Daily Archives: August 11, 2012

Movies: The Dark Knight Rises

I meant to write an article discussing Christopher Nolan‘s latest (and final?) Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises (henceforth, TDKR).  I started off writing that article but ended up writing a screed about going to the movies.  Words not wasted, perhaps, but now I return to the original intent: trying to say a few words about the movie itself.

The bottom line is that I give it an “Eh!” on a scale of “Wow!”, “Ah!”, “Eh!”, “Meh!”, “Nah!” & “Ugh!” It’s above the no-go line, so I say it’s worth seeing if it’s in your interest zone.  If you’ve seen the other two, you certainly want to see this one. That said, it’s my least favorite in Nolan’s Batman trilogy as well as my least favorite Nolan film. And to be honest, were it not for superhero movie fatigue setting in, I might well have given this a higher rating. I’ve just gotten tired of the genre.

Warning: In this article I’m not going to make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so if you (a) haven’t seen the movie and (2) don’t like spoilers, then you shouldn’t continue reading.

[Unfunny true story: During the summer reruns of the long-dead television show, NYPD Blue, I made the mistake of casually mentioning to my (ex-)wife, who had wandered into the room during a repeat and asked about a hospital scene, “Oh, you know, Bobby died.”  I never heard the end of it.  It became a black mark on my “permanent record.”]

This latest version of Batman draws inspiration from three sources, the primary one being the story of the villain Bane defeating the Batman, as told in the Knightfall arc from 1993. It also draws some elements from the Frank Miller 1986 classic, The Dark Night Returns (primarily tone and the idea of Batman returning from retirement, I would guess). Finally, the idea of Gotham under siege, and the idea of aid from Catwoman, comes from the very long-running 1999 arc, No Man’s Land.

Several posts ago I wrote about how we’re upping the ante on the level of violence. That trend seemed especially obvious to me watching TDKR, and is a key reason for the dissatisfaction I had with the movie. The amount of casual murder of bystanders is very high (consider the stock market scene, for example). Perhaps we’re supposed to cheer the casual murder of those rich, money-grubbing bastards, but the whole firing a gun into a crowd idea seems a bit prescient under the circumstances.

(While it seems clear that the Aurora gunman hadn’t seen this movie, it’s equally clear he had seen the equally violent second entry in Nolan’s Batman canon.  We can’t blame one movie for putting ideas in a crazy person’s head, but we can ask if, perhaps, “entertainment” is going a bit too far in general.)

Let me say that I am not, in principle, opposed to violence in films.  I’m a guy, and I like explosions, crashes, gun fire and personal combat as much as any (I love Asian martial arts films, for example).  It’s when things cross some vague line I have that it takes me out of the story. I can first recall this happening in Verhoeven‘s Total Recall, which to me is the most violent of Schwarzenegger’s films. The line has to do with innocent bystanders being killed rather than the active participants in the story.

In TDKR, the tide turned for me during the big street fight scene. Let’s leave aside the idea of boldly marching into a well-armed force. (The British learned not to do things like that over 200 years ago when we booted them out of America.) A bit of stealth and cleverness seems called for here. The only thing that prevents complete slaughter is Batman showing up in that tricky Batcopter (and as it is, we see several cops shot down; fortunately the bad guys have the usual Hollywood Bad Guy inability to hit a close target).

Let’s talk for just a moment about how they were trapped. In train tunnels and sewers. Capable of exchanging messages on strings, but apparently not one single human-sized exit remained useable?  Bane blew them all up? Color me unconvinced.  Keep in mind all it took was a single explosion to free them. (Are there no backhoes in Gotham?)

Consider the two key fights between B-man and Bane. Here we have two of Ra’s al Ghul‘s best (that is, most skilled) students (Bane was apparently capable of holding off an entire prison of men until his rescue). And the best they can do is slug each other like a couple of big dummies. Oh, sure, there were a few leg kicks, but the worst martial arts movie I ever saw had vastly superior fight scenes.

Batman is a man. No radioactive spiders or gamma-ray bursts for him; no son of Krypton is he.  Part of his enduring charm is that he is just one of us—with an awesome amount of training and some very cool toys. In some ways, it’s those cool toys that define him. In days of yore (yore what?), Batman and Jim West always had exactly the right tool at the right time (and, yeah, some of that was pretty silly). But in any era, and this is key, Batman was smart. He is smart enough to defeat Superman (in Dark Knight Returns as well as in a Justice League arc), and he did it by understanding their weaknesses!

So you’re the Batman, and you’re about to go up against a truly fearsome opponent; what do you do?  This Batman wades in for a good old mano a mano duke’m nuke’m punch out. (Why, oh why, would you punch a guy in his iron mask?) Maybe it’s a steady diet of martial arts films (those guys know how to stage a fight), but the fight scenes, to me, were boring and disappointing.  I will give Nolan some credit for keeping the camera back and not going for the quick-cut close-ups often used to transform inexperienced actors into apparent fighting machines.

I have no complaint with the acting. Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon) and the always wonderful Michael Caine (Alfred) are masters at their craft, and Christian Bale‘s Bruce Wayne is as good as any previous version and better than most.  In fact, I’d rank them: Bale, Keaton, Kilmer, all future actors in the role, any cartoon actors in the role, and then finally Clooney.  (I generally love Clooney’s work, in fact, he’s one of my favorite actors, but Batman & Robin was an abomination.)  And, of course, like Caine, Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox) dresses up any scene merely by being in it.

I can’t help but ponder the choice of casting what is clearly New York City in the role of Gotham City.  In the comics, to the extent it resembles any city, to me Gotham resembles Chicago. It does have a port, but not obviously a sea port. The historical dark tone of Chicago (gangs, political corruption) makes it a good parallel in my mind.  And to the extent Superman’s city, Metropolis, resembles any real city, that city for me is New York City. (Note that this is exclusively my take. If you research the origins of Batman back in the 30s, you’ll find that NYC was indeed the seed of Gotham City. A nickname for New York back then was, ta-da, Gotham.)

But it’s not just the vague miscasting, it’s the “terrorist attack on the city” that seems in questionable taste to me.  Spielberg’s War of the Worlds indulged in similar imagery, specifically with regard to floating ash and “missing” posters.  Some scenes in TDKR with falling snow evoked similar comparison.  (Keep in mind the snow wasn’t accidental, but put there deliberately by the director.)

Perhaps it’s a case of enough time having passed (just over 10 years is apparently enough in these fast-paced days), or perhaps it’s a case of a director deliberately leveraging the national consciousness for effect.  How you feel about that will vary.  I still recall vividly that day in September, and I recall how it affected me for a good year afterwards.   Thinking about it to any deep degree still affects me profoundly.

I would have preferred another city.

And then there’s the overall plot. Bane and (spoiler) Miranda Tate want to blow up Gotham City.  Because reasons. Insane reasons. Tate spends most of the movie being Bruce Wayne’s friend and savior of his company from what turns out to be another foray by Bane.  Except, fooled ya, she and Bane are in it together, and once she’s revealed (surprise!), she turns out to be bat-shit crazy (which is, perhaps, apropos in a Batman movie). It seems we have a new sort of villain these days: the insane terrorist who just wants to blow it all up.

Intelligent movies require something from their audience, and this movie required very little. It was just a fun(-ish) ride. It raises no interesting points for discussion, nor does it challenge you in any way.  It lacks the charm of, say Ironman, and Batman fans are well acquainted with the Batman ethos. There’s really nothing new or particularly interesting here.  In some ways it’s almost hard to believe that the man who made this movie also made Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception.

Just a few words about Nolan and the film as a film. I know many find Nolan’s film-making pedestrian or unoriginal (if I follow their complaints), but it’s occurred to me that he tries to be as transparent as possible in style. His camera setups don’t call attention to themselves; he tries to let the content come through untouched by fancy camera work or editing. Something else I want to watch for if I see TDKR again is the prominent use of vertical lines and other ascending visual motifs (note the staircase behind Bruce Wayne in a conversation with Alfred). Dark Knight rises… get it?

One last thing: did anyone actually think Batman got blown up at the end?  Was anyone surprised when it turned out he wasn’t?


Let’s go to the movies!

Yesterday I threw down the gauntlet regarding Christopher Nolan’s new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, that article was a first entry into a discussion about how we’ve constantly upped the ante regarding violence in movies and television and modern life in general.  That larger discussion will evolve over time as I find things to say about it.  In this article I want to talk specifically about the Batman movie… or rather about the “going to the Batman movie” theater experience.

When it comes to going to the movie theater to see a movie, each time I do that lately I seem to find one less reason to do that ever again. Let me count the ways:

The ticket prices continue to rise.  For an adult, my local (AMC) theater charges $10.00 (USD: United States Dollars).  If you go to a 3D movie, add another $3.50 to rent those damned glasses. (3D movies… a rant for another time.)  To bring your children costs you $7.50 each.  If you go very early, a ticket might cost only $5.00 (adult and child), and during the other off-peak times adults might pay $7.50 (children $5.00).

That means a canonical family of four normally pays $35.00 just to get in the door. If they’re seeing a 3D movie, it’s $49.00, which includes $14.00 for the glasses rental. (On the other hand, I just found a rare reason to enjoy being single and childless!)  If you’re willing to go way off-peak times, you can get that down to a mere $20.00 ($34.00 for a 3D movie, in which case you’re paying almost as much to rent the damned glasses).

So already you have to be questioning whether there isn’t something else you could be doing. Say, perhaps, watching slightly older movies on your wide-screen TV in the comfort of your home. But in this me first and gotta have it right now world, people will pay for the privilege of the movie experience. And there are some movies that you do want to see on the biggest, loudest screen possible (which is why we went to see Batman; that was one of those movies).

These prices just get you in the door. I’ve always thought that an important part of the movie experience was the popcorn (and the Milk Duds and a soda).

For decades I’ve had a thing going where one night a week my buddies come over to my place, and we all drink (my) beer and chat about movies, books, physics, philosophy, science fiction and so forth.  Then some of us (who don’t have to get up too early or who don’t care much about sleep) go to see the night’s last showing of some movie.  The advantage is a reduced price ($7.50) and a severely reduced audience.  Many times we’ve seen what amounts to a private showing. There’s something kinda neat about sitting in an empty movie theater or sharing it with just a handful of others—infinitely fewer chances for annoying distractions, for one thing!

For a long time, for years, it’s been possible to break a $20.00 at the door and then exactly use the remainder purchasing the already mentioned (medium) popcorn, Milk Duds (the smaller 3 oz movie theater box) and (small) soda.  In fact, I thought it was kind of cool how they calculated it to use your entire $20.00. The popcorn, candy soda combo must be a common one.

So imagine my shock when I walk up to the counter, change in hand, order my usual … and am asked for $15.50. I don’t know about the Duds, but the markup on the popcorn and soda is truly astronomical.

We all know the cup costs much more than the soda, and my guess is the popcorn costs less than the increasingly smaller paper bag in which it comes. (In fact, a quick check on the ol’ interweb turns up a 130 oz, 500-count home theater package of popcorn bags for $80, which amounts to 16 cents per bag.) That the (small!) soda comes in a cup the size of trashcan doesn’t compensate for much of anything.

I have no idea what our canonical family spends on concessions, but I can see the bill for such a family, seeing a 3D movie, reaching $80.00 or more. For something you can nearly accomplish in your living room. And to my mind, the cons of home viewing are overwhelmed by the pros: better, far less expensive food; clean restrooms (assuming you clean yours); the ability to pause for interruptions; no distractions from obnoxious strangers… you have to ask what’s so special about going to the movies anymore.

I happen to be a fan of Disney World.  Been there many times, would go again in a heartbeat. I mention this to contrast another extremely costly enjoyment with everything I’ve just written. With Disney you pay and pay, but you get phenomenal value for your buck. To my mind, it’s one of the better ways you can spend vacation dollars (if you have kids or are a big kid). The quality of everything is top-notch, and the service is finest kind.  Really, no one does it better. The point is, I don’t mind spending money on value returned.  But, increasingly, movie theaters don’t return much value for their cost.

The other night at the movie theater, the ticket gal was upbeat and pleasant, but the concession guy was a bit of a dud. He did cram my popcorn bag pretty full, I’ll give him that.  Given the again reduced size of the thing, I’m grateful. There seems quite a variation on the attitudes of the youngsters that run movie theaters now. Some of them are charming and upbeat and have a good sense of how to interact with the public in a positive way. And then some don’t.

So, now $23.00 poorer, popcorn, Duds and soda precariously in hand, there’s one more stop. Gotta have the yellow grease to lube the popcorn! One of the two yellow grease dispensers was non-functional, so I had to walk across the lobby to the other one (which fortunately was working). Points off, AMC, for a 50% failure rate there.

And then during the movie, the projector lamp went out giving us several minutes of black screen (the audio continued). Of course, the way the projectors work these days, there’s no option to rewind so we can see what we missed. We were just lucky it was a talking scene and not an action scene.

All in all, final score on the movie theater experience: D.

I say this to the movies theaters: You’re doomed, dudes.  Doomed. Keep this up, and audiences will continue to dwindle. As home systems get better, and as release cycles get shorter, the incentive to go to the movies gets smaller and smaller.

For me, the bar on what movies are “must see in theater” movies gets higher and higher. Comedies are definitely off the list.  They play just fine on my wide-screen TV, and I’m plenty enough patient to wait for them on cable. It’s really only the mega-spectacles I would even consider seeing on the big screen anymore, and since most of those tend to be empty-headed shit, it’s going to take something really special to bring me into a theater.

I thought The Dark Knight Rises was one of those above the bar movies, but as it turns out I was wrong.  But that’s a tale for another post.

See you at the movies!  Or not.