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by Mike D'Angelo, Eric Kohn and Keith Uhlich
July 20, 2012 11:52 AM
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Critical Consensus: Mike D'Angelo and Keith Uhlich on 'The Dark Knight Rises,' Christopher Nolan, and Batman's Next Move

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, Time Out New York critic Keith Uhlich joins freelancer Mike D'Angelo (The A/V Club, The Man Who Viewed Too Much) to discuss "The Dark Knight Rises" and other aspects of director Christopher Nolan's career. They conclude by exploring where both Batman and Nolan may wind up next.
 

There's no question that director Christopher Nolan's Batman movies have managed to gain the admiration of more audiences than countless other recent comic book adaptations. This may have something to do with his roots: He's known for cultivating a distinctive atmosphere and using narrative trickery rather than merely pandering to the demands of Comic Con purists. And yet much of that crowd has embraced Nolan's adaptations as well, perhaps because they appreciate the application of bonafide filmmaking techniques into an arena usually expected to be dominated by juvenile qualities.

Critics largely feel the same way: Mike, shortly before "The Dark Knight" came out, you wrote in Esquire that "Batman Begins" was "superb by the standards of the superhero franchise." How has your perception of Nolan's approach to these movies evolved over the course of the last two entries? Do you think that "The Dark Knight Rises" is a paragon of its genre -- as waves of hype have led many to believe -- or does it work outside of that genre altogether? And now that Nolan's take on the character is complete, how does it compare to the Schumacher/Burton versions?


MIKE D'ANGELO: Sorry if this throws a monkey wrench into any planned point/counterpoint structure (Keith, you ignorant slut), but despite my conviction that Nolan is the best filmmaker working in Hollywood right now, I didn't care for "The Dark Knight Rises" at all.  And I'm concerned about the direction Nolan's been taking with his last few films, which have grown progressively more ponderous and ungainly.  Even when he tosses in Big Ideas -- here, amounting to little more than de rigueur signifiers of the financial crisis and accompanying class war -- they feel subsidiary to his desire to wow the audience with big-budget spectacle.  He's becoming the thinking man's Michael Bay, orchestrating rather than directing; I sorely miss the elegance of "The Prestige," which is more subtly heady (indeed, I missed the point altogether the first time I saw it -- certainly not possible with "Dark Knight Rises") and relies on the viewer's imagination to achieve its most potent effects.

Still, even though the trilogy concludes on a weak note, it's still far more impressive than Burton's vision of Gotham, which as I dimly recall boasts superlative production design but not much else.  (As for the Schumacher films, I confess to not despising "Batman & Robin," which can be fun so long as you accept that it's pure camp. I have more affection for Uma Thurman's expertly stylized performance than for anything in "Rises" frankly.)  Nolan deserves credit for elevating our notion of what a mass-appeal superhero movie can be, and the first two films achieve a much stronger balance of the intimate and the epic.  In hindsight, though, I can see how crucial Heath Ledger was to the success of "Dark Knight" -- his controlled lunacy counteracted the series' growing lugubriousness, whereas Tom Hardy's hulking, Vader-inflected work as Bane only accentuates it.  There was a point early on when I thought Anne Hathaway might provide a much-needed dose of rude energy, but the playfulness of her initial meeting with Bruce Wayne quickly evaporates.

I dunno, guys, I just found the whole thing less thought-provoking and entertaining than exhausting.  Just me?

Despite the expectation of a throwdown whenever two critics start talking about the same thing, the point of these conversations isn't necessarily to instigate a spat. So, Mike, you aren't really throwing a monkey wrench into the ring by more or less agreeing with Keith so much as helping along the perception that, hey, it's totally fine to not care for this movie! Apparently, based on some of the wackier comments hurled at some of the early negative reviews, this is actually a radical and contemptuous idea.

KEITH UHLICH: It's not just you, Mike.

One of my favorite episodes of the '90s television series "Millennium" is the second season entry "A Room with No View." In that installment, semi-psychic protagonist Frank Black's (Lance Henriksen) occasional adversary—the devilish shape-shifter Lucy Butler (Sarah-Jane Redmond)—kidnaps impressionable teens, locks them in underground rooms, and tortures their inherent talents out of them. Her demonic goal: To make each of her victims recognize "that mediocrity is all you are" and turn an entire populace "ordinary." One of Butler's methods of torture is playing Paul Mauriat's easy-listening hit "Love is Blue" on a continuous loop, though I think "The Dark Knight Rises" would suffice as a backup.

'Whenever Nolan stumbles upon a striking image, he quickly pushes on.'
My experience of watching the final part of Christopher Nolan's Bat-trilogy was very similar to my experience with "The Dark Knight": Empty engagement in the moment, by which I mean a blank-stared, slack-jawed acknowledgment that some competent, but mostly undistinguished visuals were passing before my eyes and sound at near-subwoofer-breaking levels was pounding in my ears (Zimmer!). It wasn't entirely unpleasant as it was happening, and it cast a spell in the way that any bludgeoning of one's senses and spirit by the blockbuster of the moment would. But then the lights came up, and the sensation that I'd been had (yet again) began to grow.

I am no fan of Christopher Nolan. In my review of "The Dark Knight," I called him "the Barry Lyndon of the Hollywood elite" and I stand by that description. His movies (and I've seen all of them except for his short "Doodlebug" and his first feature "Following") are to me elaborate cons that tear back the Oz-like curtain and purport to show you their mechanistic workings, all the while distracting you from the fact that, like P.T. Barnum's "Great Unknown," there's no there there (and at least Barnum had a sense of humor about it). Nolan is a magician who wants to show you how the trick works, and he concocts step-by-step explanations for everything: These are all the elements that Batman's suit is composed of (and look at all the financial funneling we had to do to get them!); the Joker is, lest you didn't hear him those thirty times before, an agent of CHAOS!; these Batman movies, man, they're all about fear. Fear, I say, FEAR! No, let me spell it out for you. F-E-A-R.

I wish I could say that Nolan gave his characters' tendency toward expository verbosity the proper comic-book kick, so that we might imagine thought-balloons sprouting. But I feel little besides ponderous, minutely planned-out portent, and sense in just about everything he's done a distinct absence of poetry—of that intangible essence that truly great art and artists possess. Whenever Nolan stumbles upon a striking image—and there are several in this trilogy, from "Batman Begins"'s establishing shots of the Gotham L-train to that lovely shot in "The Dark Knight" of the Joker sticking his head out of the police car like an overexcited canine to "Rises"'s painterly visual of Jonathan "The Scarecrow" Crane as a Robespierre-manque atop a pile of judicial library detritus—he quickly pushes on. He never lingers, and that would be defensible if he and his collaborators had the shared capability for momentum. But I really think it's Hans Zimmer who is doing all the heavy lifting with that goddamn propulsive score (the trilogy's only truly effective element). Wally Pfister's visuals are pedestrian (so many dully lit medium-shots). The editing by Lee Smith is unbearably choppy (even in dialogue scenes, the connecting material—implied and actual—between performers often feels like its missing). And I don't think Nolan has much instinct for working with actors: The Burton Batman movies don't hold up overall, but there are distinctive character moments in each of them, and I'm inclined to agree with Mike that at least Thurman's Poison Ivy in "Batman and Robin" is a fully conceived creation, however much it might rub you the wrong way.

That's more than I can say for Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, who doesn't come within hissing distance of Michelle Pfeiffer's slinky Catwoman (that great setpiece in "Batman Returns" with the whip and the mannequins!), or Tom Hardy's Bane, who might as well have just been a John Carter-esque digital effect for all his ineffectually conveyed, Dolby-assisted pathos. As for Batman himself, I'm inclined to say that he hasn't ever been done particularly well in live-action. Bale just growls and/or alternates between one-note despondence and off-putting mock-petulance; Michael Keaton is mostly nondescript (Burton's heart really is with the villains); I guess Val Kilmer is doing something Val Kilmery, but I don't feel like checking again; and Clooney, well, we'll leave that where it is. My favorite movie version of the character is the early-'90s first-animated-series capper "Mask of the Phantasm," which is also probably the best movie version of the Batman mythos overall—pretty perfectly judged and executed from first frame to last.

On the next page: Does Christopher Nolan indulge in "avert-your-eyes sadism"?

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17 Comments

  • YESKALLAM | August 18, 2012 5:20 AMReply

    Calling pfister's DP work pedestrian is like saying Federer's serve is pedestrian.... If you are giving out some non-sense it better be supported!!! the best you got to say is "dimly lit medium shots"... Oh man if you ever attend a film photography course or have knowledge of photography(film photography) you know how stupid that statement of yours is..... One of the best things to come out of Nolan's batman films is Pfister's work as DP...

  • YESKALLAM | August 18, 2012 5:15 AMReply

    RUBBISH in every way... Thank you for wasting my time... didn't go past the first page out of fear, let me spell it out for you F-E-A-R!!!

  • trionel | July 21, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    **WARNING GIANT SPOILERS AHEAD**
    To start I am not a pure lover of Nolan films I loved the Prestige but had huge reservations with Memento and Inception found both more confusing than enjoyable. I am not a comic book reader at all (aside from a few non batman graphic novels) but enjoyed BTAS and specifically the movie Mask of the Phantasm. I also love small movies where you are NOT bludgeoned over the head unlike Nolan's Batman. But I truly love Nolan's batman films flaws (and there are large flaws) and all simply for there grand ambition, which I think is important for film makers to go to these places. Just think about what Nolan attempts to accomplish: A story about an extraordinary but still very limited guy through circumstance of having a family legacy in building and maintaining Gotham and guilt for the death of loved ones, feels the need to DO SOMETHING to help the city and chooses to do it by creating a symbol of dramatic acts. Though Nolan adds elements of Bruce's loneliness, he does not linger on it, and chooses to focus on the IMMENSE PROBLEM of CHANGING Gotham city. What is it going to take? How much will it cost him and the people around him? Are dramatic symbols the right way to go? Is it even worth it? Everyone he knows is against it (to various extents) and once he begins he faces resistance from all sides: his own company, all types of criminals, & constantly being betrayed by other justice seekers. Thus the movies are very bludgeoning because Nolan is interested in the painful reality (literally he is stabbed, shot burnt, poisoned, broken bones etc) of creating actual change for the better which I have been told my entire life is neither fun nor quick. Then there is Nolan's problem of adding the All major points from the Batman mythology (Amazing villains, Bat tech, Gotham cops, and ordinary Gotham citizens) onto his original problem plus the emotional lonely character trying to get over his parents death, and amazing stunts all in SEVEN hours. That's impossible without losing story cohesion and creating consistent fully earned emotional payoffs. Also it is arguable the Batman mythology cannot sustain the story of changing a city for the better but it definitely can sustain the story of the loneliness of a single traumatized person. But for me it is worth it. I think it is important for at least someone to try tell this story in a stylized way (not realistic but again limited) as all other painful change stories aren't as stylized and other stylized films do not have the change or limits. Personally I just connect more with the person trying to do something in the first 2 movies and understand when he cannot do it anymore for reasons to help Gotham as shown in the beginning TDKR, that his loneliness overwhelms in ugly ways (he becomes a recluse) than in Phantasm where he is able to maintain dignity. That with some help and realization of the need to live he can comeback and connect and trust completely with at least a couple people (in this case Selina and John Blake). That in the end the symbol isn't worth his life and Gotham itself has to go through these changes with the imperfect symbol they are left with. I truly love the thoughtful but unsustainable in time given plot (hopefully Nolan will learn from going past the edge), the high volume and wide variety of great moments and performances I have not seen in any film series, and when everything clicks the truly jaw opening moments I have not seen in any other film. I love them just as much as smaller more well made movies. These things to me are more important than mistakes made in technical areas (these movies are full of them) and whether the story convinces me completely (not without help from my imagination). But that's just me.

  • Fandango | July 20, 2012 7:58 PMReply

    It's nice actually to hear someone bashing Nolan's work for a change. If you want to find someone loving up Nolan's work you can find it practicaly anywhere else. This was quite refreshing to read.

  • Ed Harken | July 20, 2012 6:36 PMReply

    it is so painful to read indiewire and the "critics" and "reporters" that write for it that I dread opening an alert anytime i get one (thankfully i am doing so less and less as it gets worse and worse) - the smugness of the critics, the ineptness of the "reporters" (do they every fact check or do they solely rely on what is spoon fed to them?) - where are Hernandez and Brooks - what happened to this once credible news source?

  • thisisnotanexit | July 20, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    @STRANGELOVE Look, it's too easy to tear what you're saying to shreds because you contradict yourself in your own response to my response. I sincerely hope you are NOT a critic, as your argument construction and ability to analyze simple sentences appears to be faulty.

    "...they give us perspective by all their past knowledge of history of the art form."

    ...which is precisely why he mentions that he is knowledgable of Nolan's past works and doesn't particularly care for them. He's bringing his KNOWLEDGE of film, particularly his of viewing previous Nolan films to this particular review. So, then, you saying that because he doesn't like Nolan, he's not a "real" critic is just plain stupid. His opinion of Nolan's style is informed by his knowledge of it. Everyone is biased going into whatever film they see. People have different life experiences, viewpoints, and tastes that inevitably inform their opinions. It's IMPOSSIBLE for someone writing an editorial to be completely impartial. Do you know of some factory that's produced a film reviewing algorithm for its robot critics, or something?

    "Did you really expect they would post these conversation without thinking there would such a discussion?"

    Yet, you criticize them for having the conversation at all.

  • Strangelove | July 20, 2012 7:12 PM

    I too enjoyed 'The Dark Knight Rises' and will admit it is clunky and rushed at times due to the doubling of characters and multiple storyline. But isnt this what we want, a big film with big ideas and themes if the studios want to take our hard earned money, which I would rather spend watching an indie world cinema. Like I said before this the best we are gonna get for now. The criticism to me still feel sensationalised and someone trying to be different from the herd or even made me think they were Marvel fanboys nitpicking everything. I have always read reviews of films before I watched them, as lets face it there are a lot of garbage out there that just angers me that they are made with the budget they have. But most would agree they would rather have more Chris Nolan films than Michael Bay films (Bay might be too easy a target). But no matter all the negative or positive reviews these big budgeted films receive they will make a profit. Do critics even matter when it comes to big budget films or do we only care when they start to rile the populous? Also by the way, thanks for the compliment, its the result of growing up watching English films and TV.

  • Thisisnotanexit | July 20, 2012 6:11 PM

    First of all, I didn't criticize your English. I criticized the basis of your argument as you articulated it. I've worked with a lot of ESL students in my time and have a lot of respect for multilingual people. Your English is actually very good. I didn't read between the lines; I directly addressed specific points you raised. And your assumption that I agree with the above article is incorrect. I actually really enjoyed THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, even though I think it had its faults. The difference is that I respect these critics and their opinions even if they differ from my own.

  • Strangelove | July 20, 2012 5:11 PM

    I apologise for my lack of perfectly formed sentences as English is not my first language, let alone second. Since you like reading between the line and debunking what I say by phrasing everything, I am in the impression you agreed with the above article. I said no one can call themselves a critic if they do not stand by what they say, esp when they heavily criticise a piece of work and given this particular case where as you so insightfully pointed out that its impossible to be impartial in an editorial piece, but it would definitely be a lack of journalist integrity if it was a place to take potshot as someone. Or shall we chalk that up as an opinion based on past experiences as well. The voice of the critic has changed from the time when it really made a difference. I do not criticise them for having the conversation, I would have rather had someone with more interesting to say than your everyday average sensationalism critical point of view, but I criticise them for thinking being a critic is such an easy job where you can just blast out every vocabulary at their disposal to debase something to provoke a response. And you will be glad to know I am not a critic just a valued daily visitor of the site concerned at the drop of standards.

  • Adam K | July 20, 2012 4:33 PM

    Ha, I didn't see this while I was writing my comment below, and we have basically all the same points, even down to the formulation of "robot critics." High five!

  • thisisnotanexit | July 20, 2012 3:07 PMReply

    "Are these guys really critics? Then why would you start with 'I have never like a Chris Nolan's film (maybe apart from 'The Prestige') and start ripping on 'The Dark Knight Rises'. Where is the impartiality in that?"

    A critic doesn't need to be impartial. A critic needs to offer CRITICISM, which requires them to analyze a work and formulate opinons.

    "And me coming to the film's defence doesn't make me a fanboy, just someone who wants to read your reviews not read your transcribed bar talk."

    You realize they post these kinds of conversations all of the time, right? If you don't enjoy this type of "transcribed bar talk," why read this one?

  • Adam K | July 20, 2012 4:32 PM

    To STRANGELOVE (good name, btw):
    It seems you're looking for some sort of inhuman robot-critic to objectively review something. You speak of them "giv[ing] us perspective by all their past knowledge of history of the art form" and doesn't that include the histories of the director and actors? How would, to rephrase your words, "a critic go[ing] into a cinema with a preconception of preferring a certain filmmaker thus formulating a positive comment" be any less impartial than the negative version?

    Actual human critics can't pretend to be impartial any more than regular moviegoers can, except that critics have a wider and deeper range of knowledge to pull from and typically (as opposed to regular moviegoers) give reasons behind their assessments; we're all people, after all, but at least these two critics are helpfully willing to give us their biases up front instead of feigning an impossible "impartiality." I suppose I'm trying to figure out what this mythical "impartiality" of yours would look like.

  • Strangelove | July 20, 2012 3:38 PM

    A critic needs to have an authoritative voice, be it in any form of art, they give us perspective by all their past knowledge of history of the art form. When a critic goes into a cinema with a preconception of not preferring a certain filmmaker thus formulating a criticism; because of such impartiality is what make these critics irrelevant when it comes to big budget films. Believe me 'The Dark Knight Rises' will be the only big budget film I will be watching this year so why wouldnt I read everything I can read about it as I do with every other film I watch.
    Did you really expect they would post these conversation without thinking there would such a discussion? You are not a critic if you heavily criticise a piece of work and completely fail to stand by your words by saying 'Thats just my opinion, everyone has their own'.

  • Migdia Chinea | July 20, 2012 2:58 PMReply

    You guys are completely wrong. Completely! Migdia Chinea UCLA MFA TFTDM - KNINTH FLOOR - 2012

  • CJ | July 20, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    You lost all credibility by speaking as if everything you said was fact. Oh, and when you stated your liking for the bomb that was "Batman and Robin." some just don't understand the character I suppose.

  • Scott | July 20, 2012 3:01 PM

    It's clearly an opinion piece; it is ridiculous to expect every statement to be preceded by an IMO.

  • strangelove | July 20, 2012 1:17 PMReply

    Are these guys really critics? Then why would you start with 'I have never like a Chris Nolan's film (maybe apart from 'The Prestige') and start ripping on 'The Dark Knight Rises'. Where is the impartiality in that? Of course, you can say you didn't like the 'The Dark Knight' but dare not say you didn't like Heath Ledger's performance. Lets face it, most audience are sheep, they will go watch anything if the studios bombard them with enough marketing campaign, which has given to the question 'Why do we need critics?'. Big dumb studio blockbuster always end up making a profit, if not in the US then overseas, which is why they are dumbed down because they expect the guy who has the minimal grasp of the English language (myself a non-English speaking non-US audience) to be wowed by the million dollar CGI explosions and monsters.

    Question to them is who would you want directing these big hundred two hundred million dollars production if not Chris Nolan because its not like the studios will stop making them. You are not gonna get PT Anderson or Michael Haneke to get asked by the studios to direct these films. Lets face the realities, this is the best it will get for now.

    Would I have even bothered to write a comment if they talked about 'The Dark Knight Rises' was a masterpiece, a zenith of modern filmmaking, the bar every aspiring filmmaker to thrive for? No, I wouldn't. But to completely dismantle a film with bias just make critics that much irrelevant again when it comes to big budget films. And me coming to the film's defence doesn't make me a fanboy, just someone who wants to read your reviews not read your transcribed bar talk.