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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises - Review (2012)

 Nolan delivers a fitting close to a great trilogy.  Although the storytelling is a little clunky at times, mainly due the scope of the film, it makes up for it with some incredible moments, interesting characters and a satisfying resolution.

With “The Dark Knight Rises” Christopher Nolan attempts to do with The Dark Knight series what no other superhero film series has been able to accomplish, the superhero trifecta - three well received superhero films in a row.  Tim Burton's “Batman” series and Richard Donner's “Superman” films were the closest with 2 quality films to start the respective series, only to have a complete drop off in quality with the third entries (followed by even worse 4th entries - yuck!)  What Nolan had one advantage going into this, his film series is a trilogy, not an open-ended series - it had a beginning, middle and an ending.  Did this advantage allow him to overcome the mistakes made by so many before him?

The continuing story of Bruce Wayne/Batman picks up about eight years after he takes the blame for the murders committed by Harvey Dent.  The deceased Dent is honored by the creation of the Dent Act (a Patriot Act type law) a piece of legislation that gives the authorities increased powers to help wipe out organized crime on the streets of Gotham. Batman is now a fugitive of the law.  Bruce Wayne has become a recluse - his absence stirs rumors of everything from his death to his disfigurement.  Things have changed in Gotham - since the Dent Act has cleaned up the streets of Gotham, the need for the Dark Knight is no longer there - that is until a hulk of a man wearing a face mask named Bane (Tom Hardy) arrives, violently turning the balance of power on its head.  Combine Bane's arrival with that of a beautiful cat burglar, Selina Ward aka Catwoman (Ann Hathaway) caught breaking into Wayne manor to steal Bruce's fingerprints and it is enough to bring the Bat out of self-imposed retirement.

From that point onward the story grows immensely, venturing into an areas not typically explored in a superhero films - class war, anarchy and economic inequality.  These themes have been brushed upon in superhero films before, just not grounded in the modern world realism as seen here.  It gets grim, cynical and violent using some of the negative attitudes toward the most recent economic downturn and horrific terrorist attacks as the tools of the villains.  The climate is extremely grim throughout the film and may be a bit tough for people to swallow if they are expecting another "Avengers" film.  The tone Nolan sets is what differentiates his Batman trilogy from the other comic book heroes.  The fact that this film is based more in reality that takes away the element of escapism found in most superhero films; instead of being a fun experience it is often the opposite, a reminder of all the pain, suffering and corruption out there.

Nolan took on a huge undertaking with the massive scale of story - it is ambitious to say the least, but ambition is also the film's Achilles's heel.  Hampered by multiple new character and plot lines the focus in not on just telling the story, there also needs to be a certain amount of exposition to set them all up.  This is where the clunkiness occurs - not all character are given enough screen time establish effectively, some are on screen too often, while others are off screen for prolonged periods of time.  This is not to say I did not like what I saw on screen, I did - I could follow and was engaged in the story lines, but more time would have helped.  Weighing in at an already whopping 2 hours and 45 minutes I am sure length was a concern.  My guess is the film would have been longer and some of the scenes that would help to smooth out the storytelling became sacrifices to the cutting room.  I have heard complaints about the film being bloated - I don't see it.  If you have somewhere to be before seeing a movie, don't see a 165 minute movie.  Frankly, the film could have easily been expanded into two 2-hour feature films allowing for some of the key elements to get the attention needed to smooth out the rough patches.

Nolan took a chance by not telling a light weight story that would be easy to digest, aimed at the fulfilling the dreams of the fan boys.  Instead of a powder puff story he continued with the heavier, much more serious approach, properly finishing the story of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego.  If this was just another villain comes to town, Batman beats villain, crowds cheer story - the movie would have failed, the film series would have failed.  “The Avengers” could pull it off because it is a different type of film - as discussed in my review it is fast food, Batman is not.  Nolan’s Dark Knight series is a more complex meal that needs proper time to be properly prepared, consumed and digested.  Both film styles have their own positive qualities, but it is not fair to compare them against each other or expect either one deliver the same product - they are different styles of cuisine.

The biggest risk taken with the film is the lack of screen time Batman actually has during the first half of it; he does a lot of sitting on the sidelines as the story unfolds.  It is not like his story was put on hold, his story continues as we wait for him to don the bat costume again.  This is needed to complete the story of both BW and Batman-  they were broken men, both physically and in spirit. If Batman is not shown broken and in need of healing then how can he rise? This was a calculated decision; it was by not accident that Batman wasn't present during much of the first half.  Nolan did not watch the finished film and say, "oops, we forgot to add the Dark Knight."  Just because it is not the most appealing choice it does not mean it was not the right one for the series.  If you want to do something right you often have to forgo the easiest solution.  The first half of the film allows the second to be as satisfying as it is.  The emotional arc of Bruce Wayne throughout the trilogy has properly completed.

There were a few things that I did not care for: the foreshadowing was a little too obvious and the flashbacks were too plentiful and at times corny - perhaps Nolan underestimates his audience or they were added to make it easier for those that did not see the first two films to follow.  Either way, they were kind of on the amateur side for such a master storyteller.  Bane's dialogue goes from a combination of Sean Connery and the masked killer form Scream to a European guy working at the drive-thru speaker at McDonalds.  I would guess I understood 94% of everything he was saying, but the audience should understand 100% he is the main villain.  There was actually one exchange (several lines in length) that I did not understand a word, I felt disoriented - I missed the first word and the rest were a dizzying attack of grunts and mumbles.  Seriously, subtitles would have helped.  To make matters worse Hans Zimmer's score was an overpowering barrage of drums - it has grown on me, but it certainly could have been toned down.  Do not expect any awards for the sound team this year.  Finally, the new Bat copter/plane/flying vehicle was a lemon - I felt the same way with the vehicle in the Burton series, each film was a new vehicle - this isn't James Bond.  Not only was it unnecessary, it kind of removed me from that mild level of suspension of disbelief that so nicely fit these films.  If this contraption was absolutely necessary then it should have been restricted to one or two scenes.  I am not a car guy, but I love the Batmobile and wanted to see it in use.  I guess they did not get the memo.

The returning cast from previous entries perform well here.  Gary Oldman is restricted, yet solid.  Morgan Freeman continues to provide that standard Morgan Freeman charm.  But, it is Michael Caine that delivers the best performance, adding true heart and emotion to the film.  I actually got a little choked up and based on the sounds of some of the people around me I was not alone.  Geeks.

The new additions fare well even if no one comes close to a Heath Ledger level performance.  Ann Hathaway's character fits nicely into the series.  Surprisingly, other than costume there are no cat references - she is never referenced to as Catwoman, she does not deliver her lines with a purr, and the puns, if any, were minimal.  She does a great job adding a little levity to a very heavy film - more of her would have been welcome.  Another fine addition to the cast is Joseph Gordon Levitt - a young actor that has forced audiences to take note of him since he cut his hair and transitioned from "Third Rock from the Sun" to feature films.  He plays a detective that is essentially is Batman's civilian sidekick - working the case as the Dark Knight returns to fighting form.  Tom Hardy's Bane, as discussed, has a little bit of a communications issue but still comes across as a powerful, intelligent character opposed to the previous incarnation that was simply a pile of muscles.  Unfortunately hiding a talented actor such as Hardy is a disservice to himself and the film - maybe he should have played The Riddler, The Penguin... anybody but Mr. Freeze (can't handle that again.)  The most poorly used addition was Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard, as a philanthropist that also ends up in what seems to be a serious relationship with Bruce Wayne.  The sudden relationship was not fleshed out enough and because of that it lacks a natural feel to it  - one day they are talking, the next they are inseparable - it felt forced.  I have to believe there was more for her to do here - perhaps additional scenes with her were cut for time.  In my not so humble opinion, they easily could have removed her from the story completely - it would not have been tough and could have helped resolve some of the storytelling issues.

So, did Nolan pull off the superhero film trifecta?  The answer is yes.  Is this the perfect film we all wanted it to be?  The answer to that is no, but it is close.  Where The Dark Knight was a well-oiled machine, focused and tight, TDKR was more ambitious, with a massive scope.  Overall its delivery did get a little clunky at times, but it easily overcame that and proved to be one hell of a ride - a satisfying end to a terrific series.  If you enjoyed the first two films and disagree with my assessment I would love to hear why.  Post your thoughts in the comment section - I can handle it. 

8.5 out of 10

Make sure you check out the other Batman reviews:
Batman Begins
The Dark Knight

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