, by that time the film has meandered into the realm of self-importance more often than not. The Dark Knight becomes more focused as it progresses and an incredibly fulfilling experience by the end, the standout moment being the hospital scene with Ledger and Aaron Eckhart.  But the suffocating narrative bursts remain, tedious and problematic reminders of a film hellbent on impressing everyone and indicative of a filmmaker with too much plot to unload and not enough interest in the underlining character interactions being addressed.

The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)

How does a conflicted reviewer confront such a universally liked film as The Dark Knight? The hostile way most are defending Nolan’s film against negative reviews makes this a disturbing question, and taints what should be a defining moment for Hollywood filmmaking. Critics like David Denby, Dave Kehr, and a few others have been unfairly lambasted because of their negative reviews, mostly by the masses of viewers (some just plain idiots) who have instantly idolized the film (The Dark Knight is surprisingly at #1 on IMDB.com). I think this entire situation, admittedly flamed by the Heath Ledger tragedy, shows just how hungry the American movie going public is for mainstream entertainment defined by engaging, pertinent ideas, and to what lengths they’ll go to defend this collective passion. The Dark Knight does deliver a mosaic of emotions and tensions to feast on; the nuanced evil of Ledger’s Joker, the wide ranging scope of the Brothers Nolan’s script, and the haunting vision of Gotham City crumbling under the fear of uncertainty. But the paralleled insanity occurring over the film’s release just shows how far Hollywood has lowered the bar, that a very good entertainment elicits screams of outrageous defense as illogical as The Joker’s devastating mind games.

Hoopla and fanboy evangelicalism aside, The Dark Knight fascinates because it closes the gap between superhero and supervillian, making Bale’s stoic Batman and Ledger’s maniacal Joker two sides of the same coin. The real tragedy of The Dark Knight becomes how Harvey Dent, Rachel Dawes, and Gotham City as a whole get caught in this mortal battle between chaos and order. Nolan doesn’t sugarcoat the loss involved, nor does he reflect any unjust sentiment in the eyes of these consistently enraged characters. Unlike Nolan’s origin story Batman Begins, The Dark Knight feels scattered, apart of everyone’s fearful point of view, obsessed with how The Joker’s destruction crosses social and economic boundaries (look at the tense ferry sequence). The greatest element of The Dark Knight remains its mystery – The Joker’s contradicting autobiographies, Bruce Wayne’s ethical malfunctions, and Harvey Dent’s extreme cerebral and physical pain. The Dark Knight feels like it could go a number of directions, giving the audience a riveting sense of imbalance, an unlikely motif for a genre that depends on the grounded and simplistic heroism of its subjects. Thankfully, the entire film revels in this incompleteness, taking Ledger’s incendiary performance as its heart song while opening up the franchise for greater battles of morality and ethics down the road. But a masterpiece, it is not. Those faceless souls ready to violently anoint The Dark Knight as the second coming might be playing right into The Joker’s hands.

The Prestige (Nolan, 2006)

A lifeless and punchless thriller, surprising since it comes from one of the more interesting genre filmmakers working today. The Prestige is first and foremost a revenge film, namely between two rival magicians in late 19th century England. Christian Bale as Alfred Borden (dangerous, risk taker, yada yada yada) and Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier (conservative, great showman, yada yada yada) rage back and forth, passive aggressively I might add for most of the film, sabotaging each other’s acts, trying to one up each other at the cost of everyone involved, including Borden’s family and Angier’s assistant/love interest Olivia, played quite well by Scarlet Johanson.

The setup is tired and the magic never overwhelms, even some of the tricks are downright bad. Neither main actor plays their character’s with any dangerous force. I never believed Jackman as a magician and Bale pulls it off simply because he’s got a intensity inherant in his features. Nolan once again uses ellipses to attempt some sort of uniqueness to the otherwise tired story, all bent on a twist ending which isn’t necessarilly a twist at all, more of a lame explanation of character that attempts to create dual layers of subtext. If only I cared that much after over two hours of redudancy in tone and motivation.

Nolan, who made the masterful Batman Begins and struck gold earlier with Memento, obviously has talent to spare. His shooting style and sets impress a great desire to seduce. Unfortunately, the lack of tension in the story and the familiar character traits don’t compliment the fantastic visual sensibility. The Prestige feels like a complete non-entity, a film that will be forgotten in no time. I can’t call this a complete disaster, but from the pedigree of people involved, I wish they hadn’t taken the easy way out in making a standard and completely uninteresting picture. For a greater story and fulfilling experience, see Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, a period piece unafraid of developing and challenging traditional storytelling. The Prestige simply plays with old tricks.