Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) -- B

The level of "epicness" (misused by many a fanboy, mistaking simply a literary genre for a laudatory claim) has been amped in The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's nearly three-hour trilogy capper, though the degree of success the larger-scale storytelling brings is certainly debatable, given the stockpiling of characters new and old, and vacillation between post-continuity action sequences and smaller, mostly exposition driven dialogue scenes (the Nolan bros. dialogue remains predictably on-the-nose, though not as egregiously as in Oliver Stone's recent Savages). And yet - my personal interest with this film (and Nolan's trilogy, in general) lies less in accessing the merit of his adaptation, in narrative terms, than it does in analyzing the peculiar, elusive combination of visceral and banal that has come to constitute the bulk of Nolan's oeuvre. He wrings (or attempts to) feigned significance from tone and affect, rather than diegesis. His Batman films, though believed by many to be brilliant for their storytelling prowess, have always been more impressive, in my eyes, for their emphasis on paying reverence to classical, continuity style (Griffith, Ford, Hawks, at least when looking strictly at narrative forms) while altering those techniques (in TDKR's case: parallel editing, Eisensteinian montage, ellipsis) to fulfill the tendencies of most post-9/11 action cinema towards a fragmented temporality (recently termed "Chaos Cinema" by Matthias Stork). TDKR has a foot in both realms, as it were, entering its spatio-temporal matrix with the corporeal tenacity of a silent epic, but the disillusioned sense of space belonging to fellow post-continuity enthusiasts Michael Bay, Tony Scott, and (the worst example) Paul Greengrass.

Nolan's interest in form must eventually supersede a discussion simply of narrative - one which prizes Modernist storytelling, utilizing literary devices from said period like foreshadowing, understatement, and, at times (though not nearly frequently enough) irony to weave together its character arcs, agendas, and motivations with clarity. And yet - it's this clarity which often negates the film's purported "dark" tone, since darkness necessarily lies in behavioral ambiguity - something TDKR comprehensively lacks (aside from its plot twists - the weakest form of effective revelation). Batman is crippled (physically and emotionally, oh how metaphysical!) from taking the Harvey Dent murder wrap - putting Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) out of commission for the last eight years. John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), an investor set on absorbing Wayne Enterprises, jokes early on that Wayne "is holed up with eight-inch fingernails and peeing into Mason jars," - a rather clever in-joke for Nolan followers, who has stated that his dream project is a biopic of Howard Hughes while holed up for months in his screening room - all while Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) fumbles at the microphone and with Deputy Commisioner Foley (Matthew Modine) in explaining the truth about the night Harvey Dent died all those years ago (cinephiles note the name of Modine's character in Full Metal Jacket: Private Joker). Meanwhile, stealthy maid Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is busy roaming the grounds in search of Wayne's fingerprints (we later learn they are needed by Daggett), all while sure-to-be femme fatale Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) stands around, in exposition mode, detailing her plans for the city's clean energy, which can be achieved with a prototype device being manufactured by Wayne Enterprises. Oh - did I mention all of this comes after the opening sequence where a masked mercenary (and forthcoming Gotham super-villain) named Bane (Tom Hardy) stages a mid-air hijacking and blood transfusion, as to gain control of nuclear physicist Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), whom he needs to control and operate the device Miranda Tate also seeks to gain possession of? Lest we even discuss rookie beat cop Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose earnest idealism and interest in re-instating an underfunded orphanage (he's was an orphan too, just like Wayne, natch) are intended to provide the film with a moral center. Nolan manages the characters well enough - but he has mistaken convoluted for complex, as the dialogue scenes that connect the more interesting action sequences are written to a pulp, especially some early scenes between Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne, with each beat and potential consequence explicitly out in the open.

Multiple viewings reveal the care with which the Nolan bros. planted lines, scenes, and a fair share of red herrings to give nearly every action meaning within the context of its not-so hermetic universe (characters often speak lines that deliberately bleed over into real-word political/social issues). Nolan is proficient at layering his narrative with subtle hints that potentially offer subsequent reveals - but he's often simply maneuvering through the proceedings rather than imbuing them with tangible conviction or significance. What does TDKR really mean or have on its mind, besides feigning zeitgeist pretensions? Ultimately - not much, especially since Nolan isn't able to show the purported decadence that has sullied Gotham (such is Bane's claim), except for an Eyes Wide Shut-lite sequence at Wayne Manor, with guests sipping champagne and flashing their Venetian masks. Unlike Kubrick's best (or even recent films like The Social Network and Magic Mike), Nolan struggles to suggest something looming beneath his frame - an unspoken, semiotic terror. With Nolan, what you see is what you get.

Which is not to suggest that what we see (and hear) isn't often impressive and/or of significance. Nolan's work with composer Hanz Zimmer has taken a Wagnerian track throughout TDK and TDKR, assigning themes to various characters and giving sequences an almost operatic coda, to capitalize on the affective pull. Most compelling through all of this is Bane, as Hardy's ferocious, psychotic, but perversely detached, presence seems to belong in a different, more dangerous film. His dialogue and voice, clearly ADR'd and given a 360 degree presence, sound like an ironic, reptilian David Bowie, his cadence and emphasis lacking consistency as he emphatically and idiosyncratically shouts his mandates in front of various crowds - only he speaks with a degree of joyful detachment, seemingly deriving pleasure from the fact that he is unaffected by such heinous acts (nearly every line is immanently quotable/memorable, not necessarily for what Bane says, but how he says it). Hardy gives Bane an ambiguity that the film tries to snuff out through its insistence upon flashbacks and reductive dialogue, denying his character a more compelling moral ambivalence in favor of "pure evil," (or "necessary evil," depending on which character you believe).

Nolan lacks the artistry to give his film's something other than their immediate pleasures. TDKR zips by so quickly because it's all there, on-screen, which is why the film works fairly wonderfully in the moment, less so with subsequent contemplation. Such a qualification would extend to the film's form, excluding the initial fight sequence between Batman and Bane. Taking place in a sewer and the first face-to-face for the two characters,  it contains such bone-crushing, on-screen physicality and sonic variance (no music, sounds of water falling, Bane's piercing voice/claims) combined with visual prowess (light to dark, edits to longish takes) that it ranks among (if not at the top of) Nolan's most impressive visceral achievements.

Unsurprisingly, Nolan stumbles when having to cross-cut and establish a spatio-temporal basis outside of a single setting, as with the film's prolonged denouement, set predominately on the steps of Gotham City Hall. A basis for the sequence of shots is never properly (not to mention cleverly) established, which both stagnates and makes arbitrary each successive cross-cut. Made even worse are the disappearance and reappearance of characters without proper spatial explanation (one character is dispatched by another - but only after the latter character has been absent from the film for at least fifteen minutes, last seen miles away from where the concluding action takes place). Nolan has never had a firm grasp on the spatial dimensions of his cinematic worlds (similar problems exist in Batman Begins, Inception, and The Dark Knight). Moreover, the proceedings, while varying in effectiveness, lack the satiric cadence and gravity of the action genre's best. Even just earlier this year, Neveldine/Taylor turned Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance into a Carnivalesque whirligig of playful, but sincere affect, layering their ambivalence for pop cultural worship with a coherent, complex subtext of addiction, both literal and metaphorical. But Nolan makes some of the most compellingly empty films I can think of; he builds them from the outside-in, instead of inside-out, which helps to explain the peculiarity, but isn't quite satisfactory. The viscera responds while cognition remains dormant. Captivating for its duration and impressive for its visceral qualities, but lacking any consistent understanding of the human condition, TDKR's bizarro-normative demeanor is a quid-pro-quo affair - and such relatively thoughtless fetishistic supplementation almost always comes with unwanted side-effects.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Box Office Predictions (July 20 - 22)

The most anticipated box office weekend of the year (hell, all-time?) is finally upon us, with The Dark Knight Rises set to storm North American theaters (likely over 4500) with hardly a mite of competition in its rear-view mirror. After Ice Age 4 opened to a limp 46 million and The Amazing Spider-Man pulled a solid, but insignificant 35 million in its second weekend (admittedly, a good drop from the respectable opening week), the stage is set for pure and utter domination from the caped crusader and his band of thugs, cops, felines, and femmes.

As I mentioned earlier this summer about some random thoughts of upcoming box office, the arena is now ruled by "event" pictures. Ruled by films that establish and announce themselves as wholly separate from television (massive budget, highest quality actors possible, intriguing marketing) and that possess at least a degree of artistic merit, usually (i.e. not just off the assembly line - see Battleship's failure for this reason, even though I personally love that film).

TDKR is, in interest of momentary brevity, the most prominent instance of said "event" cinema yet - perhaps all-time. Now, before you start levying claims of hyperbole and wishful-thinking, let's do some actual thinking for a moment.

What makes an "event" film? An event film is a singular film (often associated with a franchise) that appears to achieve either (A) the convergence of dispirit franchises/characters (The Avengers, Fast Five), (B) the continuing/concluding of a (usually) non-episodic franchise (see all Harry Potter, Twilight, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, LOTR, Hangover 2), or (C) a new, large scale concept that defies categorization or easy explanation/prediction as to what will be contained within (Avatar, The Hunger Games, Inception).

TDKR has elements from all three of these subsets - it is a three quadrant Event film, whereas most are just one, two at best. Though the film does not truly have a convergence of characters from dispirit franchises, it is bringing in new, familiar characters (Catwoman, Bane), reviving old (Raz-Al-Ghoul, Scarecrow, at least as rumor has it), and throwing these elements into the old guard. It definitely has the second qualification: this is the END of Nolan's trilogy and the marketing has done a good job of explaining/qualifying exactly what that means. Audiences (especially young men) seem aware of the gravity this holds for the lead character (in The Avengers, there was no chance any of the real leads could die - there is a strong possibility here). And in terms of originality - as Nolan himself has stated, the IMAX technology and the use of thousands of extras create a degree of "reality" and scale no one has attempted since the silent era. Using as little CGI as possible, the film will be both a fantasy that's also rooted in a strong sense of the "real," the urban.

All of this means - the film is going to cater across an incredibly wide spectrum of viewers. Unlike Potter, TDK and Batman have fans that extend beyond the diehards. It taps (especially Nolan's dark, hard-nosed variety) into the pulse of feral-minded Americans who thrive on physicality and materialism, less so on the metaphysical. Batman is America. He's just a man, without superpowers. Now, in this final installment, the world is really crashing down. To underestimate the culmination of what has come before it (Ledger, the goodwill of TDK, the establishment of Bale's career, true IMAX screenings, all-star, elder statesman cast) is to overlook just how expansive the IDEA (to use a prominent term from Inception) of TDKR has become. I believe Nolan and WB have pulled an inception of their own, planting the idea in the minds of moviegoers as to just how important and essential this final installment will be to not just culture, but their own lives (whether this is true - and it's highly unlikely - remains to be seen). But the early ticket sales and rampant buzz/chatter indicate that, indeed, "a storm is coming."

Combined with excellent early reviews (the film currently sits at 26 positive, 2 negative on Rotten Tomatoes), this mammoth wrecking ball of a Blockbuster, even lacking the 3D premiums, should be able to plow through The Avengers opening weekend record, set just a couple of months ago. Expect the weekend figures for Nolan's final Batman film to go something like this:

Midnights: 49.2 million (record)
Opening Day (including Midnights): 101.7 (record)
Saturday: 71.2 (record)
Sunday: 42.7
Opening Weekend: 215.6 (record) 

Official Weekend Predictions:
Rank Title Gross Drop
1 The Dark Knight Rises 215.6 NEW
2 Ice Age: Continental Drift 20.3 -56%
3 The Amazing Spider-Man 13.3 -62%
4 Ted 11.8 -47%
5 Brave 5.2 -53%
6 Savages 3.9 -58%
7 Magic Mike 3.2 -64%
8 Moonrise Kingdom 2.6 -31%
9 Madea's Witness Protection 2 -65%
10 Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted 1.7 -49%

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Box Office Predictions (July 6-8)

The Amazing Spider-Man began the holiday box office with something of a bang, netting an estimated 35 million on Tuesday (7.5 million from midnights) and looks to be headed towards a 65 million weekend and a 140 million 6-day. That's significantly better than early tracking and enthusiasm would have lead one to believe, as the film appears to be playing very well in smaller, family-driven markets, where the film is likely to be even stronger than The Dark Knight Rises - just 16 days away.

While Spidey will certainly dominate the July 4th holiday weekend, two other films open to give it some company, both of which are arguably more worthy of one's attention than the webslinger's relatively insignificant reboot (review forthcoming). The most significant is Oliver Stone's return to Natural Born Killers and U-Turn territory with Savages, a fast-paced, uber-violent saga of pot dealers, corrupt federal agents, and Blake Lively. The other (and considerably less deserving of anticipation) is Katy Perry: Part of Me (insert pun here), a cartoonish, 3D musical/concert film that's likely to bring out KP's fans in droves (but not much more). Both films aren't looking too good at this point. As expected, neither has cracked the Fandango Top 5 and general awareness (or certainly, interest) appears to be lacking in the face of the bigger, faster, stronger franchised, marketing machine titan that is Marvel. Stone's revival of his signature gonzo style should be cause for widespread celebration this weekend, but Savages is far too violent, gritty, and assaultive for anyone other than the adventurous viewer. It pains me to say it, but Savages will likely have a sub-10 million weekend. Opening a day earlier, Katy Perry should burn some significant portion of its 4-day haul on Thursday, likely with 4-5 million, headed for about a 10 million weekend. Things cool off this summer for a couple weeks (Ice Age 4 is the sole remaining wide release) until the July 19th midnights of The Dark Knight Rises, where all box office hell (or is it heaven?) will break loose.

Official Weekend Predictions:

Rank Title Gross Drop
1 The Amazing Spider-Man 64.7 NEW
2 Ted 31.5 -42%
3 Brave 20.7 -39%
4 Magic Mike 14.1 -64%
5 Madea's Witness Protection 9.9 -61%
6 Katy Perry: Part of Me 9.4 NEW
7 Savages 8.8 NEW
8 Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted 7.6 -36%
9 Moonrise Kingdom 4.2 -15%
10 To Rome With Love 3.5 +405%