The Dark Knight Rises

I was in a cranky mood when we went to see this. I was in Editing Mode. Is it a horrible movie? Hardly. Is it a great movie? Definitely not.

I think Christopher Nolan did great things with The Dark Knight. Even that one has some holes in it, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy watching it, again and again. It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, and Rises … well, it’s not Return of the Jedi. It tries to go darker, and fails. But not without failing greatly, and giving us solid entertainment in the process.

What I liked/What I Didn’t:

Bane. Great villain, a big hulking menace for Batman to whale on. I really liked all the similarities to The Dark Knight Returns, the comic book that made me like Batman (and Year One, which Batman Begins cribbed heavily from). Topping the Joker may have been impossible, and Thomas Hardy- a great, rising actor- does the best he can with an idiotic mask that makes him look like Hannibal Lecter and sound like a kid talking through a paper towel tube. Hint: Darth Vader was INTELLIGIBLE. Bane needed subtitles. Coupled with “The Batman voice” by Christian Bale, the most important dialogue of the movie sounded like it was uttered while both men were trying to expel a twelve pound impacted fecolith. “Can I have a bat-lozenge?” Bane’s origin was interesting, and almost makes him a tragic antihero in the end, but his final scene is played for a very weak joke.

The parallels to current politics. TDK had the surveillance device that mimics Carnivore and Echelon (what the FBI is using to read this, right now) and Rises has The Dent (cough, PATRIOT) act, a heist on the Stock Exchange, and a Catwoman (never so named) who openly loathes and steals from the 1%. Anne Hathaway does a decent job, but lacked character development; the film suffers a bit from too many villains, including a surprise one in the third act. It’s not a perfect parallel, but it does make you think, something you rarely do in a comic book movie. The peace in Gotham is based on a lie, and this poisons the city. Sadly the villains reference the first film instead of TDK, for a couple of needless cameos; the poison lie of Harvey Dent is a brilliant bit of writing, but they don’t cultivate it. And finally, I found it very funny that a “failed energy project” was played as Wayne’s scandal, and I am glad that it doesn’t make sense now unless you followed politics very closely.

For the final act, the entire city is held hostage for three months. I couldn’t suspend disbelief for this one. The Joker’s plan in TDK lasted hours. Bane’s siege depends on Commissioner Gordon making a terrible tactical mistake, which I didn’t buy. I did like how it made Gotham into the crime-infested hellhole that opens Frank Miller’s 80’s-era “The Dark Knight Returns.” It seemed a bit forced, but the images Nolan gets to use to depict it are stunning. So I’ll forgive it. The music throughout the film is a sledgehammer to the heartstrings, and became incredibly annoying. THIS… IS.. EXCITING! DUN DUNT!  OOH ANGELIC SINGING! SOMEONE GONNA DIE! Yes, that bad…

The setup in the first act is excruciating. As a writer, I have never felt the pain of backstory and exposition inflicted on me in such a manner. And yet I forgot why Bruce Wayne has a limp (he jumped off a building with Two-Face, to save Gordon’s son).  If I watch this on cable and skip the beginning, I know I will like it a lot more. I can’t even remember how Bane was introduced. That’s not good.

Michael Caine has an early scene that makes you wish the movie was better. He’s utterly gripping in it. Once again, I never liked Christian Bale in this one except for the physicality. He looks like Batman, and he looks like he can pull off the stunts. But I never care about him, ever. He never looks haunted, just tired. He plays the Bruce Wayne playboy parts perfectly, but when he’s supposed to be the haunted orphan… I don’t buy it. Never did. But I still don’t want a reboot.

The ending was fantastic. The fight with Bane was pretty awful- two guys throwing haymakers and grunting and grimacing, when they are martial arts masters, and Bane was originally a wrestler- but they pull a decent switcheroo on you, and point the story to a definite ending, with not all loose ends tied neatly. And you know what must happen next. I look forward to that story, and I hope Nolan gets to tell it. If anyone can make the story of the Joseph Gordon Levitt character compelling, it would be him.

So it’s flawed, sort of like Spiderman 3, but not as weak. It reaches for the heavens and doesn’t make orbit, but it wasn’t a disappointment. I commiserate with Nolan- he has a lot to say in this one, and he manages to get it all in there, but in places, it is muddled and we nod along, waiting for the good stuff.

Worth seeing if you liked the other two. Bravo to Nolan for writing a story with an ENDING, something Hollywood and Television are loathe to do. Stories don’t really end, I know. But the interesting parts do. They end this where it should be ended, and open doors for other stories that I want to see.

3/5 bat-lozenges

oh so smart

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

-Elwood P. Dowd, Harvey

Christopher Nolan is very smart. With Inception, he makes a more complex, exciting and complicated thriller than Memento, which catapulted him onto the scene. And while I enjoyed this movie very much, I hope he goes back to simpler movies like his underrated first film Following. Now, being smart isn’t a bad thing. He was the perfect director for the adaptation of The Prestige, for example, and with Inception he keeps our brains tied in knots keeping track of levels upon levels of dreams twisting in upon themselves, distracting us like a master prestidigitator.

Some have mocked the movie, comparing it with the ’80s horror flick Dreamscape. I liked that film, and how it used the concept of invading your dreams as the ultimate violation. In Nolan’s take, you can’t “wake up dead” like you did if they scared you to death in Dreamscape. It’s much worse: they are hired to invade your dreams to learn your deepest secrets, for corporate espionage, blackmail, or worse. The movie begins in a dream, where Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are seeking a Japanese energy magnate’s innermost secrets, and it can be debated that it ends in one. We quickly learn that Cobb has secrets of his own that keep him away from his family and force him to make a dangerous living plundering the dreams of the powerful, where failure leaves you as an undesirable witness who knows too much.
What makes the movie work is that at its heart it is a heist film, something Nolan loves. The stunning opener to The Dark Knight was his previous attempt, and someday he can direct one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Cobb gets offered “one last job” that will wipe away the sins that keep him from going home, and he assembles a team to do the impossible- to implant an idea, rather than steal one. He reaches out to his father-in-law Michael Caine, who lends us his classic theatrical upbringing to lend an air of believability to the fantastic world Nolan builds, and gets him in touch with Ariadne, a student even better than Cobb himself, who will craft them a labyrinthine dreamworld to entrap their victim’s subconscious. The fact that Ellen Page’s character is named after the mythical queen who helped Theseus defeat the minotaur in Minos’s maze should not be overlooked. The movie is perfectly enjoyable without delving deeper into the meaning of her name, Cobb’s totem which keeps him centered, and the movie’s last shot, but it can lead to many interesting conversations for those who like discussing the what-ifs.
Tom Hardy plays a grubby “forger” who specializes in impersonating people in dreams, and he nearly steals every scene. JGL gets to shine here, and after this movie he’s perfectly believable as a covert operative. He steals a kiss with panache that would make James Bond envious, and performs a zero-gravity grappling contest that would grant him a salute from Jason Bourne. According to IMDb, he performed all his own stunts for that scene. Impressive. Nolan perhaps keeps the movie too well grounded in reality, but we are in the dreams of businessmen, after all; we can’t expect too much creativity. This isn’t What Dreams May Come, with its amazing landscapes, but we do get a stunning shoreline that re-imagines the Cliffs of Moher (best recognized as the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride) built of crumbling skyscrapers, tumbling into the waves like melting glaciers. One stunning shot after another keeps us riveted to the screen, so we don’t tie our brains in knots trying to figure out the complex details of Nolan’s house of cards. We see M.C. Escher’s paintings of Penrose impossible objects brought to life; this is what special effects are made for.
I’m not the biggest fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, but here he does a great job. It’s the first time I wasn’t distracted by his boyish looks, seeing him as a little kid playing grown-up games. He does a great job, and I was quite impressed by the entire cast. Marion Cotillard has perhaps the most thankless role; Ken Watanabe and Tom Berenger lend grit and testosterone with the aged edifices of their visages, and both Cillian Murphy and Dileep Rao (the medium from Drag Me to Hell) are excellent in their roles.
Part of me felt that the movie was too clever for its own good. But then I thought about the last shot, and the music that plays, and I like what Nolan did there. So perhaps it’s me who’s being oh so smart, instead of oh so pleasant, trying to pick apart this story set in an Escher painting instead of trusting the fact that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s a movie I will definitely watch again, because its secrets, like those in The Prestige, only draw you in further.

4.5 mobius strips out of 5

© 2010 Tommy Salami