Friday, July 20, 2012

In Theaters: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

(US - 2012)

Directed by Christopher Nolan.  Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan.  Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard,  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Modine, Tom Conti, Aiden Gillen, Nestor Carbonell, Daniel Sunjata, Cillian Murphy, William Devane, Juno Temple, Ben Mendelsohn, Tomas Arana, Reggie Lee, Brent Briscoe, Brett Cullen, Ronnie Gene Blevins.  (PG-13, 165 mins)

Personal note:  my thoughts go out to the victims of the Aurora, CO tragedy and their families and friends.

Christopher Nolan continues to cement his place as the most visionary commercial filmmaker of his generation with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the conclusion of the trilogy that began with BATMAN BEGINS (2005) and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Both of those films functioned fine as stand-alone works, but the allusions and callbacks that RISES makes to its predecessors show fully-realized arcs and themes that only become apparent after seeing the third film.  What Nolan ends up with is an epic trilogy of staggering scope and ambitious vision, and one that rivals STAR WARS in terms of cultural and cinematic significance.  Is THE DARK KNIGHT RISES better than THE DARK KNIGHT?  I don't know.  It lacks a villain as colorful as Heath Ledger's Joker, but that's an impossible act to top, so RISES wisely doesn't even try.  But THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is a more ambitious film, and a much deeper one, with more topical themes of politics and class warfare in addition to eternal ones like good and evil.  It's also a film about redemption, and not just for the tarnished image of Batman throughout Gotham City. It enriches the earlier films (especially BATMAN BEGINS), while existing on its own as both profound and incredibly entertaining, though dark, bleak, and deadly serious, with not much in the way of even the incidental bits of humor in the first two films.  Comparisons with THE AVENGERS are inevitable.  THE AVENGERS doesn't have the level of drama that RISES has and that wasn't its purpose.  But both films stand as sterling examples of how to do a smart summer crowd-pleaser without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne

Tom Hardy as Bane
Picking up eight years after the events of THE DARK KNIGHT, the Dent Act has eliminated crime in Gotham City and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a hobbling recluse holed up in Wayne Manor.  Batman took the blame for the death of, and the crimes committed by White Knight prosecutor Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart in THE DARK KNIGHT) and disappeared a fugitive.  Gotham is prosperous and living large but the evil is always bubbling just under the surface.  It's in the form of the hulking Bane (Tom Hardy), previously kicked out of the League of Shadows by Ra's Al Ghul (played by Liam Neeson in BATMAN BEGINS), and now a gas-mask wearing symbol of underclass rage who has commandeered the sewer system with his legion of followers and wants to take the city back from the politicians and the affluent who, as sultry cat burglar (never referred to as "Catwoman") Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, who's terrific) tells Wayne, "have so much and give nothing in return."

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle
That's only the set-up of the large-scale story.  Bane has a devious plan to take over Gotham;  Wayne deals with the mental and physical pain of being his alter ego (he's suffered some muscle, bone, and even a bit of brain damage from his exploits); and Wayne Enterprises ends up in the hands of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), who has a clean-energy agenda for the company and is a love interest for Wayne.  Wayne Enterprises chief and genius inventor Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and earnest young detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) also figure in significant ways, but really, the surprising emotional heart of the film is Alfred (Michael Caine).  Always there to help and provide sage advice and wisdom to Master Wayne, the fatherly Alfred has always kept the hero grounded, but they have terse words here that neither can take back, and Caine in particular is just heartbreaking, especially when he's tearfully recalling "someone I've cared for since the first moments I heard his cries echoing through the halls of this house."  Throughout his 50-year career, Caine has made great films better and some terrible films bearable, and he's an absolute joy to watch here.  It's a great character for a great actor, and Caine does a beautiful job even if he's absent for a good chunk of the film.

Michael Caine as Alfred

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Marian Cotillard as Miranda Tate

Hardy makes a physically imposing villain, even if most of his face is obscured for about 98% of his screen time and his voice post-synched and obviously tweaked (his dialogue has clearly been re-recorded since the first trailer some months back, when it was impossible to understand anything he was saying--now he sounds like a strange hybrid of Robert Shaw and Dr. Evil).  Bane and his followers want to take the city back from the fatcats, and as played in the film, they're very much the manifestation of how right-wing talk radio imagined the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those aren't the only political jabs the film takes--notice how Gotham's mayor (a returning Nestor Carbonell, who seems to have eased up on the guyliner just a bit) tells ambitious Deputy Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) that Gordon's on his way out.  "The man's a hero," Foley says.  The Mayor: "Yeah, but that was wartime.  This is peacetime."  No matter how effectively he does his job, Gordon is a reminder of past problems, and just like Bane's people underground, there's no place for him in the perfect-on-the-surface Gotham.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES methodically builds towards its epic climax, with numerous twists and revelations, some expected, some not.  I'm sure people can nitpick (yeah, I know...cops trapped underground for three months and none of them have beards), but Nolan has capped off this mammoth saga in grand fashion.  Is it dark, bleak, and unpleasant?  Yeah, but popular culture reflects its time and environment, and these are dark and unsure times.  I'm sure these will age just fine over the years, but no other franchise has succeeded in mirroring its era as effectively as Nolan has done with this trilogy.  Individually, they're great films.  Collectively, the story is a masterpiece.

Director/co-writer Christopher Nolan

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