Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Review

Batman has sure come a long way. Originating as a comic book super hero created by DC comics in the late thirties, to being portrayed by the legendary Adam West in the campy seventies TV show. Then came the movies. First the caped crusader was processed through the Tim Burton-izer in 1989’s “Batman,” and “Batman Returns” later on. But, alas, the Batman film franchise practically crashed and burned in the hands of Joel Schumacher, first in the middling “Batman Forever” and finally in the awful “Batman and Robin.” After that the franchise lay dormant for eight years. Until the visionary British director Christopher Nolan breathed new and absorbing life into the character. Beginning with 2005’s “Batman Begins,” then 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” and finally, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Nolan not only rebooted the franchise, he transformed its style and tone. The earlier “Batman” pictures were silly and comic book-y, whereas Nolan’s Batman universe is darker and grittier. Nolan’s Batman successfully transcended its comic book origins and blended in to the real world. “Batman Begins” was a perfect way to begin this stark journey. Nolan took ample time to show the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne’s painful and vengeance fueled transformation into The Dark Knight. He didn’t rush it along. He made us believe in the character. Not just Batman but Bruce Wayne, because at the end of the day, Wayne is the character we care about.

As great as “Begins” was though, it was still somewhat confined to its comic roots because it was an origin story. You knew he was going to become Batman, no matter how gradually the film moved along. When “The Dark Knight” came along, it not only came with a phenomenal performance from the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, but also the advantage of being the middle movie. It didn’t carry the burden of having to begin the story, nor did it have an obligation to bring the whole series to an indefinite close. “The Dark Knight” not only worked as a highly effective comic book movie but also as a compelling crime saga that just happens to feature a guy who dresses up like a bat. The movie dealt with serious issues, and contained underlying themes about the psychology behind terrorism and villainism.

Now we have “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third and the last film in the franchise. Like “Begins,” “Rises” already comes with a disadvantage. It has to bring this legend to a close. And unfortunately the movie runs into problems nearing its finale. The ending, while not awful, feels a little unsatisfying and muddled. By then, Nolan simply has a lot on his plate and can't quite bring every thing together.

However, at the same time you have to admire the level of craftsmanship Nolan and his crew have put into the finished product. The picture feels well thought out, as opposed to feeling thrown together or rushed into production like some of the recent Avenger movies do. The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan is ambitious and intelligent. And like “The Dark Knight,” it also deals with underlying themes. This time having to do with the differences in class. (The poor, working stiffs vs. the wealthy and potentially corrupt upper class.)  

On top of that, the movie comes full circle, in regards to the rest of the series. It harkens back to “Batman Begins” when Wayne was trying to find himself, scaling bitter cold mountains in Asia to train with his very first adversary Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson, back reprising his role) and facing his greatest fears and insecurities.

“Rises” takes place eight years after the events of “The Dark Knight,” which is a wise move. It gives the story a chance to breathe, as well as letting new characters enter into the franchise more seamlessly instead of being shoved in.  Some of these include the sly, sexy thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) aka Cat Woman, Batman’s frenemy. Also Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a member of the Wayne Enterprise’s Executive board, who also hides a secret of her own. And John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a young cop who strongly believes in good and justice. Also along for the ride is the always reliable Alfred Pennyworth (a typically soothing Michael Caine), Batman’s faithful butler and the determined but also partially defeated Commissioner Jim Gordon (a wonderfully subtle Gary Oldman).

 Anyway, Gotham has since been at peace. Thanks to the work that D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) did in “Dark Knight” there is no more organized crime. Meanwhile, Batman, or Bruce Wayne (an intense yet cool and collected Christian Bale) has since hung up his bat suit, and become a recluse in his mansion. But of course, as you know from any cop film or TV show, the retired cop doesn’t stay retired forever. “There’s a storm coming,” Selina warns Bruce one night. One mighty storm indeed. In the shape of the buffed up, bald, mercenary terrorist named Bane (a beef cake Tom Hardy, with a peculiar computer altered voice) who wears a mask over his mouth and nose.

This is where the class differences theme comes in. We learn Bane had a rough life growing up in a miserable foreign prison and now he wants the upper class to pay. Through violence, fear and manipulation he inspires an uprising in Gotham. But before you start praising him as a revolutionary for the little guy, Bane is also a terrorist who has other agendas. Hardy is able to add some depth and personality to Bane’s tough exterior but he’s also a little limited by the fact that Bane wears a mask. With The Joker, Ledger had the advantage of facial expressions; Hardy’s performance is restricted in that area.

 As usual, Nolan’s direction is slick and fluent, while the cinematographer Wally Pfister works mostly in different shades of gray, giving it a bleak but gorgeous look. I love how Nolan steadily moves the story along. Like the other two films it gradually builds momentum. He focuses more on the story and the human characters than on Batman. In fact we don’t see Batman until about thirty or forty minutes in. And also like the other films, a majority of “Rises” works as a stand-alone genre pic. Besides the aforementioned terrorism and class system ideals, the movie also deals with finance and alternative energy, adding a political twist to the whole endeavor.

 As I mentioned before, my main qualms with the film have to do with the ending. And because of that, I can’t go into it much further. There are also some other minor flaws (like, having to do with logic) that aren’t worth much getting into. “The Dark Knight Rises” is the lesser of Nolan’s three movies, but considering how good those other two films were and considering how much “Rises” gets right, that’s not a significant criticism.

Note: Try to see it in IMAX, as there is just over an hour of footage shot using IMAX cameras. Also, it’s important to note that the movie was shot ON FILM! And it’s not in 3D.  


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