Friday, July 27, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Alternate Title:  The Batman Movie we Deserve

One sentence synopsis:    Bruce Wayne must confront his own demons and a pack of revolutionary terrorists led by Bane.

Things Havoc liked:  Every generation gets the Batman it's looking for. In the 60s we got a cheesy goofball foiling the ludicrous deeds of plastic villains. In the 80s it was the Dark Knight, watching over a corrupt city nearly as mad as he was while battling anything and everything in his path. In the 90s, we got a stylized Batman of haunting, neo-gothic surreality, one which ultimately collapsed under its own weight of artifice. Today we live in a world of international terrorism, violent civil upheaval, economic uncertainty, and all-pervasive fear of the future. And here is the Batman movie we have been seeking.

What use, in a film like this, to recite names of actors and characters and say what everyone has already said? This is Bale's third turn as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and he has finally grown into the role in a way I did not think he ever would, diving down into the nadir of his own soul and clawing his way back out through methods even Batman films did not prepare me for. The cost of becoming Batman has been a constant theme within these movies, but never has it been more severe than now, to the point that neither his body nor his mind nor even Alfred's eternal vigilance for Bruce Wayne's soul can stand them any longer. And yet reality is still present, waiting to be dealt with in the form of another one of Batman's never-ending rogues' gallery.

Bane is played by Tom Hardy, a choice I could not understand when first I heard it, bulked up like a side of frozen beef and wearing a Hannibal Lechter mask that turns his voice into a strange, synthesized British drone that reminded me of Deckard Cane more than anything else. Yet if Heath Ledger's Joker was a primal spirit of Chaos, Bane seems to be that of Death-the-Leveler, incarnated from a 15th-century cult text and set forth on Gotham not merely to kill, but to flatten society from the top down before he does so. He never raises his voice, never bows to an agenda beyond nihilism and the revelation of all earthly concerns as vanity and hypocrisy. His plan is buttressed by a horde of fanatical suicide-killers, loyal only to the notion of the fire that he will start, and the upheaval that will follow in his wake. He does not scream and he does not deceive, save in that he consciously permits the belief in hope before stamping it out as a tool of policy. Hardy's performance is hidden behind the embodiment of such a character (we cannot see his face, and his voice might as well be computer generated), but he sells the role perfectly, and I could not, by the end of it, picture another in his place.

Nor is he the only one I was dubious about who redeemed himself. Anne Hathaway, who while pretty, has previously starred in romantic comedy and princess fantasy films that I abhor, turns in here the best Catwoman performance I've ever seen, and I remember Michelle Pfeiffer perfectly well, thank you. In keeping with the tone of the film, Catwoman here is a cat burglar, athletic and supremely skilled, but no more, and we meet her when she is already at the peak of her prowess, effortlessly robbing Bruce Wayne himself at the very beginning of the film, and thereafter taking perfectly serviceable care of both herself and others on into the film. Her character teases any knowing audience with hints from the comics, but never veers into caricature, perfectly embodying everything Catwoman should be in a Batman film. On the other side we have Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake, a young Gotham cop who deduces Batman's identity quite early on and finds himself thrust into an increasingly major role in opposing the madness of Bane. Levitt, despite his good turn in Inception, has always annoyed the hell out of me, mostly because he has a bad habit of picking shit movies to appear in. After this performance, I have to admit, I'm beginning to see why he's become so popular. Blake dodges every rookie cop stereotype I can think of and several others that I just invented, on-route to giving us a dedicated, driven cop who wants to do right by his city and his badge, all without overacting or histrionics. When he is forced to shoot two assailants in a construction yard, he visibly upset at what he's just done , and when his former idol is revealed to be flawed, he explains why he is disappointed, but in both cases, returns thereafter to his job, if only because the stakes are too high for anything else. I promised I wouldn't turn this review into my usual "list of actors I liked", so I'll just sum up by saying that Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine are all as awesome in this movie as they were (with Cotillard's obvious exception) in the last one, and every one of them brings precisely the right notes to their performance.

Nolan's Batman films have always been masterpieces of style and tone, and this film is no exception. Everything that previously was here has returned, and been dialed up to reflect the even greater stakes of this film. Hans Zimmer's score, already a brooding orchestral masterpiece has been ratcheted up into a full blown, almost Wagnerian overture to the epic themes being displayed here. The city of Gotham, which seemed a post-industrial wasteland in the first film, and a glass-and-steel arena for the Joker and Batman to do battle in the second, is now a crumbling Detroit-like city on the brink of Armageddon, all mystique stripped away in favor of atavistic gutpunches. The cinematography is expert as always, symbolizing and framing Batman's fall and desperate strides towards redemption without ever becoming overbearing. When at length the movie shows us Batman standing before his foe, in broad daylight, on marble steps, we know exactly what is being told to us and why, and yet it never feels pushed into our face.

And what a journey this film is. Among comic book characters, Batman has always had a reputation for darkness, and Nolan has clearly done his homework in that regard. The entire second half of the film (spoiler alert) is an extended foray into urban hell, as Bane's conquest (yes, conquest) of Gotham city enables him to spin fortune's wheel at will and turn the low against the high (and anyone else he wishes to exterminate). We see wealthy parts of the city being looted and burnt, families dragged from their homes and shot by enraged have-nots, or the violent thugs that Bane recruits from prisons. Cops are hunted through the streets, their bodies hung from the suspension cables of bridges, and show trials presided over by madmen sentence the previously-powerful to be hurled into frozen rivers to drown. As a vision of the most apocalyptic fantasies of urban upheaval, this movie will do quite nicely, and while I'm not one of those lunatics who thinks Nolan is trying to impugn the Occupy Wall Street movement (or the Arab Spring), he unhesitatingly borrows much of their imagery to give these scenes a greater impact on the audience. The sheer audacity of the bleakness in this film, where Batman is broken and cast down, and his city, blanketed in snow, is given over to the rule of psychopathic suicide-terrorists for months on end, is almost stunning. There are many reasons to hate this film, but lack of daring is not among them. Like it or not, Nolan sought to present, in this movie, something that nobody would ever forget. I certainly won't.

Things Havoc disliked:   I confess, I did not even think it was possible for a movie to simultaneously be too long and rushed.

165 minutes this movie runs, and I'll be damned if it doesn't feel it. No good movie is too long of course, but while I wasn't exactly bored at this one, I could feel the weight of time as I sat through it and realized that no, the movie still wasn't approaching something resembling an ending. What's strange is that despite the immense runtime, this movie feels like a rush job, as every one of the (at a guess) six-or-so main characters, half of them new to this film alone, must be given ample time to establish their characters and go on the journey prepared for them. The result, predictably, is that certain inconvenient things like "facts" get papered over. Despite a promising start in which Bruce Wayne is forced to acknowledge the raw physical damage that a decade spent as Batman does to a person's body, the movie quickly loses all sense of what human beings are and are not capable of. Back surgery is performed by means of punches, and the power of will to overcome mere physical limitations is touted to a point where even a Batman movie cannot sustain it. Furthermore, I know this is a Batman movie, and that the previous films involved such concepts as weaponized fear gas, microwave bombs, sub-dermal high explosive, and personal-scale radar that can track an entire building, but this film's supertech just runs off the rails. We are treated to levitating armored gunships, fusion reactors-turned-thermonuclear weapons, entire fleets of batmobiles equipped with electromagnetic cannon and Gatling guns. It gets to the point where not only are we being asked to swallow an awful lot of future-tech shenanigans, but it begins to take the focus off of the characters themselves, leaving their actual confrontations somewhat overshadowed by the clash of robots and hardware.

There are also some significant structural problems with this film. The principle of the inescapable pit-prison is cool and all, but poses some unfortunate logistical and physical issues that I had a hard time getting around (someone I was with asked if they had electricity or not). Left unexplained is how many characters seem to get from point A to points B, C, D, or E, a matter of some interest when the points are on separate continents and the characters in question are crippled, hunted, and broke. Nobody explains how a quarantine tight enough to seal thousands of police underground and prevent a single escape from a megalopolis in five months can be evaded when it becomes necessary for someone to break into the city, nor how the army of trained killers failed to notice a fully functional gunship poised on the roof of a building during those aforementioned five months. The logistics of supplying a city of twelve million severed from all contact with the world save for relief trucks is perhaps best not thought about. There are also many scenes wherein literal armies of heavily-armed men discharge machine guns at one another without effect, often eschewing their guns altogether in favor of fisticuffs and melee combat. These sorts of scenes always stick out to me if only because of how ubiquitous they are in lesser action films, and to see them in this one is disappointing, even if they're obviously done for effect.

Final thoughts:  I'm torn on this movie.

Writing this review, I found myself able to recount good and bad points, but not to sum up, as I discovered that I could make a case for giving this film a 9, and also a case for giving it a 4. Both cases could be defended. And yet to split the difference and give it a 6-7 could not. In an age when most movies play it safe in every respect, one can object to Christopher Nolan's final entry in the Batman trilogy, but one cannot accuse it of being safe. Indeed it's one of the most audacious movies I've ever seen, dispensing with the dreaded "third-act collapse" so common to movie trilogies (X-men, Spiderman, Godfather, Matrix) by virtue of turning the intensity dial up to 11, then ripping the dial off and punting it into the river. Nolan here seems to have made a conscious choice that, whatever he did, he would not make a soft landing for his trilogy, and that if the expectations on this film were so impossibly high that they could never be met, there was nothing to be lost from attempting to shoot the moon. So ultimately, I have to look at the film in all its glory and excess, all its grit and pain, all its triumph and flawed stupidity, and ask myself, simply, did it work?

And you know what? Yeah. It did.

It may not appeal to everyone. I can list, by name, at least a dozen people I know who will hate it. But the sheer scale of this film, the triumphant highs and the (far more numerous) cavernous lows to which our heroes are plunged, all of that coupled with a stylistic design that emphasized the epic, almost operatic sweep of what was being shown to us, succeeded ultimately in burying all of the flaws and issues that one might have brought up. And a film that does that much whichalso contains superb performances and very good (if occasionally too-spot-on) writing that this one did, I really can't complain. I would rather see a film that showed me something spectacular (in the literal sense of the word) with flaws than a film that showed me the same damn thing I've seen a thousand times before. And while this movie had flaws, some of them quite serious, the three-hour epic tale of the fall and redemption of Bruce Wayne was a grand enough setting to overcome those flaws. I did not leave this film in a fit of fanboyistic glee, as I did for The Avengers, but rather in stunned silence, my mind struggling to grapple with everything I had just been shown. As the weight and complexity of it all has percolated within me, I am left with the strong sense that what I saw was a movie of weight and yes, even gravitas, scarcely to be equaled in this age of Battleship and Bay-formers. A movie this bold could only be a catastrophe on the level of Heaven's Gate, or a masterpiece of the level of Lawrence of Arabia. With very few reservations, I choose to call it the latter.

This is not the Batman movie I expected. It may not even be the Batman movie I wanted. But it is the Batman movie we all deserved.

And sometimes that's the best thing of all.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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