As always, let’s begin with a little idle speculation. Suppose we have time travel on demand. Just as we can now pay a subscription and watch the latest movies online, suppose a no doubt larger fee would enable us to go wherever we want in time. What would we use it for? As it is, I can buy a ticket and fly to Europe, rent a car and enjoy the local food and wines but, being an old guy and a natural skinflint, I hoard my money and stay home. I suspect my reaction to the opportunity to travel in time would be equally negative. Do I really want to risk all those diseases they had back then for which I have no natural immunity? And then there’s the language, the money and the food. I’ve no confidence the Latin I learned in school will come back to me if I’m lost in Rome and want to find a good place to eat. I know Doctor Who has this nice convention that everyone, everywhere and everywhen speaks standard English and always offers free food that does not give the Tardis crew gastroenteritis with all the vomiting and diarrhoea, but I don’t have the Time Lord’s scriptwriters to keep me safe. I’m thinking it would all be better if we could just be content with what we have now.
Midnight in Paris (2011) is a flawed but nevertheless rather pleasing film written and directed by Woody Allen who, I must confess, has proved a somewhat hit and miss director over the decades. When he’s hot, he produces something magical. But, over his entire career, I think he’s missed the target more often than not. This is not to say the films I consider misses are all total failures. It’s just we seem not to share the same aesthetics when it comes to beauty in film-making. What makes it all the more surprising that I should like this film is the presence of Owen Wilson in the lead. This is the first film in which I actually like his performance — probably because he’s not so obviously trying to be funny. Anyway, he plays Gil Pender, a screenwriter with left wing tendencies (by US standards), wondering whether he has it in him to write the next great American novel. He hitches a ride to Paris with his fiancé’s family and we’re immediately expected to see them as the family from Hell. John (Kurt Fuller) is a stereotypical wealthy GOP ideologue, Helen (Mimi Kennedy) is the ultimate materialist who only sees dollar signs when she considers what she finds important, and the prospective mate, Inez (Rachel McAdams) — it’s not at all clear what our hero would ever have seen in her as a person. No matter how great she may be in bed (and this is by no means certain), this is not a person up with which you would want to put for any length of time. To complete the set of ghastly characters, a friend of Inez turns up. He’s Paul (Michael Sheen), one of these pedantic twits who can hold forth with apparent expertise on everything he encounters. The fact he’s making most of it up is just one of his more endearing qualities.
OK so the plot dynamic is simple to state. From the outset, it’s obvious our hero should find an excuse to avoid marrying this woman (and into her family). The only question is how he will talk himself into making the break. The device adopted is that, whether in reality or his imagination, he travels back in time and discusses his draft novel and his social problems with the cream of the Parisienne art community of the 1920s. A part of the fun of the film is spotting who gets dragged into view and, once he overcomes his surprise, how he relates to all these luminaries. The most important from our point of view are Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and Adriana (Marion Cotillard), mistress to Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo). It’s not a spoiler to confirm that, as you would want in a romantic fantasy, he makes the right decisions. Suggesting the trips in time are real, our hero finds an old book with an inscription by Adriana. This leads to a nice moment when Inez almost catches him stealing some earrings to give Adriana as a present.
I think the fundamental problem with the film is that it’s too simplistic. The main characters are actually heavy-handed caricatures without any real depth. Gil is self-effacingly diffident except when it comes to arguing politics with his prospective in-laws. Hence, the argument is out of character. He would either be assertive on a range of subjects all the time or he would be predominantly passive to keep the peace with his prospective family, i.e. we see the political argument only to make a black-and-white point about the incompatibility of the man and the family. Further, I don’t really believe he would have become one of Hollywood’s top scriptwriters, always in demand. He lacks that aura of confidence he would need to sell a script to sceptical producers. Worse, given the way he speaks to people, I’m not sure he would write the sentences quoted from the text of the book. No matter who or when he speaks, he never seems to have a profound thought in his head, yet his book is aspiring to say profound things about nostalgia. Finally, the film itself is somewhat superficial on the grass is always greener in an earlier time trope. That we time hop twice to make the point adds redundancy (as does the fate of the private detective).
Yet despite these cavils, I found the experience of sitting through Midnight in Paris quite enjoyable. The opening travelogue introduction is too long but, once we get started, we move along at a brisk pace and get where we need to go without breaking sweat. In saying this, I’m not just praising the professionalism with which the package is put together. That’s a given with a Woody Allen film. The notion of time travel for the purpose of reflection and self-analysis is rather elegant. I just wish it had been left more ambiguously, i.e. without the inscription suggesting the experience is real. I prefer to retain the possibility he fantasises the experiences of time travel while moderately drunk, critiques his own book and works out he should not marry Inez. But, as it stands, it has just enough to make it a good film.
I need to start with a short explanation of why I’m not going to comment directly on the Colorado massacre. This is a review blog and not concerned with real-world tragedy or the politics of gun control. The only relevant issue is briefly to consider whether writers and those who make films or television programs should be held accountable if people act out what they have read or seen. I’ve long been sceptical of any link between a person reading about specific behaviour or viewing that behaviour on a screen, and the decision to act it out. Since the introduction of the printing press, there have been millions of books from cultures all around the world in which people have been described engaging in a wide range of activities. When we add in films and television programs, and widen the boundaries of taste, we can observe an extraordinary diversity of human behaviour. At moments like this, we’re prompted to ask whether people exposed to depictions of violence become violent but that rather ignores the more general question of cause and effect.
Abuse or aggression in the home is said to shape a child’s upbringing and make him or her more likely to be aggressive in the future. Naturally not all victimised or abused children become aggressive or abusive when they grow up. But some do. During their subsequent trials, the tendency to abuse others is said to be behaviour learned by experiencing how authority figures act. In other words, the socialisation process involves effects from the relationships within the family and the home environment, the interaction with authority figures, the pressures from peers, and a host of other factors. No-one would pull out a single episode in a television series such as Criminal Minds and blame it. Indeed, the problem in designing scientific research into whether there’s any link between violence observed and violence in action, is that showing people stimulus material and trying to measure their reaction takes the stimulus material out of context. Books, films and television do not exist in a social vacuum. Is it to be suggested we should not see news of the shooting in Aurora because this may incite copycat shootings? Every day, the news and comment media carry supposedly factual reports of criminal activity and other acts of social deviancy. There are tens of thousands of books which contain fictionalised versions of what we can imagine protagonists and antagonists doing to themselves or others. We should not censor the information that flows through our culture, nor seek to blame those who originate any individual item in the discourse as a whole. Indeed, news from Aurora would be a positive force for good if everyone focused on condemning the violence and discussing how public policy can be changed to reduce the chances of it happening again. The less violence is glorified and the more the peer group disapproves its use, the less the use of violence is seen as justified. If there are no rewards for the use of violence, there are fewer incentives for people to be violent.
At this point I need to start talking about The Dark Knight Rises (2012) whose contribution to this debate is equivocal. Making a vigilante into a hero plays a dangerous social game. In some senses, it’s showing society taking a positive benefit from the activities of a man who never feels constrained by the usual social conventions. For more than one-thousand years, laws have tried to steer people away from individual action, outlawing blood feuds and criminalising revenge. We have been persuaded the peace and order in society is the greater good and surrendered our individual rights to the law enforcement agencies and the courts. In the film, the Dent Act has been used to deprive alleged criminals of due process. They have been locked away without a right to a fair trial on the facts, and without a proper process for sentencing. In terms of civil liberties, the cure has been worse than the disease. More importantly, the policy is based on the lie that Batman wrongly killed Harvey Dent and so represents the worst political expediency in action. Ironically this gives Bane some moral justification for leading a revolution and storming the local equivalent of the Bastille to release the prisoners. It’s just unfortunate that many of those released are dangerous and probably deserved to be locked up indefinitely. The later scenes showing the revolutionary courts in action mimic those set up by the Committee of Public Safety in France during the Reign of Terror and set up the power of the quote from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens at the end. It pays the framers of the Dent Act the complement of imitation. Both sides are completely arbitrary in their oppression of those they dislike.
Against this background, we need to understand the roles people play. Daggert (Ben Mendelsohn) is the ultimately corrupt politician who uses his position to advance his own fortune. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the honest cop who feels guilt that he allowed the agenda to get out of his control. He knows the means do not justify the ends. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has opted for crime as the means to achieve her ends, but is wise enough to understand there have to be limits and ways to find redemption. She makes a pleasing counterpoint to the self-absorbed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) who can’t ride down the street on his new bike without breaking half-a-dozen traffic laws every block. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) represents a single-minded focus on the belief that humanity must somehow rid itself of corruption whether through projects to deliver low-cost energy to Gotham City or other ways. Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the voice of the young generation. Tired of being marginalised and victimised by older placeholders who have no accountability when things go wrong, he wants to get things done even if he ends up killing a few people on the way. But the most interesting figure is Alfred (Michael Caine) who gives a performance of great power as a paternal Everyman. He wants the best for young Master Bruce but not at the expense of Gotham City. When Batman distracts the police from chasing Bane and inspires mayhem, he shakes his head at the price society must pay for indisciplined interference. Would it not be better for Bruce Wayne to be actively involved in using his vast financial resources to help Gotham City out of the mess? Indeed, in Batman Begins (2005) the terrorist organisation called League of Shadows executed Bruce Wayne’s father because his philanthropy was so effective in stabilising the community. Alfred becomes disillusioned and leaves Bruce Wayne, the man he has loved as his own son. We are encouraged to see Bruce Wayne as losing his moral compass. He wallows in the arrogant delusion he can solve all his own problems (and those of Gotham City) by putting the suit back on.
Bane (Tom Hardy) is all business. He’s not showy or extravagant. His initial entry into the city is as a fixer for Daggert but, of course, he’s not a mere criminal. Nor, indeed, is he a true revolutionary. He’s a nicely complicated man who finds himself driven to destroy Gotham City. This understated performance makes a nice counterpoint to Batman’s more extravagant and flamboyant style. Whereas Bane lumbers around looking as if he’s just spent the night sleeping in his sheepskin jacket, Batman has to turn up on novel motorbikes or in futuristic flying machines looking dapper in his body armour. Bane is brutal and effective. With no knee or elbow joint in full working order, and with eight years of inactivity behind him, Bruce Wayne punches with the authority of a schoolgirl. Bruce Wayne overreaches because he believes in the myth of his own invincibility. He therefore has to learn what’s most important to him as his life lies in ruins. That the ending shows nobility of spirit is confirmation that he was, at heart, a good man. Alfred is justly proud of him.
However, I fear the film itself is not a complete success. As a piece of narrative fitting into the format of a trilogy, it’s a masterpiece. I see Christopher Nolan and his bother Jonathan Nolan who jointly wrote the screenplay, allowed a full novelisation by Greg Cox. I suspect it all works rather better on paper. The key difficulty is the need for the action to reflect the passage of at least five months. If a filmmaker is relying on the tired old device of the bomb counting down from 10, we only have a few seconds to watch the hero decide to cut the blue wire. This used to be exciting. But when the countdown is measured in months, it loses its dynamic force. As we watch Bruce Wayne rebuild his body, everything connected with Gotham City is fudged. How do all these policemen survive underground? Where does all the food come from to keep the population alive? How are water and power supplies maintained during the winter? And so on? Although the CGI of the flying bat is quite impressive in the final sequences, it was something I admired at a technical level more than found exciting. Oh dear, I was saying to myself, Gordon’s got himself into another of these silly script situations where he drops the gizmo and gets thrown around the inside of a truck like an action man toy. It’s all been seen before. Yes, it’s put together with all the skill we would expect of Nolan but. . .
Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is a very impressive film and because it thoughtfully addresses some very interesting ideas of contemporary importance about our reaction to criminal behaviour in general and terrorism in particular, it deserves to reach the widest possible audience, i.e. it’s not just a fanboy comic book film. But you shouldn’t go expecting it to be non-stop entertainment in the wham/bam style of blockbuster cinema. It take its time and, in the end, this gives the film more emotional depth.
Consider the following list of names: Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Elliott Gould and numerous others you will recognise on sight — and all directed by Steven Soderbergh. Now here come two separate questions: how do you define retirement? how do you define entertainment?
Some months ago, Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring from filmmaking. Various reasons were suggested, the most recent being that he would like to become a painter. Yet these noises, repeated while he was directing Contagion (2011) (which first appeared at the Venice Film Festival), seem to have meant little or nothing since he’s also mentioned other films he wants to direct and is currently filming Magic Mike.
An entertainment is an activity or event designed to amuse or provide enjoyment. On the face of it, a film with a stellar cast directed by a top name should provide enough fireworks to keep us interested. Yet, it seems retirement is too strong a lure for Soderbergh. All he’s done is give us a documentary drama and, to be honest, I’ve seen better made for television. There have also been a number of epidemic/pandemic films where we’re given the chance to admire the scientist as hero. It’s an unsubtle form of propaganda designed to lull us into a sufficient sense of security so we can sleep well at nights. When a real world threat like SARS comes around the next time, we’re supposed to feel reasonably safe, stronger in the belief there are protocols in place to keep as many alive as possible. Except this film doesn’t seem intended to serve that purpose. Its too flat and factual to have any kind of inspiring or reassuring effect. It’s a mostly dry step-by-step investigation into how the virus gets started with one or two more dramatic bits thrown in.
I hesitate to start with a spoiler but, to save you waiting for the last frame of the film, I’ll tell you it was the bat wot done it. I hate to spoil murder mysteries by crassly giving away the ending but, in this case, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be long past caring. I suppose you know that, if an epidemic is suspected, the World Health Organization and local medical authorities invest a remarkable amount of effort in trying to identify exactly where the outbreak began. Well, this is no exception and, as the body count rises, we follow the attempts of the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they try to work out who first passed the disease to whom. This is more than useful information because, if there are several possible vaccines, knowing how the virus came to infect the first human can swing the decision. Except this is really boring. Worse, the fact we do learn that a bat infected a pig shows the futility of the entire tracking exercise. No-one would ever find out how this virus got started. Soderbergh does his best by casting Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon as the couple of interest but she’s mostly in flashback before she dies, and he’s just stoical. As an aside, it’s not at all clear how this couple could ever have met each other let alone married. They are completely mismatched. The plot is also unclear as to why Matt Damon survives when looters are rampaging through his neighbourhood shooting everyone who might have food.
So here goes with a summary which I will do by actor names rather than characters because who everyone is is not very relevant. Gwyneth Paltrow is at ground zero and brings the virus back to the US. She infects her son and both die in short order. Husband Matt Damon proves to have natural immunity. He therefore represents our Everyman who must survive with his daughter until the crisis is over. Laurence Fishburne is still channelling CSI and running the CDC effort to contain the outbreak. Marion Cotillard goes to Hong Kong from the WHO to investigate ground zero. Kate Winslet goes from the CDC to Minneapolis to investigate contacts where Gwyneth landed.
In all this, the only really lively thread is provided by Jude Law who beautifully captures a conspiracy nut with a heart of greed. This is a wonderfully judged performance showing a blogger determined to become a millionaire by promoting a homeopathic cure for the virus. Then, of course, a couple of researchers break the rules and come up with solutions. Strange just how clichéd that’s become. Oh, yes, and Lawrence Fishburne tells his fiancée to get out of Dodge before the National Guard shuts it down. Good to see he has human failings. And not too many millions die.
Don’t get me wrong. This is an impeccably made film but it’s almost completely uninvolving. I really didn’t give a damn about any of the people portrayed in this dry sequence of events. It’s a documentary drama without the drama. It’s a tragedy to see so many talented actors wheeled out in front of the cameras in an episodic narrative sequence that doesn’t require any character development. More or less anyone competent could have done as well. Indeed, it’s probably slightly distracting to keep seeing all these memorable people wander into and out of shots. It would have been better to have a cast of unknowns. So Contagion (2011) is a bit like a real-world disease. You fear its arrival, suffer while you have it, and are profoundly relieved when it goes away.