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Are modern action movies suffering from a “Dark Knight?”

Are modern action movies suffering from a “Dark Knight?”  (photo)

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We seem to be moving past the craze of people reveling in their newfound ability to reedit movies on their home computers by making entertaining but superficial ten minute compilations into an exciting new world of video-based film criticism. indieWIRE’s Press Play blog is clearly the early vanguard. We previously shared their piece by Matthias Stork examining the use of “chaos cinema” techniques in modern action movies; this afternoon I’m sitting here absolutely enthralled by the first two installments of a three part series by Jim Emerson that delves even deeper into the state of Hollywood action cinema.

Part one is a twenty minute critique of a single chase scene from 2008’s “The Dark Knight” by Christopher Nolan. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Emerson’s piece is a flat-out evisceration. It starts with a quote from “Dark Knight” editor Lee Smith saying that “action…has to be very carefully planned and conceived” and then proceeds to show, shot by shot, the ways in which this particular sequence reflects a lack of planning and conception. Because the scene is cut so frenetically, most of these details are difficult to spot at 24 frames per second. But slowed down, some of the mistakes become glaringly clear; cars appear and disappear from one shot to the next, and one of the most important images in the entire sequence, that of a SWAT van careening off a bridge and into the river, makes absolutely no sense in context. It’s pretty devastating; and I say this as someone who was and is a big fan of “The Dark Knight.” So here’s part one:

In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight) from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

Emerson identifies a lot of problems in this sequence. But there’s always the argument to be made that some of the spatial confusion and visual incoherence was intentional. “The Dark Knight” proceeds at a breathless pace, not just during this scene but throughout the entire movie. A lot of the film’s power comes from the fact that we in the audience are at the mercy of The Joker, whose anarchic desires have infected all of Gotham City, and seemingly the film itself. In other words, The Joker’s disorienting, unsettling presence on the people of Gotham has the same impact on “The Dark Knight”‘s action scenes.

That’s also a valid reason for one of the other Nolan techniques that Emerson rejects: the way he briefly introduces seemingly ordinary Gotham citizens like cops or truck drivers only to immediately serve them up as lambs to the super-villain slaughter. The effect of these shocking, brutal murders is, similarly, to keep us constantly on edge, wondering when and where The Joker will strike next.

Taken one shot at a time, I wholeheartedly agree: many elements of the sequence violate all sorts of rules about visual continuity in cinema, and some of the mistakes and gaffes look shockingly inept. But watched as one continuous whole, the sequence holds together (at least for me) as a gripping, suspenseful chase. It may not be logical, but it is emotional. It is one of the positive examples of Stork’s “chaos cinema.” If The Joker is portrayed as an agent of chaos, why shouldn’t his chase scenes be chaotic?

Emerson’s next piece provides the counter-example to “The Dark Knight”‘s spatial missteps. It’s from Phillip Noyce‘s 2010 spy thriller “Salt.” That’s a movie I — and a lot of people — enjoy a lot less than “The Dark Knight,” but this is a compelling argument why its action scenes are superior on a technical level.

In the Cut, Part II: A Dash of Salt from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

Again, Emerson’s argument is very well-reasoned and superbly cut. But I’ll flip what I said about “The Dark Knight;” the scenes in “Salt” are logical but they are, at least for me, not emotional. Noyce may be a more classically skilled action director than Nolan, but there’s no question which film I’d watch if you offered my the choice between “The Dark Knight” and “Salt.” I guess action movies can sometimes be more than the sum of their action. Regardless, I’m still really looking forward to part three of Emerson’s series. More video film criticism please!

What do you think of the action scenes in “The Dark Knight?” Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…