Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: 'The Dark Knight Rises'

“Bruce...don’t be afraid.”

These are the last words of Thomas Wayne to a young Bruce in Batman Begins as he lay dying, after being robbed and murdered in a dark Gotham alleyway.  As I watched all three films in Christopher Nolan’s wildly popular Batman franchise this past week, the thematic current of fear began to form in my mind as I watched the trilogy play out.  As the second act of The Dark Knight Rises comes to a close with Bruce climbing his way out of a daunting pit, I realized that perhaps the actions of Batman and Bruce Wayne were steered by this yearning to heed the words of his dying father.  In this way and many many others, Nolan gives us a more than satisfying conclusion to his Dark Knight legend.

When the story begins, Gotham has been safe for the eight years since the conclusion of The Dark Knight.  Batman has not been seen nor heard from after taking the blame for Two-Face’s killings, and Bruce Wayne has become an injured hermit, holed up in his rebuilt Wayne Manor.  The film begins with Commissioner Gordon’s speech on “Dent Day”, where he almost divulges the truth of what happened the night Two-Face/Harvey Dent died, and how Batman did not commit the murders. 

I appreciated that they brought this moral failing to the forefront of the conversation; although it is not until later that Gotham city finds out that Dent was the one who turned, it sets the table for one of the themes of the film: although Gotham is “safe,” its safety was built on a foundation of lies, and the “Dent Act” was mere political subterfuge by Gordon, et al, to keep criminals off the streets that Harvey Dent had put away while he was still alive.  So underneath the current of safety in the city, perhaps even a greater evil than the Joker lies in waiting—its own citizens.  It’s upon this shaky foundation that the villain Bane is able to emerge, and exploit the city, breaking Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the entire city down to their lowest possible state. 

Of course, the question that was on everybody’s mind after the success of The Dark Knight was, could Rises possibly be as good as its predecessor without the explosive presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker? My answer is a decisive yes and no.  The Joker was never going to be topped as a villain in this franchise, but after going back and watching TDK last week, the movie had several gaping weak spots for me that I thought Rises improved upon. 

For instance, TDK has some moments of bad acting by almost everyone except Ledger and Bale.  Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, even the great Gary Oldman could have been better coached by Nolan in spots, and a lot of the extras in the film should have been forced to take an acting class or two.  Contrast that to Rises, which is very well acted across the board (except for one noticeable glare, which I will get to in a little bit).  Bale shines here, and is given much more to do than in the previous film.  Hathaway is much better as Catwoman than I expected, and really gives a controlled, even performance.  Joseph-Gordon Levitt is also a standout, and inserts an emotional presence into the film that is perhaps more relatable for the audience than any other character in this series, as the everyman policeman Robert Blake.    

Because the Joker gave us the most entertaining moments of the series that couldn’t be recreated, I think Nolan and company smartly went a completely different direction with Bane.  As an expelled member of the League of Shadows, of which Bruce was also once a member, Bane knows how Bruce/Batman functions as well as anyone, and can exploit his weaknesses.  The Joker brought chaos into Gotham and Batman’s world, but he never had the ability to understand Batman in a way that could permanently bring him down for good; whereas Bane, although not as cunning, had the power to break Batman’s body and soul—first by breaking his back in a brutal fistfight, then by taking him to a foreign prison to rot as Bruce watches Bane destroy Gotham from the inside.

This film is by no means perfect.  Certain plot points seem slightly half-baked in order to make the story work out the way Nolan wanted, rather than letting them develop organically.  The character Miranda Tate in particular fits this bill, and her not unexpected turn as Talia-al-Ghul at the end seemed unearned, and perhaps even unbelievable.  This is the second film in a row for Nolan that he failed to direct Marion Cotillard to a good performance as the antagonist.

Also, Selina Kyle and Bruce ending up together at the end seemed little more than an assurance to the audience that Bruce was happy.  Their relationship was not established in a way that made this believable to me, other than a head-scratching kiss right in the middle of a countdown to a nuclear weapon’s detonation.  But overall, for a 167-minute film, the dense story all fit together very well, and I was thoroughly entertained throughout the runtime.  

A lot of people have talked about Alfred’s interactions with Bruce as being the most emotionally charged moments in the film.  Michael Caine does give his best performance in the series here.  Others have mentioned the last twenty minutes or so being the primary source of the gut-punching (and no doubt that it was gut-punching).  For me, though, the most emotional moments in the film came when Bruce is in the prison. This is where he finally begins to understand what it means to carry out his father’s dying wishes that he not be afraid. This is where, thematically, the film ties up the series the best. 

Until this point in the series Bruce doesn’t realize that his advantages have, to some degree, been holding him back: his enormous wealth and privilege, his superior physical form, a plethora of resources at his complete disposal, and his harbored anger concerning his parents’ death.  Only after all of those things were taken from him, could he begin to fully repair his soul.  Only after he has gone as low as he can go, was Batman able to Rise.

Epilogue:  Although I’m sad about Nolan’s Batman franchise being done, I’m excited to see where the director will take his career from here.  Between the Batman films and Inception, it seems like he is keen on making “big” films, and their success both critically and financially is undeniable.  But with all their success, his smallest commercial film, Memento, is still the filmmaker’s masterpiece.  I doubt very strongly he will return to that degree of art-house filmmaking, but I’d like to see him try his hand at something smaller, and perhaps even something more personal.  I’d like to see him go fresh with some of the actors he uses.  Regardless, he is still the only filmmaker whose movies I will see on opening day, every time, no questions asked; and I feel lucky to be right in his target audience during his run as a filmmaker. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Batman: A Running Diary

Yet another blogger is here to write about Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise!  I’ve mentioned the series once or twice here on the blog, and delineated my thoughts on the director in general in various discussions of Memento and Inception.  With the final installment of the series coming Friday, I sat down this week and burned through both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and instead of doing something more boring, I kept a little running diary of my thoughts.  I will be back on Friday or Saturday latest to offer up my thoughts on all things The Dark Knight Rises.  In the meantime, enjoy my running diary:

Batman Begins

-This movie starts out generic, with the whole young Bruce Wayne being afraid of bats thing, but this actually makes more sense than usual cliché child flashbacks because of what ends up happening to his parents.

-One thing I’ll say, these movies have the scope and the look to hold up for a long time.  Kind of weird comparing them to Burton’s films, which are good but are such a 90’s time-capsule that they won’t hold up the same way.

-Man, WB taking a chance on Christopher Nolan is probably one of the best gambles a major studio has ever taken.  To that point, he had Memento and Insomnia under his belt—neither of which really screams “excellent superhero movie director.”  His pitch for the franchise must have been fantastic.

-And so begins the pulsating, ever-present Hans Zimmer music. 

-Possibly theory: was this movie the launching point for the “older Liam Neeson, action star” phenomenon?

-Enter recent-divorcee Katie Holmes!! UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT: I liked Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes a lot more than Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Seriously though, what an idiot for not reprising her role in The Dark Knight.

-Favorite quotes of the series, #1: “Justice is about harmony...revenge is about getting what you want.”
Speaking of casting choices, Tom Wilkinson isn’t very believable as a mob boss.  And this is coming from a card-carrying member of the T-Wil fanclub.

-Favorite quotes, #2: “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.”

-One thing that’s been interesting to me about the series is the color scheme of the movies.  Begins has a dark orange sunrise-hue for a lot of the film, perhaps signaling the, ahem, “beginning” of something?  Knight, on the other hand, has a lot of black and steel blue (as in “dark” and, um, “knight”).  Upon reflection, Nolan is a little too obvious sometimes.  More on this later.  But I’m interested to see what color palette will be used in TDKR.

-Was it a nod to Tim Burton when Batman does the whole “I’m Batman” head-butt thing?  Or is that a Batman thing in general?  I should really know these things.

-Favorite shots in the series, #1:  Batman standing on top of the building as Nolan circles around him with the camera.  Hans Zimmer accompanying. 

-Opinion I’ve formed: Michael Keaton was the best at the playboy Bruce Wayne...but Christian Bale is a better Bruce Wayne and Batman in every other facet (well, if we’re not counting Adam West, that is).
Thematic undercurrent that’s beginning to form: a lot of references to fear, and overcoming it.  Never noticed this much before.  Let’s see where this goes.

-The whole plot point of Katie Holmes defending herself and that little kid was a little overcooked.

-Fight on a speeding train would normally be cliché but again, was set up very well had significance that ran several layers deep.

-Nolan knows how to end a freaking movie.  “I never had a chance to thank you.”  “And you’ll never have to.” (Favorite quotes, #3)

The Dark Knight

-Again, pulsating Hans Zimmer to begin...really sets the tone for the movie.  Also love the first shot in the movie...I remember seeing it in IMAX for the first time, and the first shot of the movie with the building floored me, one of the first films I think I saw that was actually shot with IMAX cameras.

-Enter Heath Ledger: “Whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.” (Favorite quotes, #4)  Had to get that entrance right here, and everyone nailed it: Nolan, Heath, Zimmer.

-Upon several rewatches now, The Dark Knight is quite a bit campier than Batman Begins.  I know this is intentional, but it honestly knocks Dark Knight down a peg or two because of it.

-They really didn’t flesh out this whole “multiple Batmen” subplot in the beginning here...could have done without that I think.  “What’s the difference between me and you?  “I’m not wearing hockey pants.”  That exchange doesn’t really cut it in terms of tying up the subplot.

-Favorite shots in the series, #3: Batman falling on top of the van in the parking garage.

-One thing I’ve always liked about the movie is the compare/contrast between Harvey Dent and Batman.  Once again, not extremely subtle, but still effective.

-Heath KILLS this the scene where he ambushes the black mobster dudes, in which he gives us the now-iconic “Why. So. Serious?” line.  He vacillates between terrifying and maniacal seamlessly. 

-Favorite shots, #4: Batman standing on top of the tower in Hong Kong...Nolan really has the circling around the building thing down pat.

-Bale doesn’t get too much of a chance to shine in TDK.  Certainly not anywhere as much as in Begins.  It’s obviously a showcase for the Joker, but I do wish Bale had been give a little more to do.  I hope this changes in TDKR.

-I still love the scene where Morgan Freeman gives the little monologue to the accountant who finds out Batman’s identity.

-Favorite shots, #5: Joker hanging out of the cop car.  

-Is it even a debate that the car chase scene culminating in the showdown between Batman/Joker is the best action scene in the first two films?  Can Nolan top this in TDKR?

-As I said in the BB running diary, I preferred Joey as Rachel Dawes to Ms. Gyllenhaal; however, Maggie is really good in her final scene. 

-Honest opinion time: I think I need to take a few years off from watching TDK.  I like it less and less, save for Heath’s performance, every time I watch it.

-Okay, the whole “fear” current I was feeling in Begins was actually a thing: scene with Joker and Two Face in the hospital: “Oh and you know the thing about chaos?  It’s fear.” (Favorite quotes, #5)

-I like the idea of the two ferries with the civilians versus the criminals thing...I don’t think it was executed very well, to be completely honest.  Pretty cheesy acting..."those guys HAD their chance!”

-Even more of a misstep here, after the civilians vote to blow up the criminals’ ferry: “We’re still here...that means they haven’t killed us yet either...”  Oh, is that what it means Nolan?  IS THAT WHAT IT MEANS???  See, this is a Nolan thing that doesn’t continue.  In The Dark Knight and moreso in Inception, Nolan treats his audience like they’re idiots with respect to the plot points.  Ellen Page’s character in Inception existed almost entirely for the purpose of being a mouthpiece for the audience, having every little thing explained to her.  

-The final Batman and Joker dialogue on the building will always be an iconic scene to me, like not just for the Batman movies but for movies in general.  “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable and I are destined to do this forever.” It’s just such a damn shame we won’t get more of this in Rises.  It was the film America deserved.

-Harvey seems a little whiny just for having to listen to his girlfriend die...I mean, geez.  Not quite the same as pointing a gun at a man’s young child right in front of him, dude. 

-“The only morality in a cruel world is chance...fair.” (Favorite quotes, #6)

-So, when Dent falls off the building as he throws up the coin, and the coin lands on “heads”...a lot of people think this means he’s still me the movie clearly shows that it just means that’s how Gotham will view him historically, since they will never know about his turn as Two-Face, rather than as two face.  Seems pretty obvious.  Whatever.

-Second only to the Batman/Joker scene above is the final scene with Two Face/Batman/Gordon.  Further shows the compare/contrast Nolan is making between Batman and Harvey Dent.  That Batman, as a vigilante, could never accomplish what Dent could have as a public servant, which is why the Joker targeted Dent: “Because you were the best of us.”  The Joker could break Gotham’s spirit fully by making Dent turn.  This is further shown in the final montage at Dent’s funeral, where Gordon describes him as “the hero Gotham needed, but not the one it deserved,” whereas Gordon describes Batman as “the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” (Favorite quotes, #7).  

-Favorite shots in the series, #6: The final, shot, Batman speeding away the Bat-Bot.  I’ll say this one more time: NOLAN KNOWS HOW TO END A FREAKING MOVIE.  I’m thinking this bodes well for the ending of the series.   

Needless to say, I’m quite excited about going to the theater tomorrow.  Regardless of whether The Dark Knight Rises is as good as it’s predecessor, it’s good to know going into a movie that it will at the very least be an entertaining, cerebral blockbuster.  Nolan has never let me down on either of those two things in any of his movies.