July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

[Just re-reading this... pretty long, but fuck it, it's 6am and I don't feel like editing. It does cover more than just this particular movie, though.]

No plot spoilers here. I'm kicking around a separate post on Christopher Nolan, where I might include more detailed talk of the plot of The Dark Knight Rises. This is just some first-impression stuff after seeing it tonight. It's 2 hrs and 45 min long, but the time seemed to zip right on by. They could've added another 15 to 30 minutes and I probably wouldn't have noticed.

It looks pretty good, no surprise since it's the winning team of Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister. Their visual style is one of the few today that is still committed to shooting with anamorphic lenses, which by limiting the depth of field makes the foreground figures crisp, while compressing the rest of the space -- from a few feet behind them all the way back to infinity -- into a blurry sheet. In addition to making it easier for the viewer to focus on the important objects, it gives it a more stylized look, like low-relief sculptural detail emerging from a slab.

Still, about an hour of it was filmed with IMAX cameras, and their spherical lenses reveal a lot more of the depth of the space. For some sequences, like a vehicle chase where you'd want to clearly see the near vehicle and the somewhat-far-off one, then a spherical lens seems like a good choice. They didn't use them for the dialogue scenes, which retain the above-mentioned stylized look familiar from Memento, Batman Begins, and Inception.

However, some of the crowded action scenes were shot in IMAX, and you see too much detail of the numerous fights going on around the important fight between Batman and Bane. For a scene of mass chaos like this, it's better to focus our attention on the central figures and blur the rest out -- not only because it aids our attention, but because it heightens that sense of a formless, teeming mob. When each mano-a-mano is fairly in focus, it just looks like a bunch of isolated fights, rather than one of those brawls from the cartoons where arms, legs, and heads jut in and out of a moving tornado.

Or to use a more highbrow reference, look at David's Rape of the Sabine Women or Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Only a handful of figures stand out in a mostly horizontal frieze-like arrangement, while a human dust-storm rages behind the front-facing plane of main figures. They should've filmed Batman and Bane in a close or medium shot, with all the other fights blurred out in the background. And ditto for most of the other action scenes. I'd have to watch it again, but I think I might prefer the look of Batman Begins more because it was shot entirely with anamorphic lenses.

Like their other movies, there's minimal CGI and no 3-D. Practical effects are more convincing because they're real things, while CGI is an impostor reality -- I still don't get how hard this is to understand. But stupid audiences seem to love it, so I guess that's why there's so much of it. And 3-D has the opposite effect of an anamorphic lens, bringing into sharp focus the space right in front of your face all the way back through the theater. Too much clear details makes it harder to find the important things quickly, and takes away the stylization of the low-relief look, making the perception of depth too realistic.

There are a lot of different locations, potentially confusing us, but Pfister does a good job of subtly linking the ones that are similar. For example, early on Bruce Wayne is in physical recovery, somewhat reclusive and reluctant to take on the Batman role again. Commissioner Gordon winds up in a hospital where he recuperates, is in minimal contact with the outside world, and is reluctant to reveal the truth about Batman taking the fall for Harvey Dent, as well as to lead the police forces against Bane. Both sets have a color palate of mostly light blue with some cream, and the lighting is even like you find in a sterile lab with banks of fluorescent lights overhead.

They lack the stark light-shadow contrast and the warmer colors of another pair of sets -- a charity masquerade ball held by a sustainable energy proponent on the corporate board of Wayne Enterprises, and the initial party held in celebration of the crime-stopping success of the Harvey Dent Act (ironically named after a villain from the previous movie, whose crimes Batman has taken the fall for). The strong chiaroscuro of these scenes not only adds to their elegance, but gives them a haunting things-aren't-what-they-seem feeling.

And there's a similar look to the different underground sets -- a far-off prison that Bruce Wayne gets sent to, and the make-shift prisons underneath Gotham City once taken over by terrorists. They share the other-worldly chiaroscuro of the scenes involving the social life of the influential, but are marked by a much coarser and grittier texture, not smooth and slicked-back.

A simple choice like this makes it much easier to keep track of all of these different settings by narrowing down the number of unique-looking places, and effortlessly guides our mind to think of the themes and characters inhabiting them as similar. No ham-fisted exposition needed to draw the parallels.

Well, enough about the visuals, which is mostly what I went to see it for. The music is pretty good too -- not too highly memorable, but it struck the right emotional chord at the right moment. I tend to avoid most new movies, since they just about all suck, so maybe I'm missing some more recent examples -- but it was such a treat to hear a repeating drumbeat motif during a tense scene. You'd think most people knew that, either based on their own heartbeat or the pounding of their feet as they're running, or from other movies that have successfully used this simple trick. But damn has it been awhile. There's also a more epic-sounding percussion theme when Batman and Bane are duking it out. It reminded me of the Oriental Sublime feel of the Black Rain soundtrack, and sure enough Hans Zimmer made that one too.

The plot I won't say too much about, except that it held together pretty well, always felt like it was moving forward, and built up from a more mellow pace to an exciting climax. Some have complained that it starts out slow -- I didn't think so. Maybe I was just too lost in the pretty pictures. But that's the point anyway: that the police bureaucracy has successfully ridden the city of crime, and they're all in a relaxing, back-to-normal pace of life. This makes it even more striking when the terrorists take over and ramp up the rhythm of action. It's like during the 1990s when Giuliani basked in the glow of scrubbing New York City clean of vice and crime, only to witness a surprise terrorist attack that sent the Twin Towers up in a puff of smoke.

After getting home I read the plot as described on Wikipedia, and there were several points that I didn't get too well. They weren't very crucial, and I probably would've caught them on a second viewing. The big thing that did go over my head was what became of Bane at the end. They had several sequences inter-cut during the final stretch, all action-packed, and at least for me the fate of Bane got lost in the shuffle.

As for the cast, as in Nolan's other movies thank god there aren't any dumbass Millennials, aside from Catwoman's sidekick who's rarely seen or heard. (That annoying dork from Juno who showed up in Inception was that movie's one misstep in casting.) Hard to believe now, but Christopher Reeve was in his mid-20s when the first two Superman movies were filmed, and Tom Cruise did Top Gun through A Few Good Men by the time he was 30.

But younger people today are too autistic and sheltered to know how to relate to other human beings, let alone strangers who you have to trust deep down and be vulnerable around, and let alone in unmediated ways, like when you're acting out a movie. Sorry, you can't communicate there primarily through text messaging. Sure, older people -- or those only "of a certain age" -- are playing their hand closer to the vest than they were in the good old days, but they still have the memories of those formative experiences to tap into during a performance.

The Dark Knight Rises continues Nolan's trend of not pandering to younger audiences by casting young actors who can't act. And it hasn't hurt his movies' appeal to those audiences. Directors just need to stop being such pussies about having every demographic represented in the movie. As long as it appeals to them, they don't need to see a perfect reflection of themselves on the screen. I don't remember seeing a child on the military team in Predator, but that didn't stop me from loving it when I was little. I still remember how much we hated when they included that whiny little dork in Terminator 2, and he was just a couple years older than us.

Finally, the characterizations all felt natural and their development believable. Bruce Wayne's decision to come out of seclusion was set up well by the opening tone of celebration and complacency among the police and politicians for having slammed the crime rate down so low. Sound familiar? And it's not like we feel bored because, so what, Batman's gonna go kick some more ass that he didn't notice the first time around. If he's so committed to secluding himself, then only something unusually dangerous will bring him out, making it uncertain if he'll be able to defeat it or not.

Bane I found pretty uninteresting as a character himself, but that had the positive effect of focusing the story on the relations between all the other characters trying to save Gotham City, not all of whom are on the same wavelength and thus have to learn to negotiate with each other. Bane is just like the ticking time-bomb he wants to set off, precluding any attempts to reason with him, tempt him with anything to move him into a weak spot, or physically de-fuse him.

Miranda Tate was hard to understand at first. I thought she was just some random philanthropic environmentalist who's been discussing project ideas with Bruce Wayne. To me it wasn't clear that she was already a board member at Wayne Enterprises. Anyway, nothing major, and she does provide a nice foil to Catwoman.

Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) had a much better character arc here than in Batman Returns, where she was back-from-the-dead and in search of vengeance. In The Dark Knight Rises, she lacks that single-mindedness of harmful purpose -- instead she's portrayed as an ordinary cat burglar. She's not evil, just a cold-hearted manipulative bitch who knows how to scheme her way into getting what she wants. Unlike the original Catwoman, this leaves the door open for later redemption; waiting to see whether she'll walk through it or not builds some tension in the audience. She's only screwing around with Bruce Wayne and Batman because it suits her needs right now; she has no vendetta against him or anyone else.

They did somewhat overdo the whole butt-kicking-babe in a dominatrix outfit thing, though. If she's a cat burglar, she should be shown to be stealthy, not confrontational. That goes even more since she's female: if she really went up against that many male criminals, her ass would be grass. That's why they should have stuck only to her skills in social savvy, emotional manipulation, and betrayal of trust when it suits her fleeting purpose -- chicks are just better at that stuff.

Officer / detective Blake is a little too reserved to make much of a connection with. They try to open him up a little at the beginning by giving him a couple lines of exposition about growing up in an orphanage, but we generally don't see him in a real shit-hits-the-fan kind of moment. But he does move up in importance throughout the movie, leaving the possibility open in future movies that he may be given a more dynamic role.

Anyway, enough about a new-release movie. Just going through this stuff in detail to highlight what's been missing in movies of the past 20 years. Even if it is a summer action flick, why should it have to have a stupid story, boring music, and a lame look? Go back and watch Die Hard, which in addition to energetic action scenes and shit blowing up real good, also has great set design and cinematography, pacing that built up tension, and a believable character arc about a hero who didn't set off at the outset to kick so much ass, but whom larger urgent forces pulled out of his self-pitying shell. Action movies used to look pretty damn good, and feature stories not written for babies; The Dark Knight Rises is one of the few that still does.

6 comments:

  1. Off-topic, but what did you think of the crowd who went to see the movie?

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  2. They seemed all-over as far as age, race, sex, etc. No interrupting, aside from a few overly loud, fake belly laughs from a fanboy sitting next to me (morbidly obese, middle-aged mouth-breather).

    They all seemed to like it, although I did notice some people (probably girls) checking their phones now and then after the 2 hour mark.

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  3. Ras Al Ghul7/22/12, 4:34 PM

    "Practical effects are more convincing because they're real things, while CGI is an impostor reality -- I still don't get how hard this is to understand. But stupid audiences seem to love it, so I guess that's why there's so much of it."

    No, there's so much of it because its cheap, not because audiences loved it.

    Look at the movies that people love and go back to over and over, the problem is Hollywood has trouble seeing what resonates and what doesn't because they don't understand most people.

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  4. Check what consistently tops the box office -- that says what people like these days. It's chock full of CGI crap. People don't pay for what they don't want. If they weren't enthusiastic for 3-D, they'd just discard those dumb glasses, and not buy a ticket for the 3-D version if there are separate showings.

    This is a standard confusion among conservatives -- wanting to excuse the audience, voters, or some other grassroots-level group, and blame it on the overlords. Unfortunately, what the producers produce is typically what the consumers are asking for. Not always, but usually.

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  5. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies seem to come to the conclusion that crime is a natural part of life, which can't be eliminated. Those who try to do so are either delusional, and make things worse, or trying to increase their personal power under the guise of doing right.

    In Batman Begins, a messianic cult believes that Gotham is so corrupt that it must be destroyed. Its revealed that this cult has existed for centuries, and is responsible for destroying many cities and civilizations - Rome is mentioned - because they were deemed too corrupt. So apparently, their tactics must not be working too good.

    In Dark Knight, gangsters turn to the Joker because Batman has so intensely driven down the crime rate(this is said explicitly in the film). The Joker commits crimes that are far worse than the crimes committed before Batman suppressed the gangsters. Many of those who work to fight crime are shown as being corrupt - with the DA himself becoming an insane vigilante. whereas the mafia gangster played by Eric Roberts seems like an alright guy.


    One of movie's themes is "chaos" - that there is a certain amount of random destruction that has to be accepted in life. Indeed, the Joker is dedicated towards showing those who think they're in control - criminal and non-criminal alike - how little control they really have.

    The motivations of criminals are also shown as often, but not always, being essentially irrational - therefore, having no ultimate solution. "Some men just want to watch the world burn". The Joker is motivated by sadistic glee, and Two-face is motivated by deeply personal and emotional reasons, wanting to cause random tragedy because he himself had to endure random tragedy. Its implied that the Joker may also be motivated by an abusive childhood.

    Crime and destruction, therefore, are portrayed as part of the human condition.

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  6. I think "Winter's Bone" is a contrast where a millennial actor does a fine job of playing old-beyond-her-years.

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