Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Layers Of Truth, Secrets, Fear And Hope In Gotham

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, with the outfit of his alter ego, in Christopher Nolan's epic drama "The Dark Knight Rises". 
Warner Brothers


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, July 19, 2012

It's been eight years of exile for Bruce Wayne, and by extension Batman, Gotham City's caped crusader, in demi-fugitive status living reclusively after Batman's "guilt" in the death of city D.A. Harvey Dent.  In "The Dark Knight Rises" Batman remains very much a wanted man, and by the time Christopher Nolan's bloated, frantic epic reaches its third hour a whole city will want him more than ever.

Mr. Nolan knows how to carve entrances in large-scale films ("The Dark Knight") and doesn't disappoint with the hair-raising opening in the final film in his "Batman" trilogy.  With half of "The Dark Knight Rises" filmed in IMAX, its opening, featuring a transfixing Tom Hardy, sinister and slightly Churchill-sounding at times as Bane, Batman's greatest nemesis, is almost worth the price of admission.  With his broad, layered and fascinating franchise based on the DC Comics created by Bob Kane, it is clear Mr. Nolan has a keen sense of vision, spectacle and proportion.  The director's shrewd, groundbreaking use of IMAX in motion pictures -- the only way to see this new film, which opens tonight at midnight in the U.S. and Canada -- is perfectly tailored to the scope, architecture and ambition he possesses.

It was Mr. Nolan's sheer ambition and strong writing that fueled "The Dark Knight", an almost flawless exercise back in 2008 but with "The Dark Knight Rises" the very busy Gotham landscape on screen reveals a director struggling to balance visionary prowess with tidiness, discipline and cohesion (ala "Inception".)  The longer this two hour and forty-five minute film plays the clearer it is that it strains to tie everything and every theme together.  At times "The Dark Knight Rises", which will break opening U.S. weekend gross records (I predict $235 million) feels forced, its execution often sloppy.  Places meant to replicate or stand in for venues are so blatantly off geography-wise that it is distracting.  (People watching in Pittsburgh will attest to this in one scene in particular.)  Subplots meant to sparkle feel stale, their very existence curious.  I kept waiting for "The Dark Knight Rises" to rise from the ashes and define itself on its own terms as a film that stood on its own shoulders but it never attained the status that its two years of pre-screen hype appeared calculated to hint at or promise.

With the addition of Catwoman/Selina Kyle (played with sly sexiness and agility by Anne Hathaway), Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and other new faces, Mr. Nolan has a crowded stage that detracts from the main event, with scenes less necessary than indispensible contributing to the film's grandiose length.  Characters suddenly have twists emerging from left field even within the context of the story and its comic book origins -- origins which for the most part "The Dark Knight Rises", an eye-popping, gargantuan cinematic event, follow very closely.  The director, who again co-wrote the film with his brother Jonathan still has egregious problems crafting capable, dimensional female characters, and has trouble winding down a film (as he did with "Inception".)

As dynamic and occasionally breathtaking as "The Dark Knight Rises" is, the film borders on exhaustion in its final hour, hurrying to the finish line in desperation as its gas tank runs almost on empty.  The magic tricks and wrinkles evaporate quickly after the end of hour number two.  The film feels as if it needs a little push as it searches for its second wind, and it is then that some about-faces and abrupt wrap-ups get thrown at the screen and an unsuspecting, perhaps mystified audience.  Unlike "The Dark Knight" the new film is not an especially memorable venture even if there are aspects of it that are instantly re-watchable.  Interesting and laughable by contrast is that Mr. Bale, while inhabiting the Batsuit sounds uncannily similar to the gruff Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino".

That said, what makes this particular Batman film series overall a memorable enterprise is its director's willingness to shelve substantial big-budget action sequences to instead delve deep behind the backgrounds of the title character and his designated archrival/villain.  Both Batman and Bane are wounded figures emotionally and physically.  Each carries deep secrets.  Their goals are arguably misunderstood.  There's a striking, effective bit of anarchy and subversion when Bane exhorts Gotham to rise up, and it taps squarely into the outrage the general public had in September 2008 when the infamous global financial crisis of catastrophe, corruption and greed was heightened and running rampant.  ("The Dark Knight" was still playing in many movie theaters during that turbulent time, and Mr. Nolan clearly took notice.) 

The director also hangs on to the chilling, unmistakable terror of 9/11/2001 from the prior film and makes it unforgettable again if repetitive here.  "The Dark Knight Rises" and its 2008 predecessor could be said to be very similar but the big difference is that the level of complexity, discipline and execution in "The Dark Knight" were all much stronger, even if the performances overall (save Heath Ledger's classic Joker) were not.  There's an earthy, fertile feel to "The Dark Knight Rises" that evokes Mr. Nolan's first superhero film.

As in the prior two films ("Batman Begins" was the first) Mr. Nolan crafts the symbolism of Batman as a force for justice, as an idea, a universal spirit, a talisman rather than an entity or specific being, and when this theme is played out and expressed through strong acting by Christian Bale and excellent, memorable work from the legendary Michael Caine as a poignant Alfred, "The Dark Knight Rises" is at its very best.  The idea that the will and instinct to avenge, protect and save the human family is primal, and larger, more enduring than any one person achieves powerful gravitas late on, supplemented by a superb, rousing score from Hans Zimmer (working solo this time; James Newton Howard collaborated with him on "The Dark Knight".) 

When the story invests in analyzing hopes, fears, secrets and the need to protect the innocent, all of which are done well here, "The Dark Knight Rises" soars as an achingly human and identifiable experience, one that makes Batman, Bane and the audience itself inseparable, a realization augmented by expansive crowd scene shots of thousands of ordinary men, women and children in several venues.  Myths and legends are designed to inspire but also to protect people from truths that can often be painful, and some fine acting by Gary Oldman as embattled Gotham police commissioner Jim Gordon draws this out in one or two scenes.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is also a refreshing and sterling presence as a young, idealistic Gotham police officer.

When the film investigates other areas and characters, attempting to tie substantive back story and history together with the film's pace, which falters and wavers, "The Dark Knight Rises" becomes a moderate disappointment, collapsing like fresh bread removed from an oven.  From great epic films ("Godfather", "Dark Knight") great additional things are expected from following enterprises.  Mr. Nolan's film hews more toward the direction of the third Coppola "Godfather" but "The Dark Knight Rises" tries, huffs, puffs and dazzles but doesn't sustain or fully capitalize upon the grandeur it only intermittently flashes.

Also with: Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, and assorted cameos from faces that most will recognize fairly instantly.

"The Dark Knight Rises" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.  The film's running time is two hours and 45 minutes. 

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