Friday, 10 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Fantastically executed, emotionally affecting, thematically weighty and rich in spectacle - Rises isn't as tight as The Dark Knight, but it caps off this amazing trilogy in grand style. This series will be talked about for years.

Christopher Nolan has done a bold thing. First by creating this iteration of Batman - in all his brooding darkness and gritty realism - then by following it up with the best superhero film ever made, and now by concluding the story as a trilogy... Anything he served up would appease the studios desire for a big opening weekend, but this series has become more than just a popcorn flick; The Dark Knight proved that super heroes can have legitimately good, artful, well-acted, powerful films, tackling real issues despite their fantastic premise.

I read a poem describing the job of poets: to create "Imaginary gardens with real toads in them"(Marianne Moore), and I think this can be applied equally well to film, and especially well to such films as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; a fantasy world the draws us in and delights us with its spectacle and inventiveness, while still grappling with the 'toads' of reality - those things that plague us still in real life.

The hype surrounding this film has been incredible - with phrases like 'masterpiece' and 'perfect film' being thrown around to describe its predecessor, can Nolan follow up his success with an equal - or even greater - film?

Well, not quite.

I've been reading so many negative reviews of the film, I feel as though I need to come out defending it! But I guess that's just my strange desire to seek out those who disagree with me, Rotten Tomatoes indicates that reception has been, on the whole, very good. There are a lot of dissenting opinions (well summarized here), and I agree with some of them. But the fact is the greatest sin this film commits is falling short of The Dark Knight. And that was almost inevitable.

I loved a lot of things about this film... but I was also frustrated by it, so in all my indecisiveness brought on by attempts at balance, here are my thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises.

And A quick note on spoilers: I WILL GIVE MINOR PLOT POINTS AWAY NOW, and save the big doozies for further down. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I would highly recommend it.

First off, it's always exciting to see Batman. I couldn't help but tremble in anticipation the first time he appears in this film. It's such a well executed sequence, moving straight from an attack on the stock market (a great scene), to a motorbike chase, to suddenly the lights going out... and Batman is back!

Especially nice touches are the swelling music, and the old cop speaking to the rookie cop - something like "Oh you're in for a show tonight" - absolutely elevated that scene from just another Batman moment to an Extra-Special-Batman-Moment. We get the anticipation as the lights go out, the ramping excitement as we see the shadowy silhouette, and in the middle of all that, we're reminded of the mark that Batman has made on this world, despite his long absence. This old cop was clearly present during the events of the previous two films, but the young guy with him has probably never witnessed Batman first hand - he only knows about him from the stories the old timers tell, that sound a little too preposterous to be true. The audience, of course, is right alongside the old guy. We can't wait to see Batman do his thing!

Other great moments: Bane. No, he's not the best villain this series has seen - but he's coming in the wake of one of the greatest villains in cinema. But even Harvey Dent/Two-Face was a better villain than Bane - his character had an arc, his motivation was powerful, his personality was interesting... Bane has none of that. But Bane is awesome, because of everything he is physically, and everything he represents in opposition to this Batman.

Tom Hardy plays Bane as a man permanently masked, with an odd yet strangely commanding voice. He exerts a terrifying control over his followers; in an early scene he gently tells one goon to sacrifice himself, and the goon takes it rather well. Disturbingly well. I wish the psyche of Banes followers had been more closely explored, perhaps with just a single scene of Bane giving a speech specifically to his followers? Regardless, Bane is still the backbone of this movie (ahem), and every moment he occupies the screen he imbues it with a sense of menace, as he wreaks absolute havoc on Gotham city.

The way Nolan treats Gotham in this film is absolutely effective, and perhaps entirely necessary. Bane accomplishes what Joker just attempted; complete anarchy in Gotham. Things happen in this film that had me slacked-jawed watching - I couldn't believe this was actually going down.  The scene in which Batman finally gets to fight Bane one-to-one is brutal and visceral , the entire sequence of events soon after that completely turn the universe upside-down. It's fantastic and devastating all at once... So I guess I'll count it as a positive. Points for totally shifting the game in terms of what villains are capable of accomplishing in this universe.

Finally, the pit. You know it's in here, you've seen it in the trailers; Batman gets stuck in a pit where prisoners are always free to climb out up the wall - but few dare even try. I liked this whole sequence. On a symbolic level I love what the pit represents, and the call-backs it makes to other moments in the franchise. In terms of narrative cohesion... perhaps it's a little far-fetched. But the sequence is executed so well, I for one didn't mind.

There are new characters, good and bad. Let's start with the good: Selina Kyle and John Blake, played by Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt respectively. Great new characters - well acted, well integrated, believable and fun to watch. These two personalities fit beautifully into Nolans tale, and while they take a little bit more of the focus off Batman, they add a lot of new depth and perspective to the film. Blake especially is an original character (sort of?) but plays a nice apprentice-type foil to Bruce Wayne and Gordon.

There's an extra nice touch with Selinas' night-vision goggles which, when flipped upwards, look kinda like... (and I missed this even after two viewings)

The romance (or apparently 'love triangle') is a bit weak all-around. Selina and Bruce's relationship could have used more development, and the other woman could have used either less or more, but let's face it; this is not a romantic film. This is a film about heroism, truth, justice, the clash of good and evil and those grey areas in between - having a weak romance plot doesn't even hinder the film...

At least, it wouldn't, if they didn't take it so far with the other woman. Let's get to her; Miranda Tate, billionaire, philanthropist and potential match for the infamous Bruce Wayne. Marion Cotillard does a fine job portraying her, but her role feels just a little off. For one thing, it's fine for Alfred and Luscious to make cracks at Bruce about finding a girl, but their relationship escalates so suddenly it's just a little absurd. Indeed, she seems to be made out as his major motivation at some points, and it just rings a little false that he would care so much, so quickly.

There are some little details about her character that are revealed, so I'll certainly touch on her again when I discuss the ending.

John Daggart is positioned as a kind of foil to Miranda; self-seeking, ruthless, willing to dirty his hands for a profit... Very much like other corrupt characters we've already seen in this Batman series, who turn out to be pawns for the true villain. Oops, did I just give something away? As if you didn't see that coming from the start.

And I suppose I'd better mention the new police commissioner, Jim Gordon's replacement, Peter Foley played by Matthew Modine... There's not much to say really. It's a neat idea - the commissioner for peace-time, suddenly thrust into war. The new guy in the top job eager to outdo his predecessor - there could have been a lot to this character, but we don't see much of him, so he just becomes a nuisance. It's not because of his acting either, it's just that he doesn't have enough screen time to make a real mark. He has a few nice moments in the climax, but ultimately I think this character should have either been cut, or more thoroughly explored.

Indeed: 'I wish they'd explored this more' was one of my most common complaints in revisiting the film in my head - but the fact is, at close to three hours long, this movie is almost an ordeal. It feels like two movies, first dealing with Banes rise to power and Batmans' return after a long absence, then after a slow middle section, a second arc about Batmans' struggle to rise up and match Bane. Perhaps a few characters or plotlines should have been cut to streamline the piece - or more drastically it could have been split into two films; it just feels like it's doing too much. Following so many characters, exploring so many themes - all of them worthy, but many not executed to their full potential.

Now, to the ending... I'll have to make a second post. Practice what you preach and all that.
Stay tuned!

UPDATE: I have made a second post; one that contains thorough discussion of all the major plot developments and the ending. Please, go ahead and check it out :)