Interstellar (2014)

InterstellarIn the future, after the entitled excesses of the 21st Century, the Earth is struggling to support the human race. With little demand for engineers and explorers most people now work as farmers — including ex-pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his makeshift family: father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy, named after Murphy’s Law). When a downed military drone leads him to NASA, now underground and incognito, he is recruited for a last-ditch attempt to save the species, if not the planet. Crops are failing, and in order to prevent his children from either starving or suffocating he must find them a new home — a new world. Together with Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and robot TARS (Bill Irwin), Cooper charts a course for Saturn, and a recently-formed wormhole to another galaxy.

Having ended his trilogy of Batman-inflected treatises on fear, chaos and pain with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s latest think-piece looks to the stars. Interstellar, which began life as a Steven Spielberg project before being rewritten by Nolan and longtime brother/collaborator Jonathan, asks whether love might be a force akin to gravity — capable not only of transcending life and death but dimensions too. At first it seems like something of a change of tact for Nolan, a director better known for debunking spells than casting them, but when the film introduces a ghost, a wormhole and a race of inter-dimensional beings known as ‘Them’ or ‘They’ you can’t help but take the bait and join Cooper in “wondering at our place in the stars”. Sadly, any mystery is short-lived.

However, for the first act at least, there is real promise. Nolan’s vision of a planet blighted by pestilence and choking in dust is an effective one, and small scenes showing life in such an environment — plates and glasses being placed upside down on the table to keep them clean; a school curriculum deriding NASA’s space programme as a hoax in order to discourage students from pointless distractions — are intriguing and well-observed. Perhaps inevitably, it’s this section of the movie that feels most Spielbergian in tone: the family dynamic is interesting, their adventures exciting and their interactions entertaining. When the family’s Land Rover leaps into a cornfield in pursuit of low-flying drone it’s more likely to evoke ET or Jurassic Park: The Lost World than anything from Nolan’s own filmography.

That all changes when Cooper arrives at NASA. He is quickly stripped of his children and his humanity; lectured on Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Michael Caine; and launched into the vacuum of space with the physicist’s daughter, two personality-free scientist and a Stanley Kubrick homage. The film’s humour setting is dialed down while its honesty setting is ratcheted up; with Nolan once again valuing realism at all costs, even when he’s being decidedly unrealistic. The ship — Endurance — may be about to fly into a wormhole but it must do so in absolute silence, darkness and inactivity, as its passengers enter stasis for months, if not years at a time. The film loses all momentum immediately, and for the next hour Nolan stops and starts his narrative as the characters travel to a series of gimmicky planets earmarked as potential homes (or, at least, “rocks for humanity to cling to”) by previous missions for additional exposition.

It’s not just a sense of limbo that Interstellar shares with Inception, either, with Nolan returning once more to the subject of time. As in different levels of dreaming, and as per Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, time operates differently across space. Their first destination is Miller, a planet upon which time slows to a crawl, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of deja-vu as the characters discuss temporal differences between locations at length. The stakes, in this case, are reversed: Cooper doesn’t risk losing years of his life but missing decades of his childrens’, but they are familiar nonetheless. As it stands, Miller is a bit of a waste of time, and as impressive as its mountainous waves may be they add exactly nothing to either character, theme or plot — save to necessitate the recasting of Cooper’s children as adults, so that Tom is now played by Casey Affleck and Murphy by Jessica Chastain.

According to Nolan, interstellar travel is as mundane as Gotham in The Dark Knight trilogy or Ariadne’s dreamscapes in Inception — same men, different suits. The problem is, however, that when the film finally plays its hand and Nolan is forced to ask for a suspension of disbelief from his audience it is much too late. After two films spent establishing Batman as a pragmatic character it is no wonder audiences balked when in The Dark Knight Rises he was finally called upon to do something genuinely superheroic, and so it is with the third act of Interstellar. We may not in fact be dealing with ghosts, wormholes or inter-dimensional beings but the reality is no less ridiculous — perhaps even more so. In Spielberg’s hands it might just have worked — after all, it wouldn’t be the first of his films to hang on the precept “life will find a way” — but in Nolan’s it doesn’t; it seems sentimental and simplistic. It’s a gear-change that jolts you awake, and when the core concept crumbles you realise that it’s all he ever really had in the first place. Nolan loves ideas so much he’s now naming his characters after them.

That said, Intersteller is still a thought-provoking and ambitious movie. It has often been said that the director is as gifted at writing women as he is at telling jokes — yet Anne Hathaway’s Dr. Brand is a surprisingly engaging character. There is a lot about Nolan’s latest that feels contrived and convoluted — not least a lesson on love given by Amelia herself — but Hathaway’s performance resonates regardless, and her motivations and sacrifices have all the more impact for her emotional honesty. The best scenes are felt rather than explained — the indignity of a parent-teacher meeting; awe as a space ship clips a frozen cloud; desperation during a rescue mission — but you lose hours in stasis in between. It hardly matters that it’s scientifically accurate, until it isn’t.

3-Stars

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Man Of Steel (2013)

Man Of SteelHaving been adopted by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) as a baby, intergalactic refugee Clark (Cooper Timberline, Dylan Sprayberry, Henry Cavill) struggles through childhood as his extra-terrestrial abilities alienate him from his frightened peers. Following rumour and reports of miraculous events, journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) tracks Clark as he attempts to find out more about his parentage, leading them both to a disused Kryptonian spaceship frozen in the ice. As Clark converses with a holographic manifestation of his late father (Russell Crowe), the craft’s recent activation alerts the villainous General Zod (Michael Shannon) — who also survived the destruction of their home planet — as to his current whereabouts. Read more of this post

Heroes And Hypocrisy: Batman Begins vs. Iron Man 3

Batman Begins Iron Man 3The following article contains spoilers for Batman Begins and Iron Man 3.

Ever since 2005, when Christopher Nolan opened The Dark Knight Trilogy with Batman Begins, comic book fans and general moviegoers have been unanimous in their praise of his singular vision. In particular, they’ve commended the way in which he overlooked or nigh-on reinvented established characters to better fit his own take on the source material.

The more unlikely villains in Batman’s rogue gallery were ostracised for fear that they detract from the film’s more realistic feel, while others like Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman were toned down and never referred to by name; Robin was all but left out as Nolan sought a more serious tone, one that had little room for a Boy Wonder; and finally, unable to settle on a love-interest from the character’s seventy-odd-year history, he fabricated one of his own: Rachel Dawes.

One year on from the trilogy’s completion, following the release of The Dark Knight Rises last summer, Nolan’s trilogy is widely regarded one of the best — if not quintessential — series in the genre. After all, it saved DC’s Batman franchise from an early grave dug by Joel Schumachar, and simultaneously appealed to more casual cinemagoers previously put off by the character’s sillier elements. It even won a couple of Oscars for its efforts.

From this example you’d expect faithfulness to rank pretty lowly on audiences’ individual checklists. Put a great director in charge of a comic book adaptation (preferably one coming off the back of a lesser instalment) and let them make the best movie they can, just so long as they pick and choose enough elements from the source material so that it is still recogniseable, if only in name. Not so, it seems.

Having united each of its constituent franchises (and, it seems, every audience member alive today) in 2012’s The Avengers, rival studio Marvel finally moved into phase two of its plans for a cinematic universe. Hiring another filmmaker straight out of left-field, Marvel put Iron Man 3 in the hands of Shane Black, then best known as the writer of Lethal Weapon and the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Like Christopher Nolan, Shane Black was an auteur, and one who was only too happy to bend the source material to meet his own directorial style. But where Nolan was commended for his changes, Black was criticised; suddenly it was disrespectful to drop characters, an insult to mess with established canon and irreverent to make your own movie, rather than that desired by the audience at large.

The main point of contention here is The Mandarin. Whereas Nolan could reinvent Ra’s al Ghul — for fear that pitting Christian Bale against a 600-year-old martial artist who digs magic holes might stretch credibility — Black, it appears, couldn’t. In the comics, The Mandarin is a racist stereotype with ten mystic rings capable of doing everything from rearranging matter to disintegrating foes. This time it seems that is what must be delivered, and nothing else.

But Black didn’t. Like Nolan’s insistance that Batman is a symbol and not just a man, Black pursued an alternative approach: as with Ra’s al Ghul, The Mandarin is presented as a decoy, a man playing a part while the real villain operates in the shadows. Ben Kingsley threatened to steal the film as out-of-work actor Trevor Slattery, the mouthpiece for Guy Pearce’s true villain. Unlike the case of Ra’s al Ghul, the fans weren’t having it.

The only difference between the two approaches that I can see is that while Nolan delivered a trilogy packed with pretense and cod-philosophy, delivering a psuedo-intellectual film that could be held up as proof that comic book movies aren’t just for children, Black treated Iron Man 3 as one big, universal joke. But rather than enjoy the wit and humour of Black’s misdirection, the fans have taken offence at it, viewing such flippancy as an attack on the characters and culture that they hold so dear.

But it’s the same situation: auteurs imposing their own style on a beloved character, often at the expense of convention and canon. Both are solid, worthy movies, it’s just that Black decided to make his fun to boot. Really fun.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Blamed by the citizens of Gotham for the death of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart – in flashback) eight years previously, Batman has been retired from duty while Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) exiles himself in the family manor with only butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) for company. The truth is that Batman is no longer needed, the city’s streets the safest they’ve ever been thanks to the Dent Act, a precursor to peace-time that has left the police growing complacent and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) racked with guilt over the hidden truth behind Dent’s demise. Both are therefore caught off guard by the arrival of Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked monolith who has been rallying an army in the city’s sewers. When Batman is dragged out of retirement by a mysterious cat-burglar (Anne Hathaway), a collision course is set that could spell the end of Gotham once and for all. Read more of this post

Batman Begins (2005)

Blaming himself for his parents’ murder years before, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) bides his time until the man responsible is up for parole and then sets out for revenge. Robbed of absolution when somebody else beats him to it, Wayne forfeits his family’s empire and exiles himself in a Bhutanese prison, where he is eventually courted by Ra’s al Ghul’s (Liam Neeson) The League Of Shadows. Trained as a ninja and taught to overcome his childhood fear of bats, Wayne returns to butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and his family’s fortune when the organization’s true intention – to destroy Gotham, ridding it of its evils – becomes clear. With pawn Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow) already in place, the newly created Batman will have to seek assistance from DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman) if there is to be much of Gotham left to save. Read more of this post

Why I Never Wanted To Be Batman

I’ve taken some stick in the last few years – ever since Christopher Nolan released Batman Begins on an inexplicably adoring public – over my complete and utter disinterest in his near-complete Bat-trilogy. It seems to have taken over my life, as an inordinate number of film-related conversations since have broached the subject, often leading to a lecture on why it is exactly that The Dark Knight (the 2008 sequel, as if you didn’t already know) is one of the best movies of all time. I’m as guilty as anyone, I suppose, as I duly rise to the challenge and recycle my counter argument almost verbatim.

While I have myriad problems with Nolan’s films – that Batman looks out of place in his own movie, that Gotham never looks the same twice, that the Lucius Fox character is completely superfluous, Rachel Dawes in general, Christian Bale’s growly performance, that half of the character’s mythology is abandoned as it doesn’t fit with Nolan’s gritty and realistic take on the character, that Nolan’s gritty and realistic take on the character nevertheless includes bat-ears, mobile phone sonar and (as of The Dark Knight Rises) a flying tank – my issues go far deeper than that. I’ve simply never been that interested in the character. As a kid, I never wanted to be Batman.

“Why should this matter?” I hear you ask. “You liked Jaws, but I bet you never wanted to be the shark?” True, except I’m not sure that anyone else has, either. The superhero (vigilante, whatever) genre is different, you see, as it uses as its source material revered comic books that have helped inspire generations of fans, prompting a loyalty, dedication and following that most movies simply don’t enjoy. Through action figures, playing cards and even fancy dress nights at your local nightclub, people have been putting their feet in their favourite characters’ shoes for years, making them more than just traditional characters. They’re icons. For me it was always Peter Parker’s Spider-man who captured my imagination most; a superpowered teenager finally able to turn the tables on his bullies, win the affections of the girl he likes, and who could escape his many concerns and issues by web-slinging his way to the top of the tallest skyscraper. It inspired me as a child, as a teenager, and still does to this day.

But with Batman I’ve simply never understood the appeal. A middle-aged billionaire playboy who aims to clean up the mean streets of Gotham in order to avenge the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne dresses like a bat – a caped crusader – so that he can tackle the city’s criminal underbelly by night, hiding his identity to protect those that he loves (well, Alfred). That’s about it, right? Nothing much else to add? Personally, I’ve always found the supporting cast more interesting: the morally ambiguous cat-burglar, the clown-faced psychopath, the poison-lipped eco-terrorist and the adoring side-kick acrobat. As such, the films of Burton and Schumacher (though even I’ll admit Batman and Robin was pretty terrible) were at least able to distract me from the charisma-vacuum at their centre with a campy tone, Gothic aesthetic and diverse gallery of villains. I suppose I like Batman Returns most because the Batman/Catwoman dynamic is genuinely interesting.

Enter Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker keen to take Batman back to his “roots” and re-establish the character as a dark, brooding detective. Sadly, Nolan’s rebooted universe had no use for the more outlandish characters of the Batman past, the director refusing to use the likes of Penguin, Mr. Freeze and Robin through fear that they might make the whole thing – a grown man in a cape punching another man dressed as a scarecrow – seem a little silly. Whilst the other comic book characters living it up in multiplexes the world over are engaging in feats of great daring, love, self-improvement, friendship, wit and superheroics, then, Christian Bale is wearing designer suits, disingenuously trying to win the affections of an underwritten Rachel Dawes or growling through his cowl as he intrudes on an otherwise perfectly reasonable crime procedural. Who am I rooting for again?

My protests usually provoke the suggestion that I don’t want complexity from my comic book movies, that I’d rather forego maturity, intelligence and depth in favour of “slapstick, primary colors, and just plain old fun.” This is simply not true, I merely struggle to see why there needs to be a distinction between the two in the first place. The X-Men franchise deals with prejudice and acceptance, while featuring characters in yellow jumpsuits who are as at home with witticisms as they are with angst;  Hulk addresses the psychological concept of “the self”, while having a big green rage monster lay waste to an army of tanks; and Spider-man deals with the guilt of being responsible for a relative’s death, while making full use of the character’s sharp tongue and irrepressible optimism. None of which sacrifice complexity for fun or entertainment. And, even if they had, it’s not like one is fundamentally worthier than the other, anyway.

Nor do I have a problem with the fact that he’s a vigilante, lacking in any super abilities or powers. After all, billionaire playboy Tony Stark built himself an armoured costume (and he didn’t need Morgan Freeman to do it for him), widowed mercenary Frank Castle stockpiled weapons and Dave Lizewski bought a bodysuit off of ebay – not a radioactive spider-bite between them and yet they’re three characters that I find just as interesting and evocative as many of their superhero peers. Kick-Ass in particular is an interesting example. While Bat-fans argue that Nolan’s films are among the most ‘realistic’ in the genre, Batman’s struggles apparently all the more impressive due to his relative normality, it is impossible to deny that Bruce Wayne is nothing compared to Lizewski: a kid who takes on a superhero persona “just because”, who has no fortune, no friendly police chief and no weapons genius to fall back on.

But each to their own, and if you ran around your living room pretending to be Batman as a kid then I fully respect why you can enjoy Nolan’s films – or the Batman franchise as a whole – without feeling completely underwhelmed and uninvolved (incidentally, I don’t doubt that my love of Spider-man played a part in my above-average enjoyment of Marc Webb’s film). You don’t need a reason to like the character, you already do, and therefore the franchise’s inability to provide an emotional entry point will not hinder your enjoyment. It’s just that for me the character is dull, tedious and one-note – “cool” rather than interesting. The films, however supposedly complex, simply don’t engage me. And the fact that every superhero franchise going is now being rebooted in The Dark Knight‘s darker image is doing little to invite me to give it another try. Six films in and I still don’t have any real sense of who Wayne is as a person.

Still, there’s always a chance that the next one will be different; that The Dark Knight Rises will engage on an emotional level instead of exclusively an intellectual one. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in it, after all. Maybe Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (sorry, Selena Kyle) will bring some personality to the role of female foil in a way that neither Katie Holmes or Maggie Gyllenhaal could ever manage. Perhaps Tom Hardy’s Bane will provide a viable physical threat instead of just a cerebral one. And even if it doesn’t, this is the end of the road for Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale; maybe the reboot’s Justice League-compatible incarnation won’t be quite so self-serious, pretentious or impenetrable.

Regardless, let’s agree to disagree and leave it there. You can be Batman, and I’ll be someone else.

Ten 2012 Movies I Could Take Or Leave…Preferably Leave

With the year mapped out and the requisite drool reserves allocated to each of the releases I am most highly anticipating, I am left with a near-equal list of movies I don’t care much for at all. The cinematic landscape for the coming year is awash with bile, as Judd Apadow returns with another hateful bromance, Christian Bale’s career survives to let him grumble another day and G.I. Joe gives Development Hell the slip for a completely unnecessary second instalment. While other critics have their evil eyes set firmly on the upcoming 3D rerelease of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (let it slide, world. It’s time to make peace), I have other, decidedly less enticing things on my mind. Namely: Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill.

Man on a Ledge

Hollywood has had its fair share of the-clue-is-in-the-name film titles, with Snakes on a Plane, Cowboys & Aliens, We Bought a Zoo and (*spoiler alert*) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford all springing immediately to mind. Man on a Ledge, however, manages to be so remarkably uninteresting that it instantly stands out from the crowd. We’ve already seen Man on Wire, after all. Sam Worthington wasn’t even interesting in 2010, the year in which he inexplicably starred in all of the movies, only Avatar surviving uniform dismissal by virtue of director James Cameron’s extraordinary vision and all of those flashing pixels. How he has been chosen to front another movie after the dismal Clash of the Titans is beyond me, even if all Summit Entertainment expect him to do is stand on a ledge. I bet he doesn’t even jump.

Jack and Jill

The latest Katie Holmes movie is never something to get particularly excited about, there was nobody camping overnight to see Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but Jack and Jill takes this barely concealed indifference to a whole new level. Joining Lady Cruise on this occasion is Adam Sandler. And Adam Sandler. Apparently labouring under the delusion that The Nutty Professor I & II (along with every other Eddie Murphy movie produced in the 90s) was actually funny, Sandler has cast himself in the dual roles of Jack and Jill Sadelstein for little reason other than to herald some impending apocalypse. Shoot me please. In one eye for every character played by Adam Sandler.

Safe House

I’m sorry, but is it just me or have we seen this movie before? Like everything else in his back-catalogue, Ryan Reynolds stars as a low-hitting ubermensch who we – the imperfect masses – are supposed to root for simply because he is adrift in a completely fictitious job. Watching Ryan Reynolds under normal comedic circumstances is always trying enough, but the prospect of sitting through two joyless hours of him trying out his serious face opposite Denzel Washington (WHAT ARE YOU DOING, DENZEL WASHINGTON?) is nearly too much to bear.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

I don’t know about you, but when Nicolas Cage was first cast as the flame haired, leather-coated vengeance demon Johnny Blaze, I caughed a little bit of sick into my mouth. I’m sorry, what?? Naturally, the first Ghost Rider movie – with its boring story and Eva Mendez – was utterly terrible, and for the past four years we have been permitted the right to pretend that it was never in fact allowed to happen. Tasked with essentially rebooting the franchise, however, the filmmakers have somehow managed to make the same mistake AGAIN and have returned Cage to the role for another go at the character. Also, after Drive Angry, shouldn’t this really be Ghost Rider 3?

The Three Stooges

Having no doubt acclimatised to Development Hell during its decade-long stay, The Three Stooges aims to update the mid-20th Century sketch comedy of the same name for contemporary (read: even stupider) audiences. Boasting a plot that, for all intents and purposes, makes you want to kill yourself, the film focuses on Moe, Larry, and Curly, who inadvertently stumble into a murder plot, and wind up starring in a reality TV show while trying to save their childhood orphanage. I’m not even joking. Did I mention that it stars Sean Hayes from Will & Grace?

Battleship

Do you remember Battleship? It was the tactical, grid-warfare game that you could play on a page of squared paper if you really wanted to; the one that the Grim Reaper challenged Bill and Tedd to during their bogus journey. Do you remember the aliens? No? Oh, wait, that’s probably because there were no aliens. Hear that, Hollywood? NO ALIENS! Regardless, an upcoming adaptation housed at Universal Pictures is set to pit Liam Neeson, Rihanna and their boat against a myriad of extra terrestrial invaders. Naturally, the filmmakers were inspired by the financial success of MICHAEL BAY’s Transformers trilogy, and therefore, naturally, the film is going to be headache-inducing nonsense.

Snow White & The Huntsman

While most might laud Snow White & The Hunstman as fairest of them all in this, the year of the seven dwarves, I am forced by my utter hatred of this infernal darker is better movement to side with Mirror Mirror, however soul-shittingly awful it might appear to look. While it is impossible to get too riled by the absense of happy-clappy show tunes (the original fairy tale was, after all, a completely different beast), the rampant miserableness and unfathomable presence of body armour on show in the film’s trailer nevertheless have my heckles up. There’s already one Twilight movie due this year, we really don’t need another.

Ice Age 4: Continental Drift

The release of a new Ice Age, Blue Sky Entertainment’s flagship property, has always ranked pretty low on my must-see list. About as historically accurate as The Flinstones, the franchise proposes a history in which early man appears only initially, dinosaurs dawn AFTER the ice has melted, and a saber-toothed squirrel has continued adventures despite having been frozen in ice at the end of the first instalment. With nothing left to do but pair off the remaining characters (who wrote this, JK Rowling?), the ice age itself having ended whole movies ago now, this is one series of films that is practically begging for an extinction event.

The Dark Knight Rises

Oh shoosh, you must have seen this one coming. While it might indeed be the hype and the inevitably of the automated acclaim that I am dreading more than the actual movie (nobody’s suggesting this will be worse than Jack and Jill), there is still no denying that I would like nothing more than for Christopher Nolan to trot off back into the shadows and take his blasted interpretation of Batman with him. Now three movies in and not a single superhero in sight, I have spent the last – oh I don’t know, how long has it been since the last one? – listening to fanboy after fanboy ejaculate over every smidgeon of news pertaining to Bane, Catwoman and when the teaser for the viral for the trailer might hit. I just don’t care.

Halloween 3D

Torn arbitrarily between whether to include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D or Halloween 3D on this list that nobody will read (or if they do, they will unlikely get past the previous entry), I finally settled on the latter on account of how unscary I have found the entire franchise to date. At least the story of an inbred maniac who wears the faces of his victims held interest over the course of a few movies (and even the requisite remake), Halloween, however, has been tedious from pretty much the beginning. A man named Michael Myers – ooh, the guy who played Shrek? Wearing an inside-out Captain Kirk mask? Scary – stabs babysitters with a knife. The end. Any acclaim received by the original Halloween movie was courtesy to John Carpenter’s direction, and John Carpenter’s direction alone. The fact that this one hasn’t even started filming yet just says it all.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Batman returns, but he has once again left his comic book beginnings in the closet with his tights and boy wonder sidekick. Picking up where Batman Begins left off, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is on the case of the Joker (Heath Ledger), an agent of chaos who has set his sights on Gotham and its knights: both white and dark. With Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes Maggie Gyllenhaal) struggling to choose between two tie-strewn jawlines, the plot mechanics are left to Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is being relentlessly undermined by the corruption in Gotham’s police force. Luckily, the Joker isn’t doing very much, contented at first to kill his fellow antagonists in an attempt to try and find out just what makes the man in a bat costume tick. Oh, and there’s a bit set in China.

Having spent nigh on three years now bemoaning the film’s popularity, I suppose it’s about time I revisited The Dark Knight with fresh eyes. Having refused to buy the film on account of not liking it very much, I was finally afforded the opportunity to give it a third and final chance upon arriving home to my brother’s own, different yet equally extensive DVD collection. And you know what, I’m glad I did. Aside from reaffirming my belief that it is not the masterpiece many believe it to be, this third viewing also let me warm to the film in a way I hadn’t expected to. It might not be brilliant, but it’s certainly not terrible either.

Christopher Nolan’s characters are very good at wearing suits. They parade around office blocks and court rooms and roof-tops completely at home alongside the other finely dressed businessmen and women of Gotham City, saying intelligent things and generally being suave and well groomed. The opening scene depicting a beautifully executed bank hiest smacks of Nolan’s trademark narrative prowess, the entire film an intricately crafted thriller which allows those same suited ciphers to trade machismos (“If you want to kill a public servant, Mr. Maroni, I recommend you buy American”/”No more dead cops!”) and pander to some ideological sermon on realism.

And then there’s Batman, our joyless playboy’s masked alter-ego: a bat-eared relic of a bygone superhero age. The Dark Knight is less an ode to a comic book icon than it is an apology, robbing a once great character of all that once made him super in the blind and boring pursuit of grit. A respectable – if unremarkable – crime drama is trundling along affably when all of a sudden a growly Welshman in a plastic fancy dress costume tumbles on-set with a stiff neck and a larynx full of gravel. At this point Nolan’s worshipers proclaim The Dark Knight to be the greatest superhero ever made, a claim I’d put more stock in if Nolan had the confidence to portray the character in all his bat-nippled glory, and not just the elements which gelled with his own personal dogma.

Don’t get me wrong, there are elements that work; Lucius Fox interjecting with “submarine” before Bruce Wayne can ascribe his sonar technology to the echolocation of bats is a nice touch. I’m not saying superhero movies can’t be well-made and tackle serious issues, but they work best as allegories, rather than locking their more fantastical elements in the closet and interpreting darkness as a less-than-subtle absence of light. X-Men works because it isn’t a lecture on equality, but a story which addresses it subtextually.

It’s as though all involved ploughed their quota of character complexity into Heath Ledger’s outstanding Joker, leaving Batman to shout incoherently, Michael Caine to play Michael Caine and Maggie Gylenhaal to flesh out Plot Point #13. You see, as able as Nolan is to pander to his largely male demographic with cool choreography, moral quandaries and big explosions, the director is less confident with his female characters; clearly viewing his women as a remedy to criticisms over his films’ sterility. Rachel Dawes emotes and swoons on cue, but without evoking very much of anything. The kiss she shares with Wayne smacks of storyboarding rather than any identifiably human affection; he never earns it and she then never alludes to it.

But my issues with The Dark Knight go way beyond its poor lighting and emotional negligence. You may see this as nit-picking, but when you put something up on a pedestal by calling it a masterpiece, any and all criticism becomes valid. I’m not some kind of gravitas-hating sentimentalist, I appreciate that there is a time and a place for a serious and considered approach – I was hardly criticising United 93 for its absence of laughs – but Gotham? If you want to make a serious crime drama then create one, don’t shoe-horn it into a superhero movie, apologetically brushing the titular character aside so you can have serious discussions about the nature of heroism. All I know is that if I’d been 12 and Nolan had made a Pokemon film about institutional reform, I’d be livid. Anyway, my concerns.

Where did Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow go? Considering how much thought has obviously gone into the screenplay, shouldn’t Dr. Jonathan Crane have been on the boat of criminals seen later in the film? I realise that after having recast Rachel and optioned to model Gotham on an entirely new city there was need for consistency, but it is a jarring omission nonetheless. Why “pretend” to kill Commissioner Gordon? It adds nothing to the film, except for yet another unneccessary plot development that ensures The Dark Knight rises is a few minutes short of neverending. What annoys me most, however, are the double standards required by the film’s supporters. So The Dark Knight is so amazing because it is so ruthlessly realistically? What about the flying? The skyhook? The voice? What about the ridiculous mobile sonar device? These things shouldn’t stand out in a Batman film, but they do.

The Dark Knight is perfectly serviceable; but as a crime drama it is undermined by a man in a bat-costume, and as a superhero movie it is heavily devoid of superheroes. It is over-long, one boat-set display of moral high-fibre too many. The character arcs – on paper – sound highly intelligent and complex, but in reality fall flat? The Dark Knight isn’t the best comic book movie ever made, it’s not even the best Batman film. It’s a good movie, an ambitious movie, but a flawed movie. Like Inception it is an idea, lacking the emotional resonance of a work of art. As a great man once said: why so serious?

Six Fads That Are Arguably Stunting Cinema

Going to the cinema can be a frustrating experience – not least because of the disproportionate number of mouth-breathing Cookie Dough munchers championing drivel, but also thanks to the shocking lack of choice on offer. How many times must my eyes be popped? Since when was randomness any substitute for jokes? Will Spider-Man ever get past the third instalment? I explore the six fads currently crippling cinema.

Having already chronicled the recent slew of dramatic doppelgängers – whereby cinematic doubles litter cinemas, often separated by mere months – I cannot quite shake the suspicion that the issue runs deeper than mere surface similarities between two or three films. I love cinema, and it hurts me to watch the same movies being regurgitated on a near-yearly basis. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

I try to maintain broad horizons and take in as large a variety of movies as is reasonably possible (from The Emperor’s New Groove to The Emperor’s New Clothes),  but having spent the last four years working for various plenty-screened multiplexes I have been faced with a growing number of facsimiles that are potentially threatening to the integrity of cinema. It has long been possible to read a number of fashions and fads into the celluloid of the times, but recently the choice and variety on offer in most cinemas is limited at best.

This year’s biggest releases read like a carbon copy check-list of every year thus far this decade. We have a wealth of superhero movies, a run of vampire films and an array of sex-comedies, each treading on the toes of whatever came before. On top of the genre staples there are also the usual regurgitations (who exactly was calling out for another Arthur film?), the ongoing search for a new Harry Potter (anyone ever remember I Am Number 4? No, I thought not) and the typical onslaught of sequels, prequels and English language adaptations (for which, if Wikipedia is to be believed, this is a record year). What follows is a trend by trend analysis of the creativity-zapping paths of least resistances characterising Hollywood today.

Part II: The Squeakquel

Cinematic sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon, dating back as they do to 1916’s Fall of a Nation, but with 27 sequels set to début this year alone (some constituting the fifth or even eighth instalment) they have become depressingly ubiquitous. While the tendency towards sequels can sometimes have little detriment on film quality – along with the often cited Godfather 2 and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, there are a great many other sequels of worth – the law of diminishing returns has claimed a great many more franchises than it has spared.

The problem is not only the lack of ideas by episode sixteen (I for one rather enjoyed Kingdom of the Crystal SkullFast Five and Scream 4), but the fact that sequels are often greenlit for their own sake as opposed to being the consequence of an ongoing saga in need of additional instalments to best tell its tale. As such we have seven Saw movies, ten Star Trek movies (pre-reboot) and a Land Before Time series that has lasted almost as long as the dinosaurs themselves. Nobody was begging for a second Cars movie, a Planet of the Apes prequel or a fifth Final Destination. As for Hoodwinked II: Hood vs. Evil – there was a Hoodwinked I??

Retcons, remakes and reimaginings.

Although many sequels are undoubtedly commissioned to capitalise on the fiscal benefits of our essential laziness and brand loyalty, at some point the costs of constantly ramping up the excitement/action/breasts will outweigh the benefits. Luckily, there still remains an attractive alternative to dreaming up new ideas: the reboot. I understand why it happens – hell, I can even quote a couple of worthwhile films which were themselves reboots – but that doesn’t help curb the suspicion that this is one of the most dangerous avenues of moviemaking.

Rather than simply recasting the roles and renewing their focus on character and plot, many studios are instead deciding to start from scratch, effectively scrapping everything that came before, making a mockery of any time, money or fanboyism wasted on that world. While this is true of just about every horror movie released before the turn of the century (and many after), it is particularly common for superheroes to drop everything in a hurry to return to square one. The Hulk will have effectively started over three times by the release of The AvengersThe Punisher has already managed his hat-trick, while Spider-man barely lasted five years before being unceremoniously rebooted. Surely it would make more sense to follow James BondDoctor Who and 90s Batman‘s example, continuing the narrative regardless of cast and crew changes?

Adapt or die.

It is not just existing films which prove an irresistible counter to originality in the Hollywood hills, as literally anything can form the basis for a box-office busting cinema franchise, with novels, games and even boardgames and theme park rides offering inspiration for willing film studios. As Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Nicholas Sparks and the Brothers Grimm find themselves relentlessly tapped for stories (of varying quality…), JK Rowling and J R Tolkein have unwittingly spawned two of the most lucrative and influential film franchises in history.

As such we have an onslaught of doppelgängers invading cinemas as rival studios abuse the Polyjuice potion in search of a hit. Over recent years a number of grandiose sword and sandal epics have trudged through auditoriums in search of an heir to these literary thrones, because let’s face it: what audiences really need is another vampire movie. Novelists have aptly risen to the challenge too, as The Golden Compass, Eragon, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire Assistant, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and the aforementioned I Am Number 4 duly auction themselves off to the highest bidder.

Eye-popping, wallet-emptying 3D.

As a recovering 3D apologist, I diligently dropped my jaw at Avatar and championed Thor 3D over Thor 2D. Over the past couple of, however, I have found it increasingly difficult to defend the medium following a slew of sub-par conversion jobs which suffered the 30% colour loss caused by the tinted glasses without benefiting from the visual splendour the effect makes possible. Following the success of Avatar – and the genuine awesomeness of films such as DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon – many studios made the mistake of pinning the responsibility on 3D alone.

The last few years have played host to films such as The Final Destination, The Last Airbender, Clash of the Titans, Cats and Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (not a comment on the latter film’s quality), each poorly converted into 3D during post production. Even films filmed in the medium are often sequels, the previous instalments hardly calling for an extra dimensional make-over.

The witless comedy.

I understand that it’s about time the romantic comedy is modified to appeal to both sides of the gender divide, but of late the longstanding tradition of wit and even jokes have been unceremoniously relegated to the realm of science fiction and fantasy. Where the comedy genre was once home to the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Leslie Nielsen, Jim Carrey, Hugh Grant and the Monty Python team, modern comedy can generally be divided into three, equally uninspiring camps: the Judd Apatow bromance, the sex comedy and the Spoof Comedy Movie.

I have never been a particularly enthusiastic comedy buff, but lately I have been even less tempted to watch the genre’s latest offerings. Either Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jack Black, Zach Galifianakis or Will Ferrell (or now Melissa McCarthy) will greet me with some quirkily random slab of nonsense, a former That 70s Show star will land a fuck-buddy or one member of the Wayan family will try (and fail) to lampoon everything that moves.

Darker is better.

It is this fad above all others which has become the bane of my life, often appearing as it does in tandem with the inevitable reboot. The last few years have been plagued with announcements of long-running franchises facing reincarnation as part of a relentless drive to rob cinemas of anything light and fluffy. Arguably started by the Nolanisation of Batman, this trend has devoured just about every superhero franchise going: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and Hulk (Ang Lee’s was better) have each fallen victim to the disdain shown towards anything that doesn’t growl or lurk in the shadows.

It’s also worth noting that this is pushing the boundaries of the 12A rating beyond breaking point. Whether it is The Dark Knight‘s pathalogical moral paradigms or Harry Potter’s suffering at the hands of Voldemort, it’s increasingly difficult to work out what differentiates the lower certificates, opening more and more productions up to the limited attention spans of the younger generation. Aside from this, there is a relative dearth in variety when it comes to your superhero affiliations. Only Marvel seem to be above the rampant pursuit of realism (Green Lantern probably did more harm than good) – their lighthearted and unashamedly fun approach to characters such as Iron Man, Thor and Captain America do at least allow the heroes to laugh as often as they growl broodily from the shadows.

While there will always be alternatives to such general dross on show, at your local independent cinema or film festival, there is no reason for studios to play to the lowest common denominator with such careless abandon. Why should we be forced to live in a world where Amanda Seyfried spends her life sending or receiving letters, Jack Black plays Jack Black and Batman Begins Again Because We’ve Run Out Of Ideas 2 3D?

FILM NEWS: Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy join The Dark Knight Rises as Catwoman and Bane respectively

This is not yet another wooping praise of Christopher Nolan’s casting decisions for his trilogy-ending Bat-film, The Dark Knight Rises, the man has always had a very good eye for actresses and actors; I am the first to admit that Liam Neeson can be incredibly good, as can Heath Ledger and Cillian Murphy. Similarly, I am a huge fan of Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy, finding Love and Other Drugs and Inception incredibly enjoyable. However, I have found that while Nolan peppers his film’s with substantial talent, he sets about wasting his actors with relentless abandon.

I am not a fan of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, I like my superheroes super and my superhero movies brimming with awesome fun. I find Nolan’s forays into the genre incredibly dull and tiresome, his clunking excuses for humour and blinding pursuit of realism a subversion too far for a once-passable character in the hands of Tim Burton. I love Hellboy‘s irreverent sarcasm, Spider-man‘s witty asides and the sheer likeability of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass; but while each movie has its respective dark moments, they find the time between frowns to remind you why the character was so popular in the first place.

To date, Christopher Nolan has created a growly Batman who wouldn’t know a smile if it lumbered him with Bat-nipples, a Scarecrow who is repetitively mugged of his deserved place in the limelight and a complete dud of a Ra’s al Ghul. Sure, Heath Ledger was impressively psycho but having defeated a swarm of ninjas and saved Gotham from a certifiable biohazard, it was a bt of a step down to watch Christian Bale struggle to defeat one man and his cumbersome neurosis. It took guts to kill off the film’s (distractingly re-cast) heroine before movie’s end, but she was such a faceless character that the sacrifice failed to make any impact whatsoever – particularly in light of the truly moving death of Hit Girl’s Big Daddy half way through Kick-Ass. I choked up.

However, there is yet hope. While I still maintain that Batman Returns is the greatest Batman movie ever made – largely down to Michelle Pfeiffer’s delightfully sassy Catwoman – this new casting news at least shows that the character is in good hands. Finally, a super-villain who threatens to get past Bale’s irritating growl and evoke some semblance of emotion from his boringly stoic Batman. Similarly, Hardy was easily the best thing in Inception, his banterous Brit giving the audience at least one character to care about amid a wardrobe of identi-kit suits. He hardly has much to live up to (Bane’s last appearance on screen was in the much maligned Batman and Robin) but threatens to give the character the live-action treatment he probably deserves.

While I’m still far from excited about this sequel to 2008’s “Best Superhero Movie Of All Time” (puh-lease!), I live in hope of a Christopher Nolan directed Batman movie which isn’t a chore to watch. Sure, they are technical achievements on many levels, but they lack any beating heart or entertainment value. Maybe the character did need a reboot after George Clooney hammed him up good-and-proper, but I have yet to be convinced that what he needed was a fun-ectomy. Having settled on a feline-empowered thief and a superpowered hulk, however, perhaps this time Batman and his ridiculous costume won’t look so out of place in their own movie.