The Dark Knight Rises

I was in a cranky mood when we went to see this. I was in Editing Mode. Is it a horrible movie? Hardly. Is it a great movie? Definitely not.

I think Christopher Nolan did great things with The Dark Knight. Even that one has some holes in it, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy watching it, again and again. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, and Rises … well, it’s not Return of the Jedi. It tries to go darker, and fails. But not without failing greatly, and giving us solid entertainment in the process.

What I liked/What I Didn’t:

Bane. Great villain, a big hulking menace for Batman to whale on. I really liked all the similarities to The Dark Knight Returns, the comic book that made me like Batman (and Year One, which Batman Begins cribbed heavily from). Topping the Joker may have been impossible, and Thomas Hardy- a great, rising actor- does the best he can with an idiotic mask that makes him look like Hannibal Lecter and sound like a kid talking through a paper towel tube. Hint: Darth Vader was INTELLIGIBLE. Bane needed subtitles. Coupled with “The Batman voice” by Christian Bale, the most important dialogue of the movie sounded like it was uttered while both men were trying to expel a twelve pound impacted fecolith. “Can I have a bat-lozenge?” Bane’s origin was interesting, and almost makes him a tragic antihero in the end, but his final scene is played for a very weak joke.

The parallels to current politics. TDK had the surveillance device that mimics Carnivore and Echelon (what the FBI is using to read this, right now) and Rises has The Dent (cough, PATRIOT) act, a heist on the Stock Exchange, and a Catwoman (never so named) who openly loathes and steals from the 1%. Anne Hathaway does a decent job, but lacked character development; the film suffers a bit from too many villains, including a surprise one in the third act. It’s not a perfect parallel, but it does make you think, something you rarely do in a comic book movie. The peace in Gotham is based on a lie, and this poisons the city. Sadly the villains reference the first film instead of TDK, for a couple of needless cameos; the poison lie of Harvey Dent is a brilliant bit of writing, but they don’t cultivate it. And finally, I found it very funny that a “failed energy project” was played as Wayne’s scandal, and I am glad that it doesn’t make sense now unless you followed politics very closely.

For the final act, the entire city is held hostage for three months. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for this one. The Joker’s plan in TDK lasted hours. Bane’s siege depends on Commissioner Gordon making a terrible tactical mistake, which I didn’t buy. I did like how it made Gotham into the crime-infested hellhole that opens Frank Miller’s 80’s-era “The Dark Knight Returns.” It seemed a bit forced, but the images Nolan gets to use to depict it are stunning. So I’ll forgive it. The music throughout the film is a sledgehammer to the heartstrings, and became incredibly annoying. THIS… IS.. EXCITING! DUN DUNT!  OOH ANGELIC SINGING! SOMEONE GONNA DIE! Yes, that bad…

The setup in the first act is excruciating. As a writer, I have never felt the pain of backstory and exposition inflicted on me in such a manner. And yet I forgot why Bruce Wayne has a limp (he jumped off a building with Two-Face, to save Gordon’s son).  If I watch this on cable and skip the beginning, I know I will like it a lot more. I can’t even remember how Bane was introduced. That’s not good.

Michael Caine has an early scene that makes you wish the movie was better. He’s utterly gripping in it. Once again, I never liked Christian Bale in this one except for the physicality. He looks like Batman, and he looks like he can pull off the stunts. But I never care about him, ever. He never looks haunted, just tired. He plays the Bruce Wayne playboy parts perfectly, but when he’s supposed to be the haunted orphan… I don’t buy it. Never did. But I still don’t want a reboot.

The ending was fantastic. The fight with Bane was pretty awful- two guys throwing haymakers and grunting and grimacing, when they are martial arts masters, and Bane was originally a wrestler- but they pull a decent switcheroo on you, and point the story to a definite ending, with not all loose ends tied neatly. And you know what must happen next. I look forward to that story, and I hope Nolan gets to tell it. If anyone can make the story of the Joseph Gordon Levitt character compelling, it would be him.

So it’s flawed, sort of like Spiderman 3, but not as weak. It reaches for the heavens and doesn’t make orbit, but it wasn’t a disappointment. I commiserate with Nolan- he has a lot to say in this one, and he manages to get it all in there, but in places, it is muddled and we nod along, waiting for the good stuff.

Worth seeing if you liked the other two. Bravo to Nolan for writing a story with an ENDING, something Hollywood and Television are loathe to do. Stories don’t really end, I know. But the interesting parts do. They end this where it should be ended, and open doors for other stories that I want to see.

3/5 bat-lozenges

Public Enemies

Warning: Mild Spoilers ahead. Because the story is rather well-known, I will be a little free with facts here. If you don’t know how Dillinger’s story ends, you might not want to read this yet.

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies delivers a strong character drama that further romanticizes the myth of John Dillinger, but doesn’t live up to the reputation of either the bank robber or the director, who’s given us much better films such as Heat and Thief. The story of Dillinger and his pursuer Melvin Purvis is gritty and gripping, but lacks emotional punch and thematic consistence. And in the end, both men remain a mystery. I found the same problem with Miami Vice, which drops us in to the lives of undercover cops and takes a long time before making us care about them. So we have a good film, but not a great one. Like with Ali, he faces the familiar question of ‘how do you make a story everyone knows compelling?’
Mann went to extraordinary lengths to use the real locations for the scenes they re-enact. The Biograph Theater. The Ohio prison that they restored, for Dillinger’s infamous breakout. And the shootout at the Little Bohemia lodge, filmed at the original lodges still pockmarked with bullet holes from the original battle. This does give the film an unmistakable aura of authenticity, coupled with the excellent performances by Depp, Bale, Marion Cotillard as Billie Frechette, and even Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. The script plays around a little with order of events and minor details, but is mostly true to form. But what it chooses to concentrate on seemed to interest Michael Mann more than myself.

Purvis and Hoover- hints at a great story.

Which was odd. I’m a sucker for a gritty crime film and authenticity can substitute for substance for me; maybe that’s why I like Thief (full review) so much. But consider the emotional power in that film’s diner scene, or when James Caan is berating the woman at the adoption agency. Reflect on Heat, with Pacino’s bombastic explosions constrasted with his quiet face-off with DeNiro in … a diner. Depp and Purvis meet early in the film, when Dillinger is locked up in an Ohio jail, but we get little interplay except that we have two Mann heroes- driven men, whose work defines them, clashing once again.
What little emotional power the film has centers around Billie Frechette, a coatcheck girl that Dillinger fancies, and takes along with him on his 18 month crime spree. They meet; he wins her over with the line, “I like baseball, fast cars, nice clothes, whiskey, and you. What else you need to know?” and next thing you know they’re at a Miami horse race. Bonnie and Clyde (full review) it’s not. Later, when she is captured by the FBI- who have taken to brutal tactics at the urging of Director Hoover, who needs a high profile bust to get the Congressional funding he wants- we are relived at Purvis’s moral authority as he intervenes during her interrogation. However, he’s let off the hook for the civilian slaughter at the botched Little Bohemia raid, which like the famous bank heist shootout in Heat, gives the end of the second act a much-needed shot of adrenaline.

Marion Cotillard, exuding class and beauty as always

The script tries to make Dillinger and Frechette’s relationship into a tragic romnance, but here it veers from its Bible of authenticity to give us an emotional handhold, and we can feel its fakery. Dillinger was not a romantic, and his desire to live fast and not think about the future precluded love stories; he was with a prostitute shortly after Billie’s capture. The poetic license doesn’t end there; Baby Face Nelson, properly portrayed as the psychotic loose cannon he was, met a much less dramatic end in reality. The FBI led by Purvis gets a surprisingly improved portrayal, even though Mann takes pains to compare Hoover’s demands for results leading to the torture of wounded suspects and their molls. Illegal wiretapping is constantly on view, in the tangled switchboard operator dens. Perhaps the title Public Enemies doesn’t just refer to Dillinger, but also to Hoover? Mann is quite subtle with this, but teases us with a much more interesting subtext.
But in the end, we’re denied. Purvis’s story, the South Carolina lawman who brought in Texas police with gunfight cred to put the final nail in the coffin of Depression-Era flashy bankrobbers, is just as interesting as Dillinger’s, but it gets short shrift. Purvis’s tragic end is given a mere epitaph before the credits, but I wanted to see more of his internal battle with Hoover. Bale plays the film with laconic moral authority, from the opening scene that shows him as a hunter of men, as he guns down Pretty Boy Floyd with a sporting rifle. Depp’s performance captures the essence of Dillinger with that sly grin, cold eyes, and snappy movements. He was called “the Jackrabbit” for his agile movements in robberies, and Depp leaps over counters with ease. You can’t fault the performances in this movie. In fact, lookout for character actor Stephen Lang to make a big splash in Cameron’s Avatar; he steals a lot of scenes as Agent Winstead here. He’s best known for playing Sherman in Gettysburg but damn if he doesn’t remind you of late-career Sterling Hayden and a bit of Lee Marvin.

Stephen Lang flanked by two lawmen

Perhaps the story lies on the cutting room floor. We also get a small subplot about the Chicago mob, led by Frank Nitti, who’ve taken to bookmaking and illegal gambling and given up the wild street shootouts now that Prohibition is long gone. To them, Dillinger and his ilk are heat they don’t need, and they make it clear. Sure, it’s an interesting footnote to history, but it fits better in a movie like The Godfather than here. In the end, we get a solid drama but one that leaves much of the mystery intact. Dillinger spent ten years in prison after pleading guilty to a grocery store robbery after he couldn’t find a job in ’29; the long sentence soured him against society. That’s left completely unexplored. But I must admit that for two and a half hours, Mann had me riveted with his stunning cinematography, sharply directed action scenes that never confuse, and excellent performances from his cast (I’d also like to thank Mr. Mann for NOT using desaturated colors and going digital. Hollywood- people still saw in full color in oldtimey days). Perhaps I’ll glean more from future viewings. Perhaps.
I’d like to thank my pal Ian Fisher for details on Dillinger, and for recommending the Lawrence Tierney film from 1945, which I plan on watching soon. That, the John Milius film with Warren Oates as Dillinger, and the movie he & the Lady in Red saw at the Biograph, Manhattan Melodrama, are the next 3 films in my Netflix Queue. Watch for a comparison of the three coming soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5 tommyguns

Public Enemies Featurette and Interview with Michael Mann

Trailer Addict has this nice teaser showing how Michael Mann got Johnny Depp and Christian Bale to the same places their characters Dillinger and Purvis escaped and hunted from. The same hotel rooms, the same prison rebuilt… a rather amazing attention to detail that can only inspire great performances from these two actors. For one, it will be great seeing Depp outside of a Burton crazy role and back to stuff like his forgotten, excellent turn in Donnie Brasco; and Bale outside of the action superstar he’s quickly become, to something like The Prestige.

And for good reading, fellow Chi-town boy Roger Ebert picks Mann’s brain about the upcoming film here:

Michael Mann: Seeing history through Dillinger’s eyes
by Roger Ebert

a taste: Michael Mann saw the Biograph Theatre at 2433 N. Lincoln for the first time while riding past it on a streetcar when he was 8 or 9. His mother Esther told him, “That’s the old Biograph Theatre where they killed Dillinger.” She took a bow from the audience at the Chicago premiere of his movie “Public Enemies,” which ends with a corpse on the Biograph sidewalk.

Don’t forget the Michael Mann blogathon at Radiator Heaven that begins tomorrow!

Dark Knight IMAX

Finally saw The Dark Knight in IMAX with the Firecracker this week, and boy was it worth it. It’s been re-released, so if you missed it, now’s your chance. It definitely holds up. I forgot how good Aaron Eckhart was in this, even beside Heath Ledger, who managed to create a new Joker from what we new, and make him fresh and frightening. Ledger is a cinch for the Oscar even without the sympathy vote, he’s that iconic.
Yes, the “Batman voice” gets grating, but he would have to disguise it. They manage to weave many plotlines deftly, and it reminded me of Michael Mann’s Heat in how it put two driven, obsessed men against each other on two opposite sides of order and chaos. The IMAX scenes are stunning, and hopefully more and more action films will be using the format thanks to this film. It truly sets the bar extremely high for the “comic book movie” and I wouldn’t even call it a superhero film. Batman’s “wonderful toys” were so much a part of the background that this was more of a technothriller, if only because of the sonar.
Truly one of the best films of the year, despite what the Academy says. Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky aren’t getting respect this year, so I plan to record the Oscars and fast forward through the commercials, in a half-assed sort of boycott. NYAH!

Apparently the IMAX scenes look awesome on Blu-Ray:

Terminator Salvation promo scenes and robot design

Admittedly I had reservations when “McG,” the man responsible for directing the Charlie’s Angels movies, was given the reins to the Terminator franchise. I felt a little better when Every Nerd’s Man-Crush, Christian Bale, assumed the mantle of John Connor. The teaser trailer gave a visual gleam of hope, and now this leaked promo gives us an unpolished look at some of SkyNet’s army.

There’s not a lot to see here, but I like that this is set before the rise of the T-800 “Arnie” models- they mention a bulkier T-600, which may be the “rubber skinned models” Kyle Reese talked about in the first movie. We get to see one fool Connor from a distance in this, so that seems plausible. I like some of the larger Hunter-Killer and Harvester units shown here. Who doesn’t like a giant killer robot?

On the down side, Connor seems a little… slow in early scenes, which doesn’t seem right when he’s seen all sorts of killer robots by now, including the mimic T-1000, so he should be paranoid of anyone being an impostor ready to kill him. I hope the scene here is out of context, because we already saw John begin his journey to resistance leader in T2 and T3.

The Dark Knight

There will be a sea of nerds waxing superfluous about the utter success of this film; I’m afraid I am among them. Any movie as hyped as this one will generate backlash, and some will anticipate it and thrive on it. We are so easily jaded by our entertainment. The Dark Knight is beyond mere spectacle and elevates the superhero movie beyond all previous heights, as its material dives into the darkest depths, going into the abyss we never expected “comic book movies” to go. It builds a tragedy worthy of Greek myth and sets it in a complex, living Gotham as real as one of James Ellroy’s crime epics.

The Nolan brothers wisely delve into the rich past of the Batman character and pluck many of the best themes from the classic stories- the rise of fellow vigilantes, the misguided “Sons of the Batman” from The Dark Knight Returns; the Joker as the agent of disorder, pushing those with moral codes to the precipice of breaking them, from The Killing Joke; the concerns about surveillance from Kingdom Come. The script is definitely the best of the superhero crop, surpassing such classics as the original Superman as it weaves the tale of the Batman, District Attorney Harvey Dent– the white knight of Gotham, and the Joker.

There’s a glimmer of hope in Gotham when we return; Detective Gordon is now running an elite squad, D.A.’s Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes are putting high-profile mobsters away, and Bruce Wayne and Alfred are rebuilding the Manor, operating from a concealed bunker. The movie opens with a bravura heist sequence inspired by Michael Mann’s Heat, where the Joker’s minions rip off a mob bank. Batman is hunting down the top dogs in the crime world, one being a money launderer he follows to Hong Kong; while he’s away, the Joker hires himself out to the crime bosses, to eliminate their nemesis.

Heath Ledger’s Joker is more theatrical psychopath than clown; with his grungy make-up, and scarred cheeks recalling the old silent film The Man Who Laughs that inspired the character, he carves a swath through the underworld because he’ll do things even they won’t. His war with Batman is full of surprises, and seems more at home in a thriller like the Bourne Trilogy– lethally cunning ambushes that would be an assassination plot worthy of their own movie. They come one after another, and the films 152 minute running time only drags long enough to for the Joker to pull the rug out from under us- again. No one is safe, and by the end of the movie you’ll realize that like the villain, the Nolan brothers through the rules out the window when they wrote the script.

The emotional turmoil that Bruce Wayne and his allies go through is as terrorizing as the bombs going off left and right. There’s even a dash of Seven in the mix, when the Joker rigs up two ferries with explosives, and gives each group the other’s detonator; if one of them doesn’t blow up the other, he’ll detonate both of them at midnight. The resolution is pretty daring, and recalls The Killing Joke, when Jim Gordon was the target. The brutality is leavened with dark humor- the Joker in a nurse outfit, and of course the steadying hands of those two great actors, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman.

They’re back as the butler who gives Batman his center, and the inventor who gives him his gadgets, and while their roles are reduced this time, they are given memorable, irreplaceable moments. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Aaron Eckhart cover the lawyer roles with aplomb; Gotham’s white knight is no cardboard cut-out. But the movie isn’t all thrilling plot and fine acting- we get our share of action movie excitment as well. The Batmobile returns and is trumped by the faster, more maneuverable Bat-pod, which looks a lot like that 4-wheel motorcycle concept Dodge based off the Viper. He pulls some amazing tricks with it as he duels with the Joker in a ten-wheeler on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.

I did not see it in IMAX, but I will be, as soon as the local theaters aren’t all sold out. The movie is a marvel of editing, and if the Nolans ever tire of the franchise they can give Michael Mann a run for his money in the gritty crime movie genre, but he still has them on style. Is the movie perfect? The ending is. Like the comics I mentioned, The Dark Knight shows the Joker and Batman as two sides of the same coin, and this one lands right on the edge- they each own this film, and who truly wins in the end will be discussed on message boards and on the way out of the theater. Go see it, it lives up to the hype.

Rescue Dawn and Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Werner Herzog is a fucking animal. He makes a movie every year practically, from art house classics to gripping documentaries, and now he’s taking on Hollywood at its own game, with Rescue Dawn, and an upcoming remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant with Nicholas Cage. Part of me thinks that will be like The Wicker Man remake, but if anyone can beat a performance out of an actor, it’s Herzog. He kept a gun on set when working with Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God to keep him under control.

When he’s not making movies, he’s been known to save people like Joaquin Phoenix from car crashes.
Probably best known for his documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog has made literally dozens of films over his career. In the beginning he worked with a stolen camera, the ultimate in rogue filmmaking. By the time Grizzly Man came along he had his own cameras, but the energy and spirit he manages to capture on film has not changed. He has always been interested in obsessed individuals, and Timothy Treadwell, the guy who walked up to wild grizzly bears, was definitely one of them.

Another, more heroic figure is that of Dieter Dengler. He was a pilot in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, was shot down on a raid, and was held as a prisoner of war for many months. Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale as Dieter, dramatizes his account as a pilot, prisoner, and how he escaped and survived in the jungle for 23 days before being rescued. It’s a very naturalistic movie and feels like an old war movie at some times, and brutally realistic at others. Shortly after his plane is shot down, he is captured in Laos and dragged to a prison camp, with a few other U.S. and Thai soldiers. He is tortured with bamboo splinters, beatings, and submerged in a well up to his neck; overnight he and his fellow prisoners are shackled by the ankles.

Holy shit Steve Zahn can act!

Steve Zahn is one of his fellow P.O.W.s and gives a stunning performance as a broken-down man. Bale on the other hand does a fine job playing Dengler, a man who grew up in post-war Germany scrounging for scraps, so he has undergone suffering before. He’s steeled to it, and keeps the men in good morale by planning their escape. He ingeniously builds a lockpick out of a shell casing, and dries and stores rice in a hollowed-out bottom of his shit-can; he was a tool and die maker before he joined the Air Force, and has a way with metals. It takes months for his plan to come to fruition, and nothing goes as planned; he and Zahn end up on their own, with a single tennis shoe to protect their feet from the jungle floor.

This is no Missing in Action or Rambo 2, and when they do escape, it is by the skin of their teeth. When Dengler was rescued, he weighed a mere 85 pounds. Bale doesn’t pare down to that extreme weight like he did for The Machinist, but does look like a man fighting for his life in the jungle. The story is exciting and realistic, and beautifully filmed. Herzog has always had an artist’s eye for composure and presenting nature in all its terrible beauty, and the jungles of Indochina are the perfect palette for him.

I’d do it all again for a currywurst

If you pair the film with the 75-minute documentary he made prior to dramatizing the story, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, you get the story behind the man who seems always too cheerful to be in a prison camp. He stockpiles huge amounts of dry goods after his starved childhood and time as a P.O.W., and talks about how we take simple thinks like an unlocked door for granted. As a child he saw a bomber pilot, and resolved to fly planes. In Germany after the war this was impossible. He tells us of how his mother would cook wallpaper for the nutrients in the glue, things were so dire. He remembers the first time he saw a sausage for sale in a shop, and how no one he knew could afford it.

Nice to see you guys again

His dream of flight eventually brought him to America, where he joined the Air Force. His dream of flight has led him to join the very army that bombed him as a child; that’s the kind of drive that makes Herzog make a documentary about you. He brings him back to the jungle so he can re-enact some of his capture and escape with the Pathet Lao, and you can see that Rescue Dawn sticks very closely to the facts. It really should come in a two-pack. After his escape, he became a test pilot and survived 4 crashes. Like the movie says, Death didn’t want him. He passed away in 2001 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is interred at Arlington Cemetery.

Rest in peace, Dieter.