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Movie Curiosities: The Dark Knight Rises

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Before we begin, there's something I need to address. At midnight last night, when this movie premiered, 24-year-old James Holmes opened fire at the Century 16 Movie Theater in Aurora, Colorado. At least twelve people were killed. At least thirty-eight others were seriously injured and some of them will likely die later on. Fortunately, Holmes was arrested without further incident, and it appears so far that this was all the work of one lone psychopath. The thing that sticks with me is that Holmes knew so many people would be there. He had to. A midnight screening is a very special thing for moviegoers. It's a time when so many strangers (in a multiplex like the Century 16, there could potentially be hundreds) gather together in a communal experience of joy and relief that the wait is finally over. All of those families, all of those kids, all of those people who showed up in eager anticipation of this event at a time when anyone else would be asleep, all to see the year's most highly-anticipated movie before anyone else. Holmes knew this, and he took advantage of it. To him, all of those excited moviegoers were just lambs rounded up for the slaughter. No political or religious agenda, no point of any kind to be made, just one sick fucker who shot up a theater because so many defenseless strangers were gathered in one place.

With all respect and humility, this review is dedicated to the memory of Holmes' victims. My deepest condolences go out to their families, to everyone in attendance at that theater, and to the employees of the Century 16 in Aurora.

My excitement for The Dark Knight Rises peaked when I attended that IMAX preview screening a few months back. I've been living with that level of excitement for so long that I grew numb to it some time ago. I didn't want to see any more clips or read any more news about it, because as far as I was concerned, my ticket was already sold. I didn't need any more proof that the film was going to be awesome because I'd seen its awesomeness for myself (though I've been fooled by a preview screening before).

So July 20th is finally upon us. The time has come to set all the hype aside and discuss the film itself. I'm going to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can. In fact, I plan to see this film again in IMAX, with a spoiler-filled review to follow.

(Full disclosure: I'm typing this while wearing my promo Bane t-shirt, which I've been keeping in storage since I got it at the preview screening. Call me a hypocrite, but can you blame me?)

It's been eight years since the end of The Dark Knight. In that time, Harvey Dent has been elevated to the status of a local hero, and the date of his death is recognized as a city-wide holiday. Gotham also passed something called the "Harvey Dent Act," which somehow gave law enforcement the necessary powers to shut down local organized crime. Don't ask me how, because the film never goes into detail on that point. Not that it's important or anything.

Meanwhile, Batman has completely gone to ground. He hasn't been seen at any time since the previous film, partly to preserve the myth that he killed Dent and partly because Batman isn't really needed now that crime is down. Additionally, with his fortune threatened by some bad investments and his childhood love interest dead, Bruce Wayne has become a total recluse.

At this point, it's worth pointing out that "The Dark Knight Rises" is more than just a title. Rising, falling, shame, and redemption are all vital themes in this movie. Bruce Wayne is physically, financially, and emotionally at the lowest he's ever been (and he gets even lower as the the film continues), but he eventually works his way back up to his former glory. Batman starts out as a pariah, and he comes to reclaim his status as a symbol of hope. On the flip side, the poor and oppressed of Gotham (which includes all the criminals imprisoned over the past decade, I might add) rise up to rebel against the rich and powerful. As a result, the city of Gotham has to fight its way back to order after being plunged further into chaos than ever before.

Yes, things get even worse in Gotham than they ever got in either of the last two films. If you thought Joker had Gotham thoroughly fucked, just wait until you see Bane.

This movie is positively epic in scope, and Bane is a huge reason why. His goal is nothing less than the demolition of all Gotham, and he's got the means to do it. From first to last, he's always two steps ahead of Batman, the Gotham police, and anyone else who'd try to stop him. It's a fascinating thing to watch Bane use Gotham's infrastructure against itself, utilizing everything from Gotham's criminal element to its white-collar workers to Wayne Enterprises. He isn't just spreading random discord as Joker did, Bane is actively turning the city against itself, with fear and old grudges as his primary tools.

And how is Bane able to do all of this? The League of Shadows. Yes, from Batman Begins.

See, we eventually learn that Bane was trained by the League, but for some reason got himself excommunicated by Ra's al Ghul. And with Ra's al Ghul now out of the way, Bane somehow took command over the League. I'd say that it all makes sense later, but it really doesn't, so far as I can tell. What's even more baffling is that Bane has made it his mission to succeed where Ra's failed and destroy Gotham. Needless to say, it's difficult to say why he's continuing the work of the guy who kicked him out of the League.

As you may recall, Ra's wanted to destroy Gotham on the grounds that it was too corrupt to keep going. He wanted to burn it down to build it back up into something more pure. None of this is ever mentioned by Bane or by any of his underlings. Yes, Bane talks a great deal about taking Gotham away from the powerful and giving it back to the needy, but we know that's a lie. We know that he's planning to bring the whole city down and to kill everyone inside it, so what's the point?

However, it's worth remembering that Ra's attempted to destroy Gotham using economics and fear. Both play a part in Bane's plan -- albeit in very different ways -- so kudos for the symmetry there. Additionally, as we saw in the first movie, the League had infiltrated every level of Gotham's infrastructure. Their plan depended on hundreds, possibly thousands of League members hiding in plain sight throughout the city. This leads to a great deal of suspense, since anyone could potentially be a League sleeper agent. It also lends a lot of strength toward the motifs of Gotham's infrastructure turning on itself and the city's lower class revolting.

Getting back to Bane, I'm glad to say that Tom Hardy gives a performance to remember. He's always a very imposing presence onscreen, and he's thoroughly convincing as a mental and physical match for Batman. Remember, both of them trained with the League of Shadows, so Bane knows Batman's bag of tricks inside and out. In ways both subtle and overt, Bane is positioned as Batman's dark reflection, and it works to marvelous effect.

The only downside is that much like Batman, Bane was saddled with a terrible voice. Sometimes Hardy delivers his lines with overwhelming menace, sometimes he sounds laughable. At least his lines were all audible, which was a major concern early on.

Moving on to the film's other villain, there's Catwoman. Hathaway acquits herself surprisingly well in this role, playing a character who uses her sex appeal as a weapon. Between her disarming good looks and her shameless "little girl lost" act, Selina Kyle can get away with pretty much anything. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to get a handle on this character. It's established early on that Selina is supposed to only be out for herself, except for those times later on when she isn't. She's rooting for Bane and his proletariat uprising, until she's against it. Her constant turncoating is obviously meant to be character development, but it comes off as plot contrivance since her reasons are so flimsy.

Additionally, it's worth pointing out that the Selina/Bruce romance isn't nearly as strong as it should be. It's tempting to blame this on Hathaway, and I'll grant that her chemistry with Bale isn't as strong as it ought to be, but it's not weak enough to outright kill the romance either. No, the real problem is that Batman and Catwoman aren't given the necessary screen time or the needed dialogue to build a convincing relationship. This leads me to another of the movie's problems.

In pretty much every regard, this doesn't feel like a "Batman movie" so much as it feels like a "Gotham movie." If you take a hard look at Batman's screen time and plot relevance in this movie, most of it doesn't come until the third act. Aside from a few brief scenes of Batman (including a particularly funny moment with Catwoman), everything up to that point concerns Gotham's residents, what Batman means to them, and how they react to the villain's presence. If you liked those aspects of The Dark Knight, then you'll be pleased to know that the movie went even further in that direction. Otherwise, be ready for a disappointment.

To be fair, however, it's not really possible to bring Bane into the equation without some rendition of this classic image (one of the many reasons Batman & Robin failed, to be sure). That is not the sort of thing that one simply gets up and walks away from, so of course Batman is going to spend some time in recovery. Again, this is just one of the many ways in which Bruce falls down and learns to pick himself back up.

Other than that, there really isn't a lot more to say about Christian Bale's performance as Bruce Wayne. If you liked his portrayal of the Caped Crusader in previous films, you'll find more to like here. If you hated his Batman voice, you should know that it hasn't gotten any better. It's interesting to see how he's been affected by the deaths of Dent and Dawes, in addition to his prolonged hiatus, but that's about it.

Speaking of which, the circumstances and the cover-up of Harvey Dent's murder is something that weighs heavily on Commissioner Gordon's conscience as well. Gary Oldman uses it as fuel for some great scenes, proving why -- in spite of all the crap he's been in -- he's still one of the best. Unfortunately, after one particularly huge outburst of regret at the halfway point, this issue is never mentioned again.

This leads me to one of my biggest problems with the film: Even with its generous 164-minute running time, there are far more characters and themes than this movie can properly develop. Though I applaud Nolan's ambition and his effort to provide bookends for several recurring franchise themes -- order vs. chaos, escalation of violence, security, trust, daddy issues, etc. -- quite a few of them feel shoehorned in and others lay forgotten by the time we're at the climax.

With all of that said, it's worth pointing out that the clutter isn't nearly as bad as it could have been. Though Nolan does introduce two original characters -- Miranda Tate and John Blake, played by Inception alums Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt respectively -- he finds ways of keeping them vital to the plot and interesting to watch from start to finish (even though each of them has at least one moment when I wanted to cry bullshit). Additionally, since the plot had no place for Gordon's family, Nolan was good enough to get them out of the way instead of standing around, acting distressed, and being generally worthless. The same goes for Alfred, though Michael Caine does turn in some great scenes before leaving early on. Moreover, Alfred's departure is yet another sign of how far Bruce Wayne sinks as the story continues, so there's that.

On the other hand, I won't deny that the movie had some very obvious padding. Juno Temple's character is perhaps the most obvious example, since she got quite a few scenes despite contributing absolutely nothing. Compare that to Matthew Modine's character, who -- while similarly useless to the plot -- at least represented the cynical and scared mindset of some Gothamites. He did it in such a two-dimensional way that I couldn't wait to see the character die, but still.

Also, as you may already know, the ears on Catwoman's costume fold down into goggles. I don't know why. She folds them down at times throughout the movie, but I have no idea what they actually do. By a similar token, you know that gun we've seen Batman holding in the promotions for this movie? Yeah, that's a red herring. The gun gets maybe three seconds of screen time before disappearing entirely. I'm not even sure what it does. Basically, the promotions for this movie provided ample and tantalizing hints about this gadget, suggesting that it's somehow vital to the plot, only to show that it's actually worthless. Well played, Mr. Nolan.

Last but not least, the action scenes are kinda hit-and-miss. Some of them look fantastic, particularly Batman's brawls with Bane. On the other hand, the vehicular chases could have used some trimming. A fine case in point is the scene in which Batman's flying machine (dubbed "The Bat" with an uncharacteristic lack of creativity from Lucius Fox) is being chased by heat-seeking missiles. Awesome though it looks, that whole sequence is pure padding.

With all of that said, the true Achilles' heel of Nolan's Batman films has traditionally been their climaxes. In Batman Begins, it was Lucius Fox putting everything together before Batman did, Scarecrow being defeated with ridiculous ease, playing Gordon's ride in the Batmobile for laughs, etc. In The Dark Knight, it was the reduction in scale from an entire city to two boats and a tower, pretty much everything having to do with that cell phone/sonar device, etc.

Sadly, this tradition continues in the third film. I'll grant that this climax is still far better than its predecessors, with a huge battle that spreads throughout the entire city and utilizes hundreds of extras. Unfortunately, the climax suffers from a betrayal/reveal that's executed with zero sense, in addition to the pitifully disappointing way in which Bane is disposed of. Still, at least Gordon plays a vital part in the climax without looking like a clown in the process.

On a technical level, the film is of course superb. The effects are fantastic throughout, and the camerawork is such that I can't wait to see it again in IMAX. The set design is also wonderful, particularly with regards to the new Batcave. I know it doesn't make any functional sense for so much of the Batcave to be hidden underwater -- it's not like anyone was meant to find the place anyway -- but it looks so cool and the concept is so creative that I'm willing to let it slide.

The sound design is very good as well. Bane sounds far more intelligible than he should, and I was blown away by the sound effects on The Bat. Last but not least, I have to give huge props to Hans Zimmer, who turns in the best score in the entire trilogy (and brother, that's saying a lot!). I was especially fond of his theme for Bane, which is really just a short five-note rhythm. Much like his theme for Joker, Zimmer went for simplicity with Bane, and it works wonders. The theme was presented in an all-encompassing way that gave the impression of constant forward motion, which perfectly suits the character. And of course, the percussionist in me loves to hear drums used in such a forceful and prominent way.

Of course, Zimmer's theme for Batman is masterfully used to illustrate Bruce Wayne's return to form. Even better, Zimmer sometimes meshes the Batman theme with the Bane theme, doing so in a way that highlights how much the characters have in common. It's another fine way of establishing Batman and Bane as mirror images of each other in this film.

As a film in itself, The Dark Knight Rises has some pretty glaring flaws. Even with such a huge running time, the film still has storylines, themes, characters, and feel underdeveloped. That said, it's obvious that this was never meant to be a stand-alone film. It was meant to be a conclusion to a trilogy, and the film works wonders in that regard. I was genuinely impressed with how this movie's themes and visuals called back to the other two films in ways that enhanced the trilogy as a whole. It all feels like a single cohesive story, which is quite an accomplishment. I'm sure that effect would have been greater if Heath Ledger hadn't died, but what can you do?

I have no problem giving this film a recommendation, if only to see how much ambition, effort, and talent went into it.

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