Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (***)

It must take some kind of film event to bring me out of film review hibernation. Alas, The Dark Knight Rises comes along and leads me back to the keyboard, one year after my last post to pontificate cinematically. Not that I'm doing anything original or new in going to the internet to talk about what will probably be the most talked about, most dissected, most hyperbolic-opinion-spreading movie of 2012. As soon as the screen went dark on The Dark Knight in 2008, there has been a large mass of the population waiting for this film, the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which is probably some of the most beloved and praised comic book films in the history of the genre.

Dark Knight Rises takes place almost a decade after the events of The Dark Knight. Harvey Dent's death did not come without change, with most of the Gotham streets swept of all the filth and crime that had poisoned most of it's history, with the help of the Dent Act. There's even a Harvey Dent Day on the anniversary of his death. But perhaps the biggest change in Gotham is the absence of the Batman. After framing himself for Dent's murder for the good of the people, he had become a pariah. And Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) -- Batman's true identity -- had vanished. Out of sight for the most part, only seen occasionally patrolling the outer balconies of his expansive mansion with the help of a cane, accumulating a kind of Howard Hughes-like legend of solitude.

But the arrival of one, Bane (another performance from Tom Hardy filled nuanced menace) shakes up Wayne's apathetic approach to getting back in the bat suit. Bane, a blunt, hulking figure with a large Vader-esque breathing mask covering his mouth, uses the funding of a sinister member of Wayne Enterprises board of trustees to produce several unspeakable acts of destruction, including imploding a professional football field and taking apart a police jet, amongst other things (you have to wonder what unholy sum of money this trustee laid on Bane to get, of all things, Wayne's fingerprints). Bane is a force unlike anything Gotham has ever seen. Sure, he does not have the mind of the Joker, nor the Joker's want for the demented and twisted, but what he make lack in wit, he makes up with in power, hitting a much higher body count than the Joker could ever imagine.

Bane's pure evil inspires Wayne to work off his sore knees and shave off his hibernation beard and put the cape back on. With the help of his loyal butler, Alfred (a very effective Michael Caine) and the technological expertise of Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce Wayne once again becomes Batman. He's not fighting alone this time. He has the assistance of scrappy, young Police Officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who's own past of Orphanhood makes him and Wayne a form of kindred spirits. There is also Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a notorious and exceptionally talented cat burgler (she is the infamous 'Catwoman', even though she is never referred to as so), who can easily be Batman's enemy or his ally depending on her ever evolving allegiances, sometimes seeming to switch sides mid-sentence.

As you can see, there are many characters that The Dark Knight Rises has to juggle, but it keeps most of its focus on Bruce Wayne and his own inner struggle, which is much unlike The Dark Knight which always seemed uncomfortable toeing the line between being a story about Wayne and paying attention to the far more interesting Harvey Dent and (of course) The Joker. But this causes Rises' first half to drag a bit as we are force fed the stories of characters that are not nearly as compelling as 2008's Dark Knight. Bane, in particular, stands out since most of his eloquence and long passages of dialogue seem to ring hollow given his brutish behavior and extreme acts. There were elements of The Joker's twisted philosophy that you can identify with (which almost helps me buy that Harvey Dent would fall so far - almost), but its hard to see what Bane is attempting to accomplish for most of the film.

Bane, in full garb
The screenplay certainly does stretch itself a bit thin, taking on themes in full stride and then tossing them aside without much care. There are even moments when Bane's lengthy pontifications point themselves at class warfare in a certain "occupy the one-percent" kind of manner that immediately makes me list things that I do not want to see expressed in a Batman movie. But throughout the film's uneven screenplay, director Christopher Nolan fills the screen with such exhilarating action sequences and Batman gadgets, that it never crosses into anything mundane. Even watching Bane murder dozens while destroying a football field feels breathtaking in a way. He continues to hold the trophy for the most thought-provoking commercial filmmaker, consistently making mass audiences not only think while they look up at the screen, but actually enjoy the thought process. Which is hard since almost all that anyone wants now is Bang Bang! Boom Boom!

But its hard for me to watch either of the Dark Knight films without seeing how both screenplays expose themselves while trying to accomplish so much, and while being true to the nature of the source material. As thrilling as the final act is in Rises, even that has certain befuddling moments (that I won't even begin to talk about considering the especially sensitive nature of Batman fans considering "spoilers") that were befuddling to the point where I couldn't even make up my mind as to whether or not they made sense. In the end, The Dark Knight made over $530 million, and Rises is sure to follow in those footsteps. So surely, it doesn't really matter what I think about the films and their supposed flaws. Except, that as a writer and film lover, it's important to mention that twist endings should earn their stripes a little easier than Dark Knight Rises attempts to.

There is even another character in this film that I have failed to mention, and that is Miranda (Marion Cotillard), an energy scientist who is interested in Bruce Wayne on two levels: Wayne Enterprises' ability to produce a full-power reactor that would give Gotham City totally pure energy, as well as getting into Wayne's bedroom. Miranda brings an interesting aspect to Rises that may push the film out of what could have been a very droll (and male-centric) place. Both Cotillard and Hathaway, placing two very different love interests, lead the film to very unexpected places.

I do think The Dark Knight Rises is better as a story about Batman, giving Bale the center stage to fill out Wayne as a character with surprising wit and astonishing will (its hard for me to believe that any real person could come back from the various injuries that Wayne sustains so quickly without copious amounts of HGH). But this film is not nearly as captivating as The Dark Knight - and let's face it, it doesn't have an otherworldly performance from Heath Ledger. I will forever quibble with the screenwriting issues within these films, because that's what screenwriters do (even unaccomplished ones like myself). The truth is, Christopher Nolan has drafted one of the most entertaining and astonishingly-made trilogies in today's pop culture, and did it with real nuance (and let's not forget that he also found a way to make Inception in the middle of all of that). These film's do not have the visual innovation of a trilogy like the original Star Wars films, but they will probably be just as beloved.

**In other news, I think we can all admit that while the bikes and planes and cars that Lucious Fox's develop are a handful in the badass department, they lack heavily in the aesthetically pleasing department. Just wanted to get that out there.**

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