Against The Hype

movies, criticism and their pleasures

The Dark Knight Rises: Why Christopher Nolan is a Fascist Filmmaker

August 04, 2012 By: Colin Low Category: Full Essays

Try as he might, Christopher Nolan can’t quite master multitudes. In the third and last instalment of his Batman trilogy, Gotham City is overthrown, and the wealthy are hauled off to a people’s court. But where are all the people? They’re faceless masses, huddled neatly to either side as an asylum-loosed judge delivers the sentence. Mansions are pillaged, crowds riot at hotel entrances—but only for the brief length of a voiced-over montage. Just as abruptly, the streets become conspicuously empty. Before this, entire held-up stock exchanges and stadiums turn meek as lambs at the sight of a few guns.

Throughout The Dark Knight Rises crowds are always docile, organized or absent, and mob agency looks a lot like the will of a few. Perhaps this is Nolan’s point. For him, history is a clash of fascists benevolent and malicious; send enough megalomaniacs running around, and the masses can be trusted to hand over their fates. Even the hostaged ships in The Dark Knight, who stood inspiringly against the Joker’s plans to set them on each other, did so at the hands of a mere three people amid two boatloads of cowering passengers.

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Best Shot: How to Marry a Millionaire

August 02, 2012 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

If How to Marry a Millionaire didn’t premise itself on having Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall share the same plane of cinematic existence, the whole enterprise would seem even more dreary than it is. It’s an implausible high concept, to be sure: three feminine “types” rent out a New York loft to try to ensnare a rich husband. If you have any familiarity with Hollywood’s hypocrisy about moneyed escapism and true love, you know how it goes. As they are, the unfolding clichés seem too lowbrow even for Monroe’s breathy ditzy blonde, let alone the angular Bacall. The movie, only the second shot in CinemaScope, only seems remotely adept at the technology when it fits all three stars onscreen. Hence my favorite shot above, where each star is dressed and takes on a mode of repose that’s so different from the others, even as they’re all dreamily contemplating their potential future catches. The pleasure’s ours.

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The Movies I Love, #50: Adaptation

July 29, 2012 By: Colin Low Category: Full Essays

When I fished a video CD of Adaptation off a videostore bargain shelf circa 2005, I had no idea who Meryl Streep was. (I know, I know.) The cover lodged her squarely between Nicolas Cage, whom I vaguely knew, and Chris Cooper, whom I didn’t. At the time, what drew my eye lay above Streep’s face and name, where it proclaimed, in large font: “Academy Award Winner: Best Supporting Actor – Chris Cooper.” Ooh, I thought. An Oscar-winning performance. Might be interesting. No nominations were mentioned; the rest of the cover gave little else away.

My first Meryl
Adaptation thus holds the lone, eccentric honor of being the first and last Meryl Streep movie I’ve seen where I was not anticipating her performance. And unlike The Devil Wears Prada, which burnishes its own loin-girding introduction to Meryl for many of my generation and younger, Adaptation sneaks Meryl up on those who have yet to grasp her massive cultural chokehold over the ’80s cinema. Our initial glimpses of her typing solitarily in a high-rise office at night, slinking into a courthouse in session, or approaching Cooper’s chip-toothed hick for an interview hardly give off the vibes of a breathtaking role, even if her voiceovers of literary snatches from The Orchid Thief take on a mellifluous tone.

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Best Shot: The Royal Tenenbaums

July 26, 2012 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

This post was written for the Hit Me with Your Best Shot series over at The Film Experience, graciously hosted by Nathaniel Rogers.

Wes Anderson’s films (of the mere Oscar-nominated two I’ve seen) brim with shots like the above: candy-colored, immaculately designed, and with human props at its center. Can you tell I’m not that huge a fan? Yet I love how the pervasive deadpan that Anderson enforces on his actors leaps out into the image here. The billboard behind Royal (Gene Hackman) and Pagoda (Kumar Pallana) might be the visual equivalent of a racist joke—why does the Indian right-hand man get lumped in with a Spanish translation?—but it’s also blaring the emergency/emergencia in which these two baffled men are waist-deep, but barely able to countenance.

SIFF 2011: Pina Astounds, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Documentary 101

September 19, 2011 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

Drop everything and come to Shaw Lido tonight (Sept 19, Mon, 9.30pm) to see Pina, which I saw two days ago and can’t wait to see again. Here’s why:

It’s a vision of the future of 3D cinema. Even more than James Cameron’s Avatar before it, Pina makes a single-handed, multi-bodied case for what 3D cinema should look like if it is to take pride in being a legitimate art form. The elaborate planning needed to capture famed choreographer Pina Bausch’s dances—ingenious with space, and filmed nonstop before live audiences—even implies that 3D might be the key to restoring lost staging practices and less hyperactive editing styles to the movies. (Ironic that this newfangled “gimmick” should offer itself as a potential messiah to all the ever-lamenting Hollywood classicists.)

It’s the hulking Citizen Kane of dance retrospectives. As if its groundbreaking use of deep cinematic space wasn’t enough of a clue, Pina stakes its claim to being the Citizen Kane of dance retrospectives by revealing Bausch to us through the legacies and people she left behind, in ways that defy easy summary. Instead of filming regular talking heads, Wenders layers the testimonies of the dancers of Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal over clips of their faces. More than one reminisces about Bausch’s penetrating gaze, which read them more clearly than they could give voice to, so it’s almost like Wenders is trying to exhume Bausch’s very gaze.

It was almost never made. The attention that Pina accords to the Tanztheater Wuppertal dancers grows even more poignant when you learn that Wenders cancelled plans to make the film after Bausch died unexpectedly, just a few days before filming was initially slated to begin. It was at the behest of these dancers (and Bausch’s fans worldwide) that Wenders decided to press on. “Dance, dance, or we are lost,” cries the movie’s subtitle as the credits end, and I can’t think of a more fitting rallying cry for these people who, through Bausch’s influence and choreography, ask to be found.

Just as Pina feels infused with the spirit of all the dancers that surrounded its making, Cave of Forgotten Dreams has the head and heart of the people that accompanied its making: academics. It isn’t a knock to say that this documentary about the Chauvet Caves, which hold the earliest cave paintings known to man, feels much like the movie an archaeologist or art historian or anthropologist would have made.

I daresay director Werner Herzog is a little bit of all those respectable professions, and he defers even more to the small group of actual professors in his midst who, like his filmmaking team, have been allowed a rare visit to study the caves under limited time and conditions (no touching, no straying from the narrow central walkway, etc). Yet Herzog’s own specific penchant for spelunking for people’s stories and dreams shines through (an archaeologist he interviews turns out to have been a unicycle-and-juggling circus man), even if his inimitable deadpan sometimes makes his meditations on the subject more portentous than his documentary-101 approach otherwise affords.