Bruce Wayne chases a new chaotic presence in Gotham City while wondering if it's time to hang up the cape.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Aaron Eckhart
Review by Jon Kissel
One of the most influential movies of the 21st century, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight ushered in a wave of blockbuster filmmaking that’s either copying it or working in opposition to it. If a superhero movie is being made by Warner Bros or Fox in the ensuing years, it’s going to have to attempt to be a gritty/grounded film with a philosophical background on society. If Disney’s at the helm, the demands of the market force their superhero movies to leave the dark stuff to someone else and lean heavily into a jokey tone with little connection to the real world. The success of the latter strategy implies that the wrong lessons have been taken from The Dark Knight, that only this group of actors and filmmakers at this point in time could pull this off, as demonstrated by the insufficiency of The Dark Knight Rises four years later. It’s not like every facet of The Dark Knight is pulled off as successfully as some others. What does work here is some of the best of Nolan’s career and is worth emulating, but by so clearly aiming for profundity and seriousness, the film invites an interrogation it can’t hold up against. One wishes that a reckoning with the War on Terror didn’t have to be wrapped up in a superhero movie, but we live in the cultural world that Nolan helped to create.
On our master spreadsheet, a movie gets a ranking after 3 people have graded it. We’ve currently logged 4,226 movies, but only 1721 have been ranked. Six movies have received only F’s, and of those six, Batman and Robin has been given an F by eight Mediocre Movie Club members. By consensus, this is the worst movie we’ve logged in the nine years we’ve been doing this. The fourth film in a franchise that’s turned over its entire cast three times, with the exception of Michael Gough as Alfred, Batman and Robin is what it looks like when everyone has given up and surrendered whatever artistic or technical aspirations they have to greed and apathy. No one appears to be trying to make something acceptable. Joel Schumacher buries Batman and resets the superhero genre back to square one in the public’s eyes as a clownish and juvenile endeavor. That wouldn’t last longer than a few years with X-Men and a 9/11-goosed Spider-Man, but it’s not like Schumacher and Co don’t shovel as much dirt on the corpse as possible. Critically reviled movies often come in for a reevaluation years after their release, but Batman and Robin doesn’t achieve some kind of camp quality, nor is it a scrappy underdog. It was bad then, and it’s bad now.
Tim Burton’s been a caricature of his former self for more than a decade now, but for the first chunk of his career, he was a major pop auteur. Burton’s instantly recognizable style and aesthetic is established from the beginning, whether he’s making original ideas like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands or adapting big franchises like Batman. His first five films, ending with Batman Returns, have all the Gothic architecture, domestic satire, and Danny Elfman musical scores that would make him successful and recognizable. Of those five, Batman Returns is the most off-putting, including the one about a crass demon. Burton seems to be signing his own resignation letter and daring the studio to kick him off the franchise, and after seeing audiences both flock to and be recoiled as a drooling Penguin bites the nose off a flunky, Warner Bros. obliged. Batman Returns leans hard into the silliness of superheroes by making so many big choices that, whether they work or not, are at least the kind of independent creative thinking that make the film into a fascinating mess.
Wong Kar-wai, master of the slow-burn romance, can no longer ignore his Hong Kong roots in The Grandmaster, a film that surrounds Wong’s signature unrequited romances with the wire-fu style of Hong Kong action cinema. Sold as a biopic of Ip Man, the eventual trainer of Bruce Lee, The Grandmaster is only tangentially concerned with him, such that his children die off-screen. In Wong’s vision, Ip Man isn’t a complicated man, albeit one who makes the uncomplicated look incredible. Instead, Wong broadens his focus for a consideration of 20th century China and all the tumult it experienced during the first half of Ip Man’s life. The Grandmaster illuminates little of Ip Man, starting as it does at a point when he’s already an expert at Wing Chun kung fu. Its greater success is Wong’s technical perfection in the service of a national metaphor about collective destruction.
There’s a distinct possibility that a major international conflict will erupt in the South China Sea over which country owns this or that chain of tiny islands. Taiwan continues to float out in its waters, a thorn in China’s side and a constant counter-example to authoritarian rule, at least in recent history. In the year 4000, assuming a future where China takes over these islands and whatever other land it considers itself the rightful owners of, someone might very well make a historical epic justifying the bloody wars of unification as the only way to have true peace. Future humans watching that movie might be as queasy as I am after watching Hero, Zhang Yimou’s stunning collection of top-tier actors and martial artists that is also a politically untenable argument for iron-fisted top-down control. Iconic tableaus and peak wu xia wire work bring the viewer in for an entrée of herrenvolk unification.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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