The Dark Knight Rises [spoilers]

The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to a superb trilogy. With his three films, Christopher Nolan has succeeded where Tim Burton fudged it in the late ’80s and early ’90s with his pair of Michael Keaton features (both now seem more camp even than the TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward). The less said about what followed on the heels of those, the better. Nolan’s Batman is the definitive Batman, the dark half of tortured, lost soul Bruce Wayne. Wayne’s inability to gain control of his own life – shattered following the murder of his parents and again after the violent death of his childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes – despite the mansion, the millions, the fast cars and the beautiful women, is rendered even more sharply when placed against the unswerving drive of his alter-ego. This is a man who has travelled many miles to find a purpose, who has spent years studying other cultures and religions in a bid to unravel the mess of his own heart and start afresh. In The Dark Knight Rises, joints creaking, a smattering of grey in his hair, he finally finds a way to put the mask aside and move forward.

The film is shot through with excellent performances from a number of actors who appeared in Nolan’s previous movie, Inception. Michael Caine, reprising his role as Alfred, has a much meatier role here and shows us that he has lost none of his sparkle (I could forgive him and his writers the early monologue about his trips to Florence, which heavily telegraphs how the film will end). The ever-dependable Gary Oldman plays Commissioner Gordon once more, committed more than ever – since his family left him – to eradicating crime from Gotham’s streets, identifying talent in a Batman-in-waiting Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the whiter-than-white police officer with a past echoing that of the Dark Crusader.

Tom Hardy turns in an extraordinary performance as the fearsome Bane, a hulking, perma-masked intellectual with a penchant for sheepskin jackets, who has spent his entire life until now in prison. Though he is no Heath Ledger, I didn’t feel the film suffered in comparison with its predecessor. Bane is an interesting, compelling, tragic villain. Horrifying to look at, brutally violent, yet leavened by a voice that – although muffled somewhat – contains notes of wonder, humour and an almost childlike curiosity. The story of how he came to be masked leads to one of the genuinely surprising twists in the film, which also involves Marion Cotillard, who puts in a convincing performance as Miranda Tate, a philanthropic and monied member of the Wayne Enterprises board, although the awkward way she enters a moving vehicle in the final third of the film suggests she has lost a little of the athletic prowess she seemed to have possessed as a child…

Anne Hathaway has the ability to switch from ingénue to sophisticate in a moment and is a great fit as the selfish cat-burglar who ultimately does the right thing. She displays a nice line in understated humour and can handle herself with aplomb on Batman’s motorbike.

I have no qualms with Christian Bale, a dedicated and talented actor, who possesses that necessary quality – a fragility, an uncertainty – discernible amid all the muscle mass. That said, I always felt that Batman, this modern, darker, Frank Miller-inspired Batman, ought to have been older and more grizzled (Ed Harris, anyone?). Bale, though, does at least know how to do a mean press-up…

Hans Zimmer’s scores for these films are beautiful, elegiac soundscapes (I use them pretty much all the time while writing), inseparable from the character they herald, a world away from Danny Elfman’s Batman compositions, which reached for the same kind of stature but were always going to be undermined by his natural light touch.

It’s a long film, but it’s pretty well paced, with all the loose ends tied up swiftly and cleanly (no The Lord of the Rings-style multiple endings here). There are some genuinely moving and genuinely thrilling moments throughout, and I came away feeling fulfilled and keen to watch the film again, this time away from the IMAX razzmatazz (the sweet wrappers and the late arrivals) and in more intimate surroundings.

DC seems to be the grit to Marvel’s glitter; I liked Avengers Assemble greatly, but that was pure froth, a Chinese meal: enjoyable, but quickly forgotten. The Dark Knight trilogy is one of those special, sumptuous banquets that occur in your life so very infrequently. Savour it.

Prometheus [here be spoilers]

In space… nobody can do proper press-ups

I’ve been a fan of the Alien films since I was maybe 12 years old, when I was way too young to see it (and, indeed, I didn’t actually get to see the first film until I was around 15) but I’d heard a lot about it, and knew it was my kind of thing. I’m retrospectively disappointed that I knew about the chest-bursting scene long before I watched it (ditto the floating head in Jaws… you take too long to see a touchstone film like that and your mates will let you know what happens whether you want to know or not), and I’m keen to show Alien to my eldest son Ethan before the surprise is spoilt for him too. As for the sequels, well, I loved them as well. All of them, even Alien 3 and Resurrection. I loved the mainly British cast of 3 (Pete Postlethwaite, fellow Warringtonian!) and the Fincher-dark of it; and the conceit of Resurrection. Aliens is one of the greatest horror thriller movies of all time.

But Prometheus

I really wanted to like this film. I love Ridley Scott. Alien and Blade Runner are both in my top ten films of all time. I liked Hannibal and Black Hawk Down. But I’m sorry to say that I found Prometheus underwhelming, for a number of reasons.

It’s a film that bears comparison with Alien, as it retains a number of common elements. We have the synthetic David (the excellent Michael Fassbender), with a HAL-calm voice and a creepy habit of watching crew members’ dreams. In Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) we have Ripley-lite (she even strips off down to her underwear – who’d have thought that bra and knickers of the future would be little more than strips of bandage? – before undergoing an emergency C-section, major surgery that really ought to put her on her back for a week. Mothers everywhere, I’m sure, were snorting at Noomi’s ability to go tear-arsing off through the ship’s corridors as soon as ‘baby’ was ‘born’). In Captain Janek (Idris Elba) we have baseball cap-wearing skipper who relaxes with a glass of Scotch and Stephen Stills’ old accordion, which allows the awkward elbowing-in of a reference to the Stills’ song, ‘Love the One You’re With’. This comes on the heels of one of a sequence of unlikely moments in the film where ice-cold corporate beak, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), decides to prove she isn’t a robot by having sex with him. Yeah, right.

Other parallels include set pieces such as Prometheus entering the moon’s atmosphere for a landing that evokes the grandiose, elegiac approach of the Nostromo; Rapace, in extremis, arguing the toss with a CPU when she’s trying to programme her DIY abortion (recalling Sigourney Weaver’s plea to Mother to abort the self-destruct process in Alien); Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) in the doomed John Hurt role, playing host to something horrid incubating in his guts and lots of shaky camera footage relayed back to the Prometheus crew.

One of the most iconic scenes from Alien was the discovery of the space jockey fossilised into his saddle, ribcage destroyed, splintered ends bent outward from an ancient encounter with the xenomorph. It was an awesome scene in the true sense of the word. There was an epic mystery there, a sense of fear and wonder relating to a catastrophic incident lost to time. Prometheus explained it away, and now we know that the weirdly beautiful space jockey look was actually armour that concealed a bunch of pale, bald guys.

It is gorgeous to look at, and its moments of body horror are utterly terrifying, but it’s all a bit of a mess, structurally and narratively. I’m not sure what was going on, only that it had something to do with how these aliens created us. However, there seemed to be more questions than answers by the end, including: WTF is it with the pan pipes ignition key? And how did the decapitated David’s lovely Peter O’Toole locks remain so tidy after the alien spaceship crashed and rocked and rolled all over the shop? Acting-wise, I was convinced only by Elba and Fassbender. Another distraction for me was Guy Pearce. As with Theron, I’m a great admirer, but did he even need to be in this film? The obvious CGI make-up hangs off him in great, wrinkly wattles, but wouldn’t it have been easier to just cast an ageing actor? The aliens lacked the raw, freakish terror of Alien‘s jaw-pistoning phallus (they just looked like flower-headed snakes and an octopus, ho-hum) and when David asks Elizabeth is she’s really sure she wants to give up the chance to go home rather than chase the threat to its source, I was as skeptical as he was. I wish it had all remained a mystery.

And that Charlize Theron had been taught how to do proper press-ups.

Black on Blonde

Peter Tennant at Black Static provided glowing reviews of Blonde on a Stick and Loss of Separation in a recent issue.

Of Blonde on a Stick, he writes: ‘As you’d expect given Williams’ pedigree, the writing sings, the author capturing perfectly the tone of the hard boiled, wisecracking gumshoe, his language throwing up captivating images and metaphors, lulling the reader into a sense of complete surrender, so that Williams can take us wherever he wishes and we follow simply to hear more from that uniquely beguiling voice.’

And later:

Loss of Separation contains a master class in skilful writing and the evocation of atmosphere, virtues that confirm my long held opinion that Williams is one of the modern masters, a prose stylist of the first rank whatever genre he chooses to write in.’

Both keepers!

The Unblemished

A good review of The Unblemished from The Eloquent Page…

“Few writers have the ability to genuinely unsettle me but Williams has succeeded here. Put it this way – up until last night it has been decades since I have had to take a break from reading a book because it was creeping me out. If you consider yourself a horror fan and haven’t read The Unblemished you need to remedy this situation immediately. Be warned though, once you read something you can’t unread it. This one will mess with your head.”

The full review is here.

Loss… the first review

A day before the novel is released in the UK, the first, lengthy review of Loss of Separation has been posted over at Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review. Graeme Flory gives the novel a sparkling 9/10 and writes: “Loss of Separation is one of those nasty little reads that stops to run its talons up and down your spine before digging them in deep and not letting you go. It’s a book that unsettles you while you’re reading it and sticks around in your head long after you’ve put it down. The best horror fiction always asks the question whether elements of the supernatural or humanity itself has the greatest capacity to inflict horror and that’s exactly what’s on show here.”