Thursday, August 23, 2012

Charley Varrick

Charley Varrick (1973)
Dir. Don Siegel
Written by Dean Reisner and Howard Rodman
Starring Walter Matthau, Andrew Robinson, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon

    CHARLEY VARRICK is one of those nifty little films they had in the 70s which has the trappings of a Hollywood thriller but --at its heart-- has kind of quiet oddness to it which make it feel unique. There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about this tale of a small-potatoes criminal who steals money from the wrong big-potatoes criminals, but, like its protagonist, it has an unassuming but deft knack for the details. And, like its protagonist, it benefits greatly from the low-key but undeniable charm of Walter Matthau.

    The titular Charley (Matthau) is the ostensible leader of a small band of bank robbers -- including his wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott, DUEL) and dickish young hood Sullivan (Andrew Robinson, internationally beloved for his iconic performance as Sheriff Braddock from PUMPKINHEAD 2: BLOOD WINGS)-- who knock over a podunk country bank in bumfuck nowhere, New Mexico. In the ensuing shootout, Nadine is killed but the boys get away with the money. And it turns out to be a lot of money. $750,000 in 1973 dollars. $3,870,000 in today-dollars. Which, wow, is, uh, more than there probably should be in a podunk farmers’ bank in the middle of nowhere, huh? So now they’ve got a bag full of the Mob’s money, the cops are on their tail, they can’t trust anyone, and there’s a ruthless but folksy Mob enforcer (Joe Don Baker) hunting them. Can’t a guy catch a break?

Matthau takes a little side work as an underwear model.

The coolest thing about the film is Matthau’s Charley Varrick character. He’s a much more interesting, more unusual protagonist than you would usually get in this sort of film.* He’s a former cropduster, and a former stunt pilot (his wife would dance on the wings of his airborne plane, apparently), and unglamorous older guy who favors a mechanic’s jumpsuit and lives in a tiny trailer. He’s not exactly a loser, just a guy who hasn’t ever had much luck, who has spent his life doing shit jobs for shit money. It would be easy to say that this recent move to bankrobbing represents some kind of last-ditch shot at the good life, the American dream which has been denied him, but I think it’s not as simple as that. He treats his new bankrobbing profession like any other job, working small-time banks for small payoffs, keeping off the radar. He’s not looking for a big score to make his dreams come true -- just trying one new hustle in a long life of just barely getting by. When he finds he’s unexpectedly stumbled onto some serious money, his reaction is concern rather than joy. He’s been around long enough to know that there’s no such thing as good luck -- just false hope.

The poster gushes, “when he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back one!” which is manifestly untrue on both counts. But Charley is smarter than people give him credit for. He’s quiet and unassuming, but there’s a vivacity in Matthau’s eyes which tells us he’s keenly aware of the world around him, constantly sizing up the forces leveled against him and looking for an escape route. With his wife dead and his partner a hotheaded lowlife, he’s got no one to discuss his plans with, and so you never know exactly what he’s up to. In some ways, his journey reminds me of Toshiro Mifune in YOJIMBO (or Clint in FISTFULL OF DOLLARS**) where you have this one guy who’s obviously smarter than everyone around him, but maybe not quite smart enough to beat the odds. Like Yojimbo (or Sanjuro) we see Charley setting up his plan, maybe working his way out of this mess or maybe just digging himself deeper. When it seems like he’s fucked himself, we’re never sure if he’s actually working the long con or if he’s just in over his head. The movie generously gives us all the details, though, so when things do come together it’s a pleasant payoff to actions which didn’t exactly make sense at first.
Not exactly James Bond's tuxedo.

Charley’s toothpick-chewing, thoughtful silence also makes him an intriguingly opaque character. His stoic reaction to his wife’s death could be read many different ways. He doesn’t cry about it, just contemplates her silently for a moment, before setting fire to her corpse to hide the evidence. What’s he thinking about? Her badass getaway driver skills (while bleeding out from a bullet wound, notch) and history as an airborne stuntwoman pegs her as a woman who’s no shrinking violet, and perhaps even more impetuous than Varrick himself. Did she, perhaps, push him into this life of crime, which he now has to navigate without her? Did they love each other, or were they more like partners in crime? Refreshingly, there’s no big monologue scene to address these questions -- Charley isn’t much of a talker and he has no one to listen anyway. It’s just there for you to contemplate. The true joy of the movie, really, is trying to figure out exactly what kind of man this Charley Varrick is. And the best part about that job is that neither Matthau nor the film is exactly trying to hide anything. They’re just not big on oversharing. It’s not a mystery, just something there’s not a pat, prepackaged answer to.

Regardless, though, we’re rooting for Charley because he’s a underdog beset by wild dogs. Chief among them is Joe Don Baker, gleefully turning his folksy badass Buford Pusser persona on his head to play a sociopathic killing machine for the mob. Named Molly. He’s still a charming, southern gentlemanly Joe Don Baker type, but now he seems more like Matthew McConaughey in KILLER JOE. He’s a smart, capable smooth operator, but there’s something inhuman and unhinged lurking somewhere below that surface of calculated congeniality. His utter glee at hunting and intimidating a guy way below his pay grade has a disturbing, almost predatory flavor to it***. He’s a great villain, and nicely complemented by oily John Vernon as his mob boss. As the two of them demonstrate the considerable resources available to seriously fucking bad people, things start to look increasingly grim for Charley and you start to really hope he knows what the fuck he’s doing. Even though you know this is a grim 70’s thriller and probably things aren’t gonna work out all that well for him.

This is why every cowboy sings a sad, sad song.

Director Don Siegel made a bunch of classics like the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE SHOOTIST, HELL IS FOR HEROS, COOGAN’s BLUFF, and DIRTY HARRY (just two years before this), but doesn’t seem like the kind of director to leave a lot of his own fingerprints on the work. Instead, he directs with a lot of the attributes of his protagonist here: a quiet, workmanlike competence that wins you over without overwhelming you. He has a knack for putting together highly effective scenes without calling attention to himself. It’s subtle, but he knows when to stage a long, slow take and when to turn on the editing tricks -- it’s resolutely unflashy, but it means when things pick up tempo, you get excited by the action instead of the editing. Imagine that, an action scene where the action itself is exciting enough that they don't have to beat us over the head with a much of editing and camera tricks.

So as a whole, CHARLEY VARRICK is admittedly unflashy, which probably explains it’s relative obscurity. Even for a 70’s crime picture, it’s a little too odd, a little unwilling to milk its simple premise for the big payoffs audiences were probably expecting. Varrick’s old cropdusting business boasts a slogan, painted on the side of his van, which Siegel apparently hoped would be the film’s title: “Charley Varrick: Last of the independents.” Neither the movie nor the main character go quite the way they’re expected to, and both of them probably suffered a bit for it. They’re too unusual for the mainstream, and a the same time not exotic enough for jaded elites looking for a challenge. But for those of us who are game to watch something truly go its own way --unglamorous, uncompromising, but maybe a little more clever than it seems at first wash-- CHARLEY VARRICK will hopefully not be the very last of the independents.

*Actually, Clint Eastwood was originally up for this part, straight off his DIRTY HARRY collaboration with director Don Siegel. He turned it down, though, and it’s just as well -- part of the film’s charm is that Matthau isn’t an alpha-male action hero. He’s much more believable as a schlub who may well be in too deep to claw himself out. With Eastwood, you’re gonna assume he’s eventually going to face down his enemies and blow them away. With Matthau, you can settle for just wanting him to escape with his life.

**But not Bruce in LAST ONE STANDING, who has that awful interior monologue where he’s constantly telling us what he’s trying to do.

***In fact, Marcellus Wallace’s line in PULP FICTION about “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” is cribbed almost directly from this movie.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Borderland (2007)
Dir. Zev Berman
Written: Zev Berman
Starring Brian Presley, Jake Muxworthy, Rider Strong, Damian Alcazar, and Sean Astin

    BORDERLAND is a film from the second “8 Films to Die For” series, a collection of independent horror films which initially generated quite a bit of excitement amongst horror fans until they realized that oh yeah, most independent horror films are just as shitty as conventional studio ones, and they look cheaper. It’s very loosely based on the real Mexican drug dealer/ cult leader Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo. It has reasonably decent acting for a horror movie, a capable production design, a nice-looking poster, a good horror premise, and it’s not very good. It’s a bit of a bummer to have to say that, since I feel like writer/director Berman was genuinely trying to make something decent. There’s a distinct flavor of ambition here, and a manifestly committed attempt to make a serious, disturbing horror film. But the end result is a listless, cliche-ridden mess, failing to even scratch the surface of a premise that should have been an easy one. I’m hoping that by exploring what went wrong here, we can prevent future directors from falling into the same trap.

    Here’s the premise: Three recent college grads decide to cross the Texas border into Mexico, the theory being that lack of law enforcement in the area makes it easier to casually do drugs, fuck prostitutes, and generally be ugly Americans. We run into problems almost immediately, because these are those Platinum Dune Michael Bay horror movie actors who are obviously way too pretty for us to buy as real humans. Let me let you in on a little secret, future filmmakers. Allowing a day of fastidiously manicured beard growth is not going to trick us into thinking these hunky thirtysomethings are normal schlubby college kids, just like you and I. It’s the male version of those glasses insanely gorgeous girls in romantic comedies wear in a lame concession towards resembling a real human being. Not buying.

    This might be possible to overlook, if never exactly forgive, had we started killing them quickly and in imaginative ways. But instead, we spend almost an hour with these douchey nonentities, wasting valuable killing time and not learning squat about our antagonists. The “innocent religious guy” of the three gets kidnapped early on, and his two friends basically just fuck around trying to get someone to pay attention to them for nearly a full hour. Meanwhile, Jesus-boy is tied up, listening to Sean Astin unconvincingly try to imitate a scary cult enforcer.*

Ooh, scary. Rudy's got a dark side.

    There IS a way to do this kind of thing, of course. Make it a kind of spooky, paranoid thriller which slowly ratchets up the tension as our boys find themselves increasingly alone and obviously outmatched in a foreign place, at the mercy of maniacs they cannot understand. It would be an implied kind of horror, a horror by suggestion. That’s the movie I think they were hoping to make. But instead they made a low-rent psycho killer flick in which almost nothing happens for 90% of the running time. Not a good move. It’s too cliche to pass for real people in a real world, but way too literal to achieve any kind of surreal horror. The characters are too stock to pretend they’re interesting, but too earnestly acted to work as campy killer fodder. So the whole film just sort of sits there, furtively checking in on its characters as they do nothing embarrassingly bad but nothing especially compelling either.

    And there’s your problem. If you or a loved one is considering making a horror movie in the near future, begin by asking yourself this superficially simple but fundamentally important question: where is the tension coming from? If you fail to lock down that simple plot mechanic, you’re gonna have the same problem they have here, which is that it’s ultimately not really coming from anywhere but the basic concept. There’s no narrative tension at all. Our two heroes spend most of their time wandering around Mexico trying to find people to help them out. A good idea in real life, but it makes the script feel almost like a police anti-procedural. More about the details of the way they try to approach the problem, rather than the problem itself. Again, you could do it this way, but it would be hard to find much horror here, and even so you’d have to make the details themselves waaaay more interesting.**

This will teach you to shake the damn camera around so much.
You also might have been able to milk the ticking-time-bomb angle, since their friend is kidnapped early on and the sooner they get to him, presumably, the more likely he’ll survive. But of course, there’s never any clear timeframe or much measure of progress from either the protagonists or the antagonists. Sean Astin seems to just kind of killing time until his boss can pencil in a moment to ritually sacrifice this simpering hick to his African Voodoo Spirit. Without a clear sense of how much time remains, this possible means of evoking tension is rendered moot. Like all these tortureporn movies, it’s sort of grim to watch this poor kid sweat it out, but it’s not particularly tense, since there’s obviously nothing he can do to save himself. Just unpleasant.

Then you might have been able to work the paranoia and overwhelming force angle. This is the one area that the film is able to fitfully cull some interest out of. In its single somewhat arresting scene, one of our heroes --left alone in a hotel-- suddenly finds himself under siege from all directions by an army of faceless, machete-wielding attackers. Since Casey Ryback is not available, this scene works up some solidly nightmarish oh-god-they’re-after-me panic, even if it’s pretty much cribbed directly from ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. This scene works because it suddenly expands the scope of the conspiracy against them, depicts a clear danger, a clear reaction to that danger, and a clear goal for our protagonists to struggle towards. Both the stakes and the action are clearly articulated, so you have something to actually get invested in. Plus, it takes a break from the movie’s tiresome customary literalness and bathes the whole thing in weird green and orange light which has no obvious source but definitely ups the nightmare quality of everything. Had the film taken this escalation to heart and built on it, we might have something that starts slowly but ends well. Sadly, this is not the case: despite this sequence where dozens if not hundreds of cultists swarm a hotel to kill one single dude who is hardly even related to their plot, they never show up again. When we get to the villain’s lair at the end, there’s maybe two dozen people working there, and they run for the hills at the sight of a gun. Weak sauce.

Which finally brings us to the last area we might have been able to milk some tension from: the disturbing nature of the true story they’re ripping off. This should have been the easy part. The ever-colorful murderpedia entry on Constanzo reveals a wild story of drugs, bisexual lovers, murderous gangs, drug-dealing priests, madness, and voodoo. How disappointing that the film seems almost entirely uninterested in most of this, instead favoring a an approach which focuses on his footsoldier thugs. Armies, as a rule, aren’t very scary. I mean, does S.P.E.C.T.R.E’s gang of jumpsuited gunmen really strike terror into anyone’s heart? You’re just not gonna get that personal creepy touch you get from a single murderous psychopath acting on his (or her) own twisted internal logic. Gangs are just a very bland, superficial threat. If we’re gonna get a horror film out of this, we’re gonna need something a bit more deviant.

Man, Rico Suave has fallen on hard times.

Alas, it is not to be. When we do finally get to meet our Constanzo stand-in (here named Santillian for what I assume are legal reasons), he’s a disappointing Andy Garcia wannabe (although with some cool tattoos) who unimaginatively sacrifices a guy by hanging him by his feet and slicing his neck. You call that disturbing? SAVAGES also has a gang of Mexican drug-dealers murdering people, but it manages to be about a hundred times more creatively depraved, without ever bringing up Satanic Sacrifice. This Santillian guy just isn’t cutting it, no pun intended. Where are the gory, lurid details? Where are the freaks? Does everything have to be so brightly lit? And most importantly, this is a drugged-up bisexual murderous voodoo maniac? He’s smarmy and unpleasant, to be sure, but you never get the sense of a truly unhinged mind. He’s more Gordon Gekko than Patrick Bateman.  To make matters worse, seemingly everything is staged and shot to look as mundane and pedestrian as possible, and then made worse by a wobbling shaky-cam, a lack of clear geography of the location, a lack of clear threat, and a weird double-climax where a handful of cultists follow our surviving heroes back home and are dispatched with violence. When they try to play off Sean Astin as the final villain, you know they’re out of good ideas.

So sorry guys, no luck on this one. It strikes me as another one of those unfortunate cases where nerds are trying to shock you, but lack the imagination to come up with someone really transgressive. Combined with douchey, humorless and cliched characters, a unfocused plot, infuriating shaky-cam, and a utter failure to capitalize on a decent horror scenario, and that pretty well sinks the ship. It’s a tedious and joyless affair, but at least it makes a good candidate for autopsy. Independent filmmakers of the future, take heed: horror films are about more than convincing machete kills and claims of true-life serial killers. They’re a chance to construct something which makes use of the best cinema has offer, combining stories and images which play off our subconscious and instinctual fears. You don’t need a lot of money to do it. But you do need to get the fundamentals right, particularly if you’re trying for a serious, grim tone like this one is. You got to want to do more than tell a tale, you got to want to get into our heads. And to do that, you have to think about what really goes on in there. Like George Carlin says of the blues,

“its not enough to know which notes to play, you gotta know why they need to be played.”

*Casting against type can sometimes work nicely in movies like this, but I think people have an unrealistically high opinion of how often it actually comes across as anything more than a distracting gimmick. I mean, it worked for Elijah Wood in SIN CITY, but fuck dude, what's next, are we gonna see the guy who played Pippin play a junkie pimp in a blaxploitation throwback? Astin is fine in this, but come on, he's just not scary. It doesn't help that he's playing a completely vacant thug character in a movie which is resolutely unscary at every turn, but I can't help thinking that another actor could have made this character seem more like a real threat and less like an unpleasant stoner. 

**It probably goes without saying that it also completely wastes its somewhat unique setting on the lawless border between Texas and Mexico, using it as a plot device instead of a chance to get some interesting diversity and local color into its standard horror premise.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Written: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, Joseph “Commissioner” Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, Aidan Gillen, and pretty much everyone else.

    One thing everyone seems to be able to agree on. This is a big movie. Everything about it is big. Big cast. Big ambitions. Big scope. Big spectacle. Big budget. Big explosions. Big expectations. Being a sequel to BIG. Being an acronym for “Batman is Great.” Big balls. Big baldy. Big business.

    But the more I think about it, the thing that I like best about the movie is one of its smallest scenes. It takes place between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne (out of costume, wearing a plain tee-shirt) and his butler and caretaker, Michael Caine’s Alfred. They talk for a few minutes in a sparsely decorated stairway about whether or not Wayne can go on being Batman without eventually being killed. Alfred begs Bruce to give it up, tells him he’s certain to be killed if he continues; that he can’t stand by and watch Bruce throw his life away. Bruce hangs back in the shadows, knowing Alfred is right, knowing that by continuing on this course he’s going to lose the few people he still has any human connection to at all. And knowing he’s going to do it anyway.

    In a movie which features a nuclear time bomb, a gigantic heavily-armed hovercraft, the wholesale destruction of a stadium, a gigantic Cecil B. DeMille-style hand-to-hand battle with a cast of hundreds, and a grown man in a rubber bat suit, that scene sticks with me. Caine and Bale don’t make any grand speeches. Bale barely says a word. The whole thing is virtually irrelevant to the plot. But there’s something real there. Something passes between these two excellent actors, in this small scene, which is deeply touching and deeply true. They’re talking about whether one of the two of them (I won’t spoil who) is going to put on a cape and drive a motorcycle to punch a supervillain who lives in the Gotham City sewers. But they’re not really talking about that; they’re talking about whether it’s worth living in the world anymore. Alfred is laying out his soul, begging the person he cares about to care about himself enough to at least give life an honest attempt. There’s something deeply heartbreaking about the way Alfred so nakedly begs, and the way you can see both that Bruce’s heart is breaking and yet that there’s so little of a person left there that he can’t respond in kind. It’s very small. But it’s real.

Looks like someone needs a hug

    I mention this, because most of this movie isn’t real. The BIG is mostly bluster, an attempt to overwhelm with sheer mass. An attempt to meet the ridiculous expectations by giving us too much to process, flummoxing our sense and making us confuse exhaustion with satisfaction. In fact, this is an extremely silly film which ultimately buckles from the ridiculous weight it insists upon carrying. It never quite generates enough mass to entirely disappear into its own black hole, but it’s inarguably top-heavy. It’s a movie full of big ideas which never really venture past the surface; a movie which is deeply grim but mostly over ridiculous things. The movie is basically a gothy teenager, thinking it’s the first one ever to discover that life is meaningless and people are jerks.

    But the weird thing is, it’s directed by Christopher Nolan. So the serious parts are actually done so well that they’re legitimately arresting. And that makes the underlying ridiculousness seem all the more inexplicable.

    We’re introduced to Mr. Wayne eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT. Apparently, his unnecessary plan to publicly blame himself for an event which no one else witnessed and could have had almost any explanation worked better than I thought it would, because thanks to Harvey’s heroic death they passed a bunch of draconian laws which have prevented parole for convicts associated with organized crime and hence the city is safe and Batman is no longer needed. Fortunately everyone convicted under these laws was definitely guilty and had nothing more to contribute to society or culture, so it’s OK that they threw away the key and everyone is happy and in fact celebrates the awkwardly-named “Harvey Dent Day” every year at Wayne manor.

Wayne, though, is not at the party, having become an eccentric recluse with a cane and a big beard who sort of squats in one unfinished wing of the gigantic rebuilt mansion, presumably dividing his time between throwing away his family fortune on quixotic clean energy projects and carefully saving and categorizing jars of his own urine. He’s lured out of this idyllic existence, as so many of us are, by being robbed by Anne Hathaway. Having already seen her costumed as a maid, he correctly surmises that she must also own a skin-tight leather catsuit, and so our intrepid hero ventures out into the world to follow up on these important leads, in the process discovering that there’s a lot more going on outside the mansion than just cocktail parties for dead DAs and long expository monologues delivered by Gary Oldman. For instance, there’s also a shirtless Darth Vader living in the sewer, and at some point Morgan Freeman invented flying cars but for some reason never told anyone.

Best Fetlife meetup ever.

 This slowly leads us into an enjoyably convoluted plot which involves pretty much every single element and character from the previous two films, plus Matthew Modine because fuck it, he wandered onto the set. Things are blown up, ever more characters are introduced, missiles are fired, motorcycles are ridden, punches are thrown, laborious metaphors are constructed. It’s a pretty well constructed -- if hilariously overbuilt-- story. The mystery is engaging, the spectacle is impressive, the characters are colorful, numerous, and well-acted. It even remembers to have some fun every now and again (mostly thanks to Anne Hathaway’s quippy Selina Kyle).

But it’s hard to deny that in the end,  it’s simply too big for it’s own good. It’s a whole miniseries crammed into a frantic 165 minutes where a whole fucking lot happens, but not much sinks in. It’s almost a cliffs notes of a movie. The abridged DARK KNIGHT RISES. It feels like a movie version of a novel too beloved by fans to allow anything to be excised. The result is a movie with almost no narrative slack, but no real narrative impact, either. A plot checklist with a whole fucking lot of checks. It’s crafty and gripping while you’re watching, but as soon as it’s over you find yourself thinking about the plot holes instead of the characters. Because stuffing three films’ worth of plots into a single film doesn’t really give you time to do anything satisfying with the characters. They’re always occupied frantically moving the plot forward, and never seem to have time to be affected by it. And consequently the audience can never be much affected by it.

By my count, there are no less than eight major characters --four of them totally new-- competing for time and relevance throughout the film’s 165 minutes with not only each other, but also what seems like dozens of minor characters, setpieces, expository flashbacks, and explosions. Nolan knows he has to find something for all of them to do, and with each new story that gets added, the gigantic ball of plot becomes more tangled and unwieldy. The result is that every character gets the bare outline of an arc, but no more. Every character gets a setup, one or two scenes of conflict, and then a resolution. But that’s simply not enough to really convey meaningful growth. Even Wayne himself barely has a character arc here. We learn, because the film outright tells us, that he has to learn to fear again in order to “rise” -- fair enough, it’s a good setup that addresses both the reason he became Batman to begin with and the reason he can’t care enough about his own life to exist without Batman. But how, exactly, does this change come about? At the start of the final act, he just announces that he now has something to fear, and that does the trick. Any kind of meaningful change has to happen off camera -- there’s no time for it. The movie just settles for telling us it’s happened. And that, my friends, makes for somewhat superficial and unsatisfying storytelling. 

Bane Kitty is really fucking hard to understand.

The film is no better with the philosophical issues that it raises. It starts off by tantalizing us with the dynamic between poor Selina Kyle and obscenely wealthy Bruce Wayne. What right does he have, she asks, to take so much while others have so little? Good question. Too bad it never comes up again. Likewise, Tom Hardy’s Bane character takes over the city with a long speech about oppression, and proposes that he’s going to free Gotham’s citizens to make their own choices regardless of their past or the leadership. But then he, um, doesn’t. Just like PROMETHEUS a few months ago --and for that matter, the two previous Nolan Batman films-- the film is bold enough to ask some ballsy questions, but then acts confused and changes the subject when you ask for an answer, or at least a discussion.

On that subject, friend of the site Dan P pointed me to this quote from Nolan, which appears in a Rolling Stone article unpromisingly subtitled, “Director Argues he has no Particular Message:”

"We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things."

This seems to me to read as Nolan acknowledging that his films deliberately raise issues they have no interest in meaningfully addressing, and basically arguing there is no reason to seriously consider these issues in the context of the film. If that’s true, it’s a real shame, because of course these very issues are the most interesting thing about this whole trilogy. To read that quote, you would think Nolan just wants us to watch his trilogy as a series of action movies about a guy in a batsuit fighting supervillains. But of course, that’s always been the weakest element in them.

Alas, it remains the case here as well. I foolishly (and apparently against the director’s wishes) got invested in the symbolism and themes, but I guess the important thing is the action, right? Problem is, there’s not a whole lot of action setpieces, and when they happen their quality is all over the place. There’s nothing to match the stunning truck chase from THE DARK KNIGHT, but the action is generally more comprehensible than it has been in the last two films. So you can tell what’s happening, but that just raises a new problem: it’s all surprisingly low on imagination. Bane has a couple nice setpieces, including a reasonably well-choreographed motorcycle chase and that Stadium explosion you’ve already seen in the trailers, but that’s honestly as memorable as the action gets. In fact, it’s hard not to notice that the basic conflict is essentially a remake of BEGINS: A plot by the League O’ Shadows (LOS, FYI) to blow up the city with a big bomb travelling around the city on a vehicle. The bulk of the rest of the action sequences involve Bane and Batman clumsily slugging at each other, or Batman flying an absurd, apparently invulnerable flying saucer and shooting missiles at people on the ground. This is a guy who was trained by ninjas? In retrospect, I almost liked it better when it was edited so I couldn’t tell what was going on. Wally Pfister still stubbornly refuses to shoot anything that has the least bit of atmosphere in it, so now that he has to hold the camera still in broad daylight, you can really tell what monotonous slugfests most Batman fights are. And how silly that suit looks on a grown man. They could spend 250 million on this movie but didn’t bother to train Bale so he looks like he can actually fight?* And then want to tell me that there’s no point in thinking about anything else in the film? What does that even leave?

Doves flying = symbolism. John Woo proved it.
Turns out it leaves just one thing: a long, complicated, overwrought drama overrun by characters looking for a resolution. But as it happens, this is the film’s secret weapon. Consider this: You know how in action films there is always a whiny girlfriend, who wants our hero to stop being so awesome and give up his code and settle down for a life of placid domesticity? They always gotta do that, it’s just sort of part of the formula at this point. I guess they put it in there as an empty gesture towards not glorifying antisocial vigilante violence, but come on, you know what we want to see -- some god damned irresponsible sociopathic violence. A bad thing in real life, but a good thing in the movies. OK, here the girlfriend is played by Michael Caine, but come on, you’re not actually supposed to agree with him. It’s just an empty gesture. They gotta say it so they don’t get sued if some asshole gets the wrong idea and turns vigilante.** Right?

Which brings us back to that scene I was talking about at the start of this review. Somehow, it doesn’t feel like a throwaway gesture here. It feels like an earnest plea by someone who is probably right. And I found myself sort of halfway hoping that Bruce would reconsider. I found myself halfway hoping that Batman could really never show up. In a Batman movie. Right about that time, I realized that for all its bluster, superficiality, and silliness, there is something fundamental in this Batman trilogy that works. Nolan, graced with a stunning dream cast of most of the best actors alive and working right now, has crafted an epic drama under the guise of making superhero action movies. Now, it’s a consistently silly, sometimes hilariously ludicrous drama. But the actors sell the heck out of it, the scope is breathtaking, and the dialogue is snappy and ingratiating. By the end, you realize you care about what happens to these Gotham City ninnies. When the movie plays rough with them, you root for them to recover and worry that they won’t be able to. When they start succeeding, you cheer for them. Most simply, when they talk, you listen.

Now let's do the WHEN HARRY MET SALLY ending!

There are plenty of things to complain about here. Yes, Bane’s plan is the exact same stupid plan that already didn’t work for Ras Al-Ghul in BATMAN BEGINS, and yes, it’s foiled the exact same way. And yes, plenty of shit here doesn’t make a lot of sense, a little sense, or occasionally even a lick of sense. The action can be clumsy and uninvolving. The drama can be thinly sketched and lazy. The themes can be muddled and superficial. And depending on your level of experience with reality, you may find it impossible to reconcile a complex, ensemble psychological drama with a guy wearing rubber bat ears and a cape. All these things are valid complaints.

But even given those factors, there is something giddy and compelling about the level of seriousness the film takes with its characters and its world. For all its unearned pretensions of depth and portent, there’s an earnest care for the people at the heart of this silly drama. Few people get the opportunity to put $ 250 million into a dense, Dickensian drama about fear, hope, and redemption, so in the rare event that it comes along you gotta sort of appreciate it. Comic books, at their heart, are as much soap operas as they are action movies -- laboriously overbuilt collages of colorful characters and shamelessly overwrought drama wandering about their ever-more-complex, ever-shifting world with listless plots which struggle for new territory, get lost in the motley minutiae, wander back, and forget where they started. RISES, for all it’s overreaching, in some ways represents the best of this ridiculous but endearing variety of American storytelling. The surface may be all false flash, but its heart is as resolutely, stalwartly geeky as it deserves to be. For a movie this self-consciously devoted to being BIG, it’s nice to know that the little things still make the most difference. Plus, Batman flies a flying saucer. As they say in the funny pages,


Barely, and only because Selina Kyle talks briefly but slightly over 30 seconds to her female neighbor/sidekick.

*Turns out Bale studied a form of Mixed Martial Arts called the Keysi fighting method, as I probably should have assumed he would. But like most MMA fighting styles, it looks like real fighting instead of choreographed movie fighting, which is to say, it’s boring and clumsy to watch.

**Not interested in talking about that subject, please feel free to discuss on other sites, but not here.