Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Opulent and ominous

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and somewhat generously, for intense sequences of violence and action, along with some sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.20.12

Unlike the cinematic Superman — always portrayed as the true-blue Boy Scout, as honorably American as baseball, motherhood and apple pie — Batman’s on-screen image has changed, depending on whose hand has pulled the strings.

After sneaking into Wayne Manor under false pretenses, and stealing
something from a concealed safe, Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)
believes that she has gotten away clean. Imagine her surprise, then,
when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) cuts in during a high society
dance and seems to know a great deal about her...
The 1960s Batman was known by his colorfully campy TV series; Tim Burton went operatic and kinky for the late 1980s re-boot.

A generation later, Christopher Nolan’s take on the dark night detective has focused on psychology: the seriously dysfunctional variety. Following the obligatory origin story in 2005’s Batman Begins, Nolan then explored the depths of depravity with 2008’s The Dark Knight. Nobody, but nobody, could fail to be mesmerized by the chilling, capricious evil represented by the late Heath Ledger’s magnificent portrayal of the Joker.

The Dark Knight also displayed a disturbing undertone, with its notion that regular folks, if backed into a corner and frightened badly enough, would squabble and tear out each other’s throats with the ferocity of mad dogs. Nobility, self-sacrifice and God’s grace are granted only to the shadowy warrior heroes of Nolan’s Gotham City; her civilians apparently don’t warrant such lofty virtues.

This is a dreadfully cynical view of humanity, although Nolan — along with frequent scripting collaborators David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan — made it play reasonably well in The Dark Knight. Ledger’s memorably scary presence was balanced by glimmers of the good and gentle, notably from Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent and Gary Oldman’s honest Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.

Surely, then, Nolan would move in a different direction for his wrap-up, with The Dark Knight Rises.

Well ... no.

This storyline is even more dystopian, its view of humanity even more depressing; Nolan and his same two collaborators have populated Gotham City with folks who apparently couldn’t survive without their superheroic totems, and probably don’t deserve to survive, regardless. When things get bad in this saga — and they get very, very bad — the common herd turns ugly and every bit as depraved as Ledger’s Joker.

I’ve always been an optimist, viewing the glass as half-full, when it comes to humanity’s behavior during a crisis; Nolan’s glass apparently is 7/8 empty. If this is his commentary on how the 99 percent would “handle” the 1 percent, we should be grateful he’s not likely to hold public office.

Grim undertone notwithstanding, The Dark Knight Rises is another riveting, fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat thriller that tries, really tries, to envision life in a world populated by masked heroes and villains. Nolan has developed a well-deserved reputation for his stylish, imaginative and jaw-droppingly audacious action sequences, and this film boasts plenty.

But it’s also laden with deep, dark despair, at times overwhelmingly so. All that negative energy likely won’t matter a whit to the hoards of fanboys and fangirls seeking popcorn thrills, but it’ll be a total turn-off to viewers with more optimistic sensibilities.

The second film in Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy was defined by the moment when Spidey saved the runaway train laden with people who saw the valiant young man behind the mask, and then promised to preserve his secret, never mind how newspapers had branded him a menace. That scene would never happen in Nolan’s Gotham City.

More’s the pity.

Eight years have passed since Batman took the public rap for killing the noble Harvey Dent, whose murderous rampage as Two-Face remains unknown by Gotham’s public. During that time, Gordon and his police force have maintained a firm control on the city’s criminal element: perhaps too firm — and fascistic — a level of control, as this script subtly suggests.

During that time, Batman has remained unseen; so has his playboy alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Still nursing injuries from his battles against Two-Face and the Joker, and still mourning the loss of Rachel, Bruce has become a virtual shut-in.

And so what? As Bruce insists to his faithful butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), Gotham no longer needs a Batman; “civilization” has triumphed over the Joker’s notions of anarchy. Ah, Alfred counters; Gotham may not need a Batman, but Bruce Wayne most definitely needs a life.

A society event at Wayne Manor grants access to a maid who turns out to be a black-clad cat burglar; she has a brief encounter with Bruce before successfully escaping with a family heirloom ... and something else. This piques his curiosity enough to fire up the Batcave computers, where he learns that his visitor was Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Longtime Bat-fans will recognize the name.

But the “something else” Selina took remains a puzzle.

Elsewhere, a brutal masked terrorist known only as Bane (Tom Hardy) allows himself to be “captured” by CIA agents solely to orchestrate the amazing escape we’ve all seen for the past few months, in this film’s trailer. Although total nonsense from the standpoint of plot logic, it’s a bravura mid-air action sequence that the folks at the James Bond franchise must envy.

Bane winds up in Gotham, clandestinely, where he mounts an army of the city’s homeless, dispossessed and disenfranchised: people who, because they’re wholly down on their luck, will die for him. (More of Nolan’s grimly pessimistic psychology. Not sure I buy it.) Alerted to Bane’s presence, Bruce resurrects Batman — and his technological toys — long enough for a stylish chase through Gotham’s streets, before unwisely locating and facing off against this huge adversary.

Longtime Bat-fans know what becomes of that encounter, as well; to their credit, Nolan and his scripters hold true to established comic book lore.

When the dust has settled, Bane and his minions have destroyed all bridges and other access points to Gotham, holding millions of civilians in a state of siege. For months ... which allows a depressing number of people to slide into brutality, anarchy and chaos. Which, of course, delights Bane.

Us, not so much.

Try as he might, Nolan can’t get this extended timeline to play. I don’t buy the breakdown of civilized behavior, and I sure as hell don’t buy the notion that the U.S. government would abandon the equivalent of New York City; the gung-ho Marines and Navy SEALs we’ve seen in countless other films would mount infiltration expeditions on a daily basis ... and there’s no way Bane’s rag-tag “army” would be the devastating force depicted here. Guns or no, they’d fall like scythed wheat.

So, from its second act onward, Nolan’s film becomes a comic book scenario, a tonal shift rather at odds with the realistic approach taken in this trilogy’s two earlier entries, and at the beginning of this one. We’re now in fantasyland territory: admittedly nasty and vicious, but certainly not credible.

Despite the cartoonish plot, though, the performances are resolutely persuasive and as realistic as possible. The standout — even better than Bale’s angst-ridden Bruce Wayne — is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as John Blake, a former kid from the wrong side of the tracks who has grown up to become an honest and noble cop.

It’s a rich, nuanced performance; Gordon-Levitt soon functions not only as Bruce’s conscience and Lt. Gordon’s trusted ally, but also as our surrogate: the character who draws us into all these fantastic events.

Bale remains more credible as Bruce Wayne than as Batman, where the exaggerated gravel in his “disguised” voice often sounds a bit ... well ... silly. But Bale still is our go-to actor when it comes to anguish and torment; Mel Gibson once had that market cornered, but Bale gives him a run for his money.

Marion Cotillard is charming and feisty as the intelligent and resourceful Miranda Tate, who becomes Bruce’s Wayne Enterprises boardroom ally against a hostile takeover attempt. (This is, you must have realized by now, a very busy script!) Hathaway is appropriately slinky, seductive and sassy as Selina Kyle, and she looks fetchingly sultry in her black cat-suit.

Oldman’s Jim Gordon once again is the epitome of a stalwart police commissioner, who is nearly — but never completely — beaten down by Gotham’s horrors. Caine, as always, is spot-on as the pluperfect butler, and Morgan Freeman reprises his welcome role as the tech-savvy Lucius Fox.

Hardy’s performance as Bane has been the subject of controversy, after folks complained that they couldn’t understand a single mumbled word the actor spoke during the aforementioned preview. Happily, that serious miscalculation has been cleaned up a bit in post-production, although Bane’s words remain hard to distinguish at times. Otherwise, Hardy really isn’t able to “act” much through his mask, although he certainly turns the hulking villain into a figure of dread.

Matthew Modine is memorable as Gordon’s feckless deputy commissioner, and you’ll get geek cred by recognizing other familiar faces in brief roles: Burn Gorman (from Torchwood), Reggie Lee (Grimm) and Will Estes (Blue Bloods), among others.

Director of photography Wally Pfister — an Academy Award winner for Inception — augments the mood of every scene, varying color, grain and composition; we go from the sewer-level grit of Gotham’s underground to the Big Apple-esque grandeur of the city skyline, and also to the hopeless dread of “the pit,” a setting that leaks futility like the sweat that pours from the shattered faces of its inhabitants.

Close to half of this 164-minute film was shot with large-format IMAX cameras, so — trust me on this — you’ll definitely want to experience this third Dark Knight outing on a giant screen, with Han Zimmer’s frequently ominous score literally vibrating every cell in your body.

Nolan builds his narrative to a suspenseful climax that delivers both a visceral and emotional wallop: a distinctive directorial sign-off that nonetheless holds the promise of ... well, that would be telling.

We haven’t seen such a well-integrated trio of films since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy; there’s no question that Nolan’s farewell to Batman’s world will play even better when we’re able to watch all three at a single sitting. And while I still wish this film had a more optimistic world view, there’s no denying the singularly stylish vision at work.

The Avengers may have been more fun, but The Dark Knight Rises definitely is more ambitious.

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