All Defiant on the Western Front in Wonder Woman

Early on in Patty Jenkins’ confident and electrifying big-screen Wonder Woman epic, after getting rescued by the film’s hero (a robust yet appealingly vulnerable Gal Gadot), our guy in distress (a somewhat charming gritty Ken Doll with a sense of humor, Chris Pine) upon being asked about how he stacks up to other men says, “I’m above average.” In some ways, that’s the best way to describe Wonder Woman in comparison to every other superhero movie. It’s above average. But to leave it at that would be deny the film’s subversive charms and contextual place in the pantheon of fantasy films as mirrors into the audience’s psyche.

Let’s not dismiss, however, just how fun it is to simply watch an above average film in this over-saturated genre. Jenkins and her crew show great creativity and tactical savviness in their treatment of all the genre clichés while choosing a relaxed and serialized pacing in the action, following each big set piece with moments of more intimate drama and character development (witness celebratory Belgian villagers and our heroes dancing in the streets in the evening snowfall that seems ripped from a great war-time romance).

The film’s inherently silly exposition (routed in Greek myth) is made palpable thanks to beautifully rendered Renaissance-style paintings of Greco-Roman fantasy come to life – smartly linking the lore and art of old with modern comic book pages and colorful cells flipped through feverishly by childhood’s fingers. Playful camera angles bring to life a rousing aeronautical flyover of an exploding enemy bunker and battle horses and motorcycles racing through war-torn woods, while slo-mo is used judiciously when warranted and not just for the sense of style. Continue reading

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Tea Party Wish Fulfillment, Messianic Fetishism and the American Way in Man of Steel

Muh ha ha...I am a god.

Muw ha ha…I am a god.

To be the smartest man in the room.  It’s a nice place to be.  Christopher Nolan has reached a point in his career where he is the smartest man in the room.  Warner Brothers begged him to reboot the Superman film mythos, but Nolan wisely decreed that he was the last person who should do that.  He knew after his successful reboot of Batman that lightening doesn’t strike twice.  Yet Hollywood lives off the delusion that lightning can strike twice.  So, Nolan, not wanting to bite the hand that fed him, agreed to produce and bring along many of his cohorts (notably screenwriter David S. Goyer and epic score maestro Hans Zimmer) to help breathe life into a stale franchise.  He gets paid no matter what, and if this things bombs, hey, he wasn’t the director (meanwhile he’s busy crafting his own original film, Interstellar).  In comes Zack Snyder, a keen visual stylist who too often succumbs to his own fetishes involving shaky camera-work and overblown non-sensical FX spun into a blender, to direct.  The result is the overstuffed but weirdly entertaining Man of Steel – which brings great comfort to the writer in me, for it’s Goyer’s script (thoughtful, though full of holes and far from perfect) that rises above Snyder’s bombastic attempt to derail the film at every turn.

Man of Steel’s greatest assets (apart from Zimmer’s score) are the cast members.  The filmmakers wisely brought on two of this generation’s greatest character actors to take on key roles: Michael Shannon, enraged and menacing as General Zod and quadruple Oscar nominee Amy Adams as a feisty and smarter than usual Lois Lane.  It’s a real treat to watch Shannon not so much chew scenery as he does annihilate it (literally, his super-alien romper-room shenanigans with our title character bring down buildings) and it’s refreshing to see Adams’ Lois get in on the action and discover Clark Kent’s true identity from the start.  She coos and pants in his arms when he rescues her, but she’s no fool and unlocks the key to bringing down Zod.  Meanwhile, enjoyable cameos abound with Russell Crowe overacting as Jor-El; Kevin Costner under-acting as the senior Kent; Diane Lane pretty, naturally aged and forlorn as Ma Kent; Laurence Fishburne sadly wasted as Lois’ boss; and Christopher Meloni as a noble military man. Continue reading

Orphans, Terrorism and Dickensian Economics in The Dark Knight Rises

Orphans of the world – Rise up!

They’re all orphans. We’re all orphans. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is the orphan of murdered parents. So is the child of R’as Al Ghul. Idealistic young cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) – yup, his parents are dead too. Even Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has been orphaned in a way by his family who moved to the safety of another city.  In the later half of the film, Gotham – itself a character in Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy – whose bridges have been destroyed and tunnels blocked, becomes orphaned by the rest of the nation.  Then, of course, there is Gotham’s downtrodden citizenry, orphaned by the elite.  And what, pray tell, do these orphans do?  They get angry.  They rise up.

It’s fitting to have this Dickensian theme of orphans running through Nolan’s tale, as he closes out the film with a quote from Dickens’ classic opus on the French revolution, A Tale of Two Cities.  But unlike Dickens, Nolan lives in a world of Al Qaeda, and it’s terrorism and fear that act as the impetus to revolution in Gotham.

Eight years following the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is hobbled, disheartened and reclusive in his opulent manor.  The streets of Gotham are clean thanks to Commissioner Gordon and the Dent Act (itself a piece of corrupt subterfuge) but there’s an economic crisis brewing.  A cat burglar (Anne Hathaway, who brings a welcome slinky theatricality to her pivotal role) absconds with Bruce’s mother’s pearls.  But he’s got even more lady problems with Miranda Tate (Nolan muse Marion Cotillard) who looks to take a controlling interest in the crumbling Wayne Enterprises.  Meanwhile, a master terrorist named Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy) orchestrates a daring mid-flight kidnapping of a nuclear physicist.  These events set the wheels in motion, and from there it’s full tilt towards an explosive climax where all parties mentioned play an integral part that isn’t always made clear until that key turn of the screw. Continue reading

A Review of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”

Terror in the Knight, 22 July 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Director Christopher Nolan has tapped into a cultural zeitgeist with his soaring Dark Knight.  No other director has shown so much ambition while working within the context of such an iconic name brand belonging to popular culture. By building upon the excellent framework he set with Batman Begins and adding in the chaos of the Joker (Heath Ledger, legendary) and the tragedy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, admirable), Nolan, like Hitchcock before him, utilizes a B-level genre flick to tap into our shared cultural fears. Along with his co-writer brother, Jonathan Nolan, the director crafts a tightly wound tapestry that explores our archetypal fears of losing our identity and becoming that which we hate, while tuning into post 9/11 fears of terrorism, cowboy diplomacy, wire-tapping, and vigilante justice run amok.

The cast assembled falls right into place with Nolan’s epic and relentlessly dark vision of our current superhero mythology. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are again perfect in their supporting roles of wisdom and gadget providers, while Gary Oldman receives a surprising amount of screen time and delivers a sterling Oscar-worthy performance as the tormented Commissioner James Gordon. Replacing the dreadful Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is spry and feisty as assistant DA Rachel Dawes, but still seems out of place in her role. Bale is again brooding and effective as Bruce Wayne, though he gets overshadowed by the sly trickster that is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger is everything he’s been hyped up to be. He’s scary good and his insanely nuanced and subversively humorous performance haunts the film while his character terrorizes Gotham with a feverish intensity that is divinely married to Nolan’s amped up tempo of thrills.

The opening moments of the film fall victim to the typical trappings of a sequel as it tries to reintroduce us to the cast regulars while setting the stage for new conflicts. However, once the Joker starts playing his games, Nolan ratchets up the tension to a nightmarish effect that will leave your pulse pounding for two hours. With each terrorist act of the Joker and ensuing catastrophe, Nolan ups the ante, resulting in a film that is enormously entertaining while also making the obvious bloated runtime seem oppressive and nerve-wracking…almost as if the film is a terrorist attack against the audience…

…and maybe that’s the point. With the opening camera swoop between skyscrapers zeroing in on a single window taken straight from Hitchcock’s opening shot from Psycho, Nolan tells the audience what they are in store for. Two more images, along with Ledger’s ghastly scarred and make-up covered visage, seep into the viewer’s subconscious. The first is after a building is exploded we see an image of firefighters spraying water over the scalding steel left behind that is eerily reminiscent of scenes from Ground Zero. The second is after a hospital is demolished, an image of the building’s carcass on the television seems taken straight from the Oklahoma City Bombing. As we watch the harrowing Joker-less climax involving Batman, Dent, and Gordon, and knowing in the back of our minds what became of Ledger in real life, we realize that terrorism can not only come from without, but from within. Sometimes we are our own worst victims.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/usercomments-1186

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Check out my review of the original Batman Begins:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/usercomments-501