Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

There are storylines, and then there are variations. Season after season, we see movies harking back to their predecessors: targeting the same audience and using the same time-tested tropes, with varying degrees of critical and box office success. But every so often there comes along a work that is not content with playing by the rules, that changes the game altogether. Off the top of my head: The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix—trilogies that changed the platform for all that came after. For the superhero genre, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight series is one such game-changer.

I spent almost six hours preparing for the finale last Saturday. Several hours before the 8:10 PM screening, I saw Batman Begins for the first time and re-watched The Dark Knight. I walked into the theater drugged with Batman information and fortified by an NYFD sandwich. It had been an adrenaline-packed day. By midnight I was dragging myself, but the marathon did give me a 20/20 view of the whole trilogy.

At least for the first half-hour, Batman Begins underwhelms. Although it’s an origin story, it handles Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma carelessly, using terrible sequencing. The repeated flashbacks don’t work, and the sudden introduction of Ra’s al Ghul (who basically just goes, “Come, I’ll to train you to be badass”) seems too convenient and hard to believe. The story gets progressively better though, picking up when Bruce returns to Gotham. From that point on the plot unfolds gracefully. Bruce’s childhood terror of bats comes neatly into play when Scarecrow unleashes his panic-inducing psychedelic drug. This paves the way for the film’s most poignant moment, which occurs when a heavily-gassed, hallucinating Batman clambers onto a rooftop and rasps into a cellphone, “Alfred, help me.” The scene barely lasts a minute, but it shows Batman at his weakest, his most vulnerable, and he calls out to his oldest friend and says, “Help me.” After an unexpected twist, the conflict escalates into a familiar climax: mentor and mentee fight for the greatest city in the world. It’s not particularly astounding, but as far as superhero movies go, it is gratifying. Undoubtedly the film’s worst decision involves casting Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes. She and Christian Bale have zero chemistry together. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn’t really embody the character either, but she’s definitely an improvement.

Actually, with The Dark Knight, everything is an improvement. Since its release, the sequel has received worldwide acclaim, overshadowing its precursor by a wide margin, and for good reason. The Dark Knight goes well beyond what a good film should be. As an action movie, it does not disappoint. It is suspenseful, thrilling, and thoroughly captivating. In exploring dark moral themes, it is also thoughtful and fiercely intelligent, offering not black-and-white answers, but motley shades of gray. The ingenious interplay and overlap of the characters’ values creates a spectacle both difficult and incredible to watch.

What props up the movie’s ambition is its stellar cast. Christian Bale gives a consistent performance throughout the series, defining Batman in a way that will affect generations. Aaron Eckhart also delivers as Harvey Dent/Two-Face, rendering his rage-driven insanity credible and at the same time repulsive. Heath Ledger gives his best (and sadly, last) performance as the Joker, often stealing the spotlight from Batman. The Joker has already solidified his status as one of the greatest villains of all time, but through Ledger he becomes even more sinister, even more enigmatic. Thrice he asks would-be victims (including Batman), “Ever wonder how I got these scars?”—hinting, “Ever wonder why I turned out this way?”—and gives different answers, implying that there is no reason, that evil can exist sans cause.

Without a doubt, The Dark Knight marks an industry milestone, by superhero genre standards or any other. Coming on the heels of such an acclaimed movie, the third film was not poised for success. But even with lowered expectations—and as much as I do not want to admit it—the finale disappoints. Whereas The Dark Knight posits questions on meaning and morality, the third installment mostly provokes questions about plot. Its convoluted enemy storyline feels hastily patched together and shows holes in many places. Take just one point: Batman’s return. How did he re-enter Gotham from the Pit? How did he get back all his gear? And, for that matter, why hasn’t Bane destroyed his equipment yet? Five months is a long time to spend waiting around to fail.

Despite his bulging muscles, Bane (Tom Hardy) fails to command respect as a villain because of his lackluster terrorist-thug image. So we’re actually relieved to discover he’s not the mastermind—only to find out that it’s someone even more unimpressive, whose role until then had only been to provide Bruce Wayne with support, financial or otherwise. Uncharacteristically, Marion Cotillard gives a flat performance (maybe her role just isn’t compelling enough). Her final speech falls on deaf ears; we don’t really care about her father issues. What fans feel strongly about, even before production began, is Catwoman. Given Nolan’s previous female lead miscasts, fans had a right to worry. But Anne Hathaway gets to slap all haters in the face when she undergoes an exquisite transformation as the super-hot and versatile Selina Kyle. She easily proves herself one of the best cast choices in the franchise, right up there with Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s batman.

Hathaway aside, the finale still holds a lot of room for disappointment. Its clear division between good and evil may be fine for a regular superhero movie, but we’re not talking about a regular superhero movie. We’re talking about the conclusion to The Dark Knight series! We’re talking about the follow-up to the one film that changed the rules! Unfortunately, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, the much-anticipated finale finds a hard time reaching the high standards it set for itself.

Let me make this clear: The Dark Knight Rises is not a bad movie, far from it. It still attempts to ask big questions, but instead of soaring the way its predecessor does, it kind of flops and sputters along the runway. The film spends a long time cultivating a classist undercurrent, but it never really takes off because we don’t get the sense that things change after the riots. Presumably, order resumes, and up stays up, down stays down. Not like in The Dark Knight, where the Joker shakes Gotham to its core. I at least found one gem in a conversation between Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), when the latter admits the former’s point about structures becoming shackles and relinquishes his badge in favor of a more…unorthodox crime-fighting path.

If The Dark Knight Rises fails at setting up a convincing conflict, it nonetheless succeeds in wrapping up the series. And it does so admirably, doing justice to each of its characters. Thematically, the conclusion of Batman echoes several points in his life: his emotional struggles, his failures, his parents’ vision, their subsequent death, Rachel’s death. All three scripts reflect this cohesion. Even Selina’s chilling whisper of “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne” from the 2012 trailer recalls a scene two films earlier, when Batman tells then-Sergeant Gordon, “Storm’s coming.” Subtle, but shows just how much care was put into the making of these scripts. No wonder Nolan was so damn protective of them.

“Haven’t given up on me yet?” “Never.” In Batman Begins, we see Bruce and Alfred regularly exchanging these lines. During their final confrontation, under different circumstances, Alfred gives a different answer—heartbreaking, but necessary all the same. This argument sets the audience up for the conclusion, which, in hindsight, seems to be what trilogy has been heading towards all along. From Rachel’s letter to Alfred’s ultimatum, the finale makes it clear that the story no longer belongs to the symbol, but to the man—that the day has finally come “when [Bruce] no longer needs Batman.”

Although obviously an action franchise, Nolan’s series is invigorating in more ways than one. While remaining strikingly original, it calls to mind other landmark works that develop the same themes. Ra’s al Ghul’s insistence on becoming “more than just a man” finds similar incarnations in V from V for Vendetta and Zero from Code Geass. And Bane’s point about the Pit, about there being “no true despair without hope,” calls to mind a line from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Among its achievements, the trilogy’s greatest feat lies in how it pushes boundaries. It shows us the philosophical possibilities of superhero movies, a genre until now largely confined to entertaining but safe productions like the recent Spider-Man reboot.

But, as the Joker would say, “Why so serious?” For all its intellectual high-wire twists, the series triumphs because it works on a more basic level: it knows how to please an audience. All three films come out generously sprinkled with action sequences featuring top gear from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), among other visual spectacles (“Anne Hathaway on a motorbike? So worth it!” my friend TJ avows). It also doesn’t hurt that the movies weave key truths and emotions into their storyline, creating more than a few tearjerkers. “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Nolan’s trilogy is not perfect, but even with the worst of its warts, it still comes extremely well-recommended, even for non-geeks like me. It remains the best superhero series out there, and one that is not likely to fade from memory.

Batman Begins

‘A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.’

‘Death does not wait for you to be ready! Death is not considerate or fair! And make no mistake: here, you face Death.’

‘Crime cannot be tolerated. Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding.’

‘Haven’t given up on me yet?’ ‘Never.’

‘Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.’

‘It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.’

The Dark Knight

‘You either die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’

‘If you’re good at something, never do it for free.’

‘Tonight you’re all gonna be a part of a social experiment.’

‘That’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make.’

‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.’

‘Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people need more.’

The Dark Knight Rises

‘There can be no true despair without hope.’

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The Matisse Stories

What I know of England, I know only from its writers. Now nearing the start of my year-long sojourn in Norwich, I thought it prudent to brush up on contemporary British literature. What better way to get acquainted with the newest UNESCO city of literature? So recently I went on a Bookay-Ukay spree and brought home Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, Martin Amis’ House of Meetings, and A.S. Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun. (Okay, I bought them so I could get them signed.) The Matisse Stories, a very slim collection, came as a late birthday gift from Danica, who also got me Junot Diaz’s Drown.

It’s my first time to read Byatt, but I didn’t need more than a few pages to know that I was in the hands of a master. “Medusa’s Ankles” opens innocuously: a Le Nu Rose copy entices a middle-aged woman to enter a salon for the first time. But when she becomes a regular customer, Lucien’s bears witness to her gradual disintegration in more ways than she intended. At 28 pages, the shortest of the three stories, “Medusa’s Ankles” comes across as a very sharp, very tight piece. The setup is fitting, the combination of details symphonic; no description seems superfluous. By contrast, “Art Work” meanders for several pages, introducing us to its characters, slowly, slowly, slowly. We do not even get a whiff of the conflict until past the halfway point; everything before that is just description, backdrop. That hypnotic, auditory opening? That five-page litany of Robin’s color “fetishes”? That’s Byatt setting you up. That’s her anticipating the conflict, laying down bricks for the concluding twist. At times I no longer knew whether some details were integral to the story—and frankly I didn’t care. The writer had already earned my trust, and I had long relinquished the critical stance for the sheer pleasure of her prose, which lilts and dips and somehow always allocates the right word to the right place. Even pox-infected skin occasions a lyrical description: “a wonderfully humped and varied terrain of rosy peaks and hummocks, mostly the pink of those boring little begonias with fleshy leaves, but some raging into salmon-deeps and ochre crusts.”

I do not have a favorite, but “The Chinese Lobster” is by far the most subtle of the three. Much of the narrative revolves around—and is indeed attributed to—an unstable girl named Peggi Nollett. Only later do we realize the story is not hers at all, and plumbs a concern much more delicate than the one she stresses. Byatt’s talent for articulating human vagaries is apparent from the first story, but it is in “The Chinese Lobster” that I find this gem:

Any two people may be talking to each other, at any moment, in a civilised way about something trivial, or something, even, complex and delicate. And inside each of the two there runs a kind of dark river of unconnected thought, of secret fear, or violence, or bliss, or hoped-for or lost, which keeps pace with the flow of talk and is neither seen nor heard. And at times, one or both of the two will catch sight or sound of this movement, in himself, or herself, or, more rarely, in the other. And it is like the quick slip of a waterfall into a pool, like a drop into darkness. The pace changes, the weight of the air, though the talk may run smoothly onwards without a ripple or quiver.

Apart from Byatt’s adroit handling of language, what strikes me most about these pieces—especially the last two—is how they reflect the author’s uncanny intelligence. Her casual familiarity with pigments often made me reach embarrassingly for the dictionary. Her knowledge and self-assurance create a fertile foundation on which she constructs these stories. As a young writer, I am envious. I cannot even imagine undertaking a project of this scale: a collected ekphrasis devoted to one of the most celebrated painters of all time? The prospect is more than daunting. But then again, we’re talking about A.S. Byatt—Booker Prize winner, honorary degree collector, and international literary giant. I fervently hope to meet her one day. And get that autograph.

Medusa’s Ankles

She came to trust him with her disintegration.

Art Work

They call each other Mrs Dennison and Mrs Brown. They rely on the kind of distance and breathing space this courtesy gives them.

It is possible to feel love and hate quite quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person.

Intouchables (2011)

There are movies that challenge the mind, and there are those that nourish the heart. Of the latter, we have no dearth, but it is the rare nugget that manages to outshine all other dregs that exit film studios by the bulk. This is not to say that a film can’t be both heartwarming and intellectually stimulating (as Hugo proves), but only that we have come to expect certain things from certain films. Reading TIME’s piece on Intouchables, I expected a poignant story of an inspiring friendship, of working-class racial prejudice, and how a genuine bond can overcome such differences—which is exactly what I got, except realer and a lot more fun.

It can feel too contrived: a poor black man enters into a wealthy tetraplegic’s service and changes both their lives. But it’s true—at least up until that part. Based on a real-life story, Intouchables stars Omar Sy as the brash, loud-mouthed Driss and François Cluzet as the disabled and lovelorn Philippe. Both of them are “untouchable” in the sense that one is a social outcast and the other is detached from normal life. But it is not merely this similarity that binds them together. Beneath the bets and gags, you can see that there’s something genuine there, that the two have formed a bond that—incomprehensible as it may seem—remains wholly palpable. The paragliding scene encapsulates all this splendidly. Thousands of meters above ground, neither Driss nor François are impeded by any limitation. Up there, they experience momentary freedom—from societal expectations, bitter histories, physical restrictions. Up there, they are simply two friends gliding in the wind.

Cluzet plays his part capably, but the spotlight undoubtedly falls on Sy. Exuding natural charm, he delivers in all his scenes and shines where it matters. It’s a pleasure to watch him because he enjoys himself tremendously. It’s hard not to get caught up in that energy. Despite its obvious potential for melodrama, Intouchables chooses a different direction: fun. Not the good, clean Marley & Me kind (of which we have seen enough, but always fall for anyway). Driss and François are regularly seen sharing marijuana joints, hiring Asian hookers, and exchanging borderline offensive jokes. In between, they take time to venture into each other’s worlds. Driss listens to classical music and Philippe lip-syncs to groovy hits from Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s an astonishing friendship.

While Driss and Philippe’s relationship strays from the usual, banlieue residents apparently earn a more stereotypical approach. As far as we know, Driss’ family includes a breadwinner, a delinquent, a good daughter, and several younger children. It bothers me that the setup is too formulaic, but at the same time I acknowledge that real life offers many such situations. Either way, Intouchables possesses enough merits to attract a wide audience, and that it has. Buoyed by a wave of good humor, it became the highest-grossing film in a non-English language, breaking the previous record set by Spirited Away (my favorite Miyazaki). Although I’m skeptical about its success, I understand the movie’s appeal. Along with its feel-good quality, I appreciate Intouchables for taking a much-abused subgenre and spinning it into a success. At the very least, that’s much more than we can say for other contenders.

‘Tell me Driss, why do you think people are interested in art?’ ‘I don’t know. It’s a business?’ ‘No. It’s because it’s the only thing one leaves behind.’

‘Listen to this. Where can you find a tetraplegic?’ ‘Where can you… I don’t know.’ ‘Where you left him.’

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011)

Few movies interest my father. The last one we saw together was District 9, and he slept through most of that. Recently, however, he’s gotten hooked on historical films, starting with Roman sagas (Gladiator, Spartacus) then moving on to Chinese epics (An Empress and the Warriors). He came across The Sorcerer and the White Snake on YouTube. After being told the story twice, my mom and I plunked ourselves down in front of a laptop to share the experience. We even had popcorn.

Forbidden love. It’s the oldest tale in the world (save perhaps for creation stories). As with Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a non-human heroine saves a mortal from drowning, thus earning his love. It’s easy enough to believe. But while a princess falling in love with a prince (the first one she sees) seems a matter of course, that’s not the case here. I don’t see why the White Snake Susu (Eva Huang) feels attracted to a poor herb-gatherer like Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). She and her demon-sister Qingqing (Charlene Choi), the Green Snake, have spent centuries observing humans, so why does she fall for this particular one? Are we to pin it all on their exchange of “vital forces” (via the life-saving kiss)? Are we to believe that a thousand-year-old demon can find no other way to un-drown a mortal than by kissing him? Unlike the mischievous Qingqing, Susu is defined only by her love for Xu Xian, and even he has better characterization: a good-hearted physician devoted to helping others. A little backstory on why Susu would find that kind of personality endearing is necessary to building up their relationship.

Halfway through the movie, Susu and Xu Xian hold a mock-marriage ceremony, but of course someone hinders their happily ever after. As a monk committed to exorcising demons, Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) finds their union intolerable. Although my sympathies lay with the couple, the antagonist’s portrayal still stood out: It’s clear that Fahai’s not a wicked magus—just someone with principles to uphold, responsibilities to fulfill. My favorite moment is when he addresses a plea to Buddha during a moment of apparent defeat: “I have been a dharma defender all my life… Why did the calamity happen instead? Have I been too stubborn? Was I really wrong?” This might be asking too much, but I wish the film had explored this theme further. The conflict already dances on the line between good and evil, but the ending’s deus ex machina sweeps all that under the rug—or more accurately, beneath the roiling waves of the sea.

Although it’s apparently famous, I didn’t know about the Legend of the White Snake until this movie, and for that I am grateful. Forbidden love is an oft-told tale in many cultures, but each retelling remains exquisite and inexorably sad. With such material to draw from, the film could have been more successful had it focused on themes of love and religion rather than on its much-criticized special effects, which appear more cartoonish than real. Legends persist because they possess universal resonance. In the hands of the right person, they can be shaped into films that resonate with the fragility of time and the endurance of passion. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the White Snake has not found such an adaptation here.

‘My friends said I’d imagined her, but I’m quite sure she was real, because she kissed me so deeply. That kiss saved my life. In a way, it also took my life.’

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

By now everyone already knows the premise, but in case you live under a rock—

Years after his parents disappeared, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) finds a clue that might unravel the mystery. Following this lead, he visits Oscorp Industries to seek out Dr. Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s partner in researching cross-species genetics. There, he gets bitten by a genetically altered spider, gaining superhuman capabilities which he uses to round up criminals and impress Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). But the same research that turns Peter into Spider-Man also transforms Dr. Connors into the vicious Lizard, whose evolutionary vision endangers New York City.

Young Peter has always been awkward, but in film he hasn’t exactly seemed very youthful. Although 28-year-old Garfield looks nothing like a pubescent, his charms lend a boyish aura to the new Spider-Man. His Peter is a tech-savvy teen who plays Bubble Shooter when bored, who gets reprimanded for forgetting errands and breaking curfew. His crush, the smart, self-possessed Gwen is a far cry from perpetual damsel-in-distress Mary Jane. She actually plays a pivotal role in saving the day, transcending the typical role of superhero love interest. But while the original Spider-Man series highlighted an adult relationship (with all its encumbrances), Marc Webb’s version presents a sweeter, more innocent love—not better, but refreshing.

That said, their first kiss doesn’t even come close to the iconic Spider-Man scene; but they don’t try to trump it—and no one can blame them. What I can’t dismiss, however, is the clumsily handled conclusion to the romance. Given what happened, Peter’s last quip—and Gwen’s responding smile—seem inappropriate. I also found the Uncle Ben part too downplayed, although I liked the portrayal of Peter’s grief, how he shuns even Gwen’s consolation. Lastly, one bugging omission: Where’d Peter get the Spidey suit?

The Amazing Spider-Man promotes itself as “the untold story,” but essentially it’s the same story re-told with more flair. Perhaps the sequel might hold up to that promise? For now, viewers can appreciate the spectacular action sequences, engineered for maximum visual pleasure, but not overwhelming enough to distract from the story. (It must be way more awesome in 3D, but with a free pass from Sarah, I’m not complaining.) It’s not the original, and it certainly doesn’t mark an industry milestone, but for a franchise reboot just five years after the last film? Not bad, not bad at all.

‘We all have secrets—the ones we keep…and the ones that are kept from us.’

‘Peter, secrets have a cost. They’re not free. Not now, not ever.’