Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Thematic Wanderings: The Dark Knight Rises

An all new feature of The Wandering Kaijyu, where we take a closer dig into a popular work (old or new), and do our best to decipher past the scaly skin. Beware: Spoilers Ahead!

Upon giving Christopher Nolan's hotly debated finale, and also taking in many of the net-o-sphere's discussions/reviews of the film. And even though I stand by many in that the epic concluding chapter in The Dark Knight Trilogy is a bit of a messy kitchen-sink of a film littered with far too many ideas, and nowhere near the time and care necessary to deliver it all. But upon sifting a little harder, one can to a certain degree see a set of core conceits and concerns that were definitely on the minds of the Nolan brothers during the writing and filmmaking process that should allow some curious viewers some additional thought.

But first, a little attempt at debunking..

There is definitely a point within the film where one could easily opine that all that is happening on screen in indeed a slight against the current "Occupy" movement, and thus, a pro 1% statement. But upon closer examination, there is at least an attempt to offer a counterargument. Now without pretending that the film actually succeeded in sending it all home, let's go into this bit by bit.

A. Upon the arrival of Bane, and the siege of Gotham is under way, the bulk of those suffering the wrath of this affront seem to be of the city's wealthy. A good chunk of this very much seems ready to defend those of privilege.

However - With the fate that befalls Bruce Wayne, we also see a man of privilege go through the early stages of a full arc that is at the center of the narrative. His prolonged absence from the public eye has included a complete inability to engage directly with not only the citizens, and fellow business minds at Wayne Enterprises, which has as a result fallen into disarray. A large part of what has been neglected in the eight years since the disappearance of the Batman, has been the loss of moneys that largely supported local charities such as the boys home that once housed John Blake.

And while this again may seem like a tear being shed for the poor, privileged protagonist, the film also goes to great lengths to remind Wayne that even as his business falters, he will remain secure with a large mansion, and a butler to serve him. With all his worries, there truly is nothing for him to truly fear at any real survival level. In no way is he seen as sympathetic, or even remotely prepared for what is is meant to face by the film's climax. Great lengths are made to see that Wayne is not an instantly sympathetic lead at this point in the series.

But this is a portent to what will become the crux of the film's second half.

Why the 1% argument falters: 

While we see Wayne, and eventually the rich suffer large in the first half of the film, the counterbalance is brought in not only in Bane and crew who clearly came from the depths of society, but by "street level" such as Blake and of course, Selina Kyle, who is who she is despite her rocky past. Strong, brutal, seductive and clever, she is a reminder of those left behind in the city. As is the young patrolman, Blake, who grew up and orphan, and has become a sympathetic and observant member of Gotham PD. It is these two, combined with the already grounded soul in Commissioner James Gordon who represent those less spoken for in the city.

 After Batman/Bruce Wayne has been dispatched into a faraway undisclosed prison, where he is sent by Bane to suffer and wallow in his ultimate defeat, it is Gordon and a number of police who weren't buried in explosion rubble. And it is in their ground level actions that set up the notion that Batman is no longer even considered in any plans to save the city. By using the most basic methods such as notes on strings, secret meetings, and minimal to no firepower, the struggle to undo Bane's island-wide stranglehold is as bare-bones as it gets. It is the complete antithesis of Bruce Wayne's dependence on Lucius Fox's inventions to even walk straight. (the knee-brace is almost instantly a reminder of the expensive, often unusual technological needs Wayne is often dependent on to do what he does - something the remaining cops of Gotham do not have - It is also a big reminder of just how ill-prepared he is for the coming struggle.)

B. The final melee between the freed army of Gotham Police and Bane's army is tasteless as it features the cops beating down on the city's disenfranchised.

Now this is where it is more a case of faulty information delivery by the filmmakers, because the final battle on the steps of Wall Street is clearly between those with nothing, and others who have been armed, most of which have merely been established as remnants of the army that had been around from the beginning section of the film, and many of the escaped from Black Gate Prison (not any manner of "disenfranchised"). This is clear due to one of my largest gripes of the final film - We never see any testimonials or asides from ordinary citizens. It is one of the more egregious mistakes that the film makes, skipping out on reactions from people on the streets, in their homes, anyone who's opinions/observations might have shed some light on the overall mood of Gotham City before, and during the citywide takeover. Many might remember that The Dark Knight often took the time to allow many ordinary people (and not merely police) to voice their concerns over the threat of both Batman and The Joker's costly street war. We get a few shots here and there of families and children, but no grounding to help Bane's cause gather steam. No angry words about the Mayor's run as the Dent Act has cleared the streets, possibly creating other side effects across the city. Worse yet, we never hear both sides of the argument over Bane's scapegoating against Gotham's most powerful and "corrupt". This is perhaps where a majority of that fallacy's origin comes from. Even as Nolan and Co. attempt to call upon all sides to cast aside their circumstances, there's never enough of the disconnect and/or coming to terms with this often black and white presentation.

But again, much of what is actually established in the film, is that the armed horde awaiting the wholly outgunned police are followers of Bane's ideology, or are merely armed criminals/mercenaries.

So now, as we take a cue from that last section, what is Bane, and what is he about?

Well for anyone paying attention to the film, this one is a freebie and a half. As the film's heavy, also of a difficult background growing up in a deep, dark hell of a prison, Bane is the spiritual opposite of Blake, Kyle, etc. in that he has spent his entire life conquering those whom he deems unworthy of their stature. His background is that of the League Of Shadows, who eventually ex-communicated him for being far too "extreme". And considering the League's draconian worldview, it's safe to say that his skewed rendition is of a higher contrast level of black and white. It is this warped perception that leads to his reign of terror over Gotham as he sits on a slowly decaying nuclear weapon. His poisonous words and notions are that of what could happen to a movement such as Occupy, if it were to be perverted by those with other agendas. His absolution is everything that Bruce/Batman has employed on a micro level turned outward and amplified. Bruce, while in prison, is forced to see the world he helped create should such narrowness infiltrate every level of the city. - It is totalitarianism. Communism no less.

So when the film's final third comes along, it culminates with Bruce Wayne directly facing a similar worldview as those he always claimed to be defending. Broken, and tossed into a deep and deadly pit, he is forced to crawl. In the prison, he is granted his first true taste of living with nothing. With only a rope as a reminder of the shackles/tethers that his life always came with. And it is in the final moments in this setting that he comes full circle by removing the rope, and acknowledging fear, that he is capable of meeting Bane on equal terms. (The lack of subtlety during those shots of the two fighting on the steps-of WALL STREET is staggering) It is also telling that in the epilogue, Wayne Mansion is turned into a grand scale boys home, again reinforcing the concerns at the beginning that implies that a better means of fighting crime lies in helping the community at its roots, rather than with the ever growing symptoms of poverty, and lack of engagement between all sectors.

Whether the film succeeded at all in getting these across is debatable. But it is there. Where it all goes wrong, is that there is nowhere near enough coverage on the city side to make any of it work in any cohesive fashion. (especially in lieu of the manner in which Wayne's arc is resolved). There are also the big moments delivered by the female cast members at the finale which again offers the film a pluralist bent. It's just too bad the film fails to hold these disparate elements together enough. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Movie Review

Kind of hard to believe that it has actually been seven years since the so-called "comic book movie" took a sober hard left with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, a film that essentially took the more literate auteur into the ranks of the blockbuster elite. Having only done one major studio feature prior (Insomnia) with middling success, imagine my own personal reaction when his take on the Caped Crusader turned out to be one of my favorite translations from the printed panel to the screen. How little then did I consider the common thread that binds the majority of Nolan's works (tales of complex individuals, more often men, obsessed with correcting a great wrong, only to create an even deeper pit for themselves to fall into) that I failed to see why he was an ideal choice to flesh out the world of Gotham City, and wayward billionaire, Bruce Wayne's blinding obsession with forging a better future, one criminal beating at a time. So when we at last come to the grand, sprawling final chapter in The Dark Knight Rises, one cannot help but feel like fresh bread, pulled apart at every corner.

Seven years after the events of The Dark Knight, Gotham has gone for years without any sign of the now outlawed Batman, who had secretly colluded with a mutually tormented Commissioner James Gordon ( Gary Oldman) into taking the blame for the deadly actions of Harvey Dent/Two Face, thereby allowing the police force to usher in a flourishing era in action against criminals. But the cracks in the facade they have created are beginning to show, as Gordon's life has taken a turn, while Wayne has seen himself become a bit of a legendary recluse. Matters spiral toward the inevitable, upon Wayne's first chance encounter with the alluring, yet formidable Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), which signals the coming of Bane, a mysterious, hulking mercenary whose designs on the city threaten to not only destroy it and its inhabitants, but also the spirit of its once great defender. Easily the most dangerous opposition of the series, and easily a terrible reminder of all that had come before. Now torn between Batman as symbol, and perhaps even guilt-fueled self-sacrifice, Wayne must once again take up the cape and cowl, even if it does mean dying to protect all he holds dear.

As mentioned, the film catches up with the now clearly spiritually brow-beaten duo remaining of the triumvirate established in the previous. And it is made pretty clear that regardless of their mutually saving the city throughout the series, the choices of Bruce Wayne remain clearly and wholly selfish. Whatever good  that could ever have come out of his decisions to fight crime fists first more often than not carry with them consequences that have left all within his very orbit broken and deeply changed, including Wayne himself, who's loss of Rachel Dawes in the previous has led to a life parallel with being something of a living corpse, hiding within the walls of the now rebuilt Wayne Manor. And yet, all he remained close to throughout his one-man crusade against crime and corruption have either been taken away, or compromised. His entire life could have easily provided practical solutions like supporting local concerns, and stopping crime at its source, but opted to fight it out with the symptoms. Even so, his legend is still something on the minds of many young people of Gotham, including rookie cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who perhaps knows a great deal more than most. And yet these terrible threads of fate may very well be the best hope the city has once Bane and his (literally) underground army are discovered.

As a conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises is of gargantuan scale. Even by most spectacle standards, it is a truly startling achievement in that place always remains first with real locations, incredible sets, some phenomenal outdoor shooting work (one again by the always wonderful Wally Pfister), and intense action. One can see every penny spent on the production, and feel the weight of what Nolan is attempting. The core problems lie largely in the structure, and in how much of it lacks the manner of build and impact of the previous. Where The Dark Knight took grand risks by ramping up the madness of the Joker's reign until the viewer is sent bouncing from one section of the city to another, The Dark Knight Rises begins with this in mind from the getgo, and never lets up throughout its running time of two hours and forty five minutes. And as such, the first act feels a little on the jarring side, lacking a manner of grounding that could have helped the narrative later. Possibly the film's biggest misstep happens within the first major action sequence which leads to a decision so forced, that it rings hollow for a certain new character which ultimately leaves him with very little meat to work with by the end. Another unexpected issue here is a decidedly jokier tone  that was quite unexpected considering the often grim countenance of the previous. In a film that is clearly about the end of life, and the  end result of a life of selfish acts, it in many ways takes away from what should be a tightened, more intense experience. Despite all the grandness on display, the end result is surprisingly restrained.

So once we reach the halfway point, and much of the story seems well in gear, a lot of it feels like a matter of course rather than an actual series of twists and revelations. This surprisingly, is also much closer in tone to Batman Begins, which had the distinction of dancing wildly between "realistic" and openly cartoonish, with matters reaching a fever pitch regarding an energy source, and yes, a Doomsday Weapon so that we may have a ticking clock in place for the finale. Which leads one to believe that this is the Nolan brothers' attempt at doing a Michael Bay-style extravaganza. (If suddenly, echoes of The Rock come to mind, it isn't merely you.) The feeling that there were dozens of disparate ideas in mind, and that they were determined to get as many in there as possible is very present to the point that it at times feels like two movies smashed together resulting in periods where one cannot help but feel exhausted when one should feel energized for the bigger moments.

Thankfully, the performances, and still present sincerity in much of the film grants it the momentum to see matters through, even as it truly feels like a world coming to a fiery end. The always welcome Michael Caine's Alfred is especially heartwrenching, as a man at last at a breaking point. He has supported Mr. Wayne long enough, and can no longer stand by and watch his equivalent to a son lose his life to his obsession. Oldman's Gordon remains a shining beacon of humanity, while Gordon-Levitt's Blake continues this thread as a truly likeable cop with razor-sharp instincts and a large heart. It is in his arc that the film's soul truly lives and dies. Being among the first of the "batman era" generation, we have a chance to see the potential of Wayne's legacy, as well as what it could mean for future Gothamites. Also worth mentioning the terrific work of Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Modine as Foley, a veteran cop with much to prove. But the real standout newcomer work to this franchise belong to Anne Hathaway's Kyle, and Tom Hardy's Bane. Hathaway's take on Catwoman is potent, angry, and demands her own film. It's a performance that shoulders a great deal of the weight and power  of everyperson in the piece. Her lot, the complete opposite of Bruce's, by growing up without privilege or stability represents balance to his life lived with money-borne answers. It has shaped her into a bit of a hardened survivor, and a silent champion of those carrying the city's heaviest burdens. And Hardy's Bane is a classical, baroque monster. Single-minded in his own drive toward pain and terror, his reign over Gotham City (and perhaps even Batman/Bruce) is palpable and utterly frightening. He is living absolution, and is the harbinger of the worst possible end for all involved. Even as the story momentum seems to flag at times, it's these memorable characterizations (something of a Nolan trait by this point) that remain irresistible.

Possible Spoiler Time

Considering much of the film's almost prescient use of the divide between "rich and poor", one would think that this is the bare essence of what Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's script was centered on. But what seems to be of greater concern to them here lies back in the origins of the Bat mythos itself - Labels. Duty. Designation. Our place in society, and our inherently human need to break free of this with regularity despite our addiction toward a semblance of order and responsibility. "Structure becomes your shackles" as one character says in one of the least subtle moments of an already unsubtle film. Every character feels bound by their designation, eager to free the inner human, burning inside for redefinition. And yet, Bruce Wayne cannot walk away from the oncoming of what seems to be his self-contructed personal apocalypse. Caught in a terrible gravity , he is the variable, surrounded by those seeking well past their present selves, eager for freedom. And in this sense, Batman , and the villains themselves are locked irrevocably in this death dance, primed to burn an entire population to the ground. So once the true plot is revealed in the breathless final act, and the music has reached a crescendo, and the landscape is a smoky hell on earth, the question of the importance of symbols, and the yearning for a life beyond are illuminated regardless of all the noise. All the while, the existence of the Batman has brought this about, and the film (just as the whole series has) never lets Bruce Wayne off the hook. This is the world his decisions throughout the films have helped create, and it is a horrific one. All the more satisfying to see Christian Bale's final turn in the role played as a man, broken down to the point that even his own body seems ready to be parted with. It is the dilemma of the symbol versus the man that takes us to the final pass of our journey, leading to what could have been a more rousing finish if Nolan had stayed true to all that had been pointing in the same direction. One could argue that it's within the film's final moments that Nolan buckles under the weight he has helped cast throughout all three installments. And for the last minutes to be what they are isn't necessarily a crashing disappointment, but it does feel like something of an apology for the oppressive madness of The Dark Knight. (something one should never apologize for) One might also argue that this yearning for something more lies square on Nolan, who possibly just wants to move on. There are indeed stretches where it feels as such.

And yet despite all of these gripes and occasional story issues (It's a script that feels in need of at least one more rewrite) , The Dark Knight Rises works best as a thrilling, yet deeply flawed epilogue to Nolan's Batman saga. Even when it threatens to crumble under the weight of its own absurdity, the character drama continues to shine through. And even regardless of this perhaps being the weakest of the three films(and possibly of Nolan's work), the series remains a staggering accomplishment of myth weaving, human drama, and philosophical debate disguised as popcorn entertainment. It's that rarest of comic-book based tales, one packed with thoughtfulness and genuine care-mental exhaustion be damned. And as final chapters go, one could do so much worse.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

State Of The Kaijyu: To The Game Platform!

When we were last here, blogging duties almost immediately dropped due to sudden changes in living environs as well as the inevitable move closer to the Los Angeles area (which I am currently still in the process of digesting - something that will undoubtedly be a constant since one never truly gets a complete handle of the city, especially this one) And Hakaider was in no way something I truly wanted things to stop with, so I do apologize for that. There's also the issue of not having much to any time to watch, let alone evaluate anything during that amorphously hectic period of time. And while there's been no better reason to leave things consistently silent, I will say on these pages that getting to better know the new surroundings, as well as what manner of access I have to even greater patches of media and expression, has been truly liberating, not to mention nerve-wracking. What does one do when the entirety of one's world is shifted so dramatically by a mere 18 mile move?

Tends to older, questionable habits of course!

During the 4th of July, I was invited to make a "weapons" stop and drop at a local used books/comics shop in North Long Beach called A Castle Of Books, which was host to a great number of goodies from past to present. Was surprised to see the unexpected amount of anime history/toy weirdness that lie inside. And within all that came several finds that just plain baffled and amused.

On the baffling side was running into several issues of the long-lost Star Blazers comic originally published in 1987 by Comico..

Not that these are any kind of major find in regards to quality, but they are a fascinating peek into the early days of anime awareness, and tie-in business. But seeing no Captain Okita, and also a decent amount of "new" characters is pretty weird. This is also skipping the fact that much of the books are very rough and not altogether coherent. It also feels like a very scrappy attempt at early fanart based on mere ideas and concepts of Yamato, not so much on the show as a whole. Weird, weird stuff.

And continuing on the analog media train, the store also had a decent amount of VERY forgotten anime on VHS. I immediately broke out the footstool for this, as I hadn't seen a lot of these in well over a decade now. And the one I couldn't help but pick up due to its rarity, and the weird looks I still tend to get upon mentioning it to other anime fans, the first two episodes of TRSI's very limited release of the in many ways criminally underseen Starship Girl Yamamoto Yohko OVAs. Before the cult TV version came years later, it was this lightweight piece of science fiction goofy that came across me during the very end of the 1990s, ad charmed me in ways few shows do now.

For the unfamiliar, SGYY tells the tale of a thousands-of-years-in-the-far-future company's stake in a new form of warfare - grand scale space games take the place of bloodshed on a battle field. And with access to time travel technology, their best hope of working out grand disputes between nations and rival interests, is to assemble teams of brilliant arcade gamer girls capable of piloting company-owned spaceships to participate in often absurd wargames well-off planetary orbit. And being one among millions, cocky, tomboyish Yamamoto Yohko is the newest recruit, who seems to have little trouble getting the feel of her new situation, regardless of the often dangerous rivalry of the Red Snappers, a team with a supposedly bulletproof reputation.

So yes, the OVA version of the "story" is more comedic than anything else, but the freewheeling attitude of the show that just asks us to bask in it's idealized and often silly world makes for a fun "summer" diversion for those looking for cute girls and harmless action. And on top of that, the thought that this was a big Star Child vehicle for some of the 1990s biggest seiyuu talents(including Minami Takayama, Megumi Hayashibara, and Yuko Miyamura), makes it a much more potent piece of 1990s nostalgia for me to be honest. And yes, it's just fluff and a seiyuu commercial with a lot of quirky humor, and no real story. But at least it doesn't pretend to do so. (That's for the later series) For now, it's just a lot of latter 90s fun that leaves zero aftertaste, and very little in the way of creepy. Definitely something of a so-called guilty pleasure. Especially when considering that the anime's director was none other than a man called Akiyuki Shinbo!

So that's it for this morning. Plans for new posts and even more podcasts are very much in order. It has been far too long friends.

More fun than eating bananas while watching crocodiles!