Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review

I write Indie Spotlight reviews for Man, I Love Films, and I love doing them. Almost each week for the last little while, I've posted Reviewing with Others entries on this site, and they all link to my work there.

Last week, Sebastian (another Man, I Love Films contributor) got the chance to review The Dark Knight Rises for the site. I suggested that - within a week of the TDKR release - every Man, I Love Films contributor should get to post a capsule review of their own thoughts, as the pic was a big deal. People agreed.

As such, sometime today you'll be able to find the thoughts of myself, Kai, and several others on that site. Below, however, you can find my complete review. I hope you look at and enjoy both.

There are so many ways to begin, it's nearly daunting. I could talk about high expectations, real-life tragedy, or how hard it is to get IMAX tickets in New York City. Sure, I'll skip spoilers until the inevitable Double Dip entry, but simply put - screw all that noise. So what's the story? Deep breath time:

The Dark Knight Rises picks up 8 years after The Dark Knight. Gotham's organized crime has vanished. New legislation (coughSocial Issuescough) gave the police broader powers, and over 1000 criminals have been jailed as a result of the Harvey Dent Act (coughPatriot Actcough). The same night that Dent died, Batman became falsely-known as a murderous vigilante - after which Bruce Wayne hung up his cape and hid himself away in his new mansion. He's gone all Howard Hughes on us.

However, a new super-villain has popped up out of nowhere: Bane, a cryptic, strange-looking war machine who's very smart and very brutal. He kills without warning and his men gladly die for him. The goals of Bane are a complete mystery for the first 45 minutes of this nearly 3-hour film. Tom Hardy's Bane, then, isn't nearly as enjoyable as Heath Ledger's The Joker - Bane shows up and does incredible, evil things before disappearing time and again.

Still, the sudden appearance of a wide range of serious threats is enough to bring Bruce out of retirement. This older, more frail vigilante/detective is a man who's full of doubt and regret, haunted by his past. As the threat worsens and envelopes the city that he loves, though, Bruce Wayne fights back, channeling two of the most powerful, positive feelings: hope and determination. Will it be enough? This new guy's like a combination of Ra's Al Gul and The Joker - he wants to destroy everything, but he also wants to bend Gotham to his will.

It's very easy to compare the Nolan Batman trilogy to life itself: the first entry was about the late teen/early 20's years; the second film was about the 20's-age person confronting failure and their worst crisis, in the form of their exact opposite; the finale is about the mid-30's/early-40's person who can only compensate for their lost youth with experience and sheer will.

And, as appropriate for the older person who's in a crisis again, our Caped Crusader isn't really dealing with new problems so much as he's dealing with a fresh version of the same issues.

Hardy plays a fine villain. The garbled-voice thing is a pain, at times (they made his voice louder to compensate), as is the fact that he sometimes sounds German and sometimes sounds like Scrooge MacDuck. It's really unfortunate that Bane's shrouded in mystery so much of the time - if the audience knew the depth and breadth of his goals, then we'd've had a stronger connection to what Bane was doing. It probably would've killed some of the surprise, tho...

Oh oh oh oh that Shakespe-herian rag-/It's so elegant/So intelligent
Despite all that, he was devious, powerful, and - best of all - unexpected. The performance required a lot of work - both in dealing with that costume and in his performance. And, unlike Total Recall's fistfight between Michael Ironside and Arnold Schwarzenneger, Bane presents a real threat. The big problem is if you watch this movie expecting what you saw in The Dark Knight.

On June 1st this year, Comics Alliance revealed Chris Nolan's attitude about The Joker, who appeared in TDK and was played by the now-dead Heath Ledger. Specifically, Nolan addressed Ledger's role in The Dark Knight Rises. In short, he was of the opinion that The Joker shouldn't be mentioned at all, out of respect for both the movie and the actor. I completely approve and agree.

Yet this new enemy is like a mutated version of Liam Neeson's Ra's Al Gul from Batman Begins. Bane isn't charismatic, he's dogmatic. His plans aren't fairly-direct and semi-improvised, they're complex, disciplined, and thorough to the point of making you want to call bull----. It's a new villain for a new day.

The themes in TDKR are in keeping with what's come before it: fear, obligation, hope, will. The subtext, however, is radically different and much more potent. It goes beyond terrorism commentary or Patriot Act criticism to also give a ramped-up vision of what happens when the poor versus rich struggle goes city-wide. This isn't just Occupy Wall Street - this is what happens when a malevolent anarchy prevails over any kind of order. This film is, simply, extreme.

Why would Bats use a bare-knuckle style against Bane so much?
Once you learn what Batman's up against, and what his enemy has planned, you'll have to pick your jaw up from off the floor. As horrible as it is, it's beautifully-realized, using massive shots of Pittsburgh, Chicago, and NYC to give you a sense of what might have happened if the plans of Ra's or The Joker had succeeded. This is all breath-taking.

Anne Hathaway is a real pleasure. She's gorgeous, obviously (ditto goes for Marion Cotillard), and her role is appropriately strong and independent, while still allowing her room to be complex and principled. She's much more in control of herself and her choices than Michelle Pfeiffer's version in Batman Returns, putting her own bold, cut-throat stamp on the role while also charming the hell out of the viewer.

I haven't seen her in anything, but she didn't need the leather bodysuit to win me over. Hathaway uses her screen time at least as well as Cotillard, although she has more weight to carry. I can't say I've read much of the comic, but Batman is a really interesting character who happens to be surrounded by equally-interesting people.

She's very compelling.
What about Bruce Wayne himself? He's... not in this movie so much. Christian Bale is, to me, a great actor - undisputed. He's charming and versatile and willing/eager to breathe life into a variety of roles; he seems to be a star who's really likely to work as a character actor. It's just a shame that he didn't have enough time to act in a film that put him in frame 60% of the time.

Yet I think it's brave and smart that Nolan reduced his own lead's part in TDK and TDKR. His character is truly unraveled for us in Batman Begins; to some extent, we learned what we needed to learn and we watch the story around him, his impact on it, and its impact on him. That may be enough.

Moreover, all these films - I don't want to get into the trilogy much now, but I can't help it - make a point of putting Gotham and its citizens at the forefront. Batman is sort of like a terrorist, not in the sense that he breaks the law, but in the sense that his actions are supposed to have an effect on the population around him.

The city is a character here, and its people make up that city as much as the buildings do. We need to see the results of Bruce Wayne's work in order for it to have meaning, and we need to care about Gotham's people for us to care about the work more than just wanting Batman to win.

Actually, good god, I think this trilogy was actually about the rise and fall of Dr. Jonathan Crane, The Scarecrow. Or Alfred Pennyworth. To be honest, both of them should've had larger parts to play here. Perhaps I just like the roles too much.

We neva should've switched to HD, Master Wayne! It's too much de-tail.
So we have great effects, action, score (I bought the BB score and play it to start many a morning), tied with solid dialogue, plotting, What are the problems?

In part, they're in things that I stated already. Batman/Bruce actually does get a lot of time here, but a lot of it just resolves things we've seen before; also, the material tends to be very slow - not badly-done slow, but having certain beats repeated and played out over a long time. It feels as if, for all the changes and things thrown at the audience, Batman is flexible, but not quite dynamic. It's hard to explain, but it's a vibe I felt.

Bane should have more time, or be explained to us sooner - perhaps even at the expense of some of the shock for viewers. Catwoman is amazing, and could easily have a movie to herself. All of these aren't, per se, the most objectively-valid complaints - they're preferences, I guess, so I can't take them too seriously.

What I can take seriously is the amazing span of logic problems. I re-watched The Matrix recently, and I noticed something: Trinity is trapped on the roof and she decides to jump through a window across the street. She bolts, and as she's in mid-run, one of the fearsome Agents watches her go. She continues her race along the rooftop, then the we see the Agent move towards her.

I'd watch these two in anything - both the roles and the actors.
The problem is that we have that shot of her pursuer, but he does nothing more than step forward. That's it: Agent Not-Smith steps into the frame in a profile shot. He doesn't raise his gun or call for backup, or do anything other than step forward. The logic of this fantastic scene - just one moment in a scene, really - is a problem. My point is that The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of those, and they're not restricted to 1-second bits.

Bruce Wayne's condition is, um, a little too over the top - how he lives in his manor, the misfortunes with Wayne Enterprises, and his physical condition (both at the start and the middle). Plots involving all of his enemies and problems often have at least one or two "How?" or "Why?" or "Huh?" moments.

This might be a little more of an issue for me, but I'm still reeling over the events of TDK. The Joker creates all that chaos, and the town's top cop decides that it would crush everyone to learn that a good man lost his mind after his fiance died and half his face was burned off. Apparently, people in Gotham have 0.0% empathy, no faith in anything, and are freakishly self-centered.

So, rather than tell people that Dent snapped and killed folks, let's just say that it was Batman's fault. Y'know, the Batman guy who was supposed to be a symbol that people can fight back against the mafia. Just tell folks that he did it, because that's better than saying that The Joker did it.

Those two paragraphs I just typed are incredibly stupid - no, not my writing, I mean the plot developments that I described. It's just a little harder for me, seeing TDKR build so much off of that moronic closing to TDK.

And, honestly, I'm surprised at two things: the ease with which people learn so much about Batman and his toys, and the fact that we have a hero who basically fought 3 threats in his first two movies and then completely retired for 8 years. Those two aspects alone had me ready to slap my forehead in chagrin.

Catwoman in chains. Rowr!
The proof is in the pudding, though. The Dark Knight Rises is a really fun and exciting film. It's not dumb and it is that one adjective that's both mis- and over-used today: epic. A big building exploding while a dinosaur is killed by a ninja that's stomped on by a giant robot that's being attacked by a space dragon: that's not epic, it's just over-the-top. TDKR is truly epic in scope and scale and theme - a smartly-made picture that is incredibly ambitious, maybe to its loss.

I had a great time watching this picture, and you should, too. I would have enjoyed it alone, and it was even better to see it with my brother D, as well as my friends Brian N. and Scott G. I look forward to seeing it in IMAX soon, and I think maybe my biggest complaint is that there won't be anymore Christopher Nolan Batman films. That is something I could really bitch about - I think a lot of the director's choices stemmed from the fact that he wanted to end this franchise here.

I'm kinda tired now. Much like Nolan, I just want to drop the mic and walk away. So what do you think?

PS, you're a totally crap parent if you take your child to see this. 6 y/os  have no reason to be anywhere near this, nor do 12 y/os really; trust the PG-13.
PPS, it's possible that Chris Nolan thinks that every woman is an a-hole, except Ellen Page.

Everything is so big. It's a freaking opera up in here.

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